The Inn at the Crossroad – One
An Account of the George Hotel At Crewkerne
Together with Historical Sketches of the Other Old Inns – both extant & defunct –
Of that Ancient Somerset Town
Copyright: Patrick Carroll 2012
In Memory of my mother, Anne Carroll (1905-1998),
whose final years were made more comfortable through the kindness of Crewkerne people.
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“Yet a gentleman may not keep a public house, may he?”
“Not on any account; but a public house may keep a gentleman.”
Charles Dickens – Great Expectations
THE HURRYING STREETS
THERE has been a George Inn adjacent to Crewkerne’s Market Square since at least 1541, and almost certainly somewhat longer. The George was originally housed in what is now the White Hart Inn at 4 East Street; a building dating from the mid-to-late fifteenth century, and thought to be the oldest house in the town.
Market Square, to which, an old Crewkerne saying has it, all the streets of the town come hurrying, lies at the junction of several historically important thoroughfares. Running east-west past the front of the George is the ancient main way between London, Exeter, Plymouth and the far South West to Cornwall. This – the modern A30 – was the Romans’ Silchester Road. Intersecting at Crewkerne is a confluence of north-south routes connecting the Bristol and English Channels; and including what the pioneer cartographer John Ogilby identified as the original principal road linking Wells and Dorchester. This geographical position has been a vital factor in the history and development of Crewkerne; and, just as the George stands physically at the centre of the town, so it also stands historically at the centre of Crewkerne’s social and economic life. Perhaps no other secular establishment in the town has been so continuously at the vortex of Crewkerne’s evolution over the past five centuries. Various of its owners, tenants and proprietors, and their families, have been crucially involved in the economic, social and civic history of Crewkerne. Several of these families – some of whose names survive in the town and its environs – were members of the vigorously emerging commercial/mercantile middle-class thrown up by the Industrial Revolution. These families tended – like the aristocracy from whom they eventually gained political ascendency – to protect and augment their properties through inter-marriage, and the history of the George must involve some examination of their often labyrinthine genealogy. A few of the families tended to a familiar cycle: rising from yeoman stock, with several generations gaining property and status through commercial activity, followed by another generation or two producing professional people, further followed by a scattering of later descendants, often to distant corners of the old Empire. Similarly, the George itself has often reflected the waxing and waning fortunes of the town. The present frontage of the George’s main building dates from the early-mid nineteenth century: a period of rapid industrial and commercial development that saw the town’s centre transformed into the architecturally recognizable shape of Crewkerne today. Following its long history as an important posting/coaching inn, the George saw the coming of the railways and adjusted itself accordingly. The inn’s apartments have accommodated military figures from the time of the Tudors to that of the first Gulf War. Justices have sat and passed sentence at the George. Auctions have been held in it. Excisemen and Inland Revenue Inspectors have had their offices within its confines. Over the centuries countless social, civic, political, cultural, sporting, fraternal and benevolent organizations have used the George’s facilities. Couples have married from it and honeymooned in it. Children have been born and reared in it. And people have died – peacefully and violently – in and near it.
The George’s public rooms have seen genteel ladies of title take tea from the hands of waiters formal in wing-collars. Workingmen once drank in the rough cider bar annex known as the George Tap. The George has seen periods of prosperity and respectability. And the George has been in the hands of the receivers. It has been owned by individuals, extended families, breweries, banks and the Crewkerne Fair & Market Company. It is not unlike a thousand other hostelries in the history it has had and seen. And yet it is unique in the individuals who have acted out and witnessed that history.
The first retrievable recorded mention of a George Inn at Crewkerne occurs in a rent roll of 1541 held by the East Devon Record Office. The inn features again in a document lodged with the Cornwall Record Office referring to a survey made in 1599. It is impossible to say exactly how much further back the inn may date but its subsequent history, and the description of Crewkerne in the sixteenth century as “…a thorough fare twixt London and Exeter” suggests that it may be somewhat older than its first recorded occurrence. The evidence for locating the original George in the present White Hart lies in a document dated 5th December 1674 – part of the Donne-Donisthorpe papers held by the Somerset Record Office. The parties to the indenture were Joseph Cossins and John Bonvill, and it contains reference to the house “…heretofore called or known as the George Inn but now called or known as the White Hart.” The Crewkerne-born journalist and local historian W.G. Willis Watson, writing about the town’s old inns in 1934, cites local legend as holding that the White Hart had been a coaching inn as early as 1499. This, as Willis Watson points out, is impossible as stagecoaches were an innovation of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. However, as the George was historically Crewkerne’s principal post-stage and coaching inn, the later confusion of the inn’s two incarnations in the popular mind is understandable. It is also notable that Crewkerne Grammar School was founded in 1499 by John De Combe, and that the White Hart formed part of the Grammar School Estate for at least four hundred years; being let for lives by the Grammar School trustees or feofees. In accordance with the School Charter the feofees were to be “…six of the most discreetest men of the town.” For much of the school’s life at least one member of the Cossins family was usually found to be found among the six. The coincidence of dates is suggestive and it is conceivable that the George-cum-White Hart building was the very first home of the Grammar School, but that is pure speculation. The family of John Bonvill(e), second signatory of the 1674 indenture, were owners of the Manor of Clapton and, in common with the Cossins, had been among the minority in Crewkerne who had supported the Royalist cause in the Cromwellian Civil War.
