The Shakespeare Tavern, Prince Street, Bristol
“After God, Shakespeare has created most” – Alexander Dumas
Bristol boasts four inns named in honour of the Swan of Avon. The one now at 68 Prince Street owes its name to the proximity of the Theatre Royal, Britain’s oldest purpose-built playhouse, in more or less continuous use since 1766.
The present Shakespeare Tavern comprises half of a double-fronted, stone-built house dating from c.1726; almost certainly constructed to the plans of John Strahan. A mysterious figure about whose origins and early life nothing is known, Strahan is said to have come to Bristol in December 1725. Showing a sound instinct for self-advertisement, he “…by printed Bills offered his services to the Publick as a land surveyor and architect.” He quickly found a patron in John Hobbs, a prosperous timber merchant, for whom he designed as a private house the present Nos. 68 & 70 Prince Street. Mr. Hobbs was noted at one time as being the oldest surviving past-Master of the Antient Society of St. Stephen’s Bell-Ringers, having held the post in 1695-’96. Distinctive features of the Shakespeare’s façade, and that of its twin, are the central pediment armorial cartouches which contain an architectural pun on the first owner’s name in their depiction of falcons or ‘hobbies’. Strahan later designed houses in Bath’s Kingsmead and Beaufort Squares, also for John Hobbs; and the Redland Chapel is said to have been built to his plans, following his death c.1742. The work was completed by William Halfpenny, designer of the Coopers’ Hall which now forms the Great King Street frontage of the Theatre Royal. Halfpenny was also architect of the nearby Assembly Rooms, and the Shakespeare’s next door neighbour, No. 66 Prince Street, has been attributed to him. Originally this also had a twin, and was built as a residence for Noblet Ruddock, and important 18th century Bristol merchant. The trio of the Shakespeare and its immediate neighbours on either side are of recognized architectural importance as the only surviving examples of Prince Street’s original Georgian face.
Prince Street is named for Prince George of Denmark, consort of Queen Anne, who opened the newly-built Queens Square in 1702. Although a dockside neighbourhood, Prince’s Street (so-called until 1832) became increasingly fashionable, reaching its zenith with the opening of the Assembly Rooms in 1756.
Because both the tavern and No. 68 Prince Street have histories dating back to the early 18th century many have assumed that that house was always the home of the Shakespeare. Not so: the original Shakespeare Tavern was located four doors away. The Bristol City Museum & Galleries hold a series of watercolour sketches of various Bristol scenes dating from the early 18th century. One of these depicts a row of houses running away north from the present Prince Street Bridge. The third house in the row is shown as having a sign reading “Shakes…” before becoming indistinct. The moving of public houses from one location to another nearby is not entirely uncommon. The London Inn, Bedminster, for instance, was at one time across the street from its present site.
The earliest documented reference to the Shakespeare Tavern occurs in Sketchley’s Bristol Directory of 1775 which records John Farrell as landlord and gives the address as 22 Prince’s Street. In 1755 a John Farrell was landlord of the Full Moon in nearby Marsh Street, and it seems likely that this was the same man or a relation. Mr. Farrell of the Shakespeare was also a boatman, and the inn offered board and lodgings.
By 1783 the Shakespeare was in the possession of John Hopkins, who apparently conducted a quite superior house. Helena Eason, in her study, Bristol’s Historic Inns, quotes Masonic annals indicating that among the Shakespeare’s clientele at this period were many of the city’s maritime and mercantile elite. Few mariners below the rank of boatswain would have made bold of the house; and Mr. Hopkins catered for the masters of the dockside enterprises, rather than their workmen. Mr. Hopkins was himself a Mason, and during his tenure the inn was used as a meeting place by the Beaufort Lodge. The Bristol directory for 1793 lists Mrs. Hannah Hopkins as landlady of The Shakespeare Tavern.
By 1820 possession of the inn had passed to James Langford, who was followed by Ann Langford – presumably his widow – who remained as landlady until 1840, although not in the same house. In 1832 the demolition of a site including the four houses that had been Nos. 20, 21, 22 (the Shakespeare), and 23 Prince’s Street was begun to make way for the building in two stages between 1832 and 1837 of Bush House – now the Arnolfini complex. The building was initially the Prince Street section of new premises for the firm of Acraman, Bush, Castle & Co. William Acraman & Son were iron founders, manufacturing patent chains, anchors and other maritime stores. The family also had extensive shipping and trading interests and the new building was to serve as a counting house and tea warehouse. By what arrangement Ann Langford came to move her inn to the premises at No. 26 upon giving up No. 22 is a matter of conjecture. At the period when James and Ann Langford were licensees of the Shakespeare, a Capt. John Langford lived and kept a lodging house at 34 Back (now Welsh Back), later under the eye of Mrs. Langford. Through much of the mid-19th century another John Langford was a chronometer-, watch- and nautical instrument maker with works at 52 Quay. The firm, carried on by William Langford, was in Broad Quay. The large clock overhanging the pavement on the east side of College Green was made by Langfords as well as a small chronometer dated 1883 that is displayed in the Bristol Industrial Museum. It seems probable that these various Langfords were related.
