08 December 2014

Cheshire: pubs and their signs 2

As I wrote in my previous blog about Cheshire pub signs and their intriguing histories, both of the pubs themselves and their signs, the public house is an institution in the UK, a much-loved and oft-frequented centre of its local community, where the publican is counsellor and confidant as much as businessperson. 

So many of these pubs, inns and taverns occupy historic buildings in locations steeped in antiquity and their signs often provide a clue to significant local events, characters and places. Alternatively, they may just have one of the more common pub names that can be found throughout Britain – did you know ‘The Red Lion’ is the most common inn name in this nation? So says the website of the Inn Sign Society – yes, there is even a society of people who, amongst other noble objectives, aim to research the origins of the many names given to inns. Perhaps I should join.

Here, then, is my second instalment about pub signs I have discovered in Cheshire.

The Penny Black, Northwich
As the plaque on its frontage reports, this stunning traditional black-and-white, a Grade II listed building, was ‘designed by H.M. Office of Works in 1914 as a purpose-built Post Office to serve Northwich and district’. That explains the pub name – the Penny Black was the world’s first adhesive stamp. The plaque also notes that this is Northwich’s ‘largest liftable building’, a strange claim to fame perhaps, but subsidence was a big problem during the 1800s when the salt extraction that was Northwich’s primary industry changed to the more viable brine-pumping method, thus weakening the land above the salt mines and causing many parts of the town to collapse. The Penny Black was converted to a pub in the late 1990s and appears to be fairly popular with locals and visitors alike, if online ratings are to be believed. I have yet to visit.

The Witton Chimes, Northwich
Just a drunken stagger away from the Penny Black is the Witton Chimes public house, located in a charming 17th-century building. You might think this pub’s sign is easily explainable – it’s situated in Witton Street and there is a church just up the street. However, that church, St Wilfrid’s Roman Catholic, is not the church depicted in the sign, which shows the impressive bell tower of the Parish Church of St Helen Witton, not far away in Church Road.

The pub’s website reports that the Witton Chimes used to be known as The Waterman’s Arms but was renamed after the church. ‘Perhaps the mostly famous publican was Ma Kenyon who owned the Pub during the [Second World] War and into the 1970s. Many a tale has been told [about] how Ma used to give free pints and 5 cigarettes to active servicemen from the area whenever [they were] on leave during the 2nd World War. Many still believe the ghost of Ma Kenyon walks the corridors upstairs with strange sounds often reported by regulars.’ Why is it that pubs feature so often in reports of ghosts, I wonder? Here’s another.

The Roebuck Inn, Northwich
Though it doesn’t feature in the Inn Sign Society’s list of Britain’s 20 most popular inn names, the Roebuck Inn does appear to be a popular name, judging by the number I located during a web search. That may be because the roe deer is widespread throughout Britain and it’s the most common deer species in Cheshire, according to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. I’ve not found out anything about the pub’s history though it does have a reputation for being haunted. This from ghostpubs.com:  

Medieval history contains many stories of human beings making pacts with the devil for many riches in return for their soul. This is a modern day version of such an arrangement. The joint licensees of the Roebuck lost custom with staff through poltergeist activities. There is the appearance of a ghostly woman in the pub. The proprietor invited psychic mediums to investigate. This team reported that this was the ghost of Hannah Latham. She explained she had been part owner of the Roebuck in the mid-1800s when it had been a prosperous business. She threatened that her ghost will keep returning to make sure it is being properly run. Hannah agreed she had been responsible for the poltergeist activities of throwing pictures around, taking down stacked chairs. Through the mediums, she was advised that her presence was ruining their trade. Customers would leave in droves. Hannah agreed to reduce her paranormal behaviour. However, maintain a watchful eye from a distance.

The Green Dragon, Northwich
Just a short crawl further along Witton Street is the Green Dragon, for which I have Daniel Clark’s most excellent blog about Northwich history to thank for the following information: 

Records indicate that the original Green Dragon public house was built in the 1760s. The first landlord is listed as Samuel Swindells. The 1810 ‘Original Survey of Witton’ states that the Green Dragon once stood within three quarters of an acre of land off Witton Street, most of which was used as a garden, although a small stable was also noted. By the 1820s, the adjoining land had been reduced to somewhere in the region of one quarter of an acre. In 1828, the public house was sold to the Northwich Brewery for the sum of £5.

The original Green Dragon public house was demolished around 1870 with a new mid-Victorian building built in its place. Records indicate that the exterior of the new building is similar to that of the old building, however, a number of layout changes were made internally. The public house once housed two billiard rooms, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. In the early 1900s additional accommodation was added to the rear of the property along with new bathroom space.

