In search of Britain’s oldest pub
There are many claims to be the oldest pub in Britain, but the majority do not stand up to scrutiny. James Wright investigates the necessary criteria – from the age of the building to its history as a pub to its current use – to determine whether it is possible to declare a winner…
The notion that there are historic buildings across Britain where people have been gathering for centuries in order to enjoy some boozing and community life is a romantic one, and dangerously captivating.
Inevitably, there has long been, and continues to be, much debate over which individual building merits the honour of being described as the oldest, and strong regional rivalries abound.
Those in south-west England suggest that the oldest pub could be the appropriately named Old Inn in St Breward, Cornwall (with the original building dating from the 11th century). The Home Counties proudly offer Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, Hertfordshire, as being in business since AD 793. That is still not as old as East Anglia’s proposal: the Old Ferry Boat Inn in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, where drinks may have been sold as early as c560 AD.
And still the claims come. In the Cotswolds, there is confidence that the Porch House in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, goes back to AD 947; the Midlands have Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, established in 1189; while many in the north of England hold that it’s the Bingley Arms in Bardsey, West Yorkshire (from the 10th century) or the Old Man & Scythe in Bolton, Lancashire (mentioned in a charter from 1251).
In Scotland, the Sheep Heid Inn in Edinburgh has been around since 1360. The Welsh contender is the Skirrid Mountain Inn in Llanvihangel Crucorney, Monmouthshire, which goes back to 1110. And in Ireland, some are adamant that their oldest is Sean’s Bar in Athlone, Westmeath, which is said to have its origins in AD 900.
To declare the winner, it is not simply a matter of looking at the dates (which would put the sixth-century Old Ferry Boat Inn on top of the podium). There are such a bewildering number of claims – stretching from the 6th to 14th centuries – that take in an equally bewildering number of factors: several businesses say they have the earliest licences to serve alcohol, or that they are included in the Domesday Book, or that Guinness World Records has awarded the title to them.
Can we ever reach a conclusion and work out which is the oldest pub in Britain?
When were the first pubs?
Part of the problem is that the defining features of British pubs have evolved gradually. Until the 13th and 14th centuries, alehouses were just that: domestic houses where ale was brewed and the surplus sold for income. A green branch would be mounted on the building when the ale was ready, which is something of a forerunner of the pub sign. Yet, this scenario – often a cottage industry, typically run by women – was more akin to a microbrewery tap, located within a residential house, rather than a purpose-built pub.
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Beginning in the 13th century, monasteries realised that they could capitalise on pilgrimage and travel by opening inns offering food, drinks and a place to sleep. This was advanced during the late-14th and 15th centuries when changes in urban life led to an increase in businesses that offered liquid refreshment: wine for elites (sold in taverns) or ale for non-elites (sold in a new variants of the alehouse).
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These late-medieval inns, taverns and alehouses were the forerunners of our modern pubs. But we are unlikely to be able to identify a standing structure from before the 13th century since pubs, as we understand them, did not exist before then.
Other factors are in play too. One significant point is that non-religious, roofed buildings pre-dating the 11th century do not exist in the British Isles. Another is that claims made by some pubs that they were referred to in the Domesday Book come unstuck as not a single pub is actually mentioned in the 1086 survey.
Contentions of early dates for the issue of pub licences can also be questioned, given that such bureaucratic controls were not imposed in England until 1552. Finally, there are a small number of pubs boasting of their Guinness World Record as the oldest pub (including St Albans’ Ye Olde Fighting Cocks). Unfortunately, Guinness World Records no longer monitors this category.
So where does this leave our search? Initially, several pubs can be quickly weeded out as any with claims to date before the 11th century will not stand up to scrutiny. That still leaves a significant potential for late-medieval pubs, but there is a need to establish firm archaeological and archival evidence in order to identify the oldest.
