Public Houses in East & West Molesey

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1981

"Whoe'er has travelled life's dull round,
Where'er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
The warmest welcome at an inn".
William Shenstone
(1714 - 1763)


"There can be little that inspires a reminiscent imagination more than the history of the Old Inns of England". So wrote Sir Edwin Lutyens when asked to pen an introduction to a book on inns in 1934 [1]. Nowadays little tangible evidence remains to be seen of the old inns of Molesey's past, but with just a fraction of Sir Edwin's "reminiscent imagination" we might yet conjure up some of the scenes of former days. Of the time before the advent of wireless sets, television, or motor cars; or even the widespread reading of newspapers; when the public house assumed the role of social, cultural, and sports centre of the village, and local news station combined; as well as fulfilling its primary function in satisfying the needs of the inner man.

Its hospitable sign bade welcome to all. Every class of the community was to be found within its attentive wall. Being virtually the only secular communal building in the parish, it was the place where all the local gatherings were held.

Here the gentry and yeomen assembled regularly for the parish vestry meetings, at which all the parochial affairs were discussed and decided. It was the usual thing for them to convene first in the vestry of the church (hence of course their name), but, particularly if a long or contentious matter was to be deliberated upon, they normally adjourned to the more comfortable and convivial atmosphere of the local inn. Thus in West Molesey this was to the Royal Oak, and in East Molesey, in the eighteenth century, a rota system was adopted, whereby the Castle, Kings Arms, Swan, and Bell, were each visited in turn.

The craftsmen and labourers, too, utilised the inn for the holding of their meetings - their friendly societies and village clubs. In the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, the government hourly expected the masses in this country to follow their Continental brethren in eliminating the ruling nobility, and clamped down heavily on all working-class organizations, however innocuous they may really have been, for fear that friendly societies could well provide cover for "wicked, malicious, seditious, and ill-disposed persons". And ordered them all to be registered with the justices. Thus we find in 1794 that two such societies were meeting in East Molesey. One at the Castle, which had been instituted as early as 1762, and the other at the Kings Arms, which had been going for just six years. Both of these were simply called "The Friendly Society" [2]. Some years later, when the scare was against the nascent trade unions, the societies were yet again ordered to register their activities, and now we find "The Union" holding its lodge meetings at the Bell Inn[3].

Whilst all these other activities were going on we must not forget, of course, the prime functions of inns and taverns, and should also turn our thoughts to the scene of an evening when, their busy days almost over, the gaffers gathered to quaff their ale and champ on their clay pipes, whilst gossiping of local scandals and national politics in the tobacco laden air of the genial taproom.

Along the main roads the horse coaches rumbled, and stopped at the inns to take on passengers and drop the royal mails. It is not without significance, therefore, that in both East and West Molesey it was an inn which became the first post office in the village, and mine hosts were both innkeepers and postmasters alike. In the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries landlords were highly respected and influential members of the village community, and were often asked to undertake parochial duties in the offices of churchwardens, overseers, constables, rate-collectors, and factotums of every kind into the bargain. Such duties for which most modern licensees in these hard-pressed times would barely find the time.

Edmund Burke once said that "To write of the English Inn is almost to write of England itself, so closely is the inn woven with the gradual development of our land". Molesey's inns are no exception to this dictum; their story is likewise a reflection of the history of our villages themselves and of their evolution.

The earliest known reference to any public house in the Moleseys occurs in 1636, when John Taylor, better known to posterity as "the water poet", compiled a "Catalogue of Tavernes in Ten Shires about London" [4]. Wherein he records: "At Mowlessey, Anthony Powell", this was presumably East Molesey; and: "At Little Moulesey, Parnell Nitingale, White Hart". The White Hart was almost certainly the forerunner of the Royal Oak, but where East Molesey's inn was, or what it was called, we have no evidence at the moment to judge.

As the population of the villages expanded, at first slowly then with ever growing momentum, so the number of licensed houses in the district increased accordingly, to cater for the extra demand. A demand which was also greatly enhanced by the enormous number of tourists attracted here to taste the delights of the River Thames and Hampton Court, and who demanded good cheer to assuage their healthful appetites. At the end of Victoria's reign no less than five public houses and one licensed restaurant were located in East Molesey within a few hundred yards of the foot of the bridge, when only one had existed at the start.

As the village of East Molesey pushed further westwards gradually closing the gap between itself and West Molesey, three new public houses were opened - the New Inn, Poyntz Arms, and Europa. All within the space of about ten years. But West Molesey, being situated further from the railway station, expanded at a much later period, and even though it then developed at an infinitely greater intensity, as social drinking habits had changed, the number of public houses did not increase until about twelve years ago, since when two have been opened.

From an early time nobody could open a victualling house without a license obtained from the magistrates at the annual brewster sessions, and justices were empowered to transfer licences, or to withdraw them altogether for persistent evasions of the law. The records of the sessions form one of the most useful bases for information about inns, at least from 1750, when the existing books commence.

In 1830, at a time when foreign wines and spirits were flooding into the kingdom and selling to the detriment of good English beer, Parliament passed an Act [5], because, as its preamble recites, "it is expedient for the better supplying of the Public with Beer in England to give greater Facilities for the Sale thereof than are at present afforded by Licenses to Keepers of Inns, Alehouses and Victualling Houses". Although modified in detail by subsequent legislation, this Act formed the basis for retailing beer for almost the next forty years.

As amended, it enabled the owner of any property assessed above a certain rateable value to obtain an excise licence for the sale of beer (and only beer) simply by paying a fee of three guineas and the production of a certificate of good character subscribed by at least six ratepayers of the parish. A full victualler's licence for the sale of other liquors, or to open an inn or tavern, still had to be obtained from the licensing justices.

The effect of this Act was startling and perhaps not quite what its promoters intended. Within three months almost twenty-five thousand excise licences were issued. New beerhouses sprung up everywhere, although under the stimulus of later amendments the number fell off sharply [6]. All of the public houses which opened in Molesey between this date and 1870 started off in this fashion as beer retailing houses only, but all but one later assumed full public house status.

In 1869 an all-important Act was passed [7] which altered the law yet again, and once more it became necessary for beerhouse keepers to make application to the magistrates for a certificate before the excise licence could be given. Thus the justices again obtained full control over the activities of the beerhouses, and at least one such house in Molesey had its certificate refused and closed down for several years.

This Act abated many of the abuses and bad reputation that the beer shops had engendered. Such as the widespread sale of adulterated drinks, the retailing of beer outside permitted hours, and the habitual drunkenness which they encouraged.

The enhancement of the trade which followed greatly encouraged the brewers themselves to invest in the retail business, buying local houses and letting them to tenant licensees. Thus the tied house system developed rapidly in the years that followed, and by the turn of the century was almost universal.

Over the years three Molesey inns have changed their names, and four have disappeared altogether, although two of these were as a direct result of road improvements.

The name "public house" has been used in the title of this paper as a generic term covering all types of licensed house - inns, alehouses, taverns, hotels - all of which originally meant slightly different things (Alehouses at first sold only ale - later beer; taverns sold wines as well as ale; and inns mainly provided for the accommodation of travellers, but catered for the wants of local inhabitants too). Although during the period with which we are chiefly concerned these nuances of definition are largely clouded over, and the designations are now used almost indiscriminately.

Over the years public houses have formed such a familiar feature of our daily scene, they are so entwined into the fabric of our social life and activity, that folk are apt to take their existence for granted. But the English inn has represented a great deal more than just beer and skittles, or wetting ones whistle in the local. The venerable Dr. Johnson in his usual fashion put it more succinctly: "there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as a good tavern or inn" [8].

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