Numerous narrow streets tuck themselves away in and around Weymouth town. Ones that we don’t pay much attention to. Maybe sometimes travelling their length merely to avoid excess holiday traffic or that proliferation of poodling summertime pedestrians. They are merely a means of getting from A to B as quickly as possible, never a place to stop and admire the few remains of their once historic and elaborate architecture.
One of those is St Nicholas Street which runs from the Sailor’s Return on the harbourside down to where the White Hart still stands.
Weymouth, or Melcome Regis to be precise was built on a Medieval grid, which still exists to the present day..
Sadly though, nowadays St Nicholas Street is a mere shadow of it’s former self. Very little remains of any original buildings, much of this area having been cleared of it’s intimate closes, terraced houses and even a compact burial ground. The area has been continually razed and redeveloped over the years, not least by the Germans in a devastating air raid in April 1942.
However, I have many memories of wandering down here as a child on my way to a Saturday date with my hairy four legged friends. First I would pass great steel rolling doors from whence strange sounds would echo. (Sorry…pun intended!) These doors concealed the back of the chamber-like Echo printing room. When they were rolled open you could stand and watch as the massive rolls of paper tumbled, rumbled and rattled their way through the press, the aroma of hot ink and paper wafting through the air.
Further down towards the harbour stood the remains of an old archway, once a grand entrance to Weymouth’s New Concert Hall and theatre. There it stood, a few eroded bricks and carved stones. Towards its end, it was forlornly propped up with two timbers, stood at the edge of what is now the bowling car park. It’s crumbling ruins merely hinting at it’s former glitzy life.
Sadly, even that last theatrical portal was demolished, and now those passing it’s long since buried foundations have no inkling that great gaiety and comedic capers once took place within it’s stone walls. Fine dandies and gaily dressed ladies alighted their carriages to cross its threshold, arriving in excitement to watch the latest productions, or as one of Weymouth’s older resident’s once described it as ‘ many of the performances given were of the blood and thunder type…’
(image Courtesy of Channel Coastal Observatory)
A few paces more and on the right hand side we arrived at a large set of heavy wooden doors, only that sweet aroma of dung that pervaded the delicate nostrils gave a clue as to what delicious delights lay inside…stables, run by Joyce Pitman.
From here we would emerge with our mounts, clatter and chatter our way through the busy streets towards the beach where horse and rider could enjoy a canter along the firm sands as the tide went out. In all probability these stables were left over from the Victorian era, maybe the Crown Hotel opposite, or one of the other hostelries that dotted this street, complete with resident ostlers to look after horse and carriage.
But now step even further, back in time, to the 19th century and you’ll find that old St Nicholas Street was once a hive of activity…positively buzzing with punters and patrons, saucy sailors and sexy sinners. This narrow, twisty street certainly witnessed life in all its glory.
To add a bit of confusion to the matter there were actually two St Nicholas Streets, one in old Weymouth leading up to St Nicholas church atop the hill and this one on Melcombe Regis side. This often flummoxed those who visited our Victorian ancestors. Weymouth’s St Nicholas Street was renamed Chapelhay Street in 1872. (The Bumper Book Of Weymouth; Maureen Attwooll.)
Now lets take a little peek at St Nicholas Street of old Melcombe Regis starting around the 1860’s, lets see who’s about this busy thoroughfare.
(The Victorian house numbers no longer relate to todays.)
During the second half of the 19th century you can find mention of five public houses at this end of the street, their closeness to the bustling quayside made it ideal for thirsty dock workers and sailors to pop in for light, (or maybe not so light) liquid refreshments.
Literally at the harbour edge (no 56) stood the Sailor’s Return, (as it still stands, maybe not now quite so close to the edge). Mine hosts in 1861 were James and Sarah Ferry with their assorted offspring and a couple of lodgers. The Ferry family had lived in St Nicholas Street for most of their married lives. James started out work as a wheelwright, but by 1842 the couple were running the Sailor’s Return. (Pigot’s Directory 1842) which was a mere beer house at the time, meaning they weren’t licensed to sell spirits of any sorts.
In later years, 1872, James and his fellow publicans made an application to the Licensing Board to be able to remain open until 12 midnight. They claimed that because of the late arrival of the boat trains and the ‘inconvenience to which members of the friendly societies who held their meetings at the Inns were subjected to in being obliged to quit the houses before they had transacted all their business.’ they were in unfair competitions with those club-houses who didn’t come under such strict licensing laws. Their plea fell on deaf ears…the Bench were going to stick firmly to the letter of the Law, though I suspect that after hours drinking still went on, just behind locked doors.
By 1875 James had left the pub and lived further down the street with his son, by now he was a widow.
Move on up to no 42, here you’d find the Welcome Home, which in 1859 was under the ownership of James Flower a brewer and beer seller. A man who ultimately became one of fairly considerable wealth.(1859 Post Office Directory.)
