Helstonia – The Blue Anchor: Demythologizing My Local
The Blue Anchor Inn is old. Everyone agrees that the house with the half-thatched roof at Helston’s No. 50 Coinagehall Street is old. The question for the historical enquirer is how old? And, further, for how long has it been a public house?
As is often the case with venerable establishments such as the Blue Anchor – especially those with a renown and cachet that has travelled far beyond its own immediate locale – the house has accumulated a volume of tales, tall, short and middling. For most of these there is, under the thick ivy, lichen, and green mould of myth and legend, a kernel of truth.
One such story that has no basis in fact concerns the name of the inn. The idea that the sign of the Blue Anchor has a nautical origin is, at best, muddled. It is perhaps natural that the name would be thought appropriate for hostelries located near – or nearish – to water but the name derives originally from Christian symbology. The anchor is the Christian symbol for hope and its emblematic colour is blue. Another common inn sign, the Hope & Anchor, is, in fact a tautology translating as the Hope & Hope. One notion about the name is that an anchor left for a long time in mud will turn blue-green with verdigris. That this could have any relevance to Helston’s Blue Anchor is an absurdity beyond folklore, somewhat akin to the notion that Helston in olden days was a seaport. Although it has excited some fancies to the extent that there is at least one painting depicting substantial sailing ships at anchor in a harbour below an imagined Helston Castle, there is no documented evidence that I know of to support this chimera. The dates of the castle (mid-13th to late 14th century) and the recorded early 14th century existence of the Loe Bar tend to make the idea of Helston being a port in any recognizable, modern sense of the term preposterous. H. Spencer Toy, in his exhaustive (and exhausting!) History of Helston, cites documents stating that Loe Pool – and thus the Cober – were inaccessible from the sea by 1302. He suggests the possibility that there was at one time a hamlet on the northern shore of what is now Loe Pool, approximately below the site of the gatehouse-lodge located near the Porthleven bend of Penrose Walks that, before the formation of the Bar, may have been an anchorage for occasional coastal and other trading vessels. Also contributing to the port of Helston theory was the discovery during excavations some years ago in the St. Johns area of what appeared to be slipways and mooring rings. These, it appears to me, again indicate occasional anchorage sites.
Perhaps the most telling argument against there having ever been an organized and publicly administered Port of Helston after the Middle Ages is the total lack of customs records or other documentation of port traffic. The idea that officialdom, especially after the Norman Conquest, would have permitted a port of entry without the exaction of customs duties doesn’t really, as it were, hold water. And, of course, there are such records for Gweek. Some of these date back to the 12th century when Helston had jurisdiction over shipping for both Helston and Gweek. The records refer to ships coming and going from Gweek but no such shipping movements are mentioned for Helston, thus confirming the fact that Gweek has for centuries been the recognized port of Helston.
Supporting a Christian basis for the name Blue Anchor is the tradition that the house was originally a Monks’ Rest catering for, among others, pilgrims en route to and from St. Michael’s Mount at Marizion. This theory seems entirely plausible. There certainly would have been such an establishment in the town and it is not unlikely that it would have been close by the free Chapel of Our Lady, a place of worship built about 1283 and independent of both the see of Exeter and Wendron parish that then included Helston. The chapel gave what is now Coinagehall Street its original name of Lady Street. It is probable that the house was connected to the Priory and hospital that gave the lower St. John’s area of the town its name. These establishments all ceased to exist following Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s.
It is the history of the building housing the putative Monks’ Rest after the dissolution that throws up questions to which it is difficult to give verifiable answers. The common wisdom has been that the establishment evolved, more or less without appreciable hiatus, into an alehouse. And, moreover, that ale having been brewed on the premises – as it certainly would have been by the monks – it continued to be produced in-house right up to the present day. There is a lack of documented evidence that makes both the age of the alehouse and the continuity of brewing therein problematic.