The Smoker, Plumley
Please don’t think that, by including a pub of this name, I condone smoking. The sign is a giveaway – this 400-year-old thatched, former coaching inn is, in fact, named after a horse ... but not just any horse. The charger Smoker was supposedly bred as a racehorse by George, the Prince Regent (later George IV), and owned by the first Lord deTabley of nearby Tabley Estate. The Lord is famous for having raised the Cheshire Yeomanry against the threat of invasion by Napoleon and the horse is famous for having won 12 of his 19 races, as shown on the racing calendars for 1790 and 1793 that are on display in the pub.  

According to Paul Hindle’s book Northwich, Winsford and Middlewich Through Time, the pub is thought to have been built during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and became a coaching inn in 1611. It had a succession of names, The Bell, The Shoulder of Mutton and The Griffin, before being renamed The Smoker as a memorial to Lord deTabley’s horse. On 12 April 2007, the Manchester Evening News reported that ‘The cup he won at Richmond in 1792 was donated to the Tarporley Hunt and is now a challenge trophy in the Cheshire Hunt point-to-point races held at the neighbouring Tabley Estate.' The pub’s sign apparently depicts Lord deTabley astride Smoker when reviewing his troops on the beach at Liverpool, though it is certainly not the original sign.

Illustration from The Old Inns of Old England by Charles G. Harper

The Windmill, Tabley
Pub signs obviously deteriorate over time and need to be replaced. New signs for both The Smoker and The Windmill pubs were painted way back in the late 1800s by a local female painter and the fact that the artist was female appears to have been so noteworthy that it was reported as far away as Cincinnati, in the USA (The Billboard, Cincinnati, 25 August 1900, vol.XII, no.17, p.3) and in Brisbane, Australia (in the Brisbane Courier, 1 September 1897, p.6).

The artist was Miss Barbara Leighton, daughter of Eleanor Leicester Warren (who later became Lady Leighton and who had inherited the nearby Tabley Estate on the death of her brother, Lord deTabley). Some of Barbara’s paintings can still be seen at Tabley House and her pub signs were apparently very well received. The Cincinnati Billboard describes the sign for The Smoker as ‘a capital portrait in oils of Smoker, a famous race horse’, so perhaps it was similar to today’s pub sign, but that produced for The Windmill was rather different – it represented ‘Don Quixote tilting at a windmill’. According to the pub’s website, The Windmill was established in 1734 and is named after another of Lord deTabley winning racehorses, a Chester Gold Cup winner. 

The Spinner and Bergamot, Comberbach
As will have become obvious, owning and training racehorses used to be a popular vocation in this neck of the woods and several of the local pubs are named after them. This is yet another example. The Spinner and Bergamot was built around 1746 and originally named, simply, The Spinner, after a local spinning loom. The inn was the favourite watering hole of Sir Hugh Smith-Barry of nearby Marbury Hall, a gentleman who’d inherited the family fortune made in Northwich salt. Sir Hugh named one of his racehorses, a grey filly, after the pub, then, after the horse was victorious in four races during 1762, he bought the pub to celebrate. The horse went on to win the Ladies’ Plate in Scarborough in 1764. The name Bergamot was added to the pub’s name in honour of another of Smith-Barry’s horses, an even more successful racehorse that won the Chester Cup in 1794. 

The Slow and Easy, Lostock Gralam
Unfortunately, the owners of The Slow and Easy public house in nearby Lostock Gralam have allowed their pub’s sign to deteriorate to a very shameful state. It too is named after a racehorse, as you can just make out in the sign, though I’m not sure which Slow and Easy it was. The pedigrees of three thoroughbreds with that name can be found on the pedigree online database, ranging in dates from 1815 to 1922, though the most recent Slow and Easy raced, was at stud and is buried in the USA.   

These days the pub is better known for its proximity to the local Witton Albion football stadium, and for its Low and Sleazy summer music weekends. This time last year it was in the news because someone had stolen its safe. According to the report in the Northwich Guardian, ‘A spokesman for Northwich neighbourhood policing team said: “A wheelbarrow was found nearby, which we believe had been used to transport the safe to a vehicle. Due to the weight of the safe, we believe more than one person was involved.”' Very astute police here in Cheshire, wouldn’t you say? Now, if only the owners would respect and restore their lovely pub sign.

** Update February 2015
The Slow and Easy is under new management and I'm very pleased to report that one of the first things the new managers did was instal a new sign. And they're stayed true to the history of the pub with its depiction of a racehorse. Great to see the old tradition being maintained!

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