The Hamlet of Pimlico, West Common

A report on the talk given by Dr Alan Punter at the Society’s meeting held at the Eric Morecambe Centre on the 24th January 2023.

Dr Alan Punter explained that little is known about the row of cottages built two hundred years ago at Pimlico where he lives. The intriguing plaque on the front marks the building of them. Today’s residents celebrated the occasion with a party which led to Alan researching the history of the hamlet. He found the earliest mention of Pimlico on a tithe map of 1799 in the archives of Westminster Abbey. It showed field number 108 named Pimlico with just a couple of cottages belonging to a Mrs Elizabeth Bennett. The origin of the name is obscure but thought to be North American. Several such places exist around the country.

A hamlet grew up there eventually having two pubs, the Woodmans Arms and the Cricketers which supplied the beer for the workers who lived in the cottages. A chapel and a bakery also catered for their needs. The row with the plaque was built in 1822 by the Benefit and Annuitant Society of St Albans, a short-lived benefit society about which little is known. They were the ‘new houses’ at the time with originally one room upstairs and one down.

Behind the cottages, fronting West Common, was Soapsuds Alley where unmentionable things went on,’ said Alan with a smile. ‘The policeman’s house was there.’ he ended.

Pimlico Cottages with the Woodmans Arms c1900 LHS 5239

By 1843 Pimlico looked roughly the same shape as it does today. Alan discovered life in the hamlet from censuses, directories and books such as Theodora Wilson’s diaries and Edwin Grey’s ‘Cottage Life in Harpenden’. No piped water existed. Two wells supplied all their needs. Candles were used for lighting. Outside toilets were not built onto each cottage until the early 1920s. Gas was laid about the same time. At number 22 the baker allowed the cottagers to bake their own bread. Most of the cottages were lived in by agricultural labourers with the women occupied with straw plaiting. As farm work fell away with mechanisation the need for beer declined. The Woodmans Arms closed early 1900s.

Theodora Wilson lived in Rivers Lodge a substantial house next to the Woodman. She bought the land to add to her garden when the old pub was pulled down.

Families averaged four people over the decades but as many as eleven were shown in one cottage in 1851 and ten in 1881. The network of family names is confusing because the same ones were used repeatedly and there was a lot of intermarriage. A family would live in a cottage at the time of a census only to be found living next door or along the row when the next census was taken.

Sir John Lawes gave land for allotments behind the cottages and built the Beehive, a club for the holders where he could control their drinking to some extent. Charles Dickens visited it in 1859 and wrote an article about the poor man and his drinking. The Beehive Club was not disbanded until 1967. This and many more details will be found in Alan’s book ‘The Pimlico Chronicles’ which he hopes to publish in this spring.

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