The Inn at the Crossroad – Eight – In Living Memory
In looking back and revising the eighth chapter of this study I’ve been given pause as to retaining the title “In Living Memory”. My reason for this – not surprisingly after a hiatus of nearly 20 years – is that at least three of my previous informants have since gone under the wire. However, I have reflected that those individuals are still living in the memories of many Crewkerne people.
There is a spot high in the roof-space of the George from which it is possible to look down and view the timber superstructure that supports the coving of the hotel’s first-floor ballroom ceiling. As well as being an impressive example of large-scale seventeenth century joinery, the spectacle also gives one the feeling of somehow looking into the workings of the building with, as it were, the lid lifted.
Inns, taverns, public houses, hotels – places, in short, of public entertainment generally – are in many ways much of a muchness. They may vary enormously in social and/or architectural character, and in spirit and atmosphere, but the things that people do in them don’t, in essence, vary all that widely. In a sense individual houses differ to about the same extent as do individual drinkers. Almost every drunk is convinced that he or she is unique; to the world at large one drunk is more or less like any other.
What follows is a short random collection of personal memories, impressions, anecdotes and observations, some taken from a few individuals who have known, patronized or worked in the George over the years. Similar tales could be told by and about other people in connection with countless other hostelries; these just happen to be particular individuals talking about a particular inn.
In 1998 Jim Tett wore his 90-plus years as lightly as he did his venerable trilby hat. Mr. Tett was not Crewkerne-born, having first seen the light of day in Maidstone Street, Bristol 1906. However, his father was born in Crewkerne’s Gould’s (now Court) Barton in 1882, and he and his wife brought their family back to the town when Jim was seven years-old. Mr. Tett’s earliest recollection of the George was of the omnibus – still horse-drawn at that period – which the hotel operated between the town and the railway station. A preponderance of the George’s clientele at the time were commercial travellers, and the ‘bus had an overhead rack on which baskets holding the commercial gentlemens’ wares were secured. The vehicle had a rear platform with a ladder leading to this rack and on which local children would snag rides. On one occasion the driver snapped his whip back and inadvertently fetched the young Jim Tett a belt which knocked him off the conveyance, and he was rendered unconscious for two or three hours. The driver of the omnibus at this time was a Mr. Watts, who also drove Crewkerne’s fire engine, which was kept in George Yard. Mr. Watts’s son was a page at the hotel, standing at the entrance in a brass-buttoned jacket and pillbox cap waiting to assist visitors with their luggage. Mr. Tett remembered the then-proprietor, H.J. Coston, as “…a proper gent. Very active man. Quite a character. A personality you’d call him.” In that period of still-sharply-defined social divisions Mr. Coston – according to Jim Tett – did not have much to do with ordinary working people, concerning himself primarily with looking after the businessmen among his guests.
In 1931, as the Great Depression began to bite, Mr. Tett was laid of from his job at Westlands in Yeovil (to which he used to commute by motorcycle) and was forced to leave Crewkerne to look for work. He spent the bulk of the next 40-odd years employed as an engineer by the Bath firm of Stothart & Pitt. During those years living away Mr. Tett managed to keep in contact with Crewkerne, visiting often and occasionally patronizing both the George and the Red Lion. “I’m a funny sort of bloke,” he’d say, “I don’t like pubs. I’ve always preferred hotels.” Of the George’s licensees during the 1920s and ’30s – including Mrs. A.L. Browne, S.G. Treherne, Stanley Wey, Basil H. Rees and James A.R. Mackenzie – Mr. Tett remembered only the first and last named and even those only as names and faces.
I have been told just recently that Jim Tett passed several years ago, aged 101.