Prior to becoming the new home of the Shakespeare No. 26 Prince’s Street appears to have had several residents. In 1820 it was listed as the address of J.F. Alexander, Consul to the Kingdom of Hanover. J.F. Alexander & Co. were prominent Ship Agents of the period with offices opposite Crane 5, Quay. Between 1824 and 1829 it was given as the residence of Lovell Pilter, who carried on several marine-related enterprises from offices in the nearby Grove, as well as being a partner in the Prince’s Street sail-making firm of Cook, Turner & Pilter. He was succeeded as resident by Edward York Hazard, a pump- and block-maker with shops opposite Crane 5, Quay. Mr. Hazard lived at No. 33 Prince’s Street until 1829 whereupon – in what appears an intriguing domestic arrangement – he moved seven doors south to No. 26, while Mrs. Sarah Hazard and their son, William Hazard, remained resident at No. 33. In 1831 a John Thorn is named as a lodging house keeper at the address and George Davis, a Wapping shipbuilder is listed as resident in 1832 and ’33.
By this time the social and commercial nature of Prince Street had changed somewhat. In both of its locations the tavern’s neighbours reflected the progressive evolution of the street from a centre of fashion into a hub of maritime activities. Prior to the building of Bush House the Acraman business was located opposite Crane 9, Quay (site of the present John Cabot memorial statue) and William Acraman II – the Son of the firm – lived at No. 24 Prince’s Street. He was also a Master of St. Stephen’s Bell-Ringers. Many residents of the street were parishioners of that church, and a number who were either resident or had business premises in the street were also Members and Masters of the St. Stephen’s Ringers. One such in immediate proximity was John Chubb at No. 25, who, like William Birch at No. 28, was a rope- and sail-makers with business premises in what is now Narrow Quay. No. 31 just on the other side of Farr’s Lane, was the home of Philip George Esq., founder of the Georges & Co. Bristol Brewery, and his sons Philip the younger and Alfred. At No. 32 William James combined business as a naval architect with keeping a lodging house. One of his lodgers was the Bristol Corporation Quay Warden, Capt. Thomas Etheridge. A few doors further along, at No. 36, lived Worthington Brice Esq., a merchant long established in Prince’s Street and a member of the Bristol Common Council. In addition to these various merchants, marine trades-people and private residences, the street held four taverns in addition to the Shakespeare, up to fourteen lodging houses and a brewery. This was located to the rear of the Assembly Rooms and was owned by Thomas and Charles Baynton, who lived for a time at No. 42, and whose enterprise subsequently became the Ashton Gate Brewery. The Assembly Rooms themselves suffered a loss of popularity following the opening of new Rooms at Clifton in 1812, hastening the general social decline of Prince’s Street. How many of those mentioned frequented the Shakespeare Tavern is also matter of conjecture, but it is certain that they all would have been acquainted with one another, and would certainly have known the Langfords.
Whatever may have been her business acumen – and the acquisition of new premises for her inn so near to the old one would argue that she was nobody’s fool – an indenture between herself and Robert Ludlum, successor from 1841 as landlord of the Shakespeare, indicates that she was illiterate, as she signed with her ‘mark’ only.
Robert Ludlum remained landlord until 1862, and was followed, 1863-’69, by Maria Ludlum, again presumably his widow. The Ludlums were succeeded as licensees by : Margaret Puckey, 1870-’73; Sarah Badcock, 1874-’76; H. Stevens, 1877-’79; William Ireland, 1880-’91; Albert Eveleigh Heard, 1892; Sidney James, 1893; Alfred John Lewis, 1894; Charles Cuthbert, 1895-’98; William Henry Bowden, 1899; Mr. & Mrs Frederick Brookman, 1900; William Henry Bryant, 1901; John H. Hatton, 1903’08; George G. Gay, 1909-’17; Mrs Helen Gay, 1919-’28; Wilfred Reed, 1929-’30; George T. Wills, 1931-’33; and William Allen, 1934-’76.
