The history of Victoria Street, St Albans

By Derek Roft

  The history of Victoria Street, St Albans

Victoria Street is a constantly changing area of St Albans. Shops have changed hands and office blocks have sprung up. But while the changes go on the street is not nearly as drab as it was a few years ago.

information about the Victoria Street area in ancient times is very scanty but there are references as far back as the Wars of the Barons (1215-1217). St Albans was surrounded by a ditch and earth bank known as the Tonman Ditch. Because of these fortifications and its barred gates, the town was known as “Little London”. 

The ditch on the east side ran along what is now Upper Marlborough Road and where it crossed Victoria Street there was a postern thought to have been called “Man-gate”. From this gate to St Peter’s Street was a narrow lane known as “Shropsheres (or Shropshire) Lane”.

During the reign of Richard II in the 1381 peasants revolt, the townsmen went down Shropshire Lane to break open the gates and fences of the Abbot’s Warren, a game preserve about where the City Station is now.

In the fourth year of the reign of Henry VI in 1425, the Abbot petitioned for permission to dig turfs and erect two archery butts. This would probably have been just outside the ditch in the area known as “Long Butts Field”. This field was bounded by Upper Marlborough Road, Upper Lattimore Road and Victoria Street. The area to the south of this field was known as the Levy Lands.

When the First Battle of St Albans was fought, instructions were given for all of the gates to be strongly defended and the bar at Shropshire Lane must have held firm because the Yorkists entered the town via Keyfield. The Keyfield gate was a little further south from “Man-gate”. It was on the corner of St Peter’s Street and Shropshire Lane where the Castle Inn stood, that the king’s man, the Duke of Somerset, was killed. 

The Levy Lands was an area where 52 St Albans men were drilled in 1588 in readiness for the invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. It was about this time that the lane was also known as Long Butts Lane.

From 1634 the growth of the Victoria Street area can be traced by maps. It was known by Shropshire Lane, Long Butts or Long Butts Lane and also finished at the Toman Ditch until 1766. The 1634 map showed several buildings. After the Toman Ditch it changed to a path and says “Road to the fields”.

A county map of 1766 by Drury and Andrews shows this continuation as a narrow lane to “Curry Comb Hill” and then on to “Sell Barnes”. It is possible that Curry Comb Hill may be the steep hill in Camp Road, The lane may have roughly followed the route of Grimston Road into Camp Road and then Cell Barnes Lane. 

On the 1835 map the number of buildings seems to have been reduced and the name “Sweet Briar Lane” is seen for the first time. The Town Hall appears on the map for the first time having been built five years earlier.

The St Peter’s tithe map of 1840 shows no buildings on the south side of the lane, only a few on the north side and about where Lattimore Road was to be built the lane dwindles to nothing more than a bridleway or a footpath. The map also shows the Quaker Burial Ground which was in use between 1676 and 1868.

The 1880 Ordanance Survey map shows several differences. There are a number of buildings, particularly on the south side of the lane. From St Peter’s Street to Lattimore Road (built around 1870) the lane had changed its name to Victoria Street in 1876. But its  continuation as far as the new gaol, built in 1867, and the City railway station, built in 1868, was named as Victoria Road.

In the year of 1877 there were a number of interesting happenings On June 12th, the first Bishop of St Albans was enthroned. On August 28th, St Albans became a city and on September 13th at noon the people gathered outside the Town Hall. They also filled the windows to hear a public proclamation of the constitution of the city.

The St Albans Times takes up the story;

“It was raining heavily. The Mayor Mr W. C. Smith, although suffering from a severe cold, announced the purpose for the gathering. The town clerk Mr I. N. Edwards, in a clear and distinct voice, read the Letters Patent. Every time the word “city” was said everyone cheered. The Mayor called for three cheers for the City of St Albans. The Herts Rifle Band played God Save The Queen”

There was an open space in Victoria Street beside the Adey & White brewery in Chequer Street and this was chosen to be the site for the public library and a building to contain the School of Art. In April 1880 the corner stone was laid by the Mayor Mr J. Chapple. He had been the clerk of works under the cathedral restoration. A sum of £2,500 was collected by public subscription and a government grant. On the front of this building are terracotta medalions of Davy, Bacon and Hogarth which represent science, literature and art.

In 1911 a new library was opened by Dr Andrew Carnegie, whose generosity had made it possible. When The Maltings shopping precinct was opened the library moved to a location there. The Carnegie building first became a public house “The Firkin and the Philanthropist” and then a wine bar.

The public baths, which dated from 1887 was turned into the Salvation Army Citadel in 1911. The Trinity United Reform Church, at the corner of Beaconsfield Road and Victoria Street, was opened in 1903. This was due mainly to the generosity of Samuel Ryder. The Tabenacle Baptist Church, opposite Bricket Road was opened in 1882.

There was a collection of straw hat manufacturers around the area of the Marlborough Road crossing and in the 1881 directory the names were Smith, Scott, Slade and Gardner. One of these names, Horace Slade, was Mayor of St Albans in 1904 and again in 1913.

It was around 1897 that the whole lane to the gaol was renamed as Victoria Street in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

There are four public houses in Victoria Street. The original names of these establishments are The Acorn which stood on the corner of Lattimore Road and Victoria Street first opened in 1872. The Robin Hood, which is further down on the south side, began trading slightly earlier. The Midland Station Hotel which became The Horn of Plenty (now The Horn) is on the eastern corner of the Alma Road/Victoria Street junction. The Mason’s Arms ,which became the Midland Railway after 1870 (known as The Little Midland) is on the western corner of the Alma Road Victoria Street junction. The last named public house has been closed for a few years.

This page was added on 16/05/2010.

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