General Pub History in the Local Area

Pubs are a hobby of mine – indeed, I have visited some 3,000 in the past few years just to research this article :-). I have been in every pub in the area that this blog covers (although Mrs Blog tells me that this is hardly something to be proud of) and I want to make use of it.

As a pubby historian (amongst other things) I wanted to bring out some of the histories of our local pubs, lost and current, and set them into their historical context both as buildings and focal points for the community. My intention was to start with an illustrated history of the Churchbridge pubs, but the trouble is there is so much to the subject that I felt I needed a general introduction before I started. This will not be an exhaustive history because I want you to have the will left to actually read the articles I write, but the general background does need to be understood. So, I have knocked something up, using local examples to illustrate it.

Attitudes to Alcohol
Alcohol is and always has been viewed in a plethora of ways; from a root of anti-social behaviour to a harmless recreational drug – however, we have all treated it with suspicion at times. These views are nothing new, but it must be remembered that from the medieval period (with growing industry poisoning the water) through to the 19th century beer was in fact essential, as in general the water was not safe to drink: this is demonstrated by the cholera epidemics in Walsall and Willenhall in the 1830s and 1840s.

The brewing process killed bacteria, so even children would be encouraged to drink a ‘small beer’ (now classed as 2.8% and below) as it was also considered nutritious. As such, the weaker beers had been seen as a solution to the drunkenness caused by gin-mania, which is represented by Hogarth’s etchings of ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’ as early as 1751. However, nothing was done until finally Wellington’s government acted in 1830.

The Beerhouse Act meant that two guineas would secure a beerhouse licence which allowed you to sell beer or cider on your own premises. Within a few years, 46,000 of these so called beerhouses were registered and in Great Wyrley The Wheatsheaf, The Star and The Royal Oak would initially trade as such. The solution then became the problem. These beerhouses became so profitable that the owners would end-up extending them, as at the Royal Oak, or they became full ‘alehouses’ and sell the very gin they were supposed to replace – The Robin Hood in Churchbridge had done this by the 1872.

After he failure of the 1830 Act the next big attempt to curb the perceived vices of drinking came in the form of the Wine and Beer Act, 1869. This Act effectively stopped the establishment of new beerhouses, made it harder to get a licence (now through a Magistrate) for existing ones and regulated their opening-hours. Within a few years, The Bird in Hand had closed in Great Wyrley.

The former 'Bird in Hand' pub, Walsall Rd, Great Wyrley. De-licenced around the time of the 1869 Act

The former ‘Bird in Hand’ pub, Walsall Rd, Great Wyrley. De-licenced around the time of the 1869 Act

The evils of drink had always been perceived and Hogarth has already been mentioned. The 1830s and 1840s saw the start of a social fightback, with the formation of Temperance Societies and, in 1847, the Band of Hope (aimed at protecting children from drink). These societies built their own halls, had powerful memberships and thus considerable influence way into the 20th century. The Temperance Society were still fighting the opening of new pubs in Walsall in 1932.

The Band of Hope in Walsall Arboretum c1929 (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Band of Hope in Walsall Arboretum c1929
(Walsall Local History Centre)

A premier like Gladstone sympathised with the mores of the temperance societies and under him the 1872 Licensing Act reduced pub opening hours and increased punitive measures for drunkenness. The 1902 Act started and the 1904 Act extended the power of the justices to revoke or not re-issue licences. Pub numbers fell sharply over the next few decades.

Due to lost productivity, the Defence of the Realm Act further tightened pub opening hours, as well as making beer more expensive and reducing its alcoholic content. These laws survived largely in-tact until 1988, when all-day weekday opening arrived. The 2005 Act gives near a free-choice for the publican, but was met with deep suspicion by the media with worries over anti-social behaviour.