There are two 18th century documents that appertain to “Inns, Alehouses, Brandy Shop(pe)s” and other places of public refreshment in Helston. One, dating from no later than 1730 and published as an appendix to the late H.L. Douch’s study Old Cornish Inns lists all such establishments. No Blue Anchor is listed (although there are eight un-named alehouses) and no inn or publican of any other name appears to correspond to the building that has traditionally housed the present inn. Further, the Cornwall Record Office holds copies of all the Helston Borough licensing recognizances from 1775 through 1783. The Blue Anchor does not feature in these lists until 1778 when John Dennis is named as landlord. Thus we have a gap of well over 200 years in the verifiable history of the inn. Two very tenuous possible connections between the Monk’s Rest period and the documented 18th century appearance occur in a survey of “Taverns, Alehouses & Innes in the Hundred of Kerryer” dating from circa 1577. Helston(e) is recorded as having 2 Taverns, 4 Alehouses and 0 Innes. Those named as alehouse keepers are John James, William Cock, Mychell Tremenhire and Thomas Pears. It is thought that the Tremenhire (or Tremenheere) family held property in the immediate vicinity of the Blue Anchor. Further, a James James was listed as landlord of the Blue Anchor from 1782. Mr. James was murdered in 1791 by William Willoughby and John Taylor, two soldiers of a Yorkshire regiment billeted in the town. When James refused the pair drink after hours one struck him in the head with a bayonet. The two are named at the top of a framed list displayed in the front bar of the inn, of “Victims of the Scaffold 1790-1862” executed in Cornwall, although the date given for the execution of the assailants is out by a year. Missing from the list is another man capitally convicted at the same time as James James’ murderers. He was a smuggler named William Moyle whose crime was the killing of a mare belonging to Daniel Bartlett, an excise officer who had seized contraband goods from Moyle. Another James James – possibly the son of the murdered publican – is named as landlord in the British Universal Directory of circa 1793-’94. The name occurs again as landlord in Pigot’s Directory of 1830, and in April 1829 the West Briton printed the announcement of the birth of a daughter to Mrs. James of the Blue Anchor. Between these various[?] Jameses one Hannibal Thomas is listed as landlord in Pigot’s Directory of 1823-’24.
As to in-house brewing at the Blue Anchor, it is certainly probable that in the early years of its post-1778 existence the inn brewed its own beer. This was a period before the increasingly wide-spread development of what were known as “common” breweries supplying a number of different houses, some of which they would eventually come to own or lease. The rise of common breweries was a phenomenon particularly of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An example of such an enterprise in Helston was the Ellis & Co. Brewery, founded in 1803 and located in Church Street. I initially found it curious to note that advertisements in the West Briton dating from 1840 and 1843 offering the lease of the Blue Anchor referred interested parties to the Ellis & Co. Brewery. Why, one wonders, would the brewery be apparently acting as agents for the inn if they were not also involved in the supply side of the business? I discussed this matter with Mr. Tim Sears, the Blue Anchor’s head brewer and author of a pamphlet outlining the inn’s history. We jointly agreed that a plausible explanation might be that as Ellis & Co. were also maltsters they could thus very well have supplied the inn with the raw materials required to brew on the premises. I have recently been informed by Charlotte MacKenzie, author of a history of the Ellis & Co. Helston Brewery, that Ellis & Co. themselves held the lease of the Blue Anchor for a period during the mid-19th century.
In any case, in-house brewing was certainly in operation by the turn of the 20th century. An advertisement in a trade directory of 1906 specifically invites potential customers to sample the inn’s home-brewed beer. The same advertisement also calls attention to a then-recently uncovered angel fresco ceiling, dating apparently from the 16th century and similar in style to frescos still extant in Breage Church. By the 1960s this ceiling had deteriorated to such an extent that it was thought to be hazardous and had to be pulled down. A photo of it is displayed near the front of the bar.
Another death that took place in the Blue Anchor is commemorated by a small wooden plaque in the skittle alley. As with the “Victims of the Scaffold” print the plaque notes an actual occurrence but gets the date and details wrong. The plaque states that Thomas Risden hanged himself in the skittle alley after having an argument with his wife, and gives the date as 1881. The sad event, in fact, took place in 1849. It is possible that Mr. Risden had had an argument with his wife but the Royal Cornwall Gazette report of the incident relates that Risden – a hairdresser living adjacent to the Blue Anchor in Chapel Opening – had called at the White Hart Inn, Church Street, early in the morning and told the landlord there that he would probably never see him alive again. The White Hart landlord was James Geach, who had previously been landlord of the Blue Anchor from 1838 to 1842. He had heard Risden – who had a history of depression and had twice previously attempted suicide – voice such threats in the past and did not feel inclined to take him seriously on this occasion. In the event, three hours later some children who were playing at the rear of the inn found Risden hanging from a rafter in the skittle alley.