In 1889, during Mr. Ireland’s tenure, the house numbering system of Prince Street changed. Previously numbers began with No. 1 on the east (Queens Square) side of the street at the Great King Street end and ran consecutively to No. 19 at The Grove end and continued down the west (Quay) side from Prince Street Bridge back to the City Centre ending at Thunderbolt Street.. The new system saw the odd numbers run north-to-south along the east side with the even numbers opposite. Thus what had been No. 26 became the present No. 68.
Although not a certainty, it would appear that the Shakespeare Tavern freehold – at least until the time of the Ludlums, and possibly that of William Ireland – was held by its successive licensees. At some point, however, the tavern was apparently acquired by one of the four breweries which merged in 1889 to make Bristol United Breweries. One of these was Bishop & Butt of Redcliffe. Another Redcliffe brewery, Daniel Sykes & Co. was taken over by Bristol United Breweries in 1897. Many of the Bristol United Breweries records were destroyed when its Lewins Mead premises were bombed during World War II, making it difficult to be sure, but the Shakespeare was certainly a B.U.B. house by the turn of the century, and one of these Redcliffe breweries seems the likeliest previous owner. According to documents held in the Courage Brewery company archives, between 1891 and 1914 responsibility for the Shakespeare as a property rested with J. Abbott & Co. Other evidence suggests that this would have been Abbott, Brown, Pope & Abbott, a firm of solicitors with offices in Shannon Court, Corn Street, who were probably acting for the ultimate beneficial owner(s). Considering the rapid succession of licensees following their assumption of control the lawyers may have been, as it were, rather at sea in coping with a waterfront tavern. Four landlords in as many years, and seven in the space of ten seems to argue what would nowadays be termed ‘poor human resources management’. On the other hand a quick turnover of licensees may have been company policy, or William Ireland may have been a hard act to follow. Title in the Shakespeare was eventually acquired by Georges & Co. Bristol Brewery when that firm took over Bristol United Breweries in 1956. Georges & Co. in turn were taken over by Courage, Barclay, Simonds Ltd. in 1961, the Shakespeare freehold being included as part of the brewery estate. Present owners, Greene King of Bury St. Edmunds, acquired the tavern from Courage in 1996.
The social tone of the Shakespeare has tended to follow that of Prince Street and the dockside neighbourhood generally. The area was already in decline by the time of the 1831 Bristol Riots, which centred around Queens Square, and during which over 120 people were killed in and near Prince’s Street. Although much property – including major warehouses and the nearby Black Boy Inn – was destroyed during what the 1832 Mathews’ Bristol Directory described as “…the late outrages…” the Shakespeare appears to have survived relatively unscathed. Following a cholera epidemic that claimed some 600 lives in the year following the Riots, and attributed to the foulness of the harbour water, the locale continued to suffer gradual social deterioration lasting well into the 20th century. Veteran Shakespeare customers, old enough to remember the heyday of William Allen’s forty-two year tenure, recollect a house of considerably plainer – not to say rougher – character than the present one. Diagonally across the street from the Shakespeare is the treble-gabled building between The Grove and Prince Street Bridge which was known for many years as ‘The Pound’. From 1932, first under the auspices of the Ministry of Labour, and later of the National Dock Labour Board, it was here that Bristol’s stevedores came in search of work; and its presence guaranteed the Shakespeare a brisk trade from the moment the doors opened in the morning. Some also remember a time when Farr’s Lane was known by the less salubrious sobriquet of “Knicker Lane”, it being a noted resort of dockside prostitutes.
The gradual renewal of Bristol’s waterfront over recent years has been reflected in the Shakespeare. The period has seen a comprehensive renovation of the inn, while retaining and enhancing many original features dating back to its 18th century origins as a private dwelling; the most notable being the handsome mahogany staircase leading to the upper floors.
The character and atmosphere of the tavern’s interior – as well as the décor reflecting its historic position within Bristol’s dockside community – are now widely acknowledged as rendering the Shakespeare among the most warmly congenial public houses in the city.
Note: Visitors to the Shakespeare Tavern may have noticed near the entranceway a printed and framed earlier version of the above sketch. This was done in 1999 during the time when I was resident in Bristol. Unfortunately it was written before I discovered the salient fact that until the mid-1830s the inn was four doors away from its present location. The revised version also contains other information unearthed by later research and is here posted on the website http://www.patrickcarroll.co.uk both on the Main Site and in the Local History Category.