Who built Orchard Street and why?

Orchard Street, consisting of a terrace of seventeen brick and flint artisan cottages, is in some respects a little bizarre. It juts into the extensive open space known generally today as the Abbey Orchard but was never extended beyond its rather stubby extent.  John Mein and Julia Merrick tell the story of how Orchard Street came into being,  and some of the people who lived there.

Orchard Street, 2022 ( © Malcolm Merrick)

From the street’s location it is tempting to think that the Woollam family, owners of the silk mill around 100 yards away on the Ver, was responsible for the development. With a reputation for philanthropy, this would fit with what we know of the family’s attention to the well-being of the people of St Albans. As far as we can tell, however, the Woollams had no legal interest in the houses.

George Ashwell, an early owner

Instead, as shown in contemporary rate books, George Ashwell, a wealthy local solicitor, owned the freehold to all the houses as well as a large swathe of the Orchard fields. [1] Little has so far come to light about Ashwell. We do know that, together with his growing family, he was living in St Albans in the mid 1830s, probably in a property in Verulam Road that bears his name even today. The website www.ashwellhouse.org carries some interesting material about Ashwell, particularly the story of an untrustworthy executor embezzling much of the solicitor’s immense £45,000 estate following his death in 1878.

Linking the rate book gleanings to data extracted from the Abbey parish vestry minutes shows that the houses had been gradually completed between 1852 and 1854. [2] Around the same time, several newspaper reports had commented on how St Albans was rising out of the economic doldrums of the 1840s with plenty of new building around the town. [3]

While these unattributed reports should be treated with caution as the tone is that of a boosterish estate agent, there is good evidence to support the observation. New workers’ housing off Lower Dagnall Street had recently been built with more in New England Street in hand. The mostly ‘two-up, two-down’ Orchard Street cottages follow this trend.

Housing for workers in nearby silk mill

Though not built by the Woollams, analysis of the 1861 census shows that these seventeen new houses provided suitable accommodation for their workers. Of the 75 men, women and children filling the houses, 20 worked at the mill just one hundred yards away. However, only four of these were heads of households. All of these four were silk throwsters – these are the skilled spinners who put the twist in the silk to make thread. Two more throwsters, from Marylebone and Watford respectively, boarded in houses let to a railway porter. Of nine silk winders all but one were women and aged 13 years and above. A silk spinner (how different from a throwster we wonder), a silk sorter and two silk labourers were likewise all residents.

Although the preponderance of silk mill employees was unusual, the mix of occupations in Orchard Street was otherwise typical of workers’ housing in St Albans at the time. For example, the other large employer of labour in the town was the straw hat industry. This was well represented in Orchard Street with two [hat] blockers, a straw bonnet maker and seven others involved in that trade. Of the rest, two painters, two laundresses, a shoe maker, agricultural labourer, carpenter, gardener, and an engine driver were all heads of households. Residents in these artisan cottages also included another shoe maker, a saddler and a 16-year old in the Royal Navy. Ten were school children. We can deduce from contemporary sources that Ashwell’s speculative houses were in demand with all of them occupied as soon as they were completed.

It is curious then that he didn’t extend his development further into the Abbey Orchard fields. Why not? Antiquarian concerns perhaps? Topography? State of the housing market? Financial problems? Or something else? Thoughts welcome.


[1] HALS, DP/90/4/1 and 2, Abbey parish church rate books, 1853 and c.1855.

[2] St Albans Cathedral Muniment Room, transcription of Abbey parish vestry minutes, 1828-67, meeting of 25 November 1852 and passim.

[3] For example, Herts Mercury, ‘Sales of land at St Albans’, 7 August 1852, p.3.