The King’s Head Hotel, Cirencester –
A town phoenix is re-born
Since this article was written, the Kings Head Hotel re-opened on 01 September 2014, having been closed for five years for a £7m refurbishment. It offers 45 bedrooms, a large ground floor bar area, restaurant and public rooms, and is once again a meeting place and hub of activity in the centre of the town’s now also refurbished Market Place. [Editor, January 2017]
This issue looks in particular at one of Cirencester’s best known buildings and commercial centres, the King’s Head Hotel, at a time when its long-awaited refurbishment is about to be completed and the next phase can begin in its life as a town centre hotel and meeting place. We look in particular at some memories of its life during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which may stimulate other memories amongst some long-established Society members and town residents.
Philip Griffiths, himself a long-standing Society member, has long had an interest in the King’s Head and devoted several pages to it in his photo album Cirencester Pubs Through Time (Amberley Publishing 2013), as reviewed in Newsletter No 58. This volume is the handiest place to look for the wider context of the town’s ale-houses, inns and hotels and their individual histories.
In this summary we need only cover here some (in fact only a little) of the King’s Head’s earlier history and also bring the story up to date for the last decade or so up to the present time.
Occupying a prominent position on the south side of the Market Place, the King’s Head was first mentioned by name in the Court Rolls of Edward VI between 1547-53, so it certainly has pedigree. It became, if it wasn’t already, a significant inn, important to Cirencester’s medieval as well as post-medieval history. By the end of the 18th century it was one of the town’s principal inns, along with the Ram and the Swan in Market Place and West Market Place respectively.
The property in the nineteenth century
Amongst the recorded licensees in the 19th century, the Date family feature large when the property was in the ownership of Earl Bathurst of Cirencester Park. William Date was at the King’s Head in 1820 and a decade later Elizabeth Date was listed as landlady. At this time the inn was an important stopping place for post coaches – the Royal Mail coach from Cheltenham to Bath called every morning at 8am and in the reverse direction every evening at 6pm. A post coach from Stroud to London called every morning at 7am, Sunday excepted. By 1840 Thomas Date, son of William and Elizabeth, had taken over and was advertising the premises as a Family, Commercial Hotel & Posting House.
W. K. Beecham in his History of Cirencester published in April 1842 says
There are large and commodious inns amongst of which the King’s Head and the Ram are posting houses and hold the first place.
Looking back, Kennett J. Beecham in his Notes on Cirencester published in the Wilts & Glos Standard of 1910 comments on Kip’s engraving of the town of c.1712:
The site of the old town was not quite so much occupied as now, the land between some of the streets (excluding Black Jack and Castle Streets) being more rural in its character, with closes and paddocks, and there appears to have been a cart way across the fields from the back of the King’s Head stabling where the Corn Hall now is, crossing Lewis Lane towards Watermoor or the New Mills and Preston.
Although the core of the building may therefore be some centuries old, the frontage as we see it today dates from a complete refurbishment in1863/64 (on a scale not undertaken again until the present day) to designs by the architectural practice of Medland, Maberley and Medland who two years previously had built the brand new Corn Hall next door on the site of the old Antelope inn. The history of these two adjoining buildings was to be closely linked thereafter. On November 7th 1863 there was A Grand Reopening Dinner in the hotel.
Thomas Date was still its licensee but following his death in that year, the King’s Head was taken over and together with the Ram formed the Cirencester Hotel Company. A manageress, Mrs Nicholas, was appointed to look after both hotels. Thereafter manageress followed manageress, a Miss Cambridge and then a Miss Baker. Things did not stand still: by May 1865 hot and cold baths were available at moderate charges, and 1879 saw the opening of the new theatre and its first performance.
Ladies continued to manage the King’s Head: in 1904 Miss Drewett was in charge, followed by Miss F.M. Oliver, who was there in 1907, succeeded in turn by a Mrs Burls the following year. The rating lists of 1903 record it as a free house with a rateable value of £200
J.T. Brockman arrives; the hotel in October 1912
A long period of influence by one man then followed from1909 to 1936, first as leaseholder and then as owner. J.T. Brockman is listed as proprietor in a town directory of 1909. An advertisement and article in the Wilts & Glos Standard three years later promotes the hotel in grand terms, in a form which today would be categorised as ‘advertorial:
The leading family and commercial hotel.
Spacious coffee rooms. Private sitting rooms. Every accommodation for hunting visitors.
Special terms for the winter season.
Excellent stabling, loose boxes for hunters.
Genuine wines and spirits of all the best brands. Billiards, the largest room in town.
The Hotel omnibus meets all trains.
It will be seen from an announcement in our advertising columns that the King’s Head Hotel, Cirencester, has lately been re-decorated, extended, and improved, and it can claim the further distinction of being the first institution in the town to have a fully working installation of the electric light in connection with the recently established Cirencester Electric Supply Company Ltd.
