Intro A B C D E F G H I-J-K L M N-O P-Q R S T U-Z Credits

Shipmans Bar

Northampton Public Houses and their Signs
Jack Plowman

Published in Northampton by Azlan Publications 2010

The right of Jack Plowman to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
© 2010 J. A. PLOWMAN.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by photocopy, microfilm, xerography or any other means, or incorporated into any information retrieval system, electronic or mechanical, without the written permission of the author.

ISBN 978-0-9521997-5-5

Printed and bound by MERLAND COPY and PRINT, NORTHAMPTON
(Converted to HTML5 by Kevin Kennedy 2015)

Tom Hall (1944- 2003)
Musician and Entertainer Extraordinaire.
Who brought so much real live entertainment and pleasure into the pubs of yesterday.
Marian Arnold (1947-2007)
Exceptional Librarian. Who knew where everything was!


There is really nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.

Samuel Johnson 1709-1784

Years ago, someone asked me which was the oldest pub in the town? The question got me thinking, and I came to the conclusion that there are three aspects of a pub’s antiquity; The Site, The Building and The Sign.

These are independent of each other, there could have been a pub in one location for hundreds of years and it could have been demolished or destroyed and rebuilt over and over again. After all the majority of the pubs in the town would have been destroyed in the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675. At the time of demolition or destruction this was often taken as an opportunity to change the name, for example the Crown on Wood Hill becoming the Black Boy after the Great Fire. Another reason (especially in my lifetime it seems) to change a name is to attempt to change the clientele and improve the pub’s image. The appellation ‘Old’ was often given to distinguish one pub from another of the same name, for example, the Black Lion in St. Giles’ Street and the (Old) Black Lion on Black Lion Hill, but not always the oldest pub took the ‘Old’, it was often used as a ploy to give the impression that the pub was a ‘Ye Olde Worlde’ cosy pub. It is possible that certain favoured sites such as just inside or outside the town gates could have had a hostelry on them for hundreds of years, one example of this that hadn’t changed it’s name for hundreds of years (from 15th cent.) until recently is the Bantam Cock.

The Bantam Cock also illustrates the second aspect, the building, until the early 1900s this pub was a completely different structure at right angles to its present orientation with a thatched roof and probably contained some of the original features from the 15th century. It escaped destruction from the Great Fire because it stood in an isolated position by the main road well outside the Town’s East Gate. The title ‘Oldest Pub’ could present a problem from this aspect, as a building could be of great age, but not always having been a pub, however, this problem doesn’t seem to have arisen in Northampton.

Of course, even if the building is of great age and has always been a pub it doesn’t follow that it has always been called what it’s called now. Likewise even if the site has always been a pub it doesn’t follow that the site has always carried the same sign. Signs have proved to be very interesting and trying to discover the origins of some of them has led me down unusual paths. Because of this I am now better informed on such diverse subjects as Heraldry, Famous Warships, Racehorses and Stagecoaches, Boot and Shoe production and Sunday League Football! Some signs are of great age and often today have a different meaning as to their original. The Bull Hotel on Regent’s Square is now no longer with us, thanks to the never-ending demands of the Motor Car. The sign that used to grace this establishment showed a bull and I’m sure that everyone who saw this sign, me included, thought that this is what the name meant. In fact, the original sign was almost certainly the sign of the bulla or seal. The pub was located just inside the North Gate, a prime site and opposite St. Andrew’s Priory and almost certainly started as a medieval hospice and would have displayed the seal (or bull) of the Order.

Limits(You have to stop sometime)

The main part of the book consists of an alphabetical series of entries, one for each of the Signs that I have discovered in the Town. I had to set some kind of limits as I started collecting information in 1982 and realised by 1995 that if I didn’t draw a line somewhere I would be collecting forever and never get the book off the ground. The limits are: - Time, from as earliest as I can get (about 1200, but little proof) to 1993, a year when my favourite pub was ‘revamped’ and its name changed. Area, I decided that some old villages such as Abington and Kingsthorpe are part of what I regard as the town whereas Billing and Moulton are not. When I plotted what I thought of as ‘The Town’ on a map it proved to be the Borough boundary as it was before the New Towns Act, Designated Area 1968 – so this is what it is. Time, from early times to 1993 and Area, the Borough as it was pre 1968.

Definitions(Ancient and Modern)

What is a pub, inn, hostelry, tavern, alehouse or beer-shop; what is the difference between Ale and Beer, if any – and which is the oldest pub in town? To answer any of these questions one has to resort to history and, in some cases, the law.

When did pubs first begin and what were they like? Earlier and simpler societies did, and in some parts of the world, still do, have a natural gathering of the people called by anthropologists a sod. This would probably take place in an informal way in the evenings after the days work had been done, when the gossip and news etc; would be chewed over and decisions made.

We don’t have anything like this in our day and age; we are isolated from our fellows. We leave our houses, get into cars and go to work, speaking to no one. Many people today do not know their neighbours’ names and ‘community spirit’ has to be worked at, rather than occurring naturally. However, the instinct is still there, it never went away; it survived in many forms over the ages here is a guess at a period in our past, Anglo-Saxon England.

