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A history of Bridport hospitality

Richard and Marion Sims look at the town’s pubs and inns

East Street in about 1874. The Railway Tavern’s sign, which showed a steam locomotive,
The building immediately beyond it was the King
of Prussia, later re-named the King of the Belgians, and later still the Lord Nelson

Bridport has a long and varied pub history and has had many hostelries in its time, ranging from the back-street beer houses such as the Baker’s Arms, opposite the Decorator Centre in the Ropewalks, to the superior establishments like the Greyhound and Bull Inn.

In 1685, during the ill-fated Monmouth Rebellion, the Bull Inn was the scene of a skirmish. A troop of Monmouth’s men under Colonel Venner entered the town, shots were fired from the Bull and in the mêlée that followed, Edward Coker of Mapperton and Wadham Strangways were killed.

Shortly afterwards the owner, Daniel Taylor, a local merchant and Quaker, set up a trust financed by rents from the Bull. The income was used to fund a school and teacher for twelve poor children of the town. In 1849 the Bull was sold to the Knight family, remaining under the family’s ownership for the next 110 years. It was re-built with a ballroom, minstrels’ gallery and billiard room, complete with the plaque of 1877 proudly stating it to be the ‘Knight’s Bull Hotel’. Today is has recently re-opened, after refurbishment by new owners Richard and Nikki Cooper, as a ‘stylish boutique hotel’ serving delicious coffee and pastries in the mornings.

It was the development of Bridport’s market in the 15th century that stimulated the increase in the number of the pubs in the town. These new houses would provide for the market visitors as well as townspeople. By the mid-18th century there were some thirty licensed houses in Bridport alone. Not all remained as public houses; for example, the Green Dragon in East Street became the wagon office of the carrier, Thomas Russell, in 1781 and now, after being re-built in the 1850s, is occupied by Barclays Bank. In 1794 the Unitarian Chapel was built on the site of the Crown. Others simply changed their name and among these are the Noah’s Ark, which after a disastrous fire in the late 18th century was re-built and re-named the White Lion, and the Three Boars’ Heads, which became the Royal Oak.

The Sailor’s Home at 135 South Street was an example of a beer house as authorised by the Beer Act of 1830. This Act led to a doubling of the number of licensed houses in Bridport within a few years. Mostly they were no more than a room in an ordinary house but they gave South Street its reputation for every other house being a public house. Unusually, the Sailor’s Home was owned by the Old Brewery, Bridport, but for a time leased by Devenish’s Weymouth Brewery, like the King of Prussia (now the Lord Nelson) and the King’s Head in Bradpole.

The Ship Inn in South Street in 1910. It was owned by the aptly-named Beer family; Mrs Sarah Beer ran the pub, while her husband used part of the building for his saddlery business

The developing textile trade in the early 19th century saw a number of the smaller manufacturers taking a second trade. Mark Powell of the Hope and Anchor in St Michael’s Lane was also a twine spinner using the spinning way behind the pub, while his wife, Maria, ran the pub. In 1881 John Groves of Weymouth took them over, building Hope Terrace on the spinning way. Groves also bought a number of other houses in Bridport around the same time, including the Tiger in Barrack Street.

The Hope and Anchor was the first pub to have a sign painted by George Biles, when he was only 18. He worked for Palmers from 1927 and would often paint different pictures on the two different sides of a sign. For example, the Boot in North Allington had on one side a Cromwellian soldier having his boot removed by a serving wench and on the other side a boot being fished out of the river. After George Biles’s death in 1987, the style was carried on by Ken Allen.

The opening of the Bridport railway in 1857 brought significant changes to the town and its pubs. For the first time it was economic to buy in beer from the national breweries. The Railway Tavern beer house next to the King of Prussia, the Railway Inn at 9 St Andrew’s Road and the Railway Terminus near the station were opened. Of these only the latter remains, having been re-named the King Charles, after Charles II’s flight through Bridport which passed near the house.