To a hunting centre such as Cirencester is, and with other attractions to visitors as the seat of the Royal Agricultural College, possessing polo and golf clubs with admirable facilities for these sports, and as being a natural starting or halting place for those who wish to explore the beauties of the Cotswold country, a comfortable residential and family hotel is a necessary item of its equipment, and Cirencester is fortunate in possessing such an establishment in the King’s Head among other commodious hotels of the town.
This well known hostelry has been a part of Ciceter’s history for many centuries. In the fine picture by the late Mr John Beecham, hanging in the coffee room and depicting the well known incident of the destruction by the townsfolk of Lord Chandos’s coach when he came to execute the commission of array in 1642, the sign board of the King’s Head is a conspicuous object.
To its antiquity the present proprietor Mr J.T. Brockman, has added the most modern comforts and appointments, coupled with efficient catering and service, while its moderate size, about fifty rooms, preserves the homelike atmosphere that is lacking in the great and gorgeous palaces which are now the fashion in our big towns. In the recent re-decoration and re-furnishing, no detail likely to promote the comfort and convenience of the guests appears to have been overlooked.
But while the modern furniture and appointments of the best quality and in excellent taste have been added as required, the old associations of the hotel have been preserved. Thus several of the brass bedsteads made for the old Cirencester Hotel Company and bearing its monogram, still survive; many a substantial sideboard and other articles go back to past times; there is an old oak chest, purchased by Mr Brockman at the sale of the late Mr C.S. Smith’s effects which belonged to Mr Date, whose name is well remembered as that of the last private proprietor before the Cirencester Hotel Company took over the concern. But while preserving past traditions, the present management recognises the necessity of moving with the times.
As a typical example of this may be mentioned the fact that in the old days visitors had to take their own tub in their rooms, and up to quite recent years there were no baths on the premises; now there are three, two having been added by the present proprietor. The accommodation of the hotel having been found inadequate to meet the demands upon it, what was formerly the billiard room wing has been reconstructed and converted to residential purposes. By this means five bedrooms were added, and as these rooms can be approached by an entirely separate entrance, and can, when desired, be completely cut off from the rest of the house, they afford excellent facilities for isolation if desired in the case of illness.
In addition to the rooms for general use, such as the coffee or dining room, and commercial room, there are several private sitting rooms, and a room is placed at the disposal of chauffeurs, maids, valets, and other servants of visitors. Table de hote breakfast, luncheon, and dinner are served daily in the coffee room, and there is accommodation for private parties from a dozen up to two hundred.
For the big gatherings the handsome Assembly Room is available. This is a finely proportioned hall and is in great request for public dinners, concerts, dances, at homes, bazaars and similar functions. As already stated the hotel is now lighted throughout by electricity, the work having been carried out by Messrs Edwards & Armstrong of Bristol, but the fittings have all been selected by Mr Brockman himself from one of the best London houses, and they are of handsome design and workmanship. The public rooms are brilliantly illuminated, while the bedroom and bedside lights are conveniently arranged. The Assembly Room is admirably lighted by means of rows of lamps of 50 candle power, with holophone shades, descending from the ceiling.
It should be added that the kitchens, which are under the charge of a competent chef, are fitted with the latest culinary devices for ensuring the preparation and service of meals expeditiously and well. There is a large motor garage with examination pit, etc, while the spacious covered yard affords ample accommodation for cars making a temporary halt.
Quite a promotional piece in the local paper! About this time too the hotel also made the national press. On August 6th 1915 the Daily Mirror in a report entitled ‘Girl Chauffeur’ showed a photo of a lady in long coat and peaked cap: Miss Myrtle Newton, who accepted the post of chauffeur at a Cirencester Hotel on the understanding that it released a man for the army. She did all her own repairs, it was reported. Thereafter, further alterations and improvement continued to be made. In 1935 the Assembly Rooms were redecorated and in 1936 John Brockman sold the King’s Head and he died the following year.
We are fortunate that a further reminiscence survives of this period in the life of the hotel. Brockman’s daughter Barbara set down her memories of growing up at this time, living a ten minute walk away from the hotel but her life dominated by its cycle of activity. Here are some extracts:
The whole layout of the hotel has been altered’ (she says looking back) ‘and I think it caters for an entirely different clientele. In the days I remember (1920-1940), it was patronised mainly by guests coming to hunt with VWH (Lord Bathurst’s) Hunt and by commercial travellers, though towards the end of that time a new trade in coach parties was springing up, fostered by my father who made sure that the coach drivers not only had a free meal but were given free drinks and cigarettes. Guests were segregated into two rooms – the Dining Room and the Commercial Room – while chauffeurs and coach drivers ate in a little room the other side of the covered entrance. The Dining Room had the usual small tables where the majority of visitors dined, but the Commercial Room catered for a special trade, as the name implied. It had a large communal table as well as a few small tables.
Many commercial travellers came regularly and used this room as a common room in the evening. The manageress, Miss ‘Auntie’ Budden, kept a supply of carpet slippers which they could borrow when they sat around the fire. This room was also used on market days when Father always provided a special menu, usually including steak and kidney pudding which was a favourite with the farmers.