Before leaving the subject of Blue Anchor mortality there is the case of a man named Richards (no relation as far as we know of the later Richards who were proprietors of the inn) who died at the Blue Anchor in February 1828. This unfortunate young man – aged 29 – was going to the stables at the rear of the inn to fetch his horse when he fell into a well that had been “incautiously left without a cover”. He was quickly brought up but had apparently fractured his skull on a side-wall of the well and attempts to revive him were futile. He left a wife and four children “in a desperate situation” although a subscription for them raised £10.
Some mystery surrounds successive ownership of The Blue Anchor freehold. There is a tale concerning a Thomas Richards’ fancied acquisition of the inn. It is said that Mr. Richards, having accumulated a substantial competence through gold mining in California, visited the inn one day in the mid-1860s and found it empty. Upon asking where everyone was, he was told that an auction for the purpose of selling the inn was taking place in an upstairs room, whereupon Mr. Richards joined the company and bought the inn. There are a number of holes in this story. Firstly, the succession of various landlords through the mid-19th century suggests that each was a lease- rather than a freeholder. This is supported by the 1838 Tithe Map of Helston which names Margaret Ustice [sic] as owner and James Geach as occupier of the Blue Anchor. Various records attest that the James and Eustice families were inter-related by marriage and it appears plausible that Margaret Eustice came into the property through those family connections. Margaret Eustice died intestate in 1846, after which freehold ownership of the inn becomes unclear. The previously mentioned James Geach was followed as occupier by John Perry, listed circa 1844; Caroline Prisk – member of a family connected with several other Helston inns – 1847; Edmund Judd, listed 1848-‘53; Richard Penglase, listed in 1855-’62 followed by his widow, Grace Penglase whom the 1871 Census identifies as licensed victualler of the Blue Anchor. The same census records that James Richards, aged 44, a gold miner, was a boarder at the inn. It is highly unlikely that these successive licensees were freeholders, selling the inn every few years. Although the presence of James Richards, the gold miner, is suggestive, the newspaper advertisements offering the Blue Anchor lease for sale also argues that these various landlords and landladies were, in fact, leaseholders. To further complicate matters the Royal Cornwall Gazette of 29th June 1855 reports the death of a John Richards of the Blue Anchor. However the freehold or leasehold of the inn was conveyed in the third quarter of the 19th century or later, it can be stated with certainty that another John Richards was the landlord of the inn by early 1872. In February of that year he was summonsed for allowing the sale of liquor on a Sunday and was thus held responsible for the drunkenness and fighting that ensued. In pronouncing their verdict the magistrates noted that Mr. Richards was new to the licensed trade and that the house had been often complained against. [This episode is more fully detailed in the previous chapter, Two Lawmen…, featuring the redoubtable P.C. John Wedlock.]
Further on the subject of miners, there is the notion that during the 19th century miners were paid their wages in the Blue Anchor. Although there is a semi-plausible basis for this idea it, rather like the harbour delusion, is apt to give a distorted picture. Workers in Cornwall’s mines tended to be of two types. There were permanent or semi-permanent employees such as carpenters and others who worked in the main “on the grass”. These would have been paid on site by the mine purser. Those who actually extracted the ore were generally tributers who, in groups of varying size, made bids to the mine owners for the right to work a given yardage of the mine in return for a percentage of the profits. These tributers were paid by the mine purser usually in the form a single large denomination banknote. Some public houses offered the facility of changing the large notes into more easily divisible amounts of cash on the understanding – or sometimes stipulation – that a portion of the money would be spent on the premises. It is very possible that the Blue Anchor – a known resort of miners – would have been one of the houses offering this service.
