Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Radcliffe Arms

The earliest demonstration of the rather chaotic planning that has characterised Wolverton throughout its history was the building of its first pub in an isolated location.

Wolverton's first railway station was built to the north of the canal on the embankment. It was only a temporary affair and by 1840 they had built a new, permanent station, further south on railway property. In those two years, however, some momentous decisions had been made, probably in haste, which led to the construction and opening of the Radcliffe Arms.

Everybody was being a little too clever, it seems. The Radcliffe Trustees, upon selling the first 8 acres, had required the Railway Company to enter into a covenant that they would not build any tavern or public house on their land. They agreed to this and kept to it. In the meantime, the Trust, seeing a benefit for itself,  granted a lease of 6 acres to John Congreve, a Stony Stratford solicitor and Joseph Clare, the landlord of The Cock Hotel, for 63 years. Accordingly, they built stables, coach houses and a tap room for the sale of beer by 1839 and probably thought they would easily recoup their investment. The area we are talking about later became Wolverton Park.

The Railway Company, having little or no interest in this, built their permanent station, together with Refreshment Rooms, at the new site, and left the Radcliffe Arms isolated in a field. Congreve and Clare made representations to the Trustees, the ground rent for The Radcliffe Arms was reduced and they were provided with more land in a more suitable location to build The Royal Engineer. So within the space of two years, the new settlement acquired two Taverns.

The Radcliffe Arms did function for about 30 years and probably did enough business for the first two decades. Thereafter it became increasingly isolated from the town and you can see from the evidence of the censuses that business is falling off. By 1871 the buildings are used for residential purposes only and they were later torn down when the Recreation Park was developed in the 1880s.

It quickly acquired a rough reputation and far from being respectfully called The Radcliffe Arms was known as "Hell's Kitchen".

Hugh Miller, a Scottish traveller and writer recorded this first impression in 1845:
It was now nine o'clock.  I had intended passing the night in the inn at Wolverton, and then walking on in the morning to Olney, a distance of nine miles; but when I came to the inn, I found it all ablaze with light, and all astir with commotion.  Candles glanced in every window; and a thorough Babel of sound—singing, quarrelling, bell-ringing, thumping, stamping, and the clatter of  mugs and glasses issued from every apartment. [1]

On enquiry, it turned out that this was the eve of a prize fight between a Nottingham champion and a London fighter[2] so Miller walked to Newport Pagnell, armed with two pistols for protection, to seek better accommodation. However, he found the atmosphere just as riotous and pressed on to a village he called Skirvington (Sherington) where he at last found the peaceful night he sought. We may be surprised today that Miller readily undertook these four mile to Newport Pagnell on foot but the world in 1845 was not so far removed from the idea of walking to one’s destination. Rail travel had made speedy travel possible but walking for many was a natural and obvious choice, and this vignette may underscore the fact that the 1840s were transitional years for one’s mode of transport. It is also worth noting that rail travel may have significantly reduced the risk of robbery against the lone traveler.

It is difficult to generalize from this brief encounter with the Radcliffe Arms, however, we also have a record from Hugh Stowell Brown, who has left us a vivid account of his first (and probably only) experience:
I arrived on Friday evening, and went into the erecting-shed on Saturday morning; and at the dinner-hour had to pay my footing. This was done at the vile public-house close to the station — a house which went by the name of ‘ Hell’s Kitchen,’ a name it well deserved. An old proverb says, that if an Englishman settled on an uninhabited island the first building he would put up would be a public-house.  A public-house was the first thing built at Wolverton by the directors of the London and Birmingham There was no church, no school, no reading-room ; but there was  ‘ Hell’s Kitchen.’ And in that ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ that first afternoon, I had to pay about ten shillings for drink. ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ was a horrid place; always full of mechanics, navvies, labourers, tramps of all kinds; at least one hundred station-men spent there half the dinner-hour and perhaps half their wages.[3]

            “Paying his footing” probably meant, as the newest arrival, that he was expected to stand a round of drinks. Ten shillings for this young boy was 2 ½ week’s wages - an enormous sum for his initiation into the ranks of railwaymen, and on this evidence he must have discovered a lot of “friends” in “Hell’s Kitchen”.

             The turnover in landlords was quite high. The first tenants  were Richard and Priscilla Hipwell. In 1841 they were running the inn with two adult servants and a 15 year old boy.  After a few years they moved to a grocer's shop in Brixworth and were succeeded at by Robert Lambeth Done. By 1851 it was managed by Joseph Gostlow and his wife Frances and appears to have been a larger establishment of staff. They employed a barmaid and four other servants and a nurse and it may be that these were the best years for the public house. They also had six lodgers or hotel guests. These I have described in my post The Comedians

            The establishment appeared to be of a similar size in 1861, this time managed by Berkley Hicks and wife Mary Joy. They had three small children a barman and three servants. In fact, it was the barman, Berkley's younger brother, Henry A Hicks, who later went on to run the much more palatial Victoria Hotel on Church street a decade or so later. Four cottages surrounding the Inn are first listed in 1861 where they are described as Radcliffe Arms Cottages.
         The 1881 census still recorded residents here - all living in "Hell's Kitchen". There is no mention of the Radcliffe Arms or Radcliffe Arms cottages. If we go back to the 1840 map it is evident that there are at least two buildings in this location - one is the hotel, the other may be the cottages or it might equally be the stables or outbuildings. The Radcliffe Arms cottages only make an itemized appearance in the 1861 census. They repeat in the 1871 census. From 1841 to 1871 the Radcliffe Arms licensee and his staff and family and guests are recorded but not in 1881. As I have noted above the Ordnance Survey of 1880 shows only one building.

[1] Miller, Hugh. First Impressions: England and its People. Chapter XIIV. 1889.
[2] Sir Frank Markham gives a full and entertaining account of the prize fight that Hugh Miller stumbled upon. One boxers entourage had camped at The Swan in Newport Pagnell and the other at The Cock in Stony Stratford. All other hostelries were full to the brim. History of Milton Keynes, Vol 2. Luton, White Press, 1986, p. 85-88.
[3] Hugh Stowell Brown. Notes on my Life. Chapter IX. 1888.

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