St Albans. Marlborough Buildings
We’d all like history, motives and conservation to be neat and tidy matters, but they rarely are. The Marlborough almshouses are a good example.
Sarah Jenyns (or Jennings) married John Churchillan, an up and coming army officer, when she was just 18. He was ten years her senior and did well financially from the match. Their marriage was successful, however. John is famous for the Battle of Blenheim, and was awarded the dukedom of Marlborough. Sarah was well connected, and a favourite of Queen Anne, becoming the second most important woman in England. But later they fell out, partly due to political differences and partly because Sarah was not that sympathetic to Anne’s adversity. After that Sarah and her husband travelled through Europe till after Anne’s death. John died in 1722; Sarah lived for another 22 years, dying at the age of 84 in 1744.
As a person it seems Sarah was rather controlling. She wanted good marriages for her children – especially in financial terms. Her grandson Charles married without her permission, and she was not amused. A number of relatives were disinherited. She wasn’t an easy person to get on with. Architects including Wren and Vanbrugh were dismissed. She seems to have been fairly cold emotionally towards people. However, she was financially astute. While the South Sea Bubble ruined many, her dealings brought her more wealth. When John died she inherited all the estates, becoming extremely wealthy.
So what about the almshouses? Her disagreement with Charles meant he was disinherited, so there was a large sum of money available. One custom of the time was to build almshouses in the place of birth. Hence Sarah used the money to establish the almshouses, partly for veterans of the Wars (some said the Churchills had given too little so far) and the time had come when many would be elderly. Sarah’s female servants may also have been provided for. The benefit was extended to some persons in St Albans, and this would have had a favourable effect when local elections were due. While Sarah and Charles were reconciled, it was too late to change the arrangements as the money had been laid out.
The almshouses were built on a site in Cock Lane (now Hatfield Road). Sarah had purchased the reversion to the manor of Newlane Squillers and obtained an assignment of the lease in 1832. The building was erected, consisting of 36 flats. Oldfield’s drawing gives an indication of its appearance. A Mr Smith was the builder, and probably the architect.
The effects of Sarah’s controlling attitude surfaced after her death. She had a hands-on approach to the organisation so left few instructions about the continuing administration. The trustees had many issues to resolve, and there were some financial matters as well.
Sarah herself provided substantial endowments. The Spencer / Churchill family continued its support till at least the early 20th century.
The pediment was put up at the time of the 1850 reconstruction.
Modernisation took place in the early 2000s. The old hip baths were replaced with modern baths, and the properties brought up to modern standards. The buildings are grade II listed. While it provides protection, it comes with restrictions which may cause difficulties. For example, the roof repairs cost more than usual as original style tiles had to be sourced, and about 20% of the tiles needed replacing. Demolition sites and reclaim companies would be the main source of materials.
Originally the residents of Marlborough Almshouses were veterans of Marlborough’s battles and servants, aged over 60. They had to be sober and pious and with an income of less than £20 a year. Rules included taking the sacrament three times a year, observing a curfew of 9pm in winter and 10.30pm in summer and keeping the premises neat. They were not allowed to swear or sub-let, and could not leave the almshouses for a period longer than three days without permission. In 1908 the vicar was finally told that he could decide if the almspeople could receive visitors.
Eventually the Charity Commissioners produced a schedule in 1955, replacing the early ones and detailing the all the conditions under which the Almshouses should be run. The scheme allows for nine trustees. The Vicar for the time being of the Ecclesiastical Parish of St. Leonards, Sandridge is ex-officio. Two Representative Trustees are appointed by St. Albans and District Council for a term of four year. Six Co-optative Trustees are appointed for a term of five years by the resolution of the Trustees. The Co-optative Trustees must be persons residing or carrying on business in or near the City of St. Albans. One of the flats is used as the office.
A few matters about the residents were mentioned in the newspapers. In the late 1870s there was some discussion as to whether or not the buildings were indeed almshouses. This affected the residents’ voting rights should local rates not be payable. While the vast majority of residents were well-behaved, there was one case where a resident fathered a child by his mistress. They had to leave and went to live in the North. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. He also left debts, causing distress to the next resident who kept getting demands for payment till the creditors were persuaded that the true debtor had left. James Grove took his own life in 1868. The contributing factors were that he had been depressed for some time, and was told his furniture would be taken to cover his debts. He left a widow. A Mr Cook became a resident in about 1892. His allowance was free accommodation plus 5s a week. He also had an annuity of £39 a year from the National Union of Teachers. He thought the furniture in the flat was a gift, but in fact he was liable for payment. The case went to court and a schedule of payment was agreed to resolve the issue.
