John Moreland, President of St Albans Architectural and Archaeological Society, thanked the audience for waiting two years for his talk, which had been scheduled to celebrate 175 years of the ‘Arc & Arc’ in 2020. This was featured in an exhibition at St Albans Museum and Art Gallery, which can also be followed on the society’s website: https://www.stalbanshistory.org/category/175th-anniversary/175th-anniversary-exhibition.
In a very lively talk John ranged over the past, the present and future challenges of his title – “Discover, Protect, Innovate and Inform”.
John described the challenge in 1845 to help save St Albans Abbey and Hertfordshire’s mediaeval churches. The Rector of St Albans Abbey, Dr Henry Nicholson a self-trained antiquarian, became the first president of the newly formed society and served for 45 years.
With the discovery by Richard Grove Lowe of the remains of the Roman theatre in 1847, the Society paid for the publication of his report. This was later of use to Mortimer Wheeler when he was commissioned by St Albans City Council and the Society for his excavations in 1929/30. These were overseen by his wife Tessa who trained volunteers and compiled a scrapbook of unofficial pictures. The Society contributed 25% of the costs of excavating Verulamium. 95% of the site has still not been dug – though in recent years geophysics organised through a county-wide archaeological group under Kris Lockyer of UCL has found, for instance, an aqueduct of wooden pipes following the contours of the valley within the Gorhambury estate, leading to the baths. Finds among the Abbey buildings included a C12 ivory book cover in Orchard Gardens – now in the British Museum.
Alongside archaeology, the Society was concerned at the parlous state of the Abbey, with its crumbling gothic west end and the central tower in danger of collapse. Sir Gilbert Scott had been appointed architect for the Abbey in 1856, and the tower was stabilised using bricks from the Roman site. Following the death of Gilbert Scott, Dean Lawrence arbitrated in the bitter dispute between Lord Aldenham, the Society’s second president who sought to restore the great Wheathamstead window at the west end, and Lord Grimthorpe who was able to finance restoration, but only to his neo-Gothic designs. Finally, Grimthorpe was granted a free hand because there was no other source of money to restore the vast building.
The Society was more successful in its campaigns and financial help to preserve Anglo-Saxon windows in St Stephens church, and to prevent destruction of the Clock Tower when it was deemed beyond repair in 1855. The latter is now entrusted to the ‘Arc & Arc’ whose volunteers keep it open.
The mediaeval barn at Kingsbury Mill was restored and brought back to use in 2009 by Society members Jill and Adam Singer and Society volunteers who logged every detail of ironwork within the mill. The Society has not always been successful – Hall Place Mansion was demolished in 1905 despite strong local opposition. More recently the Society has given money for the move of St Albans Museum from the purpose-built Hertfordshire Museum in Hatfield Road into the former Town Hall and Court House, transformed and opened in June 2018.
Future campaigns include proposals to improve the London Gate – prompted by a Herts Advertiser photo of a cyclist leaping from a gate pier, causing consternation at English Heritage. Now the Society is working with Historic England and SADC to cut back trees, stop further damage and open up the vista from the gate into Verulamium city, with a new walkway. A greater challenge in the state of the remains of the Roman city walls, destroyed by tree roots and centuries of trampling.
The Society is also working on information panels about ‘Sopwell Nunnery’ – or rather of Sir Richard Leigh’s C16 mansion constructed from the ruins of the dissolved nunnery, ready for a visit by Queen Elizabeth the First.
John cited the Society’s role of ‘innovating’, when in 1886, Sir John Evans, Vice-President of the Society, the Society challenged the British Museum on the law of Treasure Trove – over Henry VI / Edward IV coins found in a beam in a cottage in Park Street,which were deemed not ‘treasure’. As a result of the challenge the British Museum has to acknowledge the artistic and historic value, not just the value of the gold.
The first aerial photos of Verulamum were made in 1929 by Osbert Crawford of the Royal Flying Corps – a friend of Mortimer Wheeler. His 11 photos are deposited at HALS. More recently Norman Davey of Watford, a scientist at the Building Research Station, worked on the excavation of wall-plaster in King Harry Lane excavation and assembled and devised a way of mounting the fragments for display
‘Arc & Arc’ has a variety of ways of ‘informing’, including plaques, such as the interpretative panels on the British Causeway installed in 1898. In 1926 a plaque was erected in the graveyard at Romeland to George Tankerfield, a protestant martyr burned at the stake in St Albans in 1555. In 1929 a plaque on the Clock Tower was mounted to commemorate the site of an Eleanor Cross. The Society is now working on a long-term project to install Blue Plaques (at £500 each) commemorating for instance John Ball, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, Stephen Hawking, Melbourne Cooper and the early film industry.
The Society has a long tradition of publishing its research, initially in formal Transactions, recording Society events and papers that members given from 1883-1914 and 1924-1938. This was revived for occasional papers until 1961 when costs became prohibitive. However, a wide range of well-researched books continues to be published, including a new series of short books: https://www.stalbanshistory.org/category/publications
During the Covid period, the Society kept up its programme of conferences and lectures through ZOOM during the Covid period.
New initiatives include addressing concerns about the squalid state of the alleyways from Market Place to Chequer Street. The Society is working with SADC on plans to deal with refuse and is exploring possible murals on historical themes – such as those in Carlisle, which were designed, and then painted (with donated materials) by volunteers. Another new project could be to trace the earthworks and forts of the 1643 fortified town.
Finally, John touched on the tensions between national and local collections. A rare find – the Wheathamstead Ewer, one of just three surviving – has been claimed by the British Museum which has shown it at an exhibition in Germany but never put it on display in Britain. And they will not lend it for display in St Albans, so the Society plans to make a reproduction. But why does the British Museum not lend objects as other collections do?
On a more positive note, a 1461 cannon ball from second battle of St Albans, found at an auction, will be donated to St Albans Museum.
John’s talk was followed by a lively discussion – including the value of civic and local history societies working together for the conservation of heritage.