The pub appears to be an Anglo-Saxon invention, a direct result of village life. With any small community, that is largely isolated from others, independent and its members interdependent, a habit of regular, informal gatherings will evolve. Probably in Anglo-Saxon communities one of the women would specialise in brewing, quite possibly the baker’s wife and be known as the Alewife. Perhaps others brewed as well, but the term Alewife implies a specialist. I can imagine, of an evening, when the work was done and food eaten people would gather at her house (the bakery?) to drink and gossip. In the winter, what better place to spend your evening than in a warm bakehouse and in the summer to sit outside, like people do today? I see the Alewife’s home as the precursor of the village pub, and later the ‘home from home’ local corner beer shop. Baking and brewing share much in common; grain, yeast and heat. An ideal place to brew ale would be the bakery.

When the land was enclosed and the Industrial Revolution came along many common people migrated to the fast growing towns like Northampton to work in the more lucrative trades such as Boot & Shoe production. To accommodate these workers speculators and Housing Associations built streets of terraced houses and, unlike the developers of the 1970s put in pavements, shops, churches and pubs.

I can remember the building of Thorplands and the announcement that Thorplands One was ready for occupation. There were no shops, one pub and most importantly no footpaths. The planners were all motorists and had no idea of what it would be like for a mother loaded with shopping and two kids, one in a pushchair and one in hand to alight from a bus and try to get to her new ‘home’ over muddy tracks or ‘artistically’ windy paths. Interestingly the developers were (and still are) building ‘homes’ whilst the Borough Council were compulsorily purchasing peoples’ houses at very low prices and knocking them down. In my book builders build houses and people make them into homes not the other way round! Enough of this, back to the plot.

The back street corner pub became the equivalent of the village inn and served much the same purpose. There were threats to its existence and not only from the Temperance and Teetotal movements - movies appeared as an alternative to ‘going down the local’, later we had radio and the final threat came with the mass interest in Television after the Coronation in 1952. Now people had a reason to stay in every night, so the local pub began to die out, but thousands of years of habit do not disappear in a few years, or even centuries. Today a good proportion of the population of this country are glued to their sets watching soap operas. Coronation Street and Eastenders are both very much centred around their respective pubs, the Rovers Return and the ‘Vic. Even Emmerdale Farm has its Woolpack and the oldest soap in the world, The Archers had two pubs, the Bull and the Cat & Fiddle (which is now closed). Now instead of having real gossip (and a real life?) people can vicariously live the lives of fictional characters, even to the point of half believing them – remember the ‘Free Deirdre’ campaign?

So, what makes a pub an inn and an inn a tavern? Let’s go back to some real history and the monasteries of the Middle Ages. In the 12th century the pilgrimage was popular. Monasteries and Friaries were, as part of their Christian duty supposed to care for the sick and the traveller, especially if that traveller was a pilgrim. To this end Hospitals came about, they not only cared for the sick, but for the traveller. The words Hospital, Hospice, Hotel, Hostel and Hostelry are all from the same source and sum up the function of the medieval hospitals. Monks have always been fond of brewing and wine making and would provide this for their guests, after a while they also provided drink and sustenance for locals as well as travellers. Later local lords realised the potential of this service and opened inns on roads passing through their lands (Roadhouses), hence the large number of inns and taverns called The Somebody-or-Other Arms, bearing the arms of their owners and probably starting the fashion of calling a pub The Something-or-other Arms. Northampton was an important market town and some sort of accommodation was essential for a town to function as a market as traders in those days would have to stay overnight if they came from any distance and would also require somewhere where business could be conducted, preferably over a drink.

Some idea of the economic importance of these establishments can be gauged from the State Papers of 1675 – the year of the Great Fire of Northampton when almost three quarters of the town was destroyed. By September 23rd, three days after the Fire it was reported that any surviving Inns were prepared to receive travellers and some gentlemen’s’ houses were converted into temporary inns.

Lest the want of these conveniences should discourage all persons from repairing thither, and thereby force the inhabitants to leave the place desolate, and in danger of being out of a possibility of ever being rebuilt….

An assurance was also given:
That all markets and fairs shall be kept there on the dates they used to be….

(Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, March 1675–Feb. 1676)

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries the Hospitals disappeared, many becoming secular houses of accommodation, sustenance and entertainment. We were then left with Inns, Taverns and Ale-Houses. The Inn was a large establishment, possibly once a Hospital, with plentiful accommodation for the traveller, his horse and his carriage or cart. It would often include Market Rooms, large rooms where displays of goods or auctions could be carried out. The Tavern was similar, less grand, but still able to care for the travelling public. Incidentally the Romans used have Tabernae every few miles or so along their straight roads to provide refreshment for travellers and fresh horses for the military messengers that travelled along them. From this has come the idea that the Roman Taberna gave rise to the Tavern. However, it is more likely that this word was lost when the Romans left, and, being Latin in origin, returned with the French speaking Normans. Ale-Houses were at the bottom, catering only for food and as the name implies, ale. In the countryside a similar situation prevailed with Inns and Taverns beside the major thoroughfares and the Ale House being the village pub serving the locals. Of course, all these establishments would have served the casual drinker, no one turns away business, but regulations did crop up from time to time limiting certain establishments and times to the bona fide traveller, perhaps requiring a meal to be purchased as well as drink and closing to the public during the times of 'Common Prayer or Sermones upon the Sabothe' (1568). These regulations appear to have been largely ignored. Interestingly the explanation I have been given for the laying down or flattening of the headstones in All Saints’ churchyard was so that people who had been rousted out of their houses, pubs etc. to attend church (yes, they used to do that!) couldn’t hide behind the stones until everyone else was in church and then return to their ‘vices’ in the nearby taverns and ale-houses!