Today, we see pub closures as a current issue – and a society that seems to have fallen out of love with them. The truth is closures have always taken place. Around 1840, you could have had a pub crawl that possibly took in nine pubs in Great Wyrley (and Churchbridge); there are five today and infinitely more people in Wyrley. This shows us that pubs have always faced issues; today it is strangling pub companies, competition from supermarkets and the loss of their traditional (generally industrial) clientele, back then, it was competition with each other. From fines imposed, the regulation of beer and opening hours up to the recent smoking ban, it is clear that the law, government and the public as a whole have always kept a wary eye on the industry. Somehow, I feel the Government never got over the fact they messed-up so badly with the beerhouses.

Pub Types
Today we go to the public house or ‘pub’, which is a generic term for what were once slightly different kinds of drinking establishments based on their status and ‘product’. Out of these, alehouses, inns and taverns are the most well known.

An Inn was somewhere that traditionally provided accommodation, beers and food. They didn’t have to be huge establishments (as we tend today to think of massive 18th century coaching inns), just on route ways. The tavern was a town establishment and originally, as they sold wines, were allegedly for the slightly more affluent. They could sell food and possibly offer over-night accommodation. The alehouse was more spit than sawdust; the most numerous of the institutions it could simply operate from a house and sold beer, as well as offer a bit of floor space for a kipping drunk. The hotel is an establishment that starts to appear from around 1800.

With changes to legislation in 1830 we get the arrival of the beerhouse and many such places spring-up. They became the more basic establishment and from this point, the inn, tavern and alehouse terms begin to morph into one. There are lots of reasons for this, namely that ‘inn’ and ‘tavern’ added to a beerhouse name gave a link to tradition and status. If one looks at somewhere like the Lamp Tavern in Bloxwich, it is clearly a cottage-styled place that was built and named for the local mining community, not middle-class wine swillers!

The Victorian, 'Lamp Tavern', a pub aimed at beer and miners, not wine drinkers.

The Victorian, Lamp Tavern, a pub aimed at beer and miners, not wine drinkers.

In the Great Wyrley tithe schedule (1838), all drinking establishments are described as public houses.

The Red Cow (194) and the Robin Hood (190) as described in the tithe schedule.

The Red Cow (194) and the Robin Hood (190) as described in the tithe schedule, 1838.

Pub Buildings and Locations
There is always a reason as to the siting of a pub; either to serve a geographic area, or a particular clientele. Those at Churchbridge were aimed at serving Gilpin’s works. Of those in Great Wyrley, The Star took advantage of the fact it was next to the toll-gate, The Swan had the old animal pinfold behind it and The Davy Lamp was deliberately sited for the clientele from the housing expansions to the west of the Walsall Road. The irony is that the Robin Hood has survived despite the loss of its original clientele, yet the Davy Lamp has closed although its has remained.

Many pubs set-up besides transport links – for example the Station Hotel (now closed, but still there) in Bloxwich, or earlier of course, the canals.

The Canal Tavern in Bloxwich, c1920s. Now demolished. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Canal Tavern on the Wyrley & Essington in Bloxwich, c1920s. Now demolished.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

There were places that never got a licence because of where they were sited. In 1899, William Brown of Upper Landywood sought to licence Fern Cottage claiming that it was a mile to any drinking establishment and the hamlet was growing fast – he was refused, as there were enough places around already.

The changing nature of the pub exterior can be demonstrated by the New Inns in Cheslyn Hay. The pub was extensively remodelled in 1920 in the latest slightly Tudor-ish style.

The plain frontage of the New Inn, Cheslyn Hay prior to the 1920 rebuild.

The plain frontage of the New Inn, Cheslyn Hay prior to the 1920 rebuild.

The rebuilt New Inns, Cheslyn Hay, 1920

The plan for the rebuild of the New Inn, Cheslyn Hay, 1919

A good example of a pub that has been extended over time is the Royal Oak in Great Wyrley. The original core of the pub is the central ‘cottage’, which is what was the property was in 1838. The frontage was extended at some point prior to the erection of the buildings at the rear in 1900, likely as the pub could not relocate to the corner of the Walsall Road.