For some years there was a misapprehension that the George first came into being in 1694; indeed, this erroneous idea was included in some of the hotel’s promotional material in the 1940s and ‘50s. What does appear probable is that the main portion of the present George building (although not the Market Square frontage) was built at about that period; the move from the older White Hart and the building of a new and larger modern inn reflecting both a change in ownership, and a response to the emerging stagecoach system and general growth in land transport. That, of course, is a personal theory, but it fits the known facts.
Pre-dating as it does the accession of the Hanover dynasty to the British throne and the subsequent succession of King Georges, it has been assumed by previous enquirers – including Willis Watson – that the George is named in honour of England’s patron saint. This is certainly probable; but another possibility is that the inn was named for Edward IV’s brother, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, who was Lord of the Manor of Crewkerne for several years preceding his attainder and death in 1478. The dates are compatible, and there would be a certain poetic justice in the Duke’s having an inn named after him as he met his death through being drowned by his brother in a butt of malmsey wine.
There is much in the history of the George connecting it with several of the Crewkerne area’s ancient Manors, particularly the Manor of Easthams. Ownership of the inn’s freehold and that of the Manor of Easthams was coincident through much of the eighteenth century. Lands adjacent to the inn, including orchards (from which the present Orchard Lane derives its name) were acquired by the owner of the George in the nineteenth century from members of the Donne-Donisthorpe family, occupiers of Merefield House in East Street, and partial owners of the Manor of Hewish.
At the period of the inn’s – and Crewkerne’s – greatest comparative prosperity in the mid-nineteenth century the George, its outbuildings and surrounding grounds covered almost all of what is now the George Precinct and its adjacent car park. The Market Square frontage is thought to date from 1832; a period during which a portion of the wealth accumulated in the town during the earlier years of the Industrial Revolution was being translated into the buildings that still characterise the centre of Crewkerne today.
The principal local architect of the period was John Patch (1794-1871). Also a surveyor, builder and auctioneer, Patch was related – directly and through marriage – to several families connected with the George. A number of buildings attributed to Patch survive in the town, many similar in idiom to the George. One – now 26 Abbey Street – was built as a residence and schoolhouse for the Rev. William Allen, then Head Master of Crewkerne Grammar School. This followed the resolution of a dispute between Mr. Allen and the school feofees that, in true Jarndyce and Jarndyce fashion, remained in the Court of Chancery for over ten years. The formal meeting of the feofees that approved the building of the house, “…according to the plans and specifications of Mr. Patch”, was held at the George on 25th April 1827. Patch’s own offices were also in Abbey (then called Carter) Street, and he was responsible for the erection in 1824 of the buildings in Abbey Street which until 2004 housed the factory and offices of Bonsoir of London before being converted to residential use. I suggest that if John Patch did not design the frontage of the ‘new’ George he would certainly have wanted to know the reason why.
It cannot be said that the façade of the George is outstandingly distinguished. It offers satisfying proportions and a measure of handsome gravity, but it gives the impression of being conceived in a style that was becoming jaded by the time it was built, and of being cobbled together from the neo-classical clichés of a master builder’s pattern book rather than springing from an original architectural imagination. A study of the two buildings has led me to believe that in its details the inspiration for the George frontage lies in the early eighteenth century façade of Kincora House, 3 Church Street, of which the George is in many ways an inflated replica. John Patch was a rather conservative architect – witness the house he built for himself, c.1838, the present 46 Middle Path – and the George frontage reflects such a temperament. On the other hand, all architects and builders are at the mercy of the tastes and budgets of their clients.
The George is a Grade II Listed Building. The original District Council Listing Report, dated 1946, reads as follows: “George Inn. Early to mid-c.19th with projecting central section under open pediment on brackets. 3 storey. Ashlar banded quoins. Cornice and parapet. Hipped slate roof. 5 (upper) windows, architrave surrounds. Central first floor window has segmented pediment. Sashes, no glazing bars. Elliptical rusticated arch to central carriage entry. 2 storey ranges in yard to rear with sashes and architrave surrounds, keystones, etc.”
