Travel in the 18th century was a risky business. This story shows how travellers were willing to take the law into their owns hands where necessary to make sure that highway robbers did not get away with it. This story is told about an enterprising clergyman who did not hesitate to exact justice on the highwayman he chased.
From the London Caledonian Mercury, 2nd July 1766
Letter from a Gentleman at Coventry, June 25th
“The account of the officer being robbed on the Towcester road was as follows. I happened to pass soon after and saw the dead body:
“On the Thursday the officer was riding alone between Towcester and Stony Stratford; the highwayman attacked him and robbed him of seventeen guineas; the Captain immediately galloped away to Stratford, hired a couple of post horses, and a boy to accompany him and went in pursuit of the highwayman; he overtook a clergyman on the road who agreed very readily agreed to accompany him; they soon overtook the fellow, when the clergyman called out several times to him to surrender, which he swore he would not do, and was getting out one of his pistols to fire at him, when the post boy, who rode almost even with him, desired the parson to fire, otherwise, he said, the fellow would shoot one of them; accordingly he did so, and shot him in the back; he rode a few yards, and then fell off his horse dead. He swore, when he set off in pursuit of him, that he would have him dead or alive.
Brewing beer is an ancient and simple craft that doesn’t require sophisticated equipment and can be a cottage industry. In fact it was not until the 18th century, when larger breweries started up in London, that brewing began on an industrial scale. Inns and alehouses typically brewed their own beer and this practice was still common in Stony Stratford in the early part of the 19th century. As you might imagine quality control could be erratic. The specialist part of beer making, producing the malt, was made by maltsters who had the facilities for roasting the germinating barley. There were two maltsters in Stony Stratford.
When New Wolverton came into existence in 1838 there were new opportunities for those wishing to serve the drinking public. First into the field were Joseph Clare, owner of the Cock, and John Congreve, a Stony Stratford solicitor, who quickly formed a partnership to build the Radcliffe Arms adjacent to the site of the first station. In their enthusiasm to make a quick fortune they built too hastily, because the station was moved to the south in 1840 and the newly built Radcliffe Arms was isolated. (The full story can be read here.) They then prevailed on the Radcliffe Trustees to lease another acre outside Wolverton and they built the Royal Engineer in 1841.
One peculiarity that Wolverton suffered from the beginning is that the Radcliffe Trust made it a condition of sale that no licensed premises were allowed on railway property. I suspect the early intervention of Messrs Congreve and Clare behind the insertion of this covenant. Whether or not this is true or that there was some purer motive behind this clause, the fact renaming that both the Radcliffe Arms and the Royal Engineer were built outside Wolverton as it then was.
This was not a very good environment for brewing, or was it?
Let me briefly explain the Brewing Act of 1830. This was designed to encourage the drinking of beer rather than more harmful beverages like gin and also to break the monopoly that local magistrates had over licensing. The new act allowed anyone to brew beer and sell it on the premises on payment of a fee of 2 guineas (just over £2). By 1840 some 45,000 people had taken advantage of the opportunity. Most of these places were known as beer shops.
Wolverton was a special case. With a population quickly equalling that of Stony Stratford there was clearly a market, but there was the issue of the covenant. Congreve and Clare had established a monopoly in public houses but this did not apparently stop the creation of beer shops, and therefore small breweries.
Thomas Carter, who had a small brewery in Stony Stratford on the High Street, moved to Wolverton in the early 1840s. It is not known where he set up shop, but since 8 properties were built at the north end of Bury Street expressly for shops it is likely that it was one of these. It was a retail as well as manufacturing operation and those who can remember the old off-licences, where people could take a jug along and have it filled with beer will understand the set up. Thomas Carter, who was about 50 at the time, may, with some fairness be claimed as Wolverton’s first brewer.
Also in the same period Benjamin Blakey had a beer shop in Wolverton. Neither man was there in 1851 so it would seem that their enterprise was short lived.
One who did prevail was a man called George Spinks. He was an early arrival in Wolverton and established his Locomotive Eating House at the very north end of Bury street beside the canal. He did not immediately establish a beer shop and the temperance-minded Hugh Stowell Brown wrote approvingly of him in his later memoirs. Spinks at any rate did establish a beer shop in the late 1840s and judging by the letters written by Congreve and Clare to the Radcliffe Trustees he must have been serious competition to the licensed pub owners. Beer shop owners did sneak in under the radar. The licence was granted by central government and magistrates had no power over them. The railway company did not care to get involved and Spinks and others were probably free to sell unimpeded. The only recourse that Congreve and Clare had was to get the Trust to put pressure on the railway board. Eventually they did, and there are some letters written in the 1850s to ask the railway company to investigate.
Nothing immediately came of this and one gets the impression that the railway board were reluctant to get involved and to work on the assumption that on a technicality at least they were not breaking the covenant. Had they wished to so anything about it they had a simple remedy as landlords of the property that Spinks was renting, but plainly they chose to do nothing about it.
The matter was only resolved in about 1856 when three northern streets of houses and that part of Bury Street where Spinks had his shop were demolished to create space for more workshops. George Spinks then moved his family and his business to Lancashire.
