The making of beer seems to have been one of humanities earliest achievements. It is possible that even in the Stone Age, people knew how to produce an alcoholic drink from barley and water. Since Abingdon has been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, it is conceivable that the brewing and drinking of beer has been going on here for just as long. The Abbey certainly brewed beer, and for a long time malting and brewing were major industries in Abingdon.
Abingdon’s biggest and most famous brewery, Morland’s, has sadly closed, but the brewing tradition is carried on in the town by the Loose Cannon brewery.
Likewise many pubs have been closing, not only in Abingdon but throughout the country, in recent years, but even so there are many pubs still for people to enjoy.
Museum Assistant Shirley Buckle tells of her memories and her impressions of the Abingdon pub scene:
I was walking through Abingdon recently and I thought to myself how much the town has changed over the years. So many pubs have closed and been transformed into family homes or shops. The Brewery is no longer there – along with many other businesses.
Many years ago I did a fundraiser along with other mums for my local Playgroup – it was suggested that we dress in fancy dress and do a fundraising pub crawl (without the children and of course the alcohol). It seemed a mad idea but the organiser managed to contact the local pubs and they were quite happy for us to visit and approach customers.
We arranged to meet outside the White Horse pub in Ock Street – as we all gathered we must have looked a strange sight! As we approached the pub we were very nervous but as soon as we entered the pub we were greeted with a warm welcome and our buckets soon started filling with loose change. As we continued along Ock Street we were pleasantly surprised how many pubs there were along the street. Everyone was very generous. We continued on our way visiting all the pubs in town and then headed towards the Red Lion on the Vineyard and finishing at the Boundary House. What should have taken about an hour took over 3 hours and we had no idea there were so many pubs!
The White Horse and Mr Warrick’s Arms – two pubs on Ock Street
The point I am trying to make is that losing so many pubs in Abingdon is such a sad sight to see and we can never replace them.
Someone once told me that when MG was in Marcham Road – some employees would get paid on the Friday and visit the pubs in Ock Street along the way and find they had spent most of their hard earned money on refreshments by the time they got to the end of the street!
Nowadays the pubs in Abingdon still have a lot to offer – regular music events – Jazz, Folk, Rock, Soul, all sorts of live music for people to enjoy. There are weekly quizzes in some of the pubs too. Nowadays they serve food as well.
The game of Aunt Sally is still very popular and well supported with many pubs being part of the Abingdon league (sadly not this year because of Covid 19, the first time the game has not been played for over 60 years). In Abingdon district there are over 60 teams participating in the league on a summer Wednesday evening.
Darts tournaments are another popular event that happen on a regular basis. Cribb matches, Pool etc. These are all opportunities for friends and work colleagues to get together and enjoy the evening in a friendly relaxed atmosphere.
We are so lucky in Abingdon to have such a wide variety of pubs offering different things – long may it continue and I really hope we do not lose any more pubs in the future!
If you go and visit a pub in Abingdon, it is worth taking a look at the pub sign outside. Taverns have advertised their business with some signage outside since Roman times, starting with a generic emblem which simply signified that drinks could be had inside. Some places exhibited a chequerboard to indicate that business could be transacted on the premises. (Why a chequerboard to indicate business? Read our blog post on “Medieval Maths” and all will become clear!) This tradition has carried over into the present day, with pubs being called “The Chequer” and displaying a chequerboard sign. Other pub names are in use anywhere in the country as well. Curiously coloured animals seem to be perennially popular: Red Lion, Blue Boar, Black Swan.
But many signs will tell you something about the history of the town and maybe the pub itself or the spot where it is located. They might refer to a specific event or object. The College Oak, for example, derives its name from an actual oak tree growing in the grounds of Radley College. The Saxton Arms is, naturally, on Saxton Road. The Brewery Tap on Ock Street is in the location of Morland’s brewery – you can still see the company name etched into the windows. The Nag’s Head, on Bridge Street, is named after Nag’s Head Island. Ock Mill is another name referencing a specific Abingdon location, but one where the name-giving object itself has disappeared. In this case the pub name appears as a survival of a bygone era. The Narrows on the High Street is a similar example. Today it is the name of a pub, but it used to refer to a housing quarter in that location, most of which burnt down in 1883. New buildings were erected, including a Post Office, which is the building now housing the pub. But the name “The Narrows” preserves a bit of Abingdon’s history that is long gone.
Some names are not quite so obvious, especially to outsiders, but all the more interesting for it. What about “The Midget”, for example? That was of course named after the MG sports car, made in the MG factory in Abingdon.
The “Ock Street Horns” is a name that could not appear anywhere else. It refers to Abingdon’s Morris Dancers, who carry a pair of ox horns as emblem and elect the Mayor of Ock Street every year. Indeed, the horns used to be on display in the pub.
Pubs have always opened and closed, some staying in business for hundreds of years under the same name, some changing their name multiple times, and some going under after a relatively short period of time. Sometimes they didn’t close, but transformed into something else. The Queen’s Arms was demolished, but was reborn as the Queen’s Hotel on the Market Place. Of course you could get a pint at the hotel just as you could in the pub, they had their beer delivered from Morlands.
Even the museum has a tenuous connection with a pub, although it has nothing to do with the name. John West, the Abingdon coach builder whose collection formed part of the foundation of Abingdon Museum in 1919, lived at the Beehive pub as a young man with his family. He had married the landlord’s daughter, and they stayed with her parents until they moved into a place of their own.
There are many more pubs in Abingdon, and many more stories to be told about them, too many to tell here. But before the end of this post, mention must be made of a particular kind of drinking establishment. Many places described as pubs were not purpose-built venues, but private houses. The Beer Act of 1830 made it legal for private persons to buy beer in bulk and serve it in their own houses. Of course, these days there are also former pubs which turned into private houses later on.
One such former pub (now private house) in Abingdon was the Happy Dick on Ock Street. There is even a little plaque to indicate the history of the house. In 2018 the museum received a message from Utah in the United States. Karen Albrand told us that her great-great-grandparents, George and Elizabeth Winterbourne, owned the Happy Dick in the late 19th century. She also sent us a picture of the Happy Dick from those days, reproduced with her permission:
It was their daughter who emigrated to the United States and became one of Karen’s ancestors. From the Happy Dick into the wide world – one of the many interesting stories connected with Abingdon’s pubs.
Elin Bornemann (Collections Officer) and Shirley Buckle (Museum Assistant)