The Royal Oak, Great Wyrley. a good example of a pub that has been continually extended.

The Royal Oak, Great Wyrley. A good example of a pub that has been extended.

When extending was not an option, as the pub was too decrepit, another option was to rebuild on the same site. Often this would be done behind the existing pub while it remained open. The new pub would then take-over and the old one would be demolished. Many a bowling green was lost this way and many a new car park founded. This is what happened at the Royal Oak at Shire Oak in the 1930s, which was rebuilt in the latest art deco style due to the influx of potential clientele after house-building along the Chester Rd.

The Royal Oak, Shire Oak prior to its 1930s rebuild (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Royal Oak, Shire Oak prior to its 1930s rebuild (Walsall Local History Centre)

From the 1920s we get the arrival en-masse of the housing estate. Estates were planned, with an array of amenities from shops to schools, including pubs! These pubs, such as the Alma opposite Reedswood Park (built 1932), were large buildings often architecturally rooted in the past. They usually replaced pubs elsewhere – the Reedswood Alma replaced an earlier Alma (the Alma was a Crimean battle – 1854) on Paddock Lane, Walsall.

The Alma, Bentley Lane, Reedswood. Built in 1932 it replaced an earlier pub of the same name in Walsall.

The Alma, Bentley Lane, Reedswood. Built in 1932 it replaced an earlier pub of the same name in Walsall (Walsall Local History Centre).

The last point on exteriors is the loss of out-buildings. The example below is for the Bricklayers Arms in Cheslyn Hay, which stood on High St until it was demolished in the 1980s. The plan is dated to 1898. It shows the toilet blocks which today have been brought into the main building, or at least connected by a passageway (required by law). The pub also had a stable not shown) and as many pubs did, a pig sty.

Hatherton Arms, Cheslyn Hay, 1898. It shows an array of outbuildings that pubs do not have today.

Hatherton Arms, Cheslyn Hay, 1909. It shows an array of outbuildings that pubs do not have today.

The pub interior has also changed dramatically. Décor comes and goes, but the first thing to note about most pubs is the loss of the individual room; bar, tap-room, saloon, snug, smoke room and so forth. Again, really the names are inter-changeable, but generally a tap room served beer, the bar was for a more down to earth experience, the saloon was like a lounge and the snug was very discreet. Whatever they were, they have mostly been ripped out, as it allows for greater use of space and easier monitoring.

Interior of the Blue Big, new St, Walsall, c1900 - today it is called graffiti art! (Walsall Local History Centre)

Interior of the now demolished Blue Big, New St, Walsall, c1900 – today it is called graffiti art and beats the generic interiors of todays chain pubs!
(Walsall Local History Centre)

The plan below is for the Colliers Arms in Cheslyn Hay, 1907. It shows a vaults room, a smoke room and a parlour. All of these rooms are now open plan. The passage seems to double for the outdoor as well, as there is a serving hatch. The loss of the pub outdoor is dramatic. It happens very quickly. It seems all pubs had at one time an outdoor facility, but generally, since the 1980s, these have been a victim of refurbishment. The reason for their loss is the supermarket competition.

The Colliers Arms, March 1907, showing the then room arrangement - all have now gone.

The Colliers Arms, March 1907, showing the then room arrangement – all have now gone.

Changing Ownership
Owners and publicans have changed a lot too. All of the Great Wyrley pubs started of, such as The Royal Oak, with either owner/occupiers or as with the Robin Hood, a local owner with a manager or tenant. Our pubs also show that in general tenants stayed for longer periods and usually had another profession; miner or farmer – indeed that is why it can be hard to track them on a census. Over time, tenants became full-time publicans (with their families chipping in), but we are finding more and more that now one partner operates the pub, while the other has alternative employment – welcome back to Victorian England!