By this time local brewing operations were no longer necessary. There were two breweries in Stony Stratford, one in Newport Pagnell and Phipps and NBC in Northampton had been established. In time many small breweries were absorbed and the idea of pubs brewing their own beer was out of date. However, for a brief period, Wolverton did have a brewery of sorts.
On Thursday 5th December 1822 William Cooke got into the coach at Stony Stratford to continue his journey south. He didn’t get ut by himself. By the time they arrived at Dunstable he was found dead. At the coroner’s inquest a few days later it was learned that he looked very ill when he got into the coach at Stony Stratford and needed assistance to climb in. The surgeon who gave evidence was of the opinion that he had been ill for some time. the verdict was that he died of natural causes. William Cooke was described as a poor man and apparently at death had only one shilling in his pocket and a few papers. No information was given of his origin or family.
In 1915 the Newport Pagnell Brewery was still a going concern and on February 1st of that year two men, Job Griffin and Henry Stanton, set out with their dray loaded with barrels for delivery to Bradwell, Wolverton and Stony Stratford. Their vehicle, interestingly, was steam operated.
On the way back to the depot at 1:30 pm., presumably having completed deliveries to Stony Stratford, the vehicle skidded on the rise going up from Creed Street to the bridge going over the former railway line, now McConnell Drive. The report described the road surface as “greasy” but it does not say what was on the road to cause the skid. As the vehicle was not loaded down with heavy barrels the back wheels went out of control and the lorry crashed into the corrugated iron railings on one side of the bridge.
The vehicle crashed down some 20 feet onto the railway line pinning the men beneath the wreckage. When the crane arrived to lift the wreck they found Henry Stanton already dead and Job Griffin with serious injuries. he was taken to Northampton Hospital where sadly he died four days later.
An inquest was held into the accident later at the North Western Hotel. Griffin had a reputation as a careful and experienced driver and no fault was found.
After the Battle of Worcester during the English Civil War, the defeated Prince Charles escaped the scene with the Roundheads on his tail. He managed to reach Bishops Wood in Staffordshire, where he found an oak tree, known locally as the Boscobel Oak. He climbed the tree and hid in it for a day while his obviously short-sighted pursuers strolled around under the tree looking for him. The hunters apparently did not look up and gave up. Prince Charles later climbed down and escaped to France. Nine years later was became Charles II on the Restoration of the Monarchy. To celebrate this good fortune, his birthday 29 May was declared Royal Oak Day. After that innkeepers who were caught with patriotic enthusiasm put up inn signs for The Royal Oak.
With this in mind we should not look for any of the Stony Stratford Royal Oaks until after 1660. The first Royal Oak of record appears in the 1753 licensing records for one year only. The licensee was Diana Williamson. This is a fragmentary record since the recording of licences in Buckinghamshire began only in that year, but from this we may reasonably assume that the inn had some prior history. We might guess that Diana Williamson was a widow who had taken over from her deceased husband and operated the inn for a few years until either she found it too much for her or died in harness, as it were. The inn or alehouse may have gone out of business in 1754 or may have changed its name under a new innkeeper.
After that, no Royal Oak makes an appearance until 1776, and then to confound us all, a second Royal Oak emerges in 1780. One of them, the Royal Oak on Horesfair Green we know about because it had a life until the 20th century; the second, also in the Calverton Parish remains a mystery. Sir Frank Markham believed that the house was further north on Silver Street, or Cow fair as it was known at one time.
Let me mention here that the old parish boundary followed a line from the Watling street down the middle of Horsefair, tuning north along Silver Street to Horn Lane and the down Horn Lane to the river. Everything to the south and west of this line was within the parish of Calverton.
Both Royal Oaks appear in Calverton’s licensing records. In 1753 there were three licenses held in Calverton – Francis Cave, who had no inn sign and only lasted a few years, Comfort Roberts, who was at the sign of the Cheshire Cheese until 1756. And Edward Samson (sometimes written as Sampson, Simpson, Sympson) who was at the sign of the Swan until 1767. For a decade he was the only license holder in Calverton and the he was joined by Henry Nokes, a new licensee in 1765. Nokes was only in the picture for three years and since no inn sign was recorded it is impossible to deduce anything from these entries.
Once again, we cannot know where the Swan was located, but since the village itself, at least in Lower Weald could probably support an alehouse, it is probably fair to say that the Swan was located there, possibly on the site of the future Shoulder of Mutton.
By 1768 Calverton is back to a single licensee, Sands (Alexander?) Johnson, who emerges a few years later when the recorder returns to noting the name of the inn, as the proprietor of the Green Dragon. In 1776 Mary Ganthorne is the licensee of the Green Dragon and the Royal Oak makes its appearance in that year with John Jeffs as the landlord.