In the past there was more legislation for drinking houses and the quality etc; of drink than any other trade. The Liber Custumarium is an ancient compilation of regulations and customs that was maintained for many centuries by Northampton’s Town Clerks. A fifteenth century brewers ‘oath’ is:

Allso of all Brewers that thei brewe Good Ale and holsome for mannys body And they sell be mesur enseales. And yf thei sell be any Cuppe choppet or thryrndall prsent them to vs. ffor the statute of the grete chartor…. One weight and one mesur through owte the realme of Englond.

Cuppe choppet – a cup measure cut down to give short measure.
Thyrndall – thinned down.

(Records of the Borough of Northampton 1898)

I wonder how many of the popular lagers or fizz ales of today would measure up as being “holsome for mannys body”!

The reason for so much legislation is probably twofold. From the social point of view the two most important establishments of the past were the Church and the Pub. Before the advent of reliable, clean, water (as late as the second half of the nineteenth century!) ale was the one drink you could trust. Of course, after the seventeenth century tea and coffee appeared, but these were originally very expensive and out of the reach of most folks. The other reason is that as a potable drink was essential and was enjoyable it could and should be controlled unless people enjoyed themselves too much and, of course, it could be taxed.

The process of brewing eliminates unwanted microorganisms. Initially through the boiling of the water (liquor) to produce the wort to ferment, and secondly the actual process of fermentation involves a benign microorganism (yeast) that eliminates all competitors and maintains, at least for a time, its purity. Flemish weavers came to this country in the fourteenth century and introduced us to the hop with its preservative qualities thereby extending the ale’s potable period. This new brew was called beer and the old word; ale retained for unhopped brews made in the old way. By about the eighteenth century the term ale was being used for the brew obtained from the first washings of the ingredients and was therefore the strongest. Beer and small beer were brewed from subsequent washings or sparges. Today the words are used interchangeably and have lost their distinctions. True ale is rarely brewed these days so strictly speaking almost all beer sold today is beer, but I think CAMRA should keep their “Ale” as CAMRB doesn’t have quite the same impact.

Like Ale and Beer there are now no exact definitions of Inns, Taverns, Ale Houses or Pubs. Over the last two centuries or so all these terms have been applied to all sorts of products and establishments and now we have other terms such as ‘lager’, ‘wine-bars’, ‘gastro-pubs’ and ‘bar-cafes’ to contend with.

All drinking houses of the past I have found have been included in this book, but for the modern ones I have decided on the following definition. An establishment that is open to the public, i.e. one does not have to be a member, pay an entrance fee or buy food to be served. That serves beer, but may also serve other alcoholic beverages. This, of course, excludes clubs of all sorts, wine-bars, ‘bar-cafés’ and other modern ‘concepts’.

So, which is the oldest pub? Well to return to my original thoughts, there are three ways to look at it - the Site, the Building and the Sign. If it was still with us the Bull on Regent’s Square would have qualified for its sign and the site, but alas, it is now lost under a road. Likewise the Peacock that stood on the Market Square would have fulfilled the same requirements as the Bull, and possibly some of the building could have escaped the Great Fire of 1675 thereby filling the third requirement.

A good proportion of the town was destroyed by the Great Fire so most buildings cannot be older than the seventeenth century. The George Hotel that once stood at the top of Bridge Street probably went back to the time of the First Crusade, being named after St. George. We know this was rebuilt after the Great Fire, so again it’s a case of sign and site, but not the building and in any case all these venerable establishments are lost to us. The Bantam Cock on Abington Square can be traced back to at least the fifteenth century and escaped the Great Fire because it was outside the town walls – but it could be argued that it doesn’t qualify, it being outside the town at the time. Even it we do admit it, it still won’t qualify as the building, having survived the Fire was demolished and completely rebuilt at the beginning of the last century.

The buildings are the problem, so looking for the oldest surviving buildings would seem to be the key. There are one or two pubs on the outskirts of the borough that are Listed Buildings, but these, at the time were in villages that have been incorporated into the borough in recent times, so don’t really count. Two pubs in town that are Listed are Shipman’s on the Drapery and the Old Black Lion on Black Lion Hill.

Shipman’s official name is the White Hart and was probably also called in earlier years the Crown and the Roebuck in the eighteenth century. The building is partly eighteenth century with some nineteenth century additions. I have no start date for this pub and as the site of a pub it could go back many centuries, but it didn’t get called the White Hart until circa 1768.

The original building called the Old Black Lion is seventeenth century with nineteenth century additions and now has expanded into an eighteenth century cottage next door. Records of this pub are few, but its location, opposite the Castle and close to the West Gate of the medieval town would have been an ideal site for an inn or tavern. When a pub shares its name with the road it’s on this means one of two things; it’s on a Victorian estate and they called the pub after the street (e.g. the Overstone Arms in Overstone Road), or the road acquired its name because of a land-mark i.e. the inn, that was on it. The latter case indicates an establishment of some age. I therefore declare the Old Black Lion as probably being the oldest pub in town. However as the sign of the Black Lion is explained under that heading the sign itself is probably no earlier than 1500.

