WHENEVER Swindon pub landlord Richard Bullen downed a swift half of Hulbert’s finest ale, brewed just a few miles away in hilltop Highworth, he almost certainly did so from his personalised pewter beer mug.
Bearing the neatly inscribed words “R Bullen, Union Hotel, New Swindon” it would rarely have been far from his grasp as he served a stream of railwaymen on their way to and from work and at lunchtime as well.
The prominent alehouse that he managed was located just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Great Western Railway works and almost directly adjoining the canal bridge that was named in his honour, Bullen’s Bridge.
Mr Bullen has been dead for well over a century, the canal was officially closed exactly 100 years ago and the pub that he ran was pounded into debris during the 1950s to make way for a factory extension.
But the mug, with its distinctive greyish patina, lives on… and in singularly unusual circumstances has just completed an 8,000 mile round trip to and from the American Mid-West.
It is something of a mystery as to how and when Bullen’s trusty tankard, from which he enjoyed many quaffs of ale in Swindon around 140 years ago, made its way to Minnesota, USA.
But it is now back in town after being shipped home by big-hearted Minnesota resident Shari Jarrett who found it in a box of assorted vessels acquired at auction.
It is a strange and – for me, certainly – compelling story that began 173 years ago when a certain John Sheppard developed land sandwiched between the new Swindon railway station and the rapidly arising GWR works.
Having modestly named the road after himself he had the good sense to erect a pub just off Sheppard Street, right next to the North Wilts Canal… very handy for GWR employees, rail passengers and canal workers.
Over the years it has been known as The Union Hotel, The Union Railway Inn, The Union Tavern and, just to confuse the issue, The Railway.
After Sheppard’s death the hostelry was taken over by ale makers Hulbert’s, of Brewery Street, Highworth, which for decades oversaw the arrival and departure of a string of landlords.
One of them, Fred Cratchley placed an 1883 advertisement extolling the virtues of his business as providing “wines, spirits and cigars of the first quality, well-aired beds, dinners, chops and steaks on the shortest notice, and a very large and convenient club room.” Also, “good stabling and lock-up coach house.”
However, it is one of his predecessors, Croydon-born Richard Bullen, with whom we are concerned.
Thanks to Swindon historian/author Mark Child, we know that Bullen (1831-1907) arrived from Wantage to run the show for just three years from 1873 to 1875 before managing pubs in London.
During his Swindon sojourn he drank from his own customised, Bristol-made pewter tankard.
At the time The Union was doing a decent trade in serving ‘a ha’porth and a penn’orth’ of hot coffee with a tot of rum which were lined up on the bar from 6am to warm the bellies of railwaymen who had often walked miles to work.
The Union was later swallowed up by a company called Wadley’s before being acquired by Wiltshire brewer Usher’s in 1918.
Closing time rang in 1958 when it was demolished to make way for an extension to Compton’s clothing factory, also now long gone.
We know what happened to Mr Bullen but his mug with the New Swindon inscription? That’s a mystery. Did he take it to London, leave it Swindon, give it to the rag and bone man, chuck it in a box of curios and oddments and forget all about it?
What is known is that it somehow ended up with a man of the cloth (a churchman, not a barman) in Minnesota.
Shari, who lives in Rochester – the state’s third largest city with a 200,000 population, similar to Swindon’s – found it among a crate of pewter that had belonged to a recently-deceased retired vicar.
The gal certainly did her homework and last year found mention of the Union Hotel on the internet in an Adver article bemoaning the fate of many of Swindon’s long gone taverns… among them Bullen’s old alehouse.
Exchanging emails across the Atlantic led to a story in the Adver in March along with a generous offer from Shari, a 50 year-old baker-cum-chef with a fine line in fancy cakes.
Was there a brewery museum in Swindon to which she could donate her splendid vessel? Sadly, no. But the Swindon Society – dedicated to preserving our heritage – would love the historic flagon as a fine artefact-cum-reminder of the town’s Victorian past. Shari popped it in the post and, after its homecoming, I have to confess that it spent a couple of weeks on my shelf looking pretty sharp.
A few days ago, however, myself and three of the society’s committee members – Diane Everett, Bob Townsend and Andy Binks – were standing on the spot once occupied by the Union Hotel, now a drab station car park with ne’er a hint of a penn’orth’ of hot coffee and a tot of rum. “Bullen’s Bridge would have been just over there,” points Bob.
Andy brought along a bottle of Shepherd Neame beer – the nearest drop of ale he could find to connect with our Sheppard Street location – for the purpose of posing up a few photographs.
“Oh isn’t it nice,” said Diane, admiring the mug’s fine lettering. I have to agree, it is rather beautiful in a spartan, unostentatious way.
The trio will show off the tankard to fellow society members as well as those from related bodies, such as the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust.
It may go on show temporarily but eventually they would like to see it on permanent public display – hopefully when a new Swindon museum is finally created. “We are just the custodians,” said Diane.
Shari, meanwhile, typed: “I was happy to donate it… I’ve sent it back home.”
At her computer in Rochester she added, probably with a chuckle: “This was a crazy ride.”
Jefferies' uncle drew attention...
Two foot bridges crossed the North Wilts Canal at the spot where The Union Tavern once stood.
Evidence of the first exists today thanks to a superb early 19th Century drawing by artist John Jefferies, uncle of revered local poet/author Richard Jefferies.
The bridge is seen near two long gone pubs, The Old Locomotive and the Wholesome Barrel.
It was replaced in the mid-19th Century by the crossing that became widely known as Bullen’s Bridge, almost certainly after publican Richard Bullen who ran the adjacent Union Hotel in the 1870s.
Like virtually all the canal bridges once dotted around Swindon, it vanished after the Wilts and Berks, and its North Wilts off-shoot were declared redundant a century ago.
- FORMED 42 years ago the Swindon Society aims to record the social history of the area as shown by the camera since the 1850s.
It has a digitised bank of more than 16,000 images but is constantly looking for more photos or “anything concerning the history of our town.”
The 160-member group meets at Goddard Park School, Park North on the second Wednesday of every month except July and August for presentations and discussions.
Committee member Andy Binks said: “If any readers have any photographs we can scan or copy we would be grateful. All copied material will be returned.”
The society can be contacted at: email@example.com or by phone on 01793 845295.