The 1861 Census for the Robbin Hood, Churchbridge. Trubshaw is also listed as a butcher. (National Archives)

The 1861 Census for the Robin Hood, Churchbridge. Trubshaw is also listed as a butcher.
(National Archives)

Slowly, the small breweries stepped in; the Lichfield, Eley and Roberts Breweries for example. These built small, localised chains. The Royal Oak in Shire Oak was a part of the Lichfield Brewery and the Swan Inn in Great Wyrley, a part of the William Robert’s empire . Amazingly, smaller brewing chains still exist in our local area; Holdens (Lamp Tavern, Bloxwich) and Black Country Ales (Crystal Fountain, Cannock) are two examples.

These smaller breweries are, in turn, purchased by larger breweries; indeed, The Swan in Great Wyrley became a William Roberts’ (of Brownhills) house in 1897, and then became an Eley’s house (Stafford). In 1928 Eley’s became a part of William Butler & Co, which in itself then became a part of M&B in 1960.

The Royal Exchange, Bloxwich, in its Butler's livery (1960s). It also has a listed brewhouse behind it - now non-operational.

The Royal Exchange, Bloxwich, in its Butler’s livery (1960s). It also has a listed brewhouse behind it – now non-operational (Walsall Local History Centre).

Since the forced divorce between brewers and pub ownership in the 1990s many of our pubs are now owned by pub chains; Punch and Enterprise for example. These are effectively property managers and operate accordingly. Enough said.

The Pub in the Community
The one thing this article isn’t really going to do is talk about is the drink itself or it will never end – and I can feel that you are flaking already 🙂 . It will suffice to say that beer has also changed a lot; from real ale to keg, local brews to national ones and porters to lagers. Many pubs, like the Swan Inn in Great Wyrley had their own brewhouse, which meant they may have brewed some of their own beer. I would like to draw your attention to a book written by Clive Roberts about the Shire Oak Inn which had an attached brewery until around 1930. The thing to remember is that these pubs and breweries were local employers.

Shire Oak Inn, with the Shire Oak Brewery behind - airbrushed out! c1920. (Walsall Local History Centre)

Shire Oak Inn, with the Shire Oak Brewery behind – airbrushed out! early 20th century.
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Again, a whole article could be written on pub entertainments, but for this article I am more interested in the community aspect than the individual. Pubs have always been linked to sport and games; with many pubs having, over time, teams for crib, dominoes, darts, pool, bowls, football and pigeon racing for example. The trophies often gather dust in the bar, the teams long since moved on. The closure of pubs is affecting the social interaction. I played for the Davy Lamp , now a shop – and have just seen the closure of the Barley Mow in Ward End, Birmingham, where I won my first footy trophies 😦 .

The Railway Inn, Pelsall. Clearly the bowling team were in the picture - c1920s (Walsall Local History Centre)

The Railway Inn, Pelsall. Clearly the bowling team were in the picture – c1920s
(Walsall Local History Centre)

Of course, pubs have played other roles within the local community. The Swan in Great Wyrley has held vestry meetings, auctions, club meetings, political and social gatherings. The Wheatsheaf in Great Wyrley held a ‘live or dead farm stock’ auction in 1866. Many pubs have held inquests in the past. I get asked if that means that dead bodies have been held there, well, a jury would be required to view the body, which may or may not be at the place of inquest – a body was displayed at the now demolished Railway Hotel in Cannock for example at an inquest in 1894. All I will say is that I would be careful when asking for spirits in those pubs.

Cannock Advertiser's report on the inquest of Stationmaster Watson held at the Railway Hotel. 1894.

Cannock Advertiser’s report on the inquest of Stationmaster Watson held at the Railway Hotel. 1894.

Pub Names and Signs
Pub signs and names have, over the years, contained obvious, hidden and now completely lost messages: for example, choosing the name ‘The Duke of Wellington’ – there was once one in Walsall – would have a marked difference if you opened your pub in 1815, than in 1829, or 1830. In 1815, he is seen as the victorious soldier who had just defeated Napoleon. In 1829, he was instrumental in the delivery of the Catholic Relief Act, and so toasted by Roman Catholics everywhere. Move to 1830 and he becomes the toast of the new beerhouse keepers, many taking his name, or William IV (king at the time) for inspiration. Today, the name would more likely be associated with his military prowess, as back in 1815.