Organisation(How the Book is set up)

The bulk of the book consists of alphabetical entries for each sign. If there is more than one pub with the same name the entry begins with an explanation of the meaning of that sign and then follows with each pub. A pub entry will include the pub’s name, its address (if known) and any alternative names it may also have had. If an alternative name is looked up it will direct the reader to the main entry. I have tried to give start and finish dates for pubs where possible, but some pubs go back so far there are no records and others appear once in some document and are never referred to elsewhere. Many of these single references are derived from seventeenth and eighteenth century deeds where a piece of property would be defined by the properties around it, so you might get something like, …and to the east a certain ale-howse commonly known or called by the Signe or name of the Lyon. Most other dates come from Directories and the Magistrates’ Licensing Records. The first Directory that includes Northampton is the Universal Directory of 1791. These directories were published at various intervals, sometimes two or three coming out more or less at the same time and perhaps a gap of several years before the next. None were published during the periods of the two World Wars. They are not entirely reliable either; they copied from each other, including the mistakes, often left out entries and, I believe, in some cases simply used the old set-up type to reprint a ‘new’ edition without any revision. This sometimes resulted in a pub being shown as trading by as much as seven years after it was demolished! Small insignificant establishments would often be omitted, either because they didn’t pay for an entry (compilers didn’t always charge), or were considered not ‘smart’ enough to be included. The Universal Directory for example only included those inns in Northampton that would have been of interest to travellers. So, allowances should be made for errors and omissions with directory dates.

Magistrates Licensing Records are, of course, entirely accurate where they are available we have none before 1903 and a few years around the 1950s are missing. One aspect of these records that confuses is that they record the name of the licence holder not necessarily the manager. People recall that “'ole ‘arry Bloggs” had the pub in the 1960s, but the records show that Fred Smith held the licence. Fred may have been a shadowy figure in the background whilst Harry the barman was the real character everyone remembers. I felt that it wouldn’t be a good idea to include all the known landlords’ and ladies’ names, as they would take up too much space. However, I have produced a database of all the names I have found and this is available for research (e.g. family history) at Northampton Central Library and Northamptonshire Record Office.

It has taken me somewhere in the region of ten years to actually put everything down on paper, check it and add new information as it came up. As a result some of the entries refer to situations that no longer exist. As far as I know it is not inaccurate, only not up-to-date, in most cases I have left it, as it is with perhaps a comment in brackets [ ].

Of course, back in medieval times only priests and Jewish merchants could read and write, so everyone had a sign of some sort outside their premises or house. I remember when I first went to school (and of course couldn’t read) we had our own peg and each had a picture over it; a teddy bear, locomotive, beach ball etc; Some signs denoted a particular trade and everyone is familiar with the barber/surgeon’s red and white striped pole representing a bandaged, bloody limb or the three golden balls of the pawnbroker derived from the Arms of the De Medici family. (I understand that the real meaning of the three balls is; Two to one, you won’t get it back.). These two along with pub signs appear to be the only survivors.

Something should be said about alternative names. Even relatively recently most people were illiterate and as a result they would describe a pub by what they saw on the sign, not the writing. A good example of this is the White Hart (Shipman’s) it was first known as the Roebuck, the proprietor’s name at the time being Roe. A white roebuck looks much like a white hart.

Probably the original sign for an inn, or hospital was the seal, or bulla of the religious order that ran it, but with the advent of lords setting up their own roadhouses with their Arms over the door and townspeople opening their own premises as drinking houses diversification set in. So by the time records were being kept drinking houses were using all sorts of signs (for example see the Assembly Order of 1585, p.XIV).

Signs not only cover all manner of subjects and themes, but also come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, materials and locations. Many were painted - directly onto walls or boards fixed to walls or hung from some sort of frame. This probably accounts for the popularity of the colour blue (Blue Boar, Bell, Anchor etc;) as blue is the most durable colour and painted signs were expensive. Look at any modern poster that has been exposed to daylight for a time and you will see that all the red colours have been bleached out with just the blues remaining. Having a sign carved in wood or stone would initially be more expensive, but it would be permanent and if it was painted it could be touched up by someone unskilled and cheap. The only downside would be the cost if one wanted to change the sign. Political and religious signs could fall into this trap. The Annunciation (showing the Archangel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary) was a popular sign before the Reformation, but quickly fell out of favour. One solution to the purchase of a new sign was simply to remove the Virgin and retain Gabriel, and call the inn the Angel.