Piecing together the succession of the George’s freehold ownership after its acquisition by Brutton & Co. in 1919 is rather a matter of detective- and guess-work, as (apart from those held in public records) the hotel’s deeds prior to 1987 have vanished. It appears that Brutton & Co. disposed of the hotel sometime c.1930, either selling or leasing it to the Crewkerne Market & Fair Company. A similar transaction apparently conveyed the hotel to Mr. Mackenzie at some time prior to 1937. In march of that year the George was offered to Georges & Co. Bristol Brewery. That firm’s Directors’ Minute Book indicates that on 10th June 1937 a Mr. Drewitt – Georges & Co.’s assistant managing director and company secretary – was authorized to purchase the George at a price not to exceed £10,500. the following month a sale was closed for £10,250. The Minute Book does not name the Vendor(s), although their solicitors were Barry & Harris. Other notes in the Minute Book include an Excise entry in respect of the George, mention of a neon sign and the fact that the hotel was “under management to April 1938”. The pre-sale inventory enumerates stock – including beers, wines, spirits, tobacco, &c., valued at £394.13.9. – a tidy sum for the period. If in a celebratory mood one could buy at the George a bottle of 1927 Veuve Cliquot champagne for 13s,4d. By June 1939 the George was under the management of Henry Pluckrose, who in that year bought several adjoining cottages and outbuildings from Georges & Co. for £600; the same properties having previously failed to sell at auction.
At the brewery’s directors meeting of 30th May 1940, a Mr. Hadley reported to the Board that the George Hotel at Crewkerne, except the bar, had been requisitioned by the military authorities.
Emlyn Davies was born in 1919 at Pontypridd, Wales, and first arrived in Crewkerne in 1940 as a member of the British forces in the wake of the evacuation from Dunkirk. At the same period then-Brigadier Montgomery also stayed in Crewkerne. The future Field Marshall did not stop at the George but rather at the rival Red Lion. During the middle of the War – when Mr. Davies was serving with Montgomery in North Africa – the George’s guests were almost exclusively military, and of officer rank. In those years Crewkerne was host to soldiers of many nations: Czechs, Poles, Free French and others turned the town into what Mr. Davies described as “…quite a cosmopolitan place.” At a later stage of the War Crewkerne also saw the influx of many of the Americans who were posted throughout the South and West in the run-up to D-Day. Mr. Davies returned to Crewkerne after his service in North Africa, having fallen in love with a local woman whom he subsequently married. One occasion not long after his return in 1945 remained vividly in his memory. “This particular night,” he once related, “some of us – Americans waiting to go home and locals – were drinking in what was then called the Red Bar of the George. There was this one G.I. who casually picked up his pint and walked into the adjoining lounge where there was an old upright piano. Suddenly we heard this tremendous boogie-woogie blues sort of piano playing coming from next door. At first we were going to tell the chap to pipe down his racket, but he carried on, you know, with the popular songs of the day, and he was so good we were all mesmerized. I think he was the most brilliant pianist I ever heard. He was probably a professional back home. I’ve never forgotten it.
Having settled in Crewkerne and eventually joining the Civil Service as an official of the new National Insurance scheme, Mr. Davies continued to be familiar with the George through the proprietorships of Mr. Pluckrose, to c.1949; Mr. & Mrs. Charles Reed, c.1951-’59; Ted Sensicle, 1960-’65; and Keith & Margaret Pay, 1966-’67 – all of whom were also recalled by Jim Tett. The Pays were followed by John A. Rudland, under whom, Mr. Davies took a moonlighting job as a barman at the George. Recalling Crewkerne during the post-War period, Mr. Davies said that despite the austerity there was still a good deal of money about, but often not much to spend it on. The pubs of Crewkerne frequently experienced difficulty in obtaining supplies, and word would quickly get around among the town’s drinking classes – traditionally a capacious constituency – as to which house had managed to get hold of a barrel or two, and everyone would troop off to the lucky pub.
Georges & Co. Bristol Brewery disposed of the George in 1949 for £16,000 – a 50% profit on their investment of twelve years before. It has been impossible to ascertain with certainty who exactly bought the George freehold from Georges & Co., and which, if any, of the various licensees named in connection with the hotel over the following 35 yeas owners and which were tenants or managers. Mr. Davies, who worked for him, was unsure whether John Rudland held the hotel in his own name, or acted for a company. In any case, Mr. Rudland – who was a Londoner and sounded it – had a reputation as a fairly fly operator. “John was a bit of a wide-boy,” recalled Emlyn Davies, “but a decent chap with it. No charity ever came into the George and left without a fiver from John. And that was when a fiver was a fiver.”
