IN the Mid-West city of Rochester that is strung along Minnesota’s Zumbro River, Shari Jarett became intrigued by a box crammed with an eye-catching assortment of pewter vessels which was going under the hammer at auction.
Being something of a beer fan – “cold and lite pale is my favourite,” she says – Shari could hardly help herself and snapped it up.
While sorting through her newly-acquired mugs, goblets and cups a few hours later, her interest was especially piqued by a tankard bearing the inscription: “R Bullen, Union Hotel, New Swindon.”
On the other side of the shiny mug was an inscription of the place of its manufacture, “Bristol.”
Her curiosity aroused, Shari, 50, a chef-cum-decorator of fancy cakes whose job involves staging functions, began researching the pot which led her to the Adver’s website and a feature we ran in February last year, ‘Sup Up… Before it’s Too Late.”
The story raised a metaphorical pint to Swindon’s long gone taverns with a warning from the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) that others were in danger of joining them in the annals of vanished local hostelries as a consequence of hard times.
Those dearly departed that we toasted included The Wholesome Barrel, The King of Prussia, The Artillery Arms, The Whale, The Old Locomotive, Sir Charles Napier, The Golden Lion and – among many others – The Union Tavern, also known as The Union Hotel and The Union Railway Hotel.
The story went: “From 6am every day the Union Tavern in Sheppard Street sold ‘a ha’porth and a penn’orth’ – cups of hot coffee with a tot of rum. Lined up on the bar, they were gratefully quaffed by railwaymen who had often cycled or walked miles to get to work.”
Delighted, Shari propelled an email across the Atlantic telling us of her “a ha’porth and penn’orth” mug while pondering “Maybe I should have my morning coffee with a shot of rum in it tomorrow.”
Sounds reasonable – particularly as, at the time of writing, Rochester was up to its neck in snow.
Thanks to the late Dave Backhouse’s assiduously researched Home Brewed – A History of Brewing and Public Houses in North Wiltshire (1984), we know quite a bit about The Union.
Opened in 1841 as New Swindon began to emerge around the town’s rapidly growing Great Western Railway works, it was the property of John Sheppard who owned the site and – as was often the wont in those days – named the road on which it was located (Sheppard Street) after himself.
Following his death the pub was bought by Hulbert’s of Highworth for £1,048, and later acquired by a company called Wadley’s before eventually going to Wiltshire brewer Usher’s in 1918.
Dave tells us that by 1875 it was doing a trade of eight barrels of ale a week and that it was noted for its magnetic effect on railwaymen who were coaxed in at the crack of dawn for their belly-warming, rum-reinforced coffee minutes before clocking on at the works.
The Union closed in 1958 after being acquired by clothing manufacturer Compton’s who built a factory extension on the site before this too was demolished.
But who was R Bullen – the pub manager, a regular, the bloke who delivered the ale by horse and cart – and how come his personalised Union Hotel pewter beer mug ended up 4,000 miles away?
Shari, a member of an old American colonial family who can trace their roots back to 12th Century Northamptonshire, came across an online list of landlords at the ‘Union Railway’ which shows that R Bullen and Joana Osland – probably his partner – ran the hostelry from 1873 to 1880.
While speaking to Swindon canal historian Jan Flanagan on another subject, I happened to mention the mug and Mr Bullen, and she immediately responded: “Oh yes, there used to be a Bullen’s Bridge over the canal in Sheppard Street.”
It turns out that Bullen’s Bridge – now long gone, like the canal – was right next to The Union. Could the bridge have been nicknamed by local people after the landlord of the pub directly next to which it was located?
“That could well have been the case,” said Jan. “He may have been a bit of a character.”
The footbridge itself was made in Chippenham and exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London as a fine example of modern civil engineering before being installed in Swindon A photo was duly supplied to us by historian-author Doug Small who has written/compiled several photographic histories of the Wilts & Berks Canal which was officially closed a century ago this year.
Shari, meanwhile, is doggedly attempting to discover how a tankard that once hung in the bar of one of our town centre railway pubs ended up in Minnesota’s third largest city, with a metropolis population of just over 200,000 – similar to that of Swindon Borough. She said the crate of pewter was among a large number of auctioned items that had belonged to a recently deceased elderly retired vicar.
“All I can think of is that he was in the UK during World War Two as a chaplain and brought it back.”
Did the vicar himself use the mug to quaff ale?
“I’m sure vicars frequent pubs,” said Shari. One certainly hopes so.
Another possibility is that a US serviceman from one of the many wartime bases dotted around Swindon – or maybe an American airman based at Fairford in later years – picked it up in town as a souvenir.
Shari adds, rather generously: “Do you have a pub museum in Swindon? If so, I’d be happy to donate it.”
Sadly, we don’t. If anyone can shed any further light on Shari’s prized antique beer mug – for example, was the original owner a Robert, a Richard, a Reginald, a Rupert? – she would love to hear about it.
And – in a plea to dedicated historians out there – so would we.
When Freddie made our eyes pop out
JUST when you think you’ve pretty much seen everything, Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee comes along.
Even back then, around 1980 I’m guessing, I’d been to more gigs than I could ever care to remember.
But what Freddie serves up at Swindon Town Hall that night beats the lot for sheer rock’n’roll bravado laced with a sort of creepy – ‘he didn’t really do that did he?’ – humour.
I know almost nothing about the piano pummelling British rock’n’roll phenomenon at the time, except some vague notion that he has a Jerry Lee Lewis vibe about him.
So when I venture into Swindon’s elegant redbrick former home of pen-pushing civil servants turned cultural hub, rubbing shoulders with leather-clad greasers and be-quiffed rockabilly boys, it is with wide-eyed curiosity.
From the off, Freddie – with customary cowboy hat and eye-patch – is stomping crazily around his piano which he plays as if he’s trying to beat it senseless.
Anyway, he’s singing what I later come to know as his signature tune One-Eyed Boogie Boy (that’s right, he only has the one).
“I got one big eye that looks so fine/I’m Freddie Fingers Lee from Newcastle-on-Tyne… One big eye, coloured brown/That loves boogie woogie when it goes to town.”
Then he removes his patch, takes out his false eyeball, and starts bouncing it up and down along the keys while still playing like a demon.
After a while he plonks it into his pint of beer, takes a few swigs and then puts it back in (the eyeball not the pint) without batting, that’s right, an eyelid.
Now that’s what I call rock’n’roll. Freddie Fingers Lee has just died, aged 76. Thanks for the memory, Freddie.
If there is a rock‘n’roll heaven then ole one eye is up there having a ball while trying to annihilate a piano.
Socket to ’em Fingers!