History(A bit of background)

Northampton probably started as an Anglo Saxon farmstead (Hamtune ⇒Ham Ton⇒ ‘Home Farm’) and perhaps one of my hypothetical bakery/proto-pubs was here! The town probably first acquired its boundary in the form of a bank, ditch and palisade when it became one of the border towns of the Danelaw. When the Normans arrived they increased the size of the town considerably and moved the central crossroad from the bottom of Gold Street to the top, at the old Saxo Danish east Portegate and built a church (All Saints’) right outside. In the west they constructed a castle. This meant that the Saxo-Danes were surrounded by a new town full of foreigners and overlooked by a huge castle. In the 1300s the town was expanded a short way to the east and northeast. Apart from the growth of suburbs to the north, south, east and west (St. Andrew’s End, Cotton End, St. Edmund’s End and St. James’ End respectively) the town stayed more or less the same size until the second half of the nineteenth century. With the growth of the Boot & Shoe industry and the mechanisation of farming with such new tools as the Traction Engine and Steam Plough massive development took place and the town grew at a prodigious rate. Adjacent fields to the old town walls were swallowed up and covered in terraced houses, chapels and churches, corner shops, factories, garden workshops and pubs!

I have stated that this trade was the most regulated in the past and this is some of the material from the Liber Custumarium and other documents quoted in the Records of the Borough of Northampton 1898.

All ale brewers were ordered by the assembly, in 1575 to sell their ale for 2s.4d. (about 11½p.) a dozen (gallons), and the ‘typler’ for 2s.8d. (about 13½p.) a dozen, by sealed measure. All that sold strong ale were to sell a quart (2 pints) for a penny (less than ½p.), by sealed measure. To insure the carrying out of this, it was provided, that every man that can and will present any defaulters shall have xijd (i.e. 12d = 1/- or 5p.) for his Labor and the pot.

The Privy Council in 1577 issued orders that all counties in England should give full returns of the names of all those who were licensed as keepers of taverns, inns and alehouses in both towns and counties. Northampton, it seems, declined and when the lieutenant of the county sent in his certificate in November he gave a total of 8 taverns, 30 inns and 400 alehouses in the shire, besides the Towne of Northampton wherewith we have not medled for that the maior of the same Town answereth that he by hymself will make certificate unto your honors of the true nomber thereof. This return, if it was ever done, is not to be found but, the compilers of the Records of the Borough of Northampton estimate that the probable number of inns and alehouses to be about eighty. The nearest thing we have to a list of pubs at this time is the Assembly Order of 1585:

That the Sygne of the harte nowe commonly called the hynde, the Lyon, the Bell, the Swanne, The George, the Bull, the Aungell, the Dolphyn, the Sallett, the harpe, the Katherene Wheele, the Talbott, and the one called the Greene Dragon be admytted as auncient Innes within this towne, and all other houses havinge sygnes at their dores, and useinge victualinge to be admytted as Ale howses and not as Innes, and yearely to put in Recognizances for keepinge of good Rule in their howses accordinge as herefore hath bene used, or ells to be demissed at Mr. Mayors and the Justices discretion which for the tyme shalbe.

By 1606 the price of beer and ale had gone up (what’s new?) and every brewer brewing beer or ale who sold by the dozen or half dozen was required to sell the best ale or beer for 3/- (15p.) a dozen. A dozen was to contain fourteen gallons at the vat side (this would have allowed for ullage – the loss of some liquid through evaporation, spillage and dregs). This regulation also reiterated the fifteenth century ‘oath’ that every brewer was to brew ale or beer that was good and wholesome, under pain of three and fourpence (3/4d – 17p.), to be recovered by distress. Of course, these regulations of the price of ale and beer were not to raise them, but to ensure that the breweries and alehouse keepers didn’t charge too much – what a good idea, couldn’t we do this today?

Personal(Drinking during my lifetime, c1961-?)

There is an account of Christmas at Watneys Brewery under the Malt Shovel, but nothing about the actual process that Watneys used to make their ‘wonderful’ beer. My job there was as a lowly tun cleaner in the North Brewery, we got into the fermentation vessels (FVs) after the brew had been run off and cleaned and sterilised them.

To make beer you need at least four ingredients, water, sugar, hops and yeast. It is often said that there is no water in a brewery, only liquor, however, you don’t make tea, wash the floor or flush the toilets with liquor - you use water. Strictly speaking the term liquor only applies to the water used to brew the beer. The water used in the North Brewery came from a spring near Spring Gardens (hence the name). The pump-house still stands the north side of Victoria Promenade. Generally speaking hard water is the best for making beer, in the past Burton-on-Trent made the best because of their particular kind of hard water. Other breweries such as ours would get the best they could, usually from a spring and ‘Burtonise’ it, i.e. add salts, usually gypsum to get it as close as possible to the ‘ideal’ Burton water.

Traditionally sugar is obtained from malt. There are two industries associated with brewing, malting and hop growing. To make malt you first start off by inducing barley to germinate through moisture and heat, this causes some of the starch in the seed to convert into sugar (maltose). The skill is to judge when the maximum conversion has taken place and then to kill off the process with heat. Maltings, whether attached to breweries or not, can be recognised by the distinctive steep pyramidal roof of the kiln used to kill the grain and often a half-storey high top floor with louvered windows where the malt was germinated. The grains, when needed, would be put through a gristmill, this would crack the grains to allow the water (sorry, now it’s liquor!) to leach out the sugar. In days gone by this would be the only source of sugar, but in more modern times other sugars have been added.

Hops came, and still do, in huge sacks called pockets and in many different types. They would be weighed out in the correct proportions for each type of beer, and varied in colour from golden yellows to rich, dark greens. For those who remember the old money, I thought some of them looked like crumpled ten shilling notes (gold-brown ones) and others like pound notes (green) – the smell was wonderful, but not to be indulged for too long as hops make one drowsy.