The Romans hung a green bush, laurel leaves or, having been to Pompeii, a chequerboard sign outside to signify that alcohol was sold. These were intended to be universal signs, much like a red and white barber’s pole, and thus indicating to everyone what was available within. It is said that this sign was to be the origin of the later pub names such as the Holly Bush, one of which once stood on the edge of Norton Canes.

Under King Richard II, it became compulsory for inns to have a sign (Richard’s badge would go onto be another popular pub name – The White Hart – one of which is in Cannock). Indeed, many names follow royalty; Brownhills and Bloxwich have a Prince of Wales, Great Wyrley, Shire Oak and Cannock have a Royal Oak, Brownhills a Crown and Bloxwich a Queen’s Head. The most famous is the Red Lion, symbol of James I (which was decreed by him to be exhibited at all public buildings) and once found in a Cheslyn Hay that also had a Rose and Crown.

Many names have their origin with the church. The church was a large land and inn owner and the Bell at Bloxwich and the Star in Great Wyrley have names rooted in church tradition, even if the truth were different. Local benefactors (landowners) are represented – Wetherspoon’s have the Linford Arms in Cannock and influential national figures can be seen at the Robert Peel, Bloxwich and the former Lord Nelson in Cheslyn Hay. Folklore would appear in the guise of the Robin Hood in Churchbridge, although I think there may be more to it than that.

The Star, Great Wyrley. A religious name in origin, though I suspect it was more a practical reason that it was chosen around 1830.

The Star, Great Wyrley. A religious name in origin, though I suspect it was more a practical reason that it was chosen around 1830.

Two significant inspirations for names are local trades and animals. Trades, and I include the railway in that, are mainly represented locally by mining; the Collier’s Arms in Cheslyn Hay for example. Saying that, Cheslyn Hay had a Bricklayer’s Arms and Walsall once had a Hamemaker’s Arms. Animals could have once had heraldic meaning, or a host of others. The Red Cow in Churchbridge was likely named such by Gilpin as his father had operated a pub of the same name in Wolverhampton.

The Hamemaker's Arms, that once stood on Blue Lane West, Walsall (Alan Price)

The Hamemaker’s Arms, that once stood on Blue Lane West, Walsall
(Alan Price)

Pubs do get renamed of course. Often this coincides with a change of ownership, or is an attempt to re-invent itself – both are likely true when the Carousel in Bloxwich became the Lady Diana recently. The New Inns in John St, Walsall, was certainly around by 1851 – due to its glazed tiling, today it is more know by its nickname, the Pretty Bricks. It changed its name to the Tap and Spile for a period, indeed this name is still on the back of the pub, but reverted fairly quickly.

Another casualty of the closure and changing ownership is the pub sign. A traditional hand-painted was always considered a must, which may have had the pub name depicted on it. Thy are of course vulnerable to the weather.

Traditional pub-sign for the Spotted Cow, Bloxwich

Traditional pub-sign for the Spotted Cow, Bloxwich

Today, many signs have been dispensed with, as at the Royal Oak in Great Wyrley, or replaced with wording, as with the re-invented Mason’s in Newtown. The greatest threats to those that survive are the dumbing-down of signage, as with the Ivy House in Newton, or the computer generated image favoured by The Wheatsheaf in Great Wyrley.

John Barras have elected to have a computer generated image for their wheatseaf.

John Barras have elected to have a computer generated image for their wheatseaf.

And so this general story comes to a close… keep an eye out for the individual pub stories as I do them.

Thank you to:
Walsall Local History Centre
Staffordshire Record Office
Lichfield Record Office
Cannock Library
The National Archives

Brownhills Bob and Clive Roberts
Pat Everiss: Pubs and Publicans of Cheslyn Hay (Cheslyn Hay Local History Society)
Great Wyrley Local History Society

  1. Clive says:

    This is a subject close to my heart, or should that be pocket! I was always confused about the licensing laws as they changed over the years, but after reading this article i understand.
    Cheers mate.

