Inn rooms for the downtrodden
If you were one of the many labouring poor who existed from hand to mouth in Victorian St Albans, a ‘nest of poverty’ (1) might be your resting place.
A dramatic increase in the population meant that there was little room, even in the old stable yards attached to the city’s once thriving coaching inns. These backyards, at the Half Moon, Saracens Head, Crown, Antelope and Goat, contained tumbledown cottages and tenements where the ‘down trodden and forlorn’ were housed.
Conditions were often terrible, with poor sanitation leading to outbreaks of contagious disease. In 1837-38 eight out of ten families living in Christopher Yard behind French Row contracted the deadly typhus fever.
Towards the end of the 1800s St Albans Council received statutory powers to demolish such unsuitable dwellings. But a lack of willpower coupled with vested interests defeated attempts to improve the situation. Moreover, with no stock of alternative housing to offer, councillors were wary of signing demolition orders that would, with the sweep of a pen, leave yard-dwellers homeless.
Publication of ‘Vagrancy: Being a Review of the Report of the Departmental Committee on Vagrancy (1906), with Answers to Certain Criticism’ by Sir William Chance. He stated that ‘It has been well said that the police authorities treat the vagrant as a criminal but do not punish him, while the Poor Law authorities treat him as a pauper but do not relieve him’.
Poor Law Institutions Order set new standards for the care of workhouse inmates and other improvement measures.
Workhouses were abolished by the Local Government Act.
(1) Quote by the campaigning local minister Rev Urwick at Spicer Street Independent Chapel, 1890, source Herts Advertiser, ‘The Rev. W Urwick on the Poor, 11 January 1890. Land was available for housing, at a price.