If I remember correctly my day started at 6 o’clock, being a young man all those years ago, I and my young brewery colleagues often went out in the evening and drank quite a lot of our product. As a result I would often turn up for work with a hangover. Hangovers are caused by two factors, dehydration from the alcohol and something else from the plethora of strange, and often unknown, substances in our drinks. If one drank a mixture of alcohol and water of the same strength as beer (especially Watneys) one would be hard done to get merry, let alone drunk. The body can only metabolise so much alcohol at a time so there is an optimum strength for absorbing alcohol. This must have been worked out by rule of thumb years ago before the experiments of the 1960s, as the strength happens to be half the strength of 70% proof. This means that when one drinks a whisky and water you have a drink with the best chance of quickly getting affected. Tests showed that the more impurities in the drink the more potent it was, so vodka and water would take longer to get one drunk than, say a whisky and ginger. Of course, the vodka is reputed leave you with a lighter, or no hangover in the morning. It seems the ‘brown stuff’ in a drink has a lot to do with its effects and beer always has plenty of ‘brown stuff’! Cures are usually based on minimising the effects of dehydration (drinking a pint of water before retiring) and providing a fresh intake of alcohol – ‘hair of the dog’ in the morning (to counteract withdrawal symptoms) or a stimulant, coffee or coke.

When I arrived at work (with my hangover) the chaps who Burtonise the liquor and sparge the malt would have been at it since four o’clock. The malt would have been ground the day before, like the hops to a recipe, and shot into a large, circular mash tun the hot liquor would have been passed through a thing like a giant lawn sprinkler (actually the sparge) suspended in the top of the mash tun. The hot liquid would percolate through the malt dissolving out the sugar and would run out at the bottom. This process took place near the entrance on the way to the locker-room and if one felt under the weather one could borrow a beaker used to test the stuff and fill it with some of the steaming hot wort, this would be left on the side and one would go and change into your overalls, wellies etc; on your return the wort would have cooled to a drinkable temperature. It tasted and smelt of malt (surprise!) - very much like a sort of dark, nutty, Horlicks. Within half an hour or so the hangover would have gone – I conclude that the ‘brown’ substances from the malt were the elements that caused the hangover and imbibing them in the morning relieved the effects – the sugar would have helped as well.

Like hops, malt comes in different kinds and this has a lot to do with the process in the kiln. Some grains are heated just enough to kill them and others are burnt black, and everything between. Once the wort has been made it is sent to the kettles, which in my brewery were three giant stainless steel vessels, three storeys high. It’s the tops of these sticking through the roof that often are the first clue that a building is a brewery. To the wort would be added the hops and any extra sugars that would have been dissolved in hot liquor upstairs in the sugar room. This lot would then be heated up – brewed - and finally drawn off, filtered, cooled and pumped through to my domain, the Fermentation Rooms.

It would arrive through a two-inch stainless steel pipe and be run into a Fermentation Vessel (FV). These things were huge, like giant, deep swimming pools and held thousands of gallons. Once the required amount (gyle) of wort had been run in we would take an oversize stainless ‘dust-bin' with a measured quantity of yeast in the bottom, mix it with some of the wort into a slurry and tip it into the FV. The mixture would work for a few days generating lots of foamy yeast bubbles for a while and lots of sharp smelling gas (CO2). Sometimes, especially in the summer, it would work too fast and the attemporators – sort of large copper radiators circulating cold water sunk in the FV would be brought into action to lower the temperature. Measurements were taken of the temperature and specific gravity at regular intervals.

Eventually the brew would be ready for running off. In the vaults under the FVs were outlets and pipes would be connected up to the Conditioning Room pump. I can remember that a lot of what I did was undoing and coupling up pipes to run various liquids (wort, green beer, sugar solutions or even hot caustic soda cleaning solutions around). When all was ready we would open the valve under the FV and the beer would be pumped away to be conditioned in huge, chilled tanks prior to being put into kegs and sent out.

We would, with our kit lean on the side of the FV and watch the beer, or rather the rafts of dead yeast (which had multiplied greatly) slowly sink down to the bottom. Fixed into the outlet in the lowest corner of the vessel was a sort of filter, it was a circular, flat, container about 18" in diameter, 3” thick, made of copper. When the beer was very low a long metal rod with a hook was used to pull off the top and the beer could be seen streaming through the holes in its underside and down the outlet. The beer was being drawn off from between the surface yeast and the other, dead, yeast lying on the bottom of the vessel. As soon as ‘strings’ of yeast started to be drawn down the outlet a long wooden pole with a conical end was used from the top to plug the outlet and the Conditioning Room ‘phoned and told to shut off the pumps.

More running about with spanners and the vessel was connected up to the Press Room. Ladders were thrown into the vessel and one or two of us would go down with squeegees and push the liquid and not so liquid yeast down the outlet which would be making loud, rude sucking noises. In the Press Room the very yeasty beer would be forced under pressure through large cast-iron presses fitted with cloths. The beer recovered would end up with the rest for conditioning. It always amazed me afterwards when opening up these presses just how much yeast was in them. We put, perhaps, a large bucket full in at the start and got about a cubic yard of the stuff out. The surplus I was told was sold to the people who make Marmite and ProPlus.