Until the late-1990s the frontage also included a double-fronted sign made of two sets of 30”-high letters fixed to an iron frame which formed a triangle with the face of the building. The sign – then apparently a neon or electrical one – was originally erected in the early 1930s, was removed during World War II (probably in response to the government scrap iron drive) and replaced in the later 1940s. Recent proprietors have considered removing it. Mr. Gary Gilmore, predecessor of the present owner, was informed by the Council that although the sign was certainly not an original feature of the structure, as it had been extant at the time of the building being Listed it was therefore part of the Listing and could not be removed. This was not strictly speaking true as the original Listing Report makes no mention of such a sign, and it was probably not in place at the time, although it was there on the occasion of the last Listing renewal. In the event, Mr. Gilmore had the iron work refurbished and lettering repainted. The ‘George Hotel’ letters were done in an old gold colour; a distinct improvement on the previous dirty, distempered white. In March 1997 a lorry reversed into the sign, damaging it badly. It was taken down and stored by the local engineering firm of Singletons, and the present proprietor subsequently received permission to dispense with the sign permanently. This decision was welcome as the sign could never have been said to be an aesthetic enhancement of the building’s original symmetry. Additionally, its position over a bus stop and use as a perch by local birds made it a genuine health and safety hazard. Most importantly of all, perhaps, had been the concern caused by the contribution of the sign’s iron work to the deterioration of the George’s hamstone façade. This has suffered over the years from weather and traffic pollution and has become seriously eroded and discoloured in places. The nature of hamstone renders any cleaning and restoration of the frontage both a technically and financially daunting proposition. Some preliminary survey and remedial work has taken place but ways and means remain to be found that would do to the exterior of the building the same justice as has been done over the past two decades to the hotel’s internal arrangements.
In addition to its main building, the George is made up of a number of ranges, extensions and annexes. In consequence its interior exists on several imperfectly matched levels and contains corridors and stairways that duck and dive about in a manner that would qualify the hotel as a suitable setting for the filming of a French farce. The George’s guest rooms have been extensively refurbished in recent years and render the hotel fully deserving of its Three Crown British Tourist Board rating. The hotel’s street-level public rooms include a lounge bar, bar and restaurant arranged consecutively and entered on the left as one passes through the ‘elliptical rusticated arch’ that faces Market Square. To the right of the arch is the Lamplighter Bar, built in 1993 and taking the space previously used as the hotel’s reception area. Despite some irremediable architectural inconveniences all these rooms are comfortable, welcoming and tasteful. The comparatively recent nature of the George’s public rooms means that, while commodious, they are yet in the process of developing for themselves a character of any greatly marked individuality. This is a phenomenon in keeping with the exterior of the main building; and with a theme perceptible throughout the history of the George, which seems down the decades to have been an establishment seeking to accommodate its guests, customers and other users in an hospitable, efficient and businesslike manner, while not devoting undue time and effort in pursuit of becoming a museum of itself. In this it is reflective of Crewkerne, which has traditionally been a wholesomely workaday place, in the main uninterested in picturesqueness for its own sake.
The one truly distinctive interior feature of the George is its first floor ballroom, which is among the most attractive public apartments in the vicinity. It is a spacious 60’ x 20’ room with a high, elegantly coved ceiling featuring four chandeliers and two ornately plastered and painted roses. There is also a musicians’ gallery above a small bar, and three tall, handsomely proportioned twelve-light sash windows opposite corresponding recesses let into the long interior wall. It has been recorded that throughout much of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries monthly Assembly Balls were held in the George during the winter Season. Over the decades and up to the present day this room has witnessed numberless functions of every conceivable kind, some of which will be alluded to in what follows. An early example would be this notice which appeared inThe Sherborne Advertiser:
“Crewkerne, Feb. 18th 1769
On Wednesday, the first of March next will be
A BALL at the GEORGE INN
to begin precisely at six o’Clock, and break up at eleven.
A proper person will be appointed to conduct the same
Tickets to be had at the Bar of the said George Inn at
2s 6d each. without which no persons will be admitted.”
One evening during my time in Crewkerne I went upstairs to that first floor ballroom in order to listen to a set by the singer Vikki Clayton who has worked over the years with a number folk and folk-rock bands and musicians, perhaps most notably Fairport Convention whom I had known and admired and also had a personal connection with through an old friend who had been at one time involved their management. As I came in and was looking for a seat I thought I heard Ms Clayton ask if there were any radio writers in the audience. Thinking of my work for BBC Radio 4 Drama Department I raised my hand. It soon became clear that what the singer had actually asked was if there were any rodeo riders in the audience, the question being part of her introduction to the plaintive song “Someday Soon”, written by Ian Tyson, half of the Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia who were hugely popular during the folk boom of the 1960s. Put me in my place.
End Chapter One
To follow: Chapter Two – The Postmaster of Crookhorn