The colourful history of St Albans’ long-lost Christopher Inn

French Row, St Albans

French Row, St Albans - Credit: Archant

There cannot be many buildings in the remnants of the heart of medieval St Albans which boast a downward spiral from hosting grand official feasts to becoming a slum house for paupers.

But being based in a former house of disrepute gives the Herts Advertiser’s headquarters in French Row a certain rakish charm – and the perfect excuse to do a bit of ‘snooping’ for this feature.

It is fitting that the district’s leading community paper, which last year celebrated 160 years of recording its readers’ views, news and the odd bit of abuse, now has a permanent base on the first floor of former medieval cottages overhanging this historic street.

Even better, it has internal access to part of an old inn, a leading one during the city’s coaching days, when it was a popular stopping place for travellers from London.

A meander along the ancient oak flooring on the first level across Mr Simms sweet shop takes you to part of the old ‘Christopher Inn’ above an Italian restaurant, adjoining the archway at the south end.

Visitors wandering over the cobbled stones, through this part-timber archway at street level below this former inn can still see a carved bracket representing a half woman and half beast – this reporter was told by a teacher that locals refer to it as “the boobie lady”.

Last year we moved from our temporary office in Market Place to narrow French Row, which unfortunately no longer has horses and carts going down it.

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We are, in fact, lucky to share this ancient building with the L’Italiana restaurant and Simmons bakery - with the sweet shop Mr Simms – as after the Second World War the then St Albans city council was told it should be demolished.

The former owners of the site, and some locals, called for the whole area between the narrow thoroughfare and Verulam Road [where Brasserie Blanc is based] to be cleared to make way for modern redevelopment, with a widened French Row.

However a preservation order was made for both this building and the adjacent former Fleur-de-Lys inn, prompting its owner to sell it to the council in 1949.

Saved from demolition, the authority set about refurbishing the Christopher Inn building.

Sixty years ago, there were three shops on the ground floor with living accommodation over one of them and a common lodging house occupying the remainder. According to a report by then city engineer and surveyor AS Moody, it had been “neglected and mutilated for years”.

Originally the buildings consisted of a group of two-storey medieval cottages about 20ft deep fronting French Row, with later extensions to the rear. The medieval roof of the cottages still remain.

There are two cellars under the old Christopher Inn, the walls of which were built using flint, with courses of Roman tiles, “no doubt robbed from Verulamium” writes Moody.

A cellar to the rear, in the shape of a tunnel, was assumed to be the beginning of one of the underground passages popularly believed to be running beneath the centre of medieval St Albans, but when tonnes of rubbish were cleared, this supposition was proved false.

Infestations of woodworm and death-watch beetles were dealt with by dousing the place with 160 gallons of insecticide.

At one stage it was feared the whole roof would collapse into French Row, as the higher roof over the Christopher Inn was too unsafe to work on.

The council decided that three shops should be provided, with office accommodation overhead – the Herts Ad currently takes up just one of these spaces, with the remainder to eventually be used by the council itself.

Patrons rich and poor stayed over the centuries

Situated within view of the ancient Clock Tower, the Christopher Inn – named after St Christopher, a patron saint of travellers – was one of the town’s oldest inns.

Originally built in the 1400s, it has been significantly altered and enlarged over the years.

During the 1500s, centuries before the Town Hall was constructed in 1830, the Mayor and council used to adjourn at the Christopher for refreshments. Official feasts were held there.

In 1765 English actor, poet and dramatist David Garrick - who is buried in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey and restored much of the original texts of Shakespeare’s plays - dined at the Christopher when the premises were larger, with a garden and orchard extending to Dagnall Street.

He visited the Abbey, and saw the bones of Duke Humphrey preserved in spirits. After dinner and wine, Garrick composed verses entitled ‘Quin’s Soliliquy’ which alludes to it being preferable to embalming oneself with turtle fat and Bordeaux wine while living, than to suffer such ‘precious pickle’ to be wasted upon ‘senseless clay’.

About 70 coaches passed daily through St Albans, which had an abundance of inns for weary travellers.

But nearly two centuries ago, the Christopher began to decline in popularity and, according to FG Kitton’s The Old Inns of St Albans, its superior class of clients gave way to “all kinds of vagabonds and disreputable persons”.

In the early 19th century, the premises had become slum tenements.

In 1838 the council was asked to resolve the ‘nuisance’ arising from the overcrowded state of the Christopher, which then housed 10 families, mainly paupers, eight of whom were suffering typhus fever.

It reopened as a beerhouse in 1840, and the landlord Neptune Smith subsequently found himself accused of running a brothel in a newspaper report published on December 7 1861.

A report by former city engineer AS Moody said that when major restoration work began in 1953, the building was found to be so damaged and robbed of relics the impression was one of squalor rather than historical interest. But builders unveiled:

* Four 16th century stone fireplaces, including one in what was probably the chief public room of the inn, covered with a variety of names and dates scratched on the stonework, the earliest of which is ‘Roger Tirrill 1622’. Another reads: “Barnaby Colles among the fooles”.

* Oak panelling was discovered behind match-boarding as well as in the kitchen of the common lodging, behind 27 layers of wallpaper, hessian, sheets of newspaper covered with whitewash and other decorative finishes.

* On the first floor fronting French Row are windows dating back to the early 1500s, containing early plain glass with original lead – this was found plastered over inside and out.

* Remnants of wall paintings were also uncovered.

* Craftsmen renovating the crooked building six decades ago were told to forget their plumb bobs and spirit levels and work by eye and hand, as the original builders had done.