We now had a vessel with a skin of yeast all over it and a line of hard, crusted, dead yeast all around, near the top. A mixture of nitric acid and china clay was carefully mixed up to a consistency of thin white-wash and wearing protective gear and using ordinary yard brushes with handles about twelve feet or so long we would stand in the bottom of the vessel and brush the mixture up the walls. Once this was done we would climb out and go for a cup of tea, or a drop of our beer allowance. After about twenty minutes or so the acid had done its work and we would stand at the top with hoses and hose the stuff off the walls and eventually get in and squeegee the remnants down the plug hole. The acid would strip off even the hardest yeast deposits and sterilise the vessel at the same time, so it would be ready to repeat the whole process again.

I have seen many changes in the pub scene over the years. Pubs in the past, I mean long before I was born, all catered to some extent for food, but when I was a young lad this was not so. I suppose my drinking career started way back before I was a teenager, when I used to go out with my parents on Sunday afternoon walks. I believe this was a survival of the old custom that to get a drink on Sunday you had to be a bone fide traveller i.e. have journeyed more than one mile. Although this law had been long gone this seems to have established a custom of going on a walk to a distant and usually rural pub and sitting in the garden and having a drink – very healthy I’m sure!

Because I was only a boy I was not allowed to drink beer, I was allowed Tizer, or similar or cider or lager. Lager in those days came in only one form, Carlsberg, in bottles, and served in trumpet glasses made for the purpose (as in the film Ice Cold in Alex) along with the obligatory lime shot. Lager was considered a lady’s drink and cider was for boys. As I often elected to drink one or two of these alternatives I must have often gone home with the equivalent of a pint of snakebite inside me!

Like my friends I started my solo-drinking career before the legal age of eighteen. I cannot recall when it was but probably when I was about fourteen. In the 1960s there used to be a jazz club at the top of Gold Street and I remember going into the Bell around the corner in Bridge Street (see Bell). One time I went in there to celebrate the coming of age of a friend only to have him denied service, “You’re not eighteen – ‘e is (pointing to me), but you ain’t – so I ain’t serving yer!” This really upset my friend as he was a couple of months older than I was, but I had to get the drinks because I was “old enough” to buy for someone under the legal age to buy, but over sixteen.

The ‘pub crawl’ was a regular feature of my early drinking days. We would go from one pub to the next having a pint in each and perhaps ending up in ‘our’ pub before closing time for the mad dash to sink as many pints as possible before getting thrown out at the allotted time (there were no ‘lock ins’ in those days- at least not for us youngsters). I believe the pub crawl was a left over from the days of war time restrictions and rationing when pubs often had very little to offer and one would (I’m told) be limited to perhaps only one half of beer. People therefore trooped from one pub to another getting what they could. Another reason for the pub-crawl could have been when pubs brewed their own beer; I have been told that people would inform each other when the good stuff was to be had. Two groups of chaps cross the Market Square on a Friday night in the 1940s and someone calls out, “Try Bill at the ‘Tree, his beer’s just come on.” “Cheers, mate we’ll do that!” (William Lay of the Tree of Liberty).

Although the breweries had more or less tied up the trade by the early 1900s some pubs still brewed their own and it is interesting to note that Kelly’s Directory of 1940 has asterisks against some of the pubs listed and, “* Brewer of the Beer Retailed.” Evidently during the Second World War many pubs brewed their own, probably as a result of rationing.

Anyway whatever the origins of the pub-crawl we carried on the tradition although ours was a more organised affair. We didn’t just wander from pub to pub, but had a regular Friday night route. The start and finish were usually the same; ‘our’ pub – this and the other pubs varied, but would be stuck to for many months. I can remember leaving home late on occasions and work out where we would be at the time I would hit town, I would then go to the next pub and wait and sure enough after a few minutes the gang would arrive.

Pubs served beer- that was what they were for, beer, relaxation and conversation. I don’t know what a lot of them are for now – apart from parting gullible people from their money for inferior overpriced fizz and destroying any chance peace or an intelligent chat with loud ‘music’. If you wanted to eat you went to a restaurant, pubs might have a little glass case on the bar with small packets of chocolate biscuits a few sweets, peanuts and crisps and, of course, there was the bloke on Fridays and Saturdays with his basket of seafood (packets of prawns, mussels etc;). Some pubs would do a roll with a wedge of cheese and some raw onion at lunch times, but the concept of going to a pub to eat was unthinkable.

Landlords tended to stay in one place, you could go away for a year or so and still find the same bloke or lady behind the bar and the chances were if you had been a regular they would remember your order and if you were barred. Two examples of these stalwarts are the aforementioned William Lay of the Tree of Liberty 1932-c1964, 24 years and Edward Dunkley of the Black Lion, Giles’ Street 1903-1940, 37 years!

Another thing the returning prodigal son would have found was that the pub still retained its name. It would have not have changed in a year or so- not even in several decades. Pubs did in the past go in for name changes, but like the landlords they tended to stick for a long time, if not for ever.

