St Albans' Own East End

The Rats' Castle


1891 census:  "Part of the parish of St Peter without the City of St Albans.  Comprising Albion and Cavendish roads, the Orchid Nursery estate, and the Camp, together with Rats Castle, the Cemetery Dwelling House and St Peter's Farm house and Nursery cottages opposite."

This is a painting of the Colney Heath Lane toll house by John Westall.  While not the same footprint shape as Sutton Road, none of the side road toll houses were substantial or well-built properties.  In fact, this toll house was locally known as The Hut.

"... tak[ing] a stroll along the Hatfield Road, will recall the hedge round the field with the dip behind and the pond in the corner, where Clarence Park now is.  There were no houses beyond that point for some distance.  What a long way it seemed to Rats' Castle, the little tumble-down shanty with the thatched roof.  This of course stood at the corner of what is now Sutton Road."

Correspondent to the Herts Advertiser, 1922, recalling making the same journey when she was much younger and the toll house was still extant.

Ordnance Survey 1924

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The (true?) story behind the pub

FROM THE TOP: Tithe map 1840

Ordnance Survey 1879

Ordnance Survey 1898

Courtesy HALS

The public house on the corner of Hatfield and Sutton roads has an unusual name, behind which lies an interesting tale, and, for once, there is more truth than fiction.

From at least as far back as 1768 Hatfield Road was part of the Reading and Hatfield Turnpike, with a Trust headquarters at the Reading end.  There were several toll houses on the side roads, at which people paid the appropriate fee, if required, before entering the turnpike road.  The nearest toll houses to Fleetville (although that community did not exist until after the road was de-turnpiked) were at Colney Heath Lane and Camp Road (at what we know as the Crown junction).  There were no toll houses at the privately-owned Beaumonts Avenue, the track opposite (now Ashley Road), or the track which is now Sutton Road.  All of these were farm ways.  So far, there is no known reason for a lack of a toll at the Beaumonts' junction, although it was possible to get farm animals, produce and crops to the town via untolled Sandpit Lane.

The map (top right) is taken from the 1840 tithe map.  Hatfield Road (top to bottom) lies to the left of field 738, called Broad Field.  The boundary between 738 and 741 is now Sutton Road.  There is no sign of a building on the corner inside the red circle.

During the 1840s the Turnpike Trust became concerned that a number of travellers using Camp Road were avoiding paying the toll at the Camp Road toll house, by taking a short cut at the boundary of Beaumonts Farm, from Camp Road (bottom right of the tithe map opposite) towards Hatfield Road. This boundary is shown by the green guidelines.  It is not known whether these movements had the tacit permission of the land owner, Thomas Kinder.  The Trust, presumably with Kinder's permission, erected a simple toll house on the corner (within the red circle).  In plan it was cross shaped, possibly with brick walls, and certainly with a thatched roof.  The Colney Heath Lane and Camp Road toll houses also had thatched roofs, and an eye witness also confirmed this.

Although not clear in this version. the next map available, 1879, does show the toll house, and, for the first time, the field boundary is also shown as a track.  The next map, 1898, also still shows the same building.  The map was published from surveys undertaken the previous year.  Don't get confused; the tithe map has north to the left of the map, while all the other maps are conventionally presented with north towards the top.

By the time the 1898 map was published, the building had been empty and neglected for 17 years, the Turnpike Trust having handed over the road to the Highways Board.  The final tolls were collected in November 1881.

This building probably would not have been considered very positively by local people, given that many of them would have, effectively, paid a tax to use the road.

The decaying building became infested with rats, which, reportedly, nested in the thatch.  Again, this was from an eye-witness account.  Thus grew the sobriquet The Rats' Castle; the building possibly being considered a monument to other 'rats' whose wealth might have built themselves the equivalent of castles elsewhere, paid for by the poor parishoners.

