The Pubs of Lichfield

The Gresley Arms, the Tankard, the Lord Rodney, the Spread Eagle, the Wagon and Horses, the Wheel, the Lemon Tree, the Beehive, the Anchor, the Constitution Inn, the Three Crowns, and the Windsor Castle. These are just a few of the public houses - now long gone from the Lichfield scene - which were referred to in an interesting talk by John Shaw to the Society at its meeting in the Cathedral Refectory on the evening of the 10th of October.

John took us through a stimulating exploration of an aspect of the social history of Lichfield which perhaps has been much neglected in the past. Lichfield, he tells us, was effectively the 'Crewe' of the coaching era. Many public houses, taverns and inns sprang up from medieval times onwards to cater for the travellers who crossed England from north, south, east and west. In addition of course John reminded us that Lichfield was a place of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages and many inns had an ancestry dating back well into the early Middle Ages.

But what really stimulated the substantial growth of inns and public houses in Lichfield was the Beer Act, passed in 1838. In an attempt to tackle the evils associated with excessive gin drinking, the Government passed this act to promote the consumption of beer rather than gin. For 2 you could serve beer to the public in your private house, thus effectively converting it into a public house. Such was the growth of public houses in Lichfield that over 80 are recorded in the early 19th century to serve a population of 3,500 people. John's calculations led to the inevitable conclusion that every public house served merely 44 people. By 1911 the number of public houses had reduced to 52 to serve a population of 800.

This meant that 163 people had to share one public house. By 1995 a much more sober population had to share one public house for 937 residents.

For nearly two hours John showed us slides, both ancient and modern, of public houses and often explained to us their origins, and the background to the use of the public house. Not only were some originally places for pilgrims to rest overnight, outside the cathedral precincts, but others were run by traders, supplementing their meagre incomes. This was certainly the case with the Shoulder of Mutton, which although a coaching inn in the 1750's, was probably, John told us, run by a butcher.

Many public houses have been converted to other uses. The Dolphin is now occupied by Burton the Tailors, Barclays Bank occupies the Goat's Head. Salloways are trading in the former Woolpack Inn. The Castle Inn, which closed in 1962, is now occupied by the Oxfam shop and Dixons trade on the site of the former Malt Shovel which was licensed as early as 1592.

John finally reminded us that the location of many public houses relates to the routes used by carriers of goods. Often, one finds a public house at the bottom of a hill, where the carrier paused to attach additional 'trace' horses for the climb. These horses were then unhitched at the top of a hill where conveniently another public house would be located to slake the thirst of the carter and, no doubt, the horses!

So what of the future? Public houses, inns and taverns, were a central part of our social history. Will historians look back in a hundred years' time at our public houses and show pictures of family pubs, with their 'wacky warehouses', children's play areas and reproduction themed interiors? Only time will tell.

Roger Hockney
October 2000