While probably not as sedate as it had been before the War, the George continued to be a highly respectable establishment, still with a marked division between the various classes of trade. Those who frequented the George Tap rarely went into the hotel proper, and those who patronized the hotel lounge would not have been caught dead in the Tap. Prominent among the latter customers was an individual who was agent to Lord Poulett. “Oh, he was a terrible snob,” recalled Mr. Davies. “He would come in over from Hinton on Saturday mornings and wouldn’t drink anything but Teachers and Schweppes soda. I remember one day the awful old bore came in and not only was the Teachers optic empty, but John had started using soda from a syphon instead of individual bottles. Well, I went into the other bar and got a glass of Haig – for all his fussiness he couldn’t really tell the difference – but he went mad when he saw the syphon and no bottle of Schweppes. John heard the row and came in asking, ‘What’s the trouble, Emlyn?’ when I told him he snatched the drink from Poulett’s agent and told him to f*** off over to the Nag’s Head if he didn’t like it.
A more informal – not to say louche – atmosphere prevailed in the George Tap; it being a favoured resort of Crewkerne’s working men and women. Mr. Davies recalled, “As well as people drinking and the old men winding each other up, the Tap was like a labour exchange. If you needed any work done you could go in there and find plasterers and painters and all sorts of tradesmen who were on the lookout for any odd jobs they could pick up. It was also full of characters on both sides of the bar. One woman who served there – I can’t remember her proper name – but everyone called her Auntie. She was a jewel. She looked after everyone, kept order. she’d lend a chap a bob or two if he was short. A lovely woman.”
Sadly, Emlyn Davies passed away in 2000, having been a popular figure in the town for over 50 years.
The tenure of the Cockney Mr. Rudland had a rather dramatic and mysterious ending. Mr. Davies – strictly in contravention of Civil Service Regualtions – had occasionally given the George proprietor the benefit of his accounting experience, and was aware that Mr. Rudland’s financial machinations were of the high-wire variety. One Saturday morning he arrived for bar duties only to find the hotel locked. Perplexed, as he knew that a wedding reception was booked for that afternoon, Mr. Davies contacted Flo Gillingham, the hotel’s receptionist. Entry was effected and the two found that every single item of stock, furniture and such fixtures as were not actually nailed down had disappeared in the night, along with the erstwhile proprietor and his family. The late Mr. Terry Westwood, another life-long Crewkerne resident, once recalled to me that among the items missing after the Rudland midnight runner was a sixteen-pound roast turkey that had been prepared for the wedding reception.
Emlyn Davies recalled the disappearing Mr. Rudland’s successor as a man named Green – although I have encountered no other record of this individual. By Mr. Davies account, a violent incident occurred one night in George Yard which Mr. Green blamed on customers of the Tap. In consequence, he closed the Tap and the space was converted into a steak-bar restaurant, that continued into the 1970s.
The same decade witnessed the beginning of a slow decline in the George’s fortunes. In the years between 1974 and 1984 nine individuals held the George license for greater or lesser periods. Of these the one who features most in peoples’ recollections was Nicolette D’Avignor Hamilton, who was known, perhaps unsurprisingly, as “Lady” Hamilton.
Another lady who looms large in peoples’ reminiscences of the George during the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s is Beryl Whittaker. Mrs. Whittaker was not involved in the ownership or management of the George, although she did do occasional stints in the hotel kitchen. The daughter of a successful North Country manufacturer, she had been educated at Roedean. She wrote books and several plays which were produced by BBC Radio; a fact designed to put her in a sympathetic light with the present enquirer, who has had occasion to labour at the same coal face. During holidays from her illustrious Sussex school she would go with her father to London where he would frequent the famous sporting club, Thurstons. During these visits, and encouraged by her father, Beryl developed a proficiency at snooker which later allowed her to go through Crewkerne’s young would-be Steve Davises like a devouring flame. She was also an enthusiastic and skillful card player. The name Whittaker was that of her fourth husband, she being known to observe, “I have four children and each one has a different surname. This colourful and entertaining woman was a familiar face in the George. She had many theatrical friends and her presence made the hotel particularly popular with any strolling players (see earlier Shakespeare reference) who might be passing through the town. Latterly she lived in West Street where she remained a favourite with local people, many of whom helped to look after her in her later years.
