Made in St Albans

A report on the talk given to the Society by Steve Potter on 22 February 2022

The Ryder Hotel
John Wassell, March 2022

Trades that supported local agriculture

Stephen Potter gave us a fascinating talk about the inhabitants of St. Albans and how they made a living explaining that the industries were originally based on agriculture. The huge medieval barns at Kingsbury were used to store wheat and barley which was ground in mills on the river Ver. They were also used for fulling cloth and lastly for animal feed until the 1970’s.

In the 17th century four breweries turned the barley into beer. Each brewmaster had a grand house one of which remains as Hotel Chocolat in the Maltings the site of one brewery. Another attached to the Holywell Brewery down the hill is now Wesley Barrell furniture shop. The brewery horses when not pulling drays were pressed into service to pull the fire engines. The only brewery now is a micro brewery but there is an annual beer festival. This is organised by CAMRA, the real ale society. which was founded in the Farriers Arms in Lower Dagnall Street.

Amazingly there were once forty hat makers in the town. All the family helped with the business. Children as young as five would start by splitting the straws. It was made into plait which was sewn into hats. Hats for Eton and Harrow were made here but the trade peaked in the 1870s’ and died away as people stopped wearing hats in the early 20th century.

Tanning was another industry. It operated behind St. Michaels Manor and gave rise to an appalling smell. The leather was used for shoes. French Row was formerly called Cordwainers Row where the bootmakers plied their trade. ‘When the Abbey Gatehouse was a prison inmates lowered shoes from their cell windows for people to put food in’ said Stephen. It gave rise to the expression living on a shoe string.

The rise of printing

The gatehouse housed the 3rd printing press in England. Printers became major employers. In the 19th century Dangerfield Printers and the Campfield Printing works were in the Fleetville area, so named after the first printers moved there from London’s Fleet Street. The Salvation Army produced their War Cry magazine. Eversheds printed calendars and the Art Deco posters for the London Underground. The former Thomas Smith Printers became Ballito Hosiery where the girls who had made stockings turned their hands to producing ammunition during the second world war.

Excavations at the Maltings produced evidence of ancient metal working. This was echoed by blacksmiths in Dog and Gentle’s Yards and Christopher Place. Ancient pottery made from local clay was also unearthed. It’s ideally suited to making clay pipes and bricks. The red bricks of older houses were made small local brick works. The Roman bricks in the cathedral tower are the oldest but those in Pemberton Almshouses are the oldest of more recent times at four hundred years.

Other colours came from further afield once the railways had arrived. The Abbey Station was the first to open when a branch line was laid from Watford, it was quickly followed by another from Hatfield and lastly the main line from London. The railways finished the coach trade. The White Hart had once catered for seventy a day. Roads needed constant upgrading. Some old milestones remain. In the Hatfield Road one reads Hatfield/Reading which seemed strange until Stephen explained ‘It was the route taken by Lord Salisbury from his Hertfordshire home on the way the Bath to take the waters. It was nicknamed the Gout Road

London Road housed Arthur Melborne Cooper the film maker in 1907 and Mercers Clocks and Chronometers until the 1980’s. Most of the town’s factories have gone. St. Albans Rubber Co. closed and Marconi’s moved. Even the gasworks was blown up.

But St. Albans clung to its agricultural roots:

Samuel Ryder – of golfing fame – founded Ryders Seeds whose premises in Holywell Hill are now a hotel and Cafe Rouge. His brother James set up Heath and Heather the herbal health merchants in the factory south of the station. Also in Victorian times Frederick Sander known as ‘The Orchid King’ cultivated plants in huge glasshouses where Flora Grove is now.

Stephen ended by acknowledging the debt owed to John Bennet Lawes and Henry Gilbert of Rothamsted for their work on improving crop health and the contribution they made to agriculture across the world.

This report was first published in Newsletter 146, April 2022

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