Most of the claimants are undoubtedly historic listed buildings, many of which have been investigated by specialists in some detail. That research can often be at odds with the claimed date. For example, the Bingley Arms in West Yorkshire may claim that its history as a pub goes back to AD 953, but it is actually a late-18th or early 19th century building.
Nottingham’s Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is a timber-framed building dating to the 17th century, and was not open for business until the late-18th century. That’s a long way from its claim of 1189. Meanwhile, the supposedly eighth-century Ye Olde Fighting Cocks was originally a monastic dovecote of c1400, which was re-sited c1600. It did not open as a pub until the 18th or even 19th century.
The varied historic use of buildings further muddies the water. Historic pubs have gone out of business and new uses found for them, whereas other buildings, no matter how old they are, only became pubs later in their lives.
The New Inn in Oxford was a purpose-built courtyard establishment, constructed around 1386 for Jesus College, but ceased trading in the mid-18th century. Then there’s The Abbey in Darley, Derbyshire, which was originally constructed as part of a monastic complex in the 15th century before being converted to tenements in the post-medieval period, and did not start serving up beers until 1979.
Yet while any quest to name the oldest pub in the land is greatly hampered by the variables of definition and land use, it may be possible to use a combination of architectural history and archaeological fieldwork to identify some genuine contenders. They should be structures that are still operating, with an established archival provenance as a pub and demonstrably ancient fabric.
The latter can often be addressed through dendrochronology – a dating technique that relies on the scientific study of tree-rings to analyse the construction date of buildings. The Vernacular Architecture Group maintains a register of buildings dated by dendrochronology in the United Kingdom, which provides an important dataset for our search.
Take the The Bell Inn in Nottingham: when sampled by dendrochronologists, it was found to have a roof structure dating to between 1432 and 1442. The building was in use as an inn by 1638, when the will of Robert Sherwin mentioned it in a legacy. This certainly makes the Bell an older building than its more famous neighbour, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, and it has early documentary reference as a public house.
This raises yet more questions and variables. So although the Royal George at Cottingham, Northamptonshire, has been dated to 1262, it was originally built as a domestic house and was not converted into a pub until the 18th century.
The King’s Head in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, may have a felling date of 1291, but there is no record of the building as a pub until 1734 – and it is currently a coffee shop.
Again, while the earliest fabric at the White Hart in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, is dated 1312–13, the building itself was originally a townhouse, which was converted into a pub c1430 and closed around 1870.
Despite all the problems, though, it is possible to find a working pub with demonstrable origins as an inn. The George Inn at Norton St Philip, Somerset, is an intriguing example. The roots of the building date to the second half of the 14th century, when it was constructed as an inn after Hinton Priory transferred their charterhouse fair to the village in 1345. A major programme of remodelling, tree-ring-dated to 1430-32, took place around half a century later, including the timber-framed frontage. Drinkers still walk through the medieval doorway to order their pints to this day.
Almost contemporary with the remodelling of the George Inn is the, erroneously named, New Inn at Gloucester. This incredibly well-preserved, galleried, courtyard inn was purpose-built as a commercial hostelry for John Twyning, a monk of Gloucester Abbey, and elements have been dated to 1432. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the building was retained by the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral as a tenanted inn until being sold off in 1858.
So, where is Britain’s oldest pub?
Crucially, both the George Inn and New Inn still function as pubs. With that in mind, they should be considered two of the oldest pubs in the British Isles that can offer solid documentary and archaeological evidence for their origins and usage. Without such firm corroborative evidence, the much older claims made by many pubs fall by the wayside.
But perhaps it is time to move on from redundant arguments as to where the oldest pub in the British Isles. It is surely more important to measure pubs on the quality of service and atmosphere, while continuing to conserve and appreciate such historic buildings as fine community assets.
Dr James Wright is a buildings archaeologist and architectural historian, with over two decades of experience in researching medieval architecture. He would like to thank buildings investigator Linda J Hall for commenting on a draft of this article