The George’s decline continued until 1985 when the hotel was temporarily closed. Prior to this, in the view of many old regulars, the hotel had degenerated to a degree which some found personally painful. More than one person has told me that they had come to a point where they could not bear the place anymore; especially those with memories of better days. The hotel trade was poor; the restaurant had ceased to function and had become a poolroom; and the fabric of the building, inside and out, was allowed to deteriorate. By 1987 ownership of the George was in the name of Mr. Stanley Walker, and for the next five years licensees continued to come and go quickly. In 1992 the freehold of the George was under the administration of receivers appointed by the bank who were the hotel’s mortgagees. In that year Mr. Gary Gilmore acquired the property and a new era may be said to have begun.
In his relatively short time as proprietor Mr. Gilmore set in train changes that went a good way toward restoring the George’s features, fortunes and atmosphere. Under Mr. Gilmore’s supervision the George’s hotel accommodation was completely refurbished. A new bar was installed and the entire lounge and restaurant area redecorated. Perhaps Mr. Gilmore’s most ambitious change was the movement of the hotel’s reception into the main bar/lounge/restaurant area, and the construction of the present Lamplighter Bar in place of the old reception. At least as important as the physical improvements effected during his time, Mr. Gilmore’s tenure saw the George beginning to regain its position, both as a hostelry where a wide range of Crewkerne people could feel comfortable and well-catered for, and as a favoured destination for visitors to the town. The hotel’s facilities also began to again be more widely used by various local civic, charitable and cultural bodies. This process went some way toward returning the George to its traditional role as a physical and social focal point in the life of the town.
In 1993, after less than two years as proprietor, Mr. Gilmore, for personal reason, found himself unable to remain in Crewkerne, and in the autumn of that year he conveyed the freehold of the George to Frank and Lina Joyce. The Joyce’s marriage was subsequently dissolved, and the proprietorship rests presently with Frank Joyce. Mr. Joyce is a sandy-haired man, slightly below medium height and build, and with long experience in catering; much of it gained as a steward on ocean liners plying to and from South Africa. Over his time as landlord he has taken a particular interest in raising, through training courses and other methods, the professional standards of the George’s catering and other personnel.
The work begun under Gary Gilmore of restoring the George continued with the Joyce management. Several internal rearrangements, particularly in relation to the restaurant and kitchen, were undertaken, and attention given to the exterior fabric. The presentation of the George Hotel frontage was refurbished, the work having been facilitated and completed with the final disappearance of the former unfortunate sign.
Frank Joyce has now (2015) been been landlord of the George for 21 years, thus tying him with H.J. Coston for second place in the George proprietorship stakes, topped only the 30-plus year nineteenth century tenure of the redoubtable William Marsh.
Also under the Joyce regime, and most impressively, the first-floor ballroom was restored and redecorated. During my last years of living in Crewkerne it was a quiet pleasure to me personally to lounge occasionally in one of the floor-to-ceiling recesses, and to reflect on the fact that under this graceful coved ceiling and its roses so many people who make up this history have walked and talked, eaten and drunk, danced perhaps, and played out a portion of their lives as part of the Crewkerne community. Caleb King and his daughters. The three surgeons, Hugh Yeatman, George Hilborne Jolliffe and George Slade Jolliffe. The dynamic brewer/banker John Slade and his family and business partners. The later George Hilborne Jolliffes. William Marsh and his wife, Susannah (she redolent of a newly-decocted bowl of her famous punch), and their children including Edwin, the the brewer and his sister, the consumptive, wraith-like Annie. G.S. Pulman in the chair for another cultural evening. Mr. Coston, “the proper gent”. And all the others – some of whose names have featured here and many, many more whose names have not.
To follow: PART TWO – Chapter Nine – The Competition & Chapter Ten – R.I.P.