The history of the inn goes back many centuries, all of us being familiar with Mary and Joseph’s plight in the Nativity story. Bishop’s Stortford’s George Hotel in North Street doesn’t date back quite that far but it is the town’s oldest inn – first mentioned in 1417 but more likely to have been built at the end of the 14th century.
It was around this time that beer was established as the national drink of England, and inns served primarily as places of refreshment for travellers and as ‘community centres’ for local people. Their biggest rivals were the monasteries, in some cases the forerunner of the modern hotel, and depending on who you were, payment wasn’t always required for their hospitality – a privilege regularly abused by kings and dignitaries.
A great deal of Bishop’s Stortford’s history is woven around its inns and public houses that over the years have been many and various. By the middle of the 16th century their large number demonstrated the town’s wealth and popularity, brought about by trade drawn from the surrounding area to its market and the malting industry, and between the 17th and 19th centuries its popularity was further increased when it became a half-way house for travellers journeying between London and the towns and cities of East Anglia.
But despite patronage by travellers the majority of drinking houses were used by the working classes, primarily because alcohol was a substitute for water and milk, neither of which was particularly safe to drink. More importantly it was the intoxicating effects of ale and spirits that tempered the effects of poverty that prevailed at the time. Queen Elizabeth I never experienced personal poverty but she did drink beer with her breakfast!
We now refer to most drinking houses simply as pubs, but they were formerly known by different names for specific reasons: an alehouse (later, beerhouse) offered only beer; taverns only wine and occasionally food and lodging; inns provided drink, food and lodging. They were, though, first and foremost recreational and social centres, and with no proper licencing laws many that opened were just extensions of a person’s house.
Most names and inn signs are significant in recording patrons, sports, kings, religion, events and pastimes, and in Bishop’s Stortford the Curriers Arms, formerly of Market Square, and the Tanners Arms, still in London Road, refer to trades that were once connected with them (See Guide 6 – Leather Industry). The fact that the county of Hertfordshire has never been famous for playing cricket is reflected in the lack of pubs with cricket related signs, although there was a Cricketers Arms in Newtown Road during the 1800s (See Guide 14 – Newtown Road). Interestingly, the Bridge House at the corner of Newtown Road and South Street is the only pub in the town not to display a sign, and the Tanners Arms is the only one to display a Trade coat of arms.
Pubs also became centres for commercial business dealings but some of the larger inns were used for far more important reasons. For 300 years the George Inn was court to the Manor of Piggots, and in the 16th century, after Waytemore Castle was demolished, the Crown Inn at Hockerill was used to hold the Castle Court. Inns were also used for the collection of tithes, trust and charity meetings, coroners’ inquests, rent audits and as post houses – the landlord acting as postmaster.
Since the 15th century, almost one hundred drinking houses have been recorded in Bishop’s Stortford, several from the 17th century still trading. In the town centre it is still possible to drink in the same alehouse that Samuel Pepys visited in 1668, and dine at the same inn where Charles I ‘dyned’ in 1629 and 1630. But perhaps the most famous inn of all was the Crown at Hockerill (demolished 1898), its patrons including royalty and many well-known names from past history.
In 1841 Bishop’s Stortford had a population of 4,681 and boasted more than fifty inns, alehouses and beer shops. The town’s need to cater for the barge, coach and rail traffic that spanned the 19th century led to many indigenous brewers, whose businesses grew from this trade and the local production of malt. When Hawkes Brewery – established in 1780 – was taken over by Benskins in 1898, they inherited 157 public houses in the local area.
The greatest threat to the livelihood of public houses in the 19th and early 20th century came from the Temperance Movement (See Guide 15). Not only did members sign a pledge never to drink alcohol, they also advocated tee-totalism and tried to persuade others not to supply it. This may have been effective in some areas, but in the malting and brewing town of Bishop’s Stortford it caused a lot of friction between brewery employees and Temperance members. The Movement did gain some support here, including one or two notable residents, but it was never destined to *succeed.
Most of Stortford’s drinking houses disappeared for economic reasons and some were closed down for being rowdy and disorderly. Many more were lost during town redevelopment in the early 1970s. Having said that, the building of new housing estates outside of the town centre has led to three additional pubs: the Cellarman (now renamed the Archers) built in 1954 on the Havers estate, the Marne Inn at Thorley built in 1984, and the Harvest Moon, originally the Manor of Piggotts, was converted into a pub in 1985.
In more recent times changes to the laws affecting public houses, as well as differing social habits have done little to help the smaller and less popular pubs remain in business. In October 2001 the Rising Sun in Rye Street served its last pint after trading for 150 years, and in December 2003 the 19th century built Robin Hood closed to become an Indian restaurant (Guide 5). Other pubs to cease trading include the Falcon at the corner of Station Road and Dane Street (December 2005), the Red White and Blue at Hazel End (late 2006), the Old Bulls Head in London Road (early 2007), the Waggon and Horses, Stansted Road (August 2007) and, most surprisingly, the George Hotel in January 2010. That same year the Nags Head at Dunmow Road closed but was later relaunched by pub chain McMullen, and in North Street the Half Moon shut when owner Passionate Pub Company folded. Thankfully, this pub was reprieved the same day when Oak Taverns stepped in and bought it. 2011 saw no losses but early in January 2012 came closure of the Red Cow at Dunmow Road, followed at the end of the month by the 1954 built Archers in Havers Lane. In November the same year, the 150 year-old Tanners Arms also closed its doors for good. Despite these losses, Bishop’s Stortford and Thorley are still served by 15 pubs.
*On the following page is an interesting and now rather amusing poem, written in 1843, that was probably penned to celebrate the opening of a Temperance meeting place in the town.