One nice touch was a blue plaque attached to the almshouse on Aug 29 2022. It must be the only almshouse in Hertfordshire to have such an addition, and I dare say is very rare if not unique in the country.
The buildings were grade II listed by Historic England. They are affiliated to the Almshouse Association and registered with the Charity Commission ref 209340
Hatfield Road, St Albans AL1 3RR
Georef: 515067 207455
Grid ref: 51o 45′ 15″N 0o 20′ 04″W
OS 25” map Hertfordshire XXXIV.8 1924
The Victoria County History of the County of Hertford, ed William Page
Issued Archibald Constable & Co.1908. Reprint by Dawsons of Pall Mall 1971 ISBN 0 7129 0476 X
This publication is available online at https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/herts/vol2/pp412-424
Documents held at HALS (not consulted for this article)
Grangerised copy of Robert Clutterbuck’s History a… (1640 – c1841)
St Albans: Marlborough Almshouses
Buckler’s drawing of St Albans, Marlborough Almshouses
DE/Bs/Q19 Apr 1891
Title Deeds of the Holywell Estate, St Albans, and… (1434 – 1914)
This letter once accompanied an initial audit report for the Marlborough Almshouses. It was written by a member of the Justice Clerks Office in St Albans
DE/P/F249/2 21 Jan 1762
Sus Andrews: letter to acquaintance of Lord Cowper (addressee unknown)
Description: Has received a letter from her sister begging that her sister’s case for admission to the Duchess of Marlborough’s almshouses at St Albans should be put before Lord Cowper, her sister being the widow of Captain Clark who had been long in the service and behaved extremely well for which he was made governor of Hull Castle but died before he took possession of the Government thing by which means she is left destitute of the pension belonging to a Captain’s widow and that of a Governor’s, Ockham
DE/V/Q61 1876 – 19th century
Letter to Lord Verulam seeking his signature for a sale of stock on behalf of the Duchess of Marlborough’s Charity, 1876, with printed copy of the original 1736 Trust Deed of the Charity, nd [19th century]
Websites accessed Dec 2022
The Duchess of Marlborough & her Almshouses An 18th century St Albans building, by Gerard McSweeney.
https://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20200624230941/http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/kinggeorge/t/003ktop00000015u049ee000.html includes a rather unusual drawing of the almshouses behind some trees
Newspapers can be accessed on the British Newspaper Archive website
Hertford Mercury 11 Dec 1858 page 3 col 2 William Goodwin residing with Mr. Cockington, the Marlborough buildings almshouses, was charged with having personated his father voting the late municipal election at St. Alban’s. [Case referred for trial]
Hertford Mercury 28 May 1859 page 3 col 6 Retirement of Mr Kinder as visitor for over 30 years. Includes a list of inmates
Herts Advertiser 09 Mar 1867 page 3 Mar 4, Mr. William Groom, aged 76
Hertford Mercury 12 Sep 1868 page 3 col 3 Inquest on James Grove who committed suicide the previous afternoon.
Herts Advertiser 13 Sep 1873 page 8 Sep 5, Alban’s Mr. Thomas Keel
Herts Advertiser 24 Jan 1874 page 8 Jan 19, Mr. Joseph Howard, aged 74.
Hertford Mercury 01 May 1875 page 4 col 5 Meeting about proposed convalescent home
Herts Advertiser 16 Oct 1875 page 6 col 2 Revision of Burgess list and payment of rates. Upshot was almspeople to be deleted from burgess lists
Herts Advertiser 22 Sep 1877 page 8 col 3 Letter from Mr Hurlock. 36 people struck off voting list.
Herts Advertiser 30 Mar 1878 page 3 col 2 Biography of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough pt 2
Herts Advertiser 12 Jan 1889 page 3 col 1 Extract from Brailey’s ‘Hertfordshire’. Mentions foundation site and endowments
Herts Advertiser 09 Feb 1889 page 1, 2… 1815.—W. Hoban, St. Albans “The principal charitable foundation in St. Albans is called The Buildings, and consists of nine almshouses, forming three sides of an oblong square, situated at the entrance of the town, into St. Peter’s Street, on the road leading …
Herts Advertiser 20 May 1893 page 6 Describes original site
Herts Advertiser 24 Jun 1893 page 6 col 5 Mr Cook non payment for furniture