Revd Henry Fowler — excavating the Abbey Precincts

Henry Fowler, from the Society’s 1899—1900 Transactions

One of the most talented of the Society’s early members, the Revd Henry Fowler was one of the first archaeologists to be seized of the need for a systematic approach.

At the Society’s AGM in 1900, reported on in October that year, Henry Fowler was one of three Honorary Secretaries; his obituary appeared at the end of the 1899-1900 volume of the Transactions (see our website). Included is a photo of him seated. He appears serious, tall and thin with white hair and spectacles, in thick overcoat and stout boots (see Fig. 1).

Teacher, Chaplain and Prisoners’ Friend

Born in 1827, Henry was the son of an architect. Educated in London, he took his MA at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1852. He was ordained in 1853 and spent nearly ten years as curate in various Wiltshire parishes, until 1862, when he married. He did not get his own parish; possibly he already had broader interests. In 1863 he arrived in St Albans to take up the post of ‘second master’ at St Albans Grammar School (then still housed in the Lady Chapel at the Abbey). As well as teaching, from 1865 to 1895 he was chaplain at the St Albans Union workhouse, and in 1882 became chaplain at the prison in Grimston Road. He was also secretary of the Prisoners’ Aid Society. He was evidently one of those people who get asked to undertake things. To teaching and good works he added archaeology, and juggled these until his death at the age of 73.

Devised plan of St Albans Abbey precincts

He had been in St Albans for some years before he joined the Society, but his interest in archaeology may have been triggered by his surroundings at the Grammar School. He read work by a Professor Willis on the plan of the medieval monastery at Canterbury and was inspired to do the same for St Albans. To this end he translated a 14th century survey, and from this and other sources, including details of SAHAAS explorations, drew up a plan of the St Albans Abbey precinct at the time of the survey. It was this original research which led to a paper given in February 1876, followed directly by his admission to the Society. He was then in his forties and active enough to undertake exploration within the Abbey precinct, with his friend Ridgway Lloyd, to add detail to the plan.

During 1876 they excavated part of the cloister, and in Pondwicks Mead and Lady Spencer’s Grove. In the same year various letters by Fowler on the town’s archaeology were printed in the Herts Advertiser. After this burst of activity, however, he did little more active work. He became honorary secretary in 1884, and published 21 articles in the Transactions between 1884 and 1898. Many were written for Society excursions, but included an account of the 1889 work in Abbey Orchard Field which confirmed Carter’s 1810 plan of this part of the Abbey buildings.

Groundbreaking archaeological fieldwork

What makes Fowler’s archaeological fieldwork stand out is his understanding of basic principles, which escaped almost all his contemporaries and many who succeeded him. In some ways he was a century before his time, in his interest in medieval monastic archaeology — although as an Oxford man in the late 1840s, he would have absorbed the concern of the Oxford Movement to understand medieval churches, how they looked and how they operated. After him, only spasmodic work was done in or outside the Abbey church until the 1960s. But Fowler understood the importance of recording visually where investigations take place, and the difference between evidence and conjecture. His final plan is open to argument as to detail and his conclusions were by no means always correct, but by investigating, collating and recording he laid the foundation. This is why his 1876 work is important, and why it is a pity he did so little more.

At the November 2018 SAHAAS lecture on the recent Little Churchyard excavations, Ross Lane saluted Fowler as a fellow archaeologist. In his meticulous planning and recording of what would now be called evaluation trenches Fowler was spot-on in predicting the position of the medieval foundations on the east side of the south transept.