Early policing in St Albans

the Abbey Gateway

by Andy Wiseman

It is highly likely that the Abbey Gateway at St Albans is the oldest building to have been used for policing in Hertfordshire. Built largely under the Abbott Thomas de la Mare in 1366, the gateway, located roughly 100 hundred metres from the west doors of the Abbey itself, contained dungeons into which ringleaders of the Peasants’ Revolt had been thrown in 1381. In fact, the gateway contained two separate facilites; a local gaol for the liberty of St Albans and a house of corrections for both the liberty and surrounding borough. The liberty gaol had a paved exercise yard for prisoners and the house of corrections a piece of adjourning land for hard labour.

It would appear that the turnover of inmates was frequent, with an average of three being incarcerated at the facility at any given time. Men and women were afforded separate cells and from 1812 and received 1.5 lb of bread per day. Legend has it that certain prisoners had been known to lower a shoe on a cord out of their window and beg to passers-by. Cells had no heating, bedding consisted of straw on the ground and the regime was no doubt bleak. In 1822 a treadmill was installed, which was capabale of pumping water.

In the 1830’s St Albans was policed by a salaried High Constable, named James Deaton, who was also keeper of the gaol. He managed four Constables, each employed on a annual basis. It is unlikely that Deaton’s men were volunteers, as in 1834 deputies were being paid two or three guineas to undertake the role on their behalf. Two beadles and three night watchman also assisted in the day-to-day keeping of law and order, which was altogether the responsibility of the mayor. When the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 came into effect, the Liberty was compelled to change its existing arrangements and establish an official police force. Six months after the creation of the Hertford Borough Police, St Albans followed suit and its new crime fighting force began policing the city on 23rd July 1836. Consisting of just five men, the new force was initially run by Alexander Wilson, who was given the rank of Superintendent. His reign was short-live and in 1837 he was replaced by Joseph Douglas. At the end of the force’s third year, Douglas confidently claimed that it had halved crime in St Albans.

In 1849, three men were being held in the cells at the Gateway following a robbery in George Street. Incredibly, all three managed to escape by leaping from the roof, into some nearby trees. Despite being badly injured in the escape, one of the men, George Pain, made it to Leicester and managed to evade re-capture for six years. Having been re-captured he was duly returned to the Gateway.

In 1858, James Pike succeeded Joseph Douglas and became the force’s third officer in charge. It is likely that one of Pike’s first priorities was to find his men a proper facility from which they could perform their duties. Finally in 1861, the force was afforded its own purpose-built police station. The archaic gateway retained its function as a house of corrections until the 1860’s, when a new 99 cell prison was built on Grimston Road. The Gateway was subsequently passed into the hands of the neighbouring St Albans school and has remained within their care ever since.

This page was added on 10/11/2014.

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