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Sup up... before its too late
12:45pm Friday 22nd February 2013 in HE WRITES WHAT HE WANTS... EVERY WEDNESDAY
FANCY a pint at The Rhinoceros? We could always pop into The Red Cow on the way. Or how about meeting at The King of Prussia and then toddling along to The Bell & Shoulder of Mutton?
Then again, it might be worth heading for The Rampant Cat in Highworth before cadging a lift to Stratton for few swift ones in The City of London and finishing off at The Three Cups – by way of The Woodbine, naturally. Nah – best to stay in Swindon. I know, let’s neck a couple at The Wholesome Barrel and then wander over to The Whale before winding up at Lord Raglan. Or even better, let’s stick to the Oddfellows Arms; after all, there are three of them in town to choose from!
None of these pubs exist anymore but they all did at one time – some of them even boasted histories spanning more than a century or two. But if the fears of real ale campaigners materialise many more of our locals will follow the likes of The Artillery Arms, The Eagle, The Engineer’s Arms, The Golden Lion, The Old Locomotive, Sir Charles Napier, Union Tavern and countless others into the ranks of oblivion.
A dozen taverns across England, Wales and Scotland close every week, say campaigners, largely as a result of the recession, tax on beer and cheap supermarket alcohol. Many are greedily eyed by developers with the intention of making a packet by converting them into houses or flats.
The Swindon & North Wiltshire and Devizes branches of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) aren’t taking it lying down and have issued a battle cry for 2013 to become The Year To Save Pubs.
The latest edition of its glossy newsletter The Rising Tun carries on its front page photographs of three well established Swindon hostelries that are currently vacant and facing extinction: The Falcon and 12Bar (formerly The Ship), both in Westcott Place, and The Famous Alehouse in Rodbourne.
“Without good, well run pubs, real ale will be harder to find and of much poorer quality,” said The Rising Tun’s editor Sam Loveless. “We encourage the residents of Swindon to go out and do all they can to keep their community assets intact.”
They could, he suggests, challenge planning applications to turn pubs into homes, write to their MPs opposing such schemes and/or object to the high tax on alcohol, or launch community co-operatives to take over threatened establishments.
“Everything helps,” says Sam. “We look forward to seeing Swindon in action.”
If nothing happens, pubs like the aforementioned trio along with a string of other boarded-up local alehouses I can think of – The George, The Grapes, The Duke of Wellington, The Prince of Wales (see panel) – will join scores of Swindon public houses in the annals of local folklore.
At such a time, it is worth reflecting on Swindon’s fascinating history of hostelries, most of whose names have been preserved thanks to one man.
After years of research, including trawling through countless back copies of the Advertiser, historian and real ale enthusiast Dave Backhouse summoned fellow beer buffs and select members of the media to The Black Horse in Wanborough on a glorious summer’s evening in 1984.
There, as we toasted Dave’s heroic labour of love in the ramshackle beer garden with its sweeping views of the countryside, he unveiled the publication Home Brewed, charting the history of pubs and brewing in and around Swindon.
Here, thanks to Dave, who sadly died 12 years ago, we can raise a glass to several of Swindon’s long gone locals… some of which, it has to be admitted, were less than salubrious establishments.
From 6am every day the Union Tavern in Sheppard Street (1841-1958) 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.
For decades regulars at The Whale (1842-1962) in Medgbury Road were greeted with a sign outside which proclaimed: “This is a true authentic Whale/Look at his head and regard his tail/And come in and taste my ale/There is no better ale I tell ‘ee/Than Jonas draws from out his belly.”
The Crown (circa 1830-1955) in Marlborough Road had a somewhat suspect clientele including “many American serviceman and ladies of ill-repute”. Swindon’s last thatched pub, it was closed with such alacrity by hacked-off magistrates that when the licensee’s son returned on leave from the RAF he found the premises barred and empty.
In 1880 the landlord of the Duke of Wellington (pre-1868-2011) in Eastcott Hill augmented his income by keeping a boar on stud at the premises – though not, apparently in the bar.
When The Eagle (1867-1950) beer house in Regent Street applied for a license to sell spirits in 1870 it was refused on the grounds that there were 14 pubs within 500 yards. At the time, 12,000-population New Swindon (today’s town centre) was serviced by 25 pubs – one to every 480 people.
In Fleet Street, The Foresters Arms (circa 1850s-1959) was the scene of an infamous pitched battle between Allied servicemen during World War Two – presumably a rehearsal for D-Day!
When former GWR policeman John Bacon took over a Westcott Place beer house in 1875 he promptly changed its named to The Gardeners Arms (1865-1979). Bacon was a little embarrassed by its original moniker… The Butcher’s Arms.
Swindon boasted no less than three Oddfellows Arms – named after the friendly society – in Cricklade Street (1830s-1978), the town centre (1859-1888) and Prospect Hill (19th Century).
High Street tavern The King of Prussia (circa 1700s-1880) was said to have been “open since Waterloo” – but probably existed before that. One landlord, Billy Webb, was so fat he could “scarce get through the door.”
Ann Page landlady of The Red Cow (early 19th Century-1968) in Princes Street was prosecuted for hurling the contents of the privy onto a passer-by. A disorderly house, police once found 14 after-hours drinkers hiding in the cellar.
Undoubtedly, Swindon’s most infamous pub was The Rhinoceros (1830s-1869) in Albert Street, “the most notorious house in town,” according to police. Brawls, prostitution, the hurling of spittoons and blatant disregard for licensing laws, were all part of the fun and games down at the Rhino. One of many court appearances saw landlord Joseph Patchett, a former GWR engine driver, prosecuted after 200 revellers were discovered in the pub during the early hours.
l If anyone has any recollections they wish to share of long gone pubs of Swindon they are welcome to email them to email@example.com
The way we were down at The Prince
DURING a rollicking Friday at The Prince of Wales, around about midnight, the landlord suddenly staggered waywardly into the bar beneath a bulky cardboard box which he managed, not without difficultly, to plonk next to the hand pumps.
With a cheerful, almost Santa-like grin, he proceeded to dismantle the package, which had Fosters stamped all over it, before enthusiastically distributing its contents.
A few minutes later we were all sporting the latest trendy, promo t-shirts advocating Aussie lager (it didn’t seem to matter that few of us actually drank the stuff). Mine was an XXL and I looked like Dopey from the Seven Dwarfs. Great night!
Walking along Union Street, Old Town these days The Prince of Wales is a sad sight. Shuttered-up, the chatter, laughter and alcohol-aided hubbub of drinkers a fast receding memory.
After around 150 years The Prince of Wales – previously forced to close for several months during the Great War as all able-bodied pint pullers were in the trenches – appears to have served its last glass of beer.