One thing I could always rely on was the beer; surprisingly this was not an advantage. We used to live in ‘Watneyland’ – all our beer was brewed by Watneys in what had been the N.B.C. and Phipps’ Breweries on the west side of Bridge Street, only a handful of pubs were freehouses or of another brewery. There was the Saddler’s Arms in Bridge Street (Davenports), Shipman’s in the Drapery (Freehouse), that at one time only served bottled beer, the Garibaldi in Bailiff Street (Bass), Bear in Sheep Street (M&B), Headlands, Longland Road (Charles Wells) and the North Star, Welford Road (Ansells) – hardly much of a handful. This is one aspect of the past where (some) pubs have improved. Although many pubs now are serving fizz lagers (there are some decent lagers about) alcopops and pandering to the loud kids, lager louts and big screen ‘sports fans’, some pubs are serving some very decent real ales. Drinking in the local Weatherspoons’, Moon on the Square has been described by a friend, “Like drinking in Macdonald’s.” I find the atmosphere is not conducive to relaxed conversation, but it is quiet (no music) and the selection of beers is interesting, varied and reasonably priced.

Small independent breweries have sprung up all over the country in the last few years, providing the intelligent beer drinker with a whole variety of new tastes. This turn around in brewing and beer retailing is probably due almost entirely to perhaps the most effective consumer group in the world, i.e. the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). The local example is our own Frog Island Brewery at West Bridge. Started in 1994 with a five-barrel plant it was by 2003 using a ten-barrel plant, having doubled its output. However, as Bruce from Frog Island said at the time the independent breweries share of the market is only a minuscule one- percent! This state of affairs is reflected in the number of Northampton pubs now worthy of patronage. Some have staff who only know how to draw from a lager spigot, in some you have to shout to be heard, others seem to have been opened for the sole purpose of parting students from their loans with overpriced rubbish, others only open at night or weekends.

In my opinion the most dishonest are the ones that purport to have Real Ale, usually two ‘guest ales’ on tap. On arrival one finds the one of them is, “Off at the moment and we have no one to change the barrel.” So one decides to have the other, only to find it has been so badly kept it has to be sent back. The policy seems to be to get you into the pub and sell you what they want you to drink, normally high profit, high priced lager or ghastly ‘smooth’ beers. They appear to only employ people who have little knowledge of cellarcraft and unskilled bar staff all on low wages.

In my lifetime the pub has changed so much, especially in the Town Centre, but there are pubs that are still somewhat like they were in the past. Although the interior has changed into a one bar pub like all the others the Princess Alexandra still has echoes of the old Victorian corner Beer-Shop that it was when it was built. When these pubs were constructed they had at least two bars, called when I was a lad the Saloon Bar and the Lounge. They could also have a ‘Snug’ a small intimate bar often inhabited by old ladies and a ‘Jug and Bottle’ an even smaller room often the size of a telephone box. This tiny bar was furnished with a hatch to the serving area and a bench where one could sit whilst your order (a jug) was filled – it was only for off sales as people in those days would call into their local and buy beer for home consumption. We used to do this when we were first married, see the Grandby Arms, Vernon Street. After the War the price of beer was controlled, but as years went by it was decided that if you offered more facilities than the basics, one could put a bit on the price of a pint to pay for them. Thus was the lounge created, one bar was redecorated, perhaps with wallpaper, a few fancy lampshades, upholstered chairs and a bit of carpet and you could stick an halfpenny on a pint.

During my drinking career retail price control ended and the breweries started to charge the most they could get for their beer. It was realised that their was no longer a need to segregate the bar from the lounge and if they knocked the retail area into one large room with a central bar the number of staff, especially during quiet periods, could be greatly reduced - even to one. This, of course, saved on wages and made even more profit.

Possibly we are about to enter the next phase. Health & Safety considerations are already being discussed concerning employees in pubs being exposed to tobacco smoke. Some pubs already ban smoking at their bars and/or have non-smoking areas, but often this is only the eating area. What might happen is that we go back to what we had in the past, Smoke-Rooms. This would mean the putting up of walls and going back to a minimum two-bar pub. Possibly an air-curtain could prevent the smoke room contaminating the clean bar. One can be sure that the big breweries will find the cheapest solution if this legislation does materialise. [The smoker has now been banished outside.]

What of the future? I’ve been drinking now for over forty years and experienced at least the exteriors of pubs since I was a toddler (see Peacock). The changes have been prodigious, but to be fair other things have also changed. When I was a kid we had a radio, we got a television with a tiny screen for the Coronation in 1952. If my mum and dad were alive today they would be amazed by colour T.V., digital watches, computers, microwaves and all the bloody cars everywhere. If I could take my dad out for a pint now I don’t think he would like many modern pubs, so what’s it going to be for me when I get old (older!)? How long will it be before I’m drinking half litres and paying for it in Euros? What would my dad have made of a one pound pint – let alone the two pounder! Fortunately I shall die sooner or later and pass on to that Great Pub in the Sky where the staff are friendly, know you and your order and the beer tastes like it should. Where there are no kids running about – in fact, no kids, women know their place (in the Snug, Lounge or behind the bar) and there is quiet or live music, convivial conversation and friendly faces.

In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a pub completely like that! Enjoy the book!

© Jack Plowman

Intro Image 1 Intro Image 2

When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves for you will have lost the last of England.

Hilaire Belloc 1870-1953

White Elephant


ISBN 978-0-9521997-5-5


Printed by: MERLAND COPY and PRINT