The earliest known photo of St Albans?

Stereographic picture of the Market Place, St Albans c1855. Copyright: SAHAAS


The Market Place

At the end of March 2013 members of the Society spotted an interesting historical St Albans item on eBay – a Victorian stereo view of the Market Place. Even the thumbnail photograph showed that it must date back to 1858 and was therefore the earliest known photo of the town.

Stereo views may be familiar from antique shops. The camera took two exposures of the same scene from slightly separated viewpoints, giving a 3-D effect when placed in a suitable simple viewer. But we are more concerned with the historical content of the card than its optical trickery.

A warm summer’s afternoon

It is a warm summer afternoon: the Clock Tower clock says 5.20, and the sun is still high to the west. Windows are wide open. From Waxhouse Gate, on the south side of the High Street, we look straight up Market Place past the Town Hall in the distance. In front, on the left, is the timber-framed shop built around the Clock Tower in about 1550. It is a saddler’s, and looks rather trim, but the Clock Tower behind it (called the Clock House then), looks every one of its 450 years. Its stone details (the quoins and windows) are rotten and worn inches back from the rest of the wall. The worst places have been replaced with brick.

Concern was growing at this time about the state of the Tower, and the surrounding shop was demolished in 1858 to allow works to take place. The Tower was finally restored, with a rather heavy hand, in 1865, and this is the only known photograph before its restoration. Careful comparison does however show that not all the flint coursed exterior was renewed in 1865. But to our surprise the photograph is even earlier than 1858.

Corn exchange

On the right in the middle distance is the roof of a long single-storey building – the old ‘Market Hall’ – the corn exchange. The roof of the old Hall was supported on posts and there were no walls – it was open to the elements. Beneath it grain was sold retail to householders, and wholesale to millers, bakers and corn factors. The Corporation decided to demolish it in 1855, did so during or after July 1856, and opened the new indoor Corn Exchange – which remains on the same site – in 1857.

We think the photograph probably dates to mid-1855 and cannot be much later than June 1856. The drum-like object inside railings in the right foreground is one of the town’s two public pumps – built to a strange patent design – shortly before its removal. Behind on the right is The Boot public house. The surprise about the town revealed by the photo is how tidy it seems. Etchings made only a little earlier show the same scene muddy, tumble-down, and full of horses and chickens. Perhaps the change was real, with a pedestrian pavement and street drain installed here at the heart of the town in the early 1850s.