This now looks straightforward. The Green Dragon continues until 1778 and in 1779 a new landlord William Maydon makes his entrance as the landlord of the Shoulder of Mutton. John Jeffs is still at the Royal Oak. Therefore we are not pushing the evidence too hard to conclude that the Green Dragon, previously The Swan, became the Shoulder of Mutton in 1779. It bears this name today. If this is so then Calverton’s second inn would most probably be found at the Calverton End of Stony Stratford. Horsefair and Cow Fair were lightly populated at the time but if, as may be likely, the Calverton parish had more benign regulations for alehouses, there would certainly be an advantage to setting up on the border of St. Giles parish.
It would therefore be easy to identify the Royal Oak opened by John Jeffs in 1776 as the pub which was still there in the 20th century but for an anomaly which crops up only a few year later in 1780 when George Lineham established another Royal Oak in Calverton. John Jeffs’ Royal Oak is now described as the “Old Royal Oak”. Quite why the new house would want to take the name of an existing house is something I will try to address a little later.
To make matters more confusing the licensee register of 1781 records Jeffs at the “New” Royal Oak and Lineham at the “Old” Royal Oak. However, for the next few years no such distinction is drawn between the two and they are both simply Royal Oak. In 1786 Jeffs disappears for a year but is back in 1787 as the New Royal Oak, leaving Lineham with the claim to the old. Those distinctions continued for the remainder of their joint history.
In 1798 Thomas Palmer replaced George Lineham at the Old Royal Oak and John Jeffs continued at the New Royal Oak. In the 19th century new landlords come and go but the designations which were established in 1787 were fixed by the tradition established in 1781.
The last mention of two Royal Oaks is in the 1830 Pigot Trade Directory: The New Royal Oak, Thos Powell; The Old Royal Oak Jas. Ridgeway.
One of them had closed by 1841 when Bartholemew Higgins is listed in the census as an innkeeper. He is also in the 1844 Pigot as the landlord of The Old Royal Oak. Thereafter there is only one Royal Oak.
To sum up this confusing story, the first, and at one time the only, Royal Oak in the Calverton Place area, was opened by John Jeffs in 1776. In 1780 a second Royal Oak appeared, nearby. After a few years jockeying for precedence the John Jeffs’ Royal Oak became the New Royal Oak and George Lineham’s Royal Oak became the Old Royal Oak. These designations continued to the 19th century until one of them closed in the 1830s. Which one closed is impossible to say. The survivor was briefly styled the Old Royal Oak and then settled into becoming the Royal Oak. This one we know about and its location, but there is insufficient evidence to say whether or not it was the one founded by Jeffs or Lineham.
As to why this unusual duplication came about we can only speculate. Possibly there was some rivalry between Jeffs and Lineham, perhaps even a vendetta. Lineham’s choice of the same name for his neighbouring house must have been deliberate and perhaps was intended to spite Jeffs. Jeffs was certainly the first licensee to use the name but Lineham must have felt some entitlement. He may have been a descendant of the Williamson family of the previous generation and believed that this family had first claim on the name which John Jeffs had usurped, and the evidence that we do have does suggest that they agreed that Lineham could use the “old” designation. After years passed and landlords changed this no longer mattered but the names stuck and no one made any effort to change them.
The surviving Royal Oak building has undergone much change and renovation. The original thatched roof has been replaced and bay windows were added at the front. There is evidence from the wall at the back that the original was timber framed with brick infill. There are some outbuildings, one of which was probably used as a brewhouse. This building is now a private residence. The adjoining cottage to the north is also a private residence but at the back is a rubble stone and brick building which was once a brewhouse. The British Listed Buildings Register describes both buildings as dating from early to mid 18th century. If this is accurate then both pre-date the opening of the Royal Oaks.
There may be some piece of evidence out there which will tell us where the second Royal Oak was actually located but for the moment we are left with the intriguing possibility that the two rival houses were next door to each other. The cottage at 34 Silver Street is not very big, but in an age where people required less private space it could have functioned as an alehouse. There are some hints in the existing deeds to the property at No. 34 that the Royal Oak had an interest in the property so it is possible that Bartholemew Higgins settle the matter of two Royal Oaks by purchasing both houses in the 1830s.
From 1841 the story of the surviving Royal Oak is straightforward. There were several changes of landlord but within the family. Bartholemew Higgins, as noted above, was the landlord in 1841 and his successor was probably a nephew, Charles Higgins, aged 25 in 1851 and the son of a Stoke Goldington farmer, who went on to become a farmer himself in Tattenhoe a few years later. John Bliss, who was most likely a relative of Charles Higgins’ wife, Caroline, succeeded and was followed by Francis H. Bliss.
We may get some idea of the extent of the brewing activity here when the landlord Henry Willison in 1877 styles himself as a publican and brewer. Presumably he was brewing on a small scale for some of the beer shops in Stony Stratford and district.
In 1883 Mrs Emily Smith was the landlord and she was succeeded by George Banton who held it until1895, when Thomas Gee entered possession. The Gee family were there until 1911 when Frederick Washbrook took over. Harry Gable was the landlord in the 1920s until Joseph Jelley, former manager of the Co-op, purchased the property in 1928 as a retirement project. One of his sons, Percy, carried on until the 4th August 1961 when the license was allowed to lapse, thus concluding its almost 200 year history as a licensed public house.