Across the entrance hall from the Dining and Commercial Rooms was the ’still room’ and serving area and then the servants’ hall where staff had their meals. Further on still were cold rooms for the storage of food (no refrigerators in those days – an ice-box was the best that could be provided) and, finally, up some rickety stairs a very large kitchen which always seemed dreadfully hot because the cooking was done on open ranges. Serving the food must have been a nightmare.
The bedrooms were large and many had four-poster beds which were particularly popular with overseas visitors. They had china washbasins and jugs of cold water, and hot water was brought by a chambermaid in a brass can covered with a towel. There were only three bathrooms and these were kept locked. A bath had to be ordered and was charged for extra (6d I think). Guests put their shoes outside their bedroom doors every night to be cleaned by the ‘Boots’.
The hotel stood in a commanding position in the Market Place and was closely connected with the Corn Hall next to it. The cellars extended under both buildings and the lounge and one bedroom were over some of the Corn Hall offices. The Assembly Room which belonged to the hotel was over the Corn Hall – it was a beautiful lofty room with two Adams fireplaces in it and was used for dances, parties, meetings etc. After we left it was divided horizontally into a dance hall with bedrooms above.
A guest list was published each week in the Wilts & Glos Standard, and during the hunting season contained many well-known names. Among them was ‘Snaffles’, the well-known cartoonist, who gave Father a number of signed prints, which are now worth hundreds of pounds. I remember particularly Mr & Mrs Pinnell, wealthy Argentinians who came every year. They had a suite of rooms on the first floor and Mrs Pinnell used to like to see the chef each day to discuss the menu. People like this had a string of horses which were stabled in the Yard.
The Yard ran from the covered entrance to the hotel along the side of the Corn Hall up to a large area where there were the coach house, stables, pig-sties, hay lofts, ostlers’ rooms etc. From the [side] entrance to the Corn Hall, it ran out to Cricklade Street and there were more stables. The coach house was enormous and would at one time have taken above six coaches, including the Mail Coach.
The fire engine was housed in a special court yard, and the horses for the fire engine were stabled nearby. It was summoned by ringing the ‘curfew’ bell in the church.
One of the loose boxes was often used for puppies being ‘walked’ for the Hunt. Every Boxing Day my father was host to the Meet of the foxhounds in the Market Place and presented the stirrup cup to all the riders. It was a colourful and popular occasion and many people who came to watch the Meet went on to follow the Hunt as best they could by car and on foot.
Also in the Yard were the pig-sties. Fred Wood took great care of the pigs – they were his pride and joy. He trained them as ‘soldier’ pigs: when going to feed them he made them stand to attention while he filled the trough and only allowed them to start eating when he gave the order. Fred Wood also rode the penny-farthing bicycle, which was kept in the coach house, in the annual Carnival – he was the only one in the town who had mastered the art.
I remember riding in one of the carriages kept in the coach house, but before long the carriages gave way to cars and George Wood the coachman became a reluctant chauffeur. He spent his spare time in the yard polishing the car with loving care. Our first car was a large Sunbeam with a division between the chauffeur and his passengers and a speaking tube through which the passengers could give directions. My Father insisted that we should not proceed at more than a sedate 20 mph.
The ‘Boots’ at the hotel was Sam Hawten. As well as cleaning the boots and shoes he was a general porter and handyman. He was very fond of all of us and there are quite a lot of photographs of us with him. I have a silver spoon inscribed with my initials and birthdate which he brought back from St. Omer when he was serving in the army in the Great War. I think we all remember Sam particularly because he always took us to the Mop held in the Market Place on two or three Mondays in October. Sam took us for rides on the roundabouts and never failed to get us a coconut’
The new owner once Brockman sold up in 1936 was a private family company whose chairman Mr Noel Dean became a well-known figure in the hotel in his own right. Equally long-established was the manager Michael Haigh- Gannon who promoted the hotel through several decades. Ownership changes in the 1990s began a period of uncertainty, including a decade in the hands of the national company Shearings, whose use of the hotel for its own coaching trade mirrored some of the developments already noted a century before. Present site owners Wildmoor Properties, based in Cirencester, acquired the hotel in 2002 and the Corn Hall five years later, thereby opening up a comprehensive development opportunity for the linked properties with a substantial street frontage in the Market Place.
The Corn Hall was completed first (and with it the impressive return of the Assembly Rooms) but the hotel has remained closed since 2007, one of the victims of the economic recession, and so has been out of the limelight for some six years, a long period of time for such a prominent building in the heart of the town to stand empty and shuttered up. Its re-opening during 2014 is therefore eagerly awaited and a new chapter in its long life can begin.
David Viner with thanks to Phil Griffiths for permission to quarry his research notes, to Rick Martin and Edwin Cuss for images and additional information, to the Trustees of the Bingham Library for access to its archives; and remembering the late Barbara Lees, nee Brockman, for carefully recording her reminiscences for posterity. Other images are from the editor’s collection