Another event occured in 1881.  Thomas Kinder, owner of Beaumonts' Farm, on which the toll house was built, died.  Between then and when the farm was sold in 1899, local farmers rented fields for their own uses.  The new temporary farmer of Broad Field probably had no reason to retain the field's historic name, used to maintain crop records.  It is therefore likely that the new farmer adopted the name Rats' Castle Field.  Or, if he didn't the name was certain to have caught on by locals.

With the sale of the farm in 1898/9 came the opportunity to acquire the corner site.  The toll house was, at last, torn down, and a house with shop erected, Primrose Cottage.  Within a very short time the corner property was converted into a shop and occupied by Percy Stone.

Note: in an error in St Albans' Own East End Volume 1, page 147. the date of 1878 for Primrose Cottage should read 1898.

It was too late to be shown on the 1898 map, which still had the old toll house there, and the 1912 map, which was based on the 1897/8 survey. Primrose Cottage was, for the first time, on the 1924 map (upper right).

The earliest discovered reference to Rats' Castle is in a report about a fatal accident [Herts Advertiser, August 17th 1878].  James Harris was killed falling from a cart near Oaklands.  Prior to this.  "At Rat's-castle they sold some herrings, and then proceeded on the road to Hatfield."

Meanwhile, the field known as Rats' Castle Field was developed, and the road  which passed through it was named Castle Road.  The 1891 census (below) also illustrates the fact that the name Rats' Castle had become a colloquial name for the specific area around the old toll house.

The public house replaced Primrose Cottage in 1927 (opened 1929), having been acquired by Benskins Ltd, Brewers.  Designed by Percival Cherry Blow, a local architect, it may be noticed the similarity between the Hatfield Road frontage of the old and new buildings. The 1964 map (below right) shows the larger and more complex shape of the pub building compared with either of the previous structures.

The 1891 census describes the enumerator's route as including the Rats' Castle.  Whether this related to a specific building, or to a small area is uncertain, but since the toll house was empty at the time, either way it should have been written up as "Old toll house, uninhabited."  As it was referred to in the route, I think it was a simple error of omission that the building was not listed in its proper place.

The 1899 directory names Mr T Cooke as occupier, but this would be the new house, Primrose Cottage.  However, in 1900 and 1901 the building appears to have already taken on the new name Rats' Castle, from the given name of the old toll house.  It is sometimes difficult to shake off old names.  Since there is no further reference to the Rats' Castle until the public house opened in 1929, it seems more likely that the early Rats' Castle references resulted from uninformed directory compilers than an official rename.

The premises were, as mentioned above, taken on by Percy Herbert Stone in 1902, and by Mr P A Perkins in 1905, when Mr Stone moved to Bycullah Terrace.

The 1901 census does not include Rats' Castle in the enumerator's route, as in 1891.  This may reflect the fact that other names, such as roads and works were, by then, more important.  Building was taking place in Castle Road, and this road and its completed houses were listed.  There was no reference to Primrose Cottage, but the Institute (Workers' Club) and the Fleet Works were listed.  Also listed here was one unoccupied house.  This may have been Primrose Cottage; Mr Cooke having moved out, but Mr Stone not having yet moved in.  Further evidence is sought for this unsubstantiated information.

Mr C E Griffin took the shop in 1909 but by 1911 Mr George William Hopkins occupied it until it closed for rebuilding by Benskins in 1927.  Mr Hopkins was actually a brickmaker.  There were several brickworks around, so we must be careful not to assume he worked for the nearest, which was Owen's along the Ashpath (now Ashley Road), although he may have done.  His wife, Ada, was a "sweet shop manager", according to the 1911 census, and this would have been at the Primrose Cottage shop.

The premises were also licensed for the sale of spirits, but in larger bottles only, and for consumption off the premises.

ABOVE: Ordnance Survey 1912

BELOW: Ordnance Survey 1924

Courtesy HALS

LEFT: Primrose Cottage and shop

BELOW: The Rats' Castle public house, opened 1929.

ABOVE: Ordnance Survey 1964

Courtesy HALS

St Albans' Own East End