While not providing definitive confirmation there is in the Land Registry entry for the Blue Anchor mention of a conveyance dating from 1933 that has led me to believe that the freehold of the inn was at some time one of the numerous holdings belonging to the Penrose Estate. It should be said at this point that any historian seeking to clarify the freeholder/leaseholder succession is handicapped by the unavailability of any deeds, leases or other such documents relevant to the inn. Such documents, either those held by agents of surviving members of the Richards family, or others previously stored in the archives of the former Helston legal firm of Reginald Rogers & Co., are, for various reasons, inaccessible. When the Rogers legal practice was wound up in 1994 – in act of what can only be described as cultural vandalism – the entire archive of documents appertaining to the Penrose Estate was put up for auction. I have been informed that when last heard of the archive was in the hands of a private buyer and more or less mouldering away in a barn near Goldsithney.
Whether as lease- or freeholders proprietorship of the Blue Anchor remained in the Richards family for the next three generations. John Richards had been succeeded by the late 1870s by his son, Thomas Richards. Upon his death in 1896 the license passed to his widow, Lavinia Jane Richards. She died in 1935 and both she and her husband are buried in Breage churchyard. By 1926 active management of the inn had passed to Thomas and Lavina’s son, Joseph. I suspect that it was he who finally acquired the freehold of the Blue Anchor from the Penrose Estate, sometime around 1933.
I first visited the Blue Anchor in the mid-late 1960s during my initial excursion into the West Country and Cornwall. I remember very little about the visit beyond the fact that the beer was absolutely foul. Between that time and 2000, when my wife and I took up residence in Helston I suppose I revisited the pub three or four times noting progressive improvements in the quality of the beer on offer. I will not attempt to detail the history of the inn during the latter half of the 20th century. The various proprietorships from later members of the Richards family through others, culminating with the regime of Mr. Sid Cannon prior to the arrival of the present proprietors will be familiar to older patrons and other residents of Helston and, possibly of only passing interest to younger customers*. An account of those people and times may be found in the aforementioned history of the pub put together by Mr. Tim Sears.
*Strong Language Warning*
Among the many positive aspects of the Blue milieu are the wide-ranging nature of the conversation and the generally easy and cordial inter-mingling of the generations. The following anecdote mildly contradicts this. Not long after I first came to live in Helston I happened to be having a pint in another hostelry, the Bell in Meneage Street. It was about 5:00pm on a Saturday afternoon and four young men I took to be matelots were the only other people at the bar. There was no sport on the television and no women in the place and the chaps were getting increasingly restless and bored. Finally one of them said to his mates: “Oh, fuck it! Let’s go down the Blue Anchor and listen to the old men talk bollocks!”
*End of Warning*
I have been using the Blue Anchor as my regular local ever since moving to Helston. Apart from the consistently excellent quality of its beer(s), its congenial and homely atmosphere – and the sometimes markedly individual personalities of its management and staff – there are other qualities of the house that make it a social focal point for an appreciable number of Helstonians and numerous others coming from many different spots around the Duchy, the country and, indeed, the world; and even such exotic and far-flung places as Porthleven. To frequent the house is to realize that there is most definitely a palpable Blue Anchor community. Not everyone loves everyone else and there are recognizable sub-groups amongst the overall clientele. However, almost everyone who uses the inn regularly is on at least nodding and greeting terms with their fellow habitués. The use of the Blue Anchor by various groups including golfers, cricketers, lawn bowlers, Morris dancers and others contribute to this feeling of cohesion. The sessions of live music (no jukeboxes, taped music or karaoke here, thank you very much), the weekly quizzes, the periodic beer festivals and annual events like the summer Helstonbury Festival and the autumn Musical Extravaganza all strengthen and ensure the continuity of this pleasantly gemutlich feeling. Of course, the major credit for this on-going sense of a distinct Blue Anchor community is primarily due to the personalities and policies of the present proprietors, Kim and Simon Stone.
Oh, and mine’s a pint of middle, if you’re buying. Or even if you’re not.
NOTE: An invaluable research tool utilized for this piece and for that of other similar sketches has been the Index of Cornish Inns compiled by the late H.L. Douch and lodged at the Courtney Library of the Royal Cornwall Institution at Truro. I am also obliged to Charlotte MacKenzie for bringing my attention to the information contained in the 1838 Tithe Map for Helston, and for further information concerning the Ellis & Co. Helston Brewery.