The Boot in North Allington was the scene of a shooting accident of 1877. George Clapp had been out shooting and, calling at the Boot for a drink, left his shotgun by a door. William Pomeroy, seeing some wire entangled around the trigger, tried to remove it but this resulted in the gun going off and killing James Hodder. His ghost is said to haunt
the bar.

In 1879 the Temperance Movement arrived in Bridport with the opening of the Bridport Coffee Tavern on a site now occupied by W H Smith. It was not until 1903 that its influence was to affect the public houses of Bridport. At this time the licences were renewed annually and by now the local magistrates had sufficient power to force the closure of houses if they thought fit. That year saw Palmers shut four beer houses voluntarily, including the Avenue and Shipwright’s Arms, both in South Street. This annual renewal of licences also led to Palmers buying up property either side of their houses in order to reduce the chance of complaints which might lead to a review of the licence.

The Boot in North Allington boasts a classic George Biles style of sign – and a ghost

World War I was a difficult time for the public houses of Bridport, as elsewhere. With around 1000 men enlisting from the town by 1916, a significant amount of trade was lost. The call-up of licensees resulted in their spouses being allowed to take over temporarily. Due to rationing of the beer supply, tenants were told to serve beer in a glass holding less than half a pint, for which they charged 3d (1p)!

By 1915 the King of Prussia in East Street, which dates from the mid-18th century and was probably named after Frederick the Great, was thought a rather unpatriotic name so it was changed to the King of the Belgians in recognition of the Belgian refugees that the town was housing, many of whom were working in the town’s factories and contributing to the war effort. In 1940 it was re-named again, this time to the Lord Nelson.

The inter-war years saw more closures including the Globe, the Neptune and the Fives Court Inn, the latter named after the fives court that was to be found behind it in the 1840s. The period also saw improvements of many of the houses, including the closure of the slaughterhouses behind the Ship and the Cross Keys putting to an end the carrying of carcasses through the pub. The new Fisherman’s Arms, next to South Street’s recycling centre, replaced its namesake across the road. It was during this time that Bridport gained a new hotel, the Toll House Hotel on East Road being the first designed for the motoring age.

In many ways World War 2 seemed to have less of an effect than its predecessor. In 1942 the Lord Nelson was damaged in an air raid and the austerity measures in place meant it remained open to the elements until repairs were affected after the war. Today it is run by Ken and Brenda Graham who are Palmer’s longest-serving tenants, having been there for a quarter of a century. The Blue Ball at Dottery also fell foul of the post-war building restrictions. When it burnt down in 1947, it was eight years before the new house was built. Meanwhile a temporary Nissen hut was used as the bar and living accommodation!

The Woodman is a survivor of the many pubs and inns which once lined South Street

Since the last war there have been significant changes in our drinking habits. Off license sales now account for over forty per cent of trade. This led to further pub closures, including the Packhorse in East Street, once a very busy market day establishment with carriers parking outside and market visitors taking lunch before returning home later in the day.

Also closed is the former Masons’ Arms in North Street, fondly known as ‘the Mouse’. It was unusual in having one-way traffic, with an ‘in’ door and an ‘out’ door.

The changing market conditions have meant that many pubs have had to adapt to the new conditions. Those we see today have found their markets but there are still examples of the traditional public house, such as the Lord Nelson and the Boot. The 1990 Beer Orders increased the number of non-tied houses, the Woodman, Tiger and Hope and Anchor being examples, resulting in an increase in the variety of beers available. Evolving fashion has seen the arrival of the café-bar, providing varying aspects of hospitality at different times of the day.

As in other towns in Dorset, the number and character of public houses and other hostelries in Bridport have adapted to the changing times to meet the demand. In the Borough of Bridport, which includes Allington, Bradpole and West Bay, there have been more than eighty different licensed houses over the years, of which only around twenty remain today.

The Lord Nelson today

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