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Hi Clive – to be honest there is far more legislation and other things not included here, cut due to space and the want not to bore people to death. This was aimed at being a taster and a real general background for the individual pub stories that I intend to write, but hopefully it stands on its own to feet for those with a passing interest or, like you and I, a deeper one!

  2. angvs72 says:

    The Davy Lamp is a shop!!!!!!! I still have my darts.

  3. lizplummer says:

    Thank you for this – it is really interesting. My 4x great grandparents (Thomas and Elizabeth Taylor) ran the Bull’s Head in Walsall, which apparently used to be on the corner of Green Lane and Short Acre Street (263 Green Lane in the 1851 census) from at least 1849 to 1861. Thomas was called a victualler in his will in 1858 so presumably it was not just a beerhouse. He was a miner as well and after his death his widow carried on the Bull’s Head. They seemed to make a decent living out of it as well because she ended up buying a few houses and lived to the age of 75. If you have any information about this pub I would love to know more about it.

  4. Flanders Field says:

    Really informative article. Hamemakers was my local for a few years.

    Re; ‘Duke of Wellington’ there was a pub of that name in Darlaston until 1830, the name was then changed to the Green Dragon, possibly in protest to the Duke of Wellington’s Beer Act which must have hit the trade of the established ‘Full Licenced’ houses.

  5. ianhunt2013 says:

    After a short stint at the Railway Arms in Bradley my folks ran the Hamemakers for Banks’ in the late’40’s early ’50’s before moving on to the Royal Oak on the Compton Road in Wolverhampton

  6. Umesh says:

    Hi Everyone
    Fantastic article you have written hear, that i stumbled across while looking for information on a pub my father owned in the 80’s. I have not found anything about the history of the “Bradford Arms which is on Old Pleck Rd, just by Pagetts Bridge. Any help or direction in where to look would be greatly appreicated as I lived there for years and it seems to have some history based on the old cellars but i cant find anything!

    • wyrleyblog says:

      I know the pub well. You would need to go to the walsall local history centre for possible licence records, plans, photos, maps etc. sadly, the 80s may be too recent, but it depends what you are after.

  7. Umesh says:

    Thanks for the quick response, i am actually after its real history. I have all i need to know about the pub from the 80s as i lived there but i was always curious as to its past. It felt like it was previously a hotel or something similar. Anyway thanks for the guidance i will try and get some more information and would be happy to share this.
    Out of interest – what do you mean when you say you know the pub well? Did you visit the pub in the 80-90’s?

    • wyrleyblog says:

      Pubs are a hobby, i have done all surviving pubs in the walsall area. I have also written an article on a body found in the canal by the bradford arms. The pub takes its name from the lords of the manor of walsall and i am sure it is a rebuild of an earlier pub on same site but would need to check that!

  8. Tina Benton says:

    Can anybody tell me when the Royal Oak Pub in the centre of Cannock was built please? TIA

  9. kenny ferns says:

    My mom and dad where the last publicans to have the chain makers in green lane walsall I just wondered if you had any information regarding its history and when It was knocked down as I was 3 or 4

  10. constance stokes says:

    My great grandfather ran the lord Nelson in Cheslyn Hay in the late1800s early 1900,sadly now gone with no photos of what it looked like.

  11. Susan Macdonald says:

    We run the bell in bloxwich. We would like to know if there are any pictures of the original building before the rebuilt one in the 1900’s

  12. Martin Feledziak says:

    Where was the Lord Nelson in Cheslyn Hay ?

    • wyrleyblog says:

      It was on High Street, sandwiched between what today is the old library (Nile Practice) and Pinfold House – with a modern house on part of the site. It was de-licensed in 1929, I think, then converted into flats – as this is how it appears on the 1970 OS map – and demolished a couple of years later when Pinfold House was built, I assume.

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