During the Victorian era the Government tried to curb the problem of excess drinking of spirits and in their infinite wisdom deemed it would solve matters if Joe Bloggs could pay a small license fee, enabling him to brew beer and sell it literally from his own front room. Surely, these oh so wise leaders of ours thought, it would encourage the poor working class folk to only drink the weaker beer and leave the spirits alone. (Think that was another grand scheme that didn’t quite pan out…a bit like today’s 24 hour licensing!)
Wily old James Flower’s brewing operation went from strength to strength, ultimately he became known as a brewer and gave up running the small time operation from his home.
By 1861, taking over the Welcome Home beer house, was John Gillingham along with his wife Eliza and their daughter, 18 year old Sarah. Only a few years earlier, 1856, the Gillingham family had suffered a terrible tragedy.
John, a whitesmith by trade, had been enjoying some free time with Eliza and 12-year-old Sarah. they were bobbing about in a boat on the Backwater.
John, also taking this opportunity to partake in a spot of sport, carried with him his loaded fowling piece. He had just pulled into the side of the lake to allow Eliza and Sarah to clamber out of the boat. That’s when disaster struck. Somehow, the loaded gun resting in the bottom suddenly discharged its contents. Unfortunately young Sarah stood next to the boat received its full blast at close range. Local papers, relishing such gruesome details, declared her life was in imminent danger, describing how her flesh lay tattered and the bones in her arm totally shattered.
Sarah survived, but unfortunately her arm did not. In the end it had to be amputated. Interestingly, the 1861 census shows 18-year-old Sarah living at the Welcome Home along with her parents, where she is listed as being a student. A student of what I wonder?
Toddle along to no 46, here stood the Fox Inn run by Henry and Mary Hayman and their veritable brood. Also living on the premises were a couple of servants, Alfred Whittle, an ostler, and a few boarders, including a couple of licensed hawkers, (travelling salesmen as we knew them in my day.) Good old Henry was seemingly a ‘veteran sportsman’ as reported in the Frome Times of May 1861, he supplied the pigeons for a ‘pigeon match’ (what ever that was, one suspects it wasn’t much of a sporting event for the poor pigeons) which took place in the Small Field near the Gas House.
The Haymen family were also to play a role in a tragic accident in 1866. A certain well to do Mr Scattergood had recently brought a new thoroughbred horse from Mr Hurdle, but that horse came with a serious warning. ‘It was a kicker.’ He was told in no uncertain terms to ‘Never use the horse without a breeching strap and kicking harness’. After pondering a while and concerned that maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to sell on this somewhat feisty horse, Hurdle even suggested he took it back again. Scattergood was having none of it. It was a fine looking beast, a spirited nag and he wanted it.
A couple of days later Scattergood made his way along St Nicholas Street, heading for the Fox Inn. Over a few drinks at the bar, an agreement was made with landlord Henry Hayman, he would borrow Henry’s dog cart. When Scattergood set out next day in horse and cart, sat along side him was Henry’s son, ten-year-old Charles
Unfortunately Scattergood had completely ignoring Hurdle’s warning words about harnessing his frisky equine fellow. Big mistake! Stopping at the Ferry Bridge Inn for a few bevvies, the rather proud owner of his fine new filly, bumped into local baker, Thomas Hann, the two men returned inside to continue their drinking. Young Charles was left stood outside in charge of the horse and cart.
Later, the two men exited the drinking hole, they agreed to ‘travel’ on to Portland together. Once man, horse and cart had pulled out onto Chesil Beach road, Scattergood turned round and hollered to the following baker. According to his passenger, little Charles, he shouted ‘Come on I’ll show you the way to gallop.’ With that he whipped his horse which took off down the road as if the very devil was after it. With ears laid back and the bit literally between its teeth, there was no stopping it. Scattergood tried desperately pulling on the reins, but to little avail. Hooves thundered, wooden wheels spun, grit and pebbles flew. A terrified Charles was hanging on to the carts sides for grim death. Galloping unchecked into Victoria Square, disaster was only seconds away.
Then the inevitable happened, horse, cart and passengers teetered to one side. On feeling the pressure of the cart’s shaft against her flank, the already panicked horse reared in fright, toppling over one and all. A mass of shattered wood, stripped skin and broken limbs scattered the square. Scattergood had paid a high price for his filly in fine fettle.
His own death.
Thankfully, though thoroughly battered and bruised, young Charles survived to tell his tale. Also appearing before the inquest court was baker Hann. He insisted that no wager had been at the pub that day over their beers, that they honestly hadn’t been pitting horse against horse by racing along Chesil Beach Road.
Now, The Fox Inn must have been a sizeable premise because at the end of 1861, a bankruptcy sale took place in the Fox Inn Yard. It was large enough to contain 30 odd cart horses, a few more nags, an assortment of carts and carriages, a couple of cows, and lots of odds and sods…
…all the worldly effects of one Henry Lowman Dennis, a local carrier who has seized the opportunity of contracting for the Government breakwater works in hopes that it would make their fortune.
It didn’t !
Henry’s son, Joseph, makes a plea in the courts that the cows seized as his father’s chattels and which were up for sale, were in fact his, he had paid for them, not his father. Maybe he won his claim, because by 1863 it was reported in the Dorset County Chronicle that a Richard Dench had been apprehended on the town bridge with a bag slung over his shoulder. In it it were a number of items that were later found to be missing from the stores of butcher Lowman of St Nicholas Street.
Arriving at no 51, here stood the Crown Tap, a small bar room tucked away around the back of the grand Crown Hotel premises. This was run by 51-year-old John Jeanes and his wife Harriet. By 1867 John and Harriet had become mine hosts of the Bird-in-Hand, which was in fact the newly refurbished Crown Tap.
A couple of years earlier, in 1865, they had applied for and were granted a spirits license. The happy couple had been rubbing their hands with glee, they had realised they were sitting on a positive gold mine. Their hostelry was situated very near the Methodist Congregational Chapel (in between no’s 61 and 62) opposite. Lucky for them, come 1865 and no longer did the pious and holy (and in all probability tee-total) enter these portals, instead it was more the merry and those looking for a spot of fun and lively entertainment. It had became the Theatre Royal or sometimes referred to as the New Music Hall.
(Weymouth Library have a fantastic collection of genuine advertising bills for the old theatres, going right back to George III’s time.)
The Theatre Royal of Monday October 7th 1867 proudly boasts of a ‘Laughable Farce’ revealing a tragic love story concerning ‘Weymouth Sands.’ It pronounces Mr Rosiere as playing the character of jolly old Adolphus Pilkington. Beautiful but somewhat dippy Carnation Curlycrop was of course played by non other than a male actor. Mr Harrowby would don his voluminous fashionable gowns, slap on his gaudy stage make up, pull on his luxurious curly wig, and enter stage left to a rapturous applause from the expectant audience.
This theatre played host to national and international actors and singers, musicians and comedians, it provided entertainment for everyone and seats at prices to suit all.
The theatre also kindly informs its patrons that ‘their carriages may be ordered at 10.30.’ Oh to be able to witness those grand carriages arriving in line, the sound of their horse’s impatient hooves echoing between the buildings, that chomping of the bit as they stand and wait, the creak of the carriage springs as their posh portly patrons clamber aboard.
The Theatre Royal continued up until 1888, when it finally shut it’s doors and was taken over by Cosens & Co.
The goldmine of the grape, the Bird-in Hand, seemingly flourished until March of 1876 when frequent adverts began appearing in the papers for potential tenants for the ‘newly erected beerhouse known as The Bird-In-Hand’ which was only up for rent because of ‘illness of the tenant.’
A little later in time and the local papers and census of 1871 also refer to a Greyhound Inn of St Nicholas Street, run by George Cox Forse and his wife Mary Ann. (Though Maureen Attwooll in her book refers to it as in St Thomas Street.) Maybe like the Crown further down the road, the building went through from one street to the other, had two separate entrances and two separate bars? Perhaps the toffs sauntered in via St Thomas Street and the working man slunk in through the back door.
Gregarious landlord George certainly seemed a character and was no stranger to appearing before the bench. Before taking over the Greyhound Inn the couple ran the Royal Engineers Beershop in Prospect Place. Many a time George appeared before the magistrate for various licensing charges, normally due to selling beer ‘during prohibited hours’
At the start of 1868, George was once again hauled before the court, this time fined for selling spirits without a license. On Christmas Day in 1868, it was wife Mary Ann who found herself in trouble. For once she was on the right side of the law, that afternoon she was faced with a more than somewhat inebriated customer, Joseph Bressed, a pioneer of the 51st regiment who’d staggered down from the Red Barracks. Fearing trouble was on the cards, Mary Ann refused to serve him drink. Not surprisingly, that didn’t go down too well with a well-oiled Joseph. First he lashed out at Mary Ann, then still not content, the pickled pioneer began picking up patron’s drinks, necking back their contents and smashing the glasses on the floor.
Things got no better at the Greyhound! Another somewhat seemingly nefarious character took over the running of the Greyhound Inn. Sure did sound a lively spot. But am I doing the poor fellow a disservice?
On January 3rd 1876 this report appeared in the Police Gazette.
I have yet to find proof of a William Baggs as landlord of the Greyhound Inn at any time, despite looking through Ancestry records, Historical Directories and the British Newspapers online, nor any mention of a court case that matches exactly these details. I cannot even work out which William Baggs this would have been, there are a few tenuous links, but no proof…so there I’ll have to leave it, not wanting to cast aspersions on some innocent fellow.
Maybe one of my followers who enjoys a right old mystery would like to get their teeth into this one. Fill your boots!
(Found this quaint old relic on one of the back walls…can’t you just picture a Victorian coachman hopping down off his carriage to ring for M’Lady.)
If you’ve enjoyed a spot of good old Victorian Weymouth tittle tattle why not grab a copy of my book Nothe Fort and Beyond. It’s full of gossip about military men and their doings in the town.
There’s lots of local families mentioned and loads of their misdeeds and misfortunes.
It is now available from the Nothe Fort Museum and Weymouth Museum bookshops
Also available on Amazon at £10.