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     The Four Public Houses

                                  an article by Audrey Forgham

NB click on names of public houses for a fuller history of those establishments

(This article was written in 1998 for Aspects of Helmdon no: 2.  In 2018 The Bell was renamed The Fat Landlord)

The Chequers around 1900

Water has not been safe to drink until comparatively recent times and in the Middle Ages ale was drunk by everyone, including children, rich and poor alike. Brewed from malt grain (usually barley), partially germinated and then dried, it was the favoured drink because it was boiled and contained preservatives. The sugar in the malt was then dissolved in water and converted to alcohol by fermentation. Ground ivy or costmary (alecost) were used to make the ale taste better, and it was sweeter and more syrupy than the later arrival, beer. The word beer was used for ale flavoured by hops and was virtually unknown in Britain before about 1400 when hopped beer was first introduced from Flanders. To begin with the bitter taste was not liked (with hops viewed as dangerous, even life threatening) but gradually people began to appreciate it and by the late sixteenth century almost all ales were hopped as they kept longer.


From very early times the churches or religious institutions were instrumental in setting up hostelries providing accommodation for travellers or pilgrims and the brewing of ale was often an important sideline. In addition, brewing or malting was carried out in every town and village, mostly by small households for their own consumption and, in time, it was brewed for neighbours. So to begin with, apart from the hostelries, there were no special buildings for selling drink, just ordinary dwelling houses. Then things began to become more organised. When the ale was ready to sell the beerhouse keeper put out a sign, usually a long pole with a bush at the end (ale-stake) but this temporary sign was gradually replaced by a permanent sign more like the pub signs of today. Inns were where travellers could get accommodation, stabling, food and drink.


The National Licensing Records at Kew go back to l552, the date when the Alehouse Act directed that alehouse keepers be licensed by the justices, but few very early documents for the Brackley licensing division survive, let alone for Helmdon. However, at the Northamptonshire Record Office there are victuallers’ recognisances (documents binding alehouse keepers to keep orderly houses) with the earliest mention of a Helmdon victualler, named Humphrey Garland, in 1630. In 1673 Joseph Pullen’s will gave his mother Amy "all of his goods and chattels that were properly his own" except for one quarter of "mault" which he bequeathed to "the young men of the towne". The young men of Helmdon were being treated to drinks all round. In a roll of Alehousekeepers and Victuallers of Northamptonshire, dated l692, there is a Timotheus Embeley, who had John Greene standing surety for him to the sum of £10. Unfortunately, at these dates, no establishment names were given. The earliest records for named hostelries, apart from the period 1617-20, were not begun until the 1790s.


Although village legend has it that during its history five public houses have traded in Helmdon, there have been only four principal establishments selling alcohol in the village, and it is these establishments which are the focus of this article. The Cross is almost certainly the oldest but The Chequers was also an early and well established hostelry. Whilst both The Cross and The Chequers were designated alehouses or inns in the records, the other two drinking places, The King William IV (later re-named The Bell, then in 2016 The Fat Landlord) (which is the reason why it was thought the village boasted five drinking places) and The Cock and Magpie were called beerhouses. However, it must not be forgotten that there were most likely other beerhouses in Helmdon which set up trade when circumstances warranted it, and then shut in leaner times, but of these establishments, we have no record. Looking at the lists of victuallers (they are named after each featured public house) it is obvious that apart from certain periods, landlords changed frequently. This would have been for a multiplicity of reasons. Perhaps trade decreased or the victuallers were not proficient enough. Maybe they could not keep good order. (There are many mentions in the records of fines for permitting drunkenness on the premises, only a few of which are instanced in this article). What was obvious is that a man who had a job, such as that of blacksmith, shoemaker or farmer, combined with the victualling, had more hope of making a livelihood. Indeed, the keeping of an alehouse was quite often a secondary and not a main occcupation. The fact that The Cross and The Chequers were a slightly more successful in keeping their landlords was perhaps because they were bigger and more likely to be able to offer accommodation. However, what is indisputable is the fact that all four public houses, and the transitory establishments which did not last long enough to make a permanent mark on the records, would have been very important to the life of the village, providing as they did a meeting place for friends to get together, to make their own entertainment, act as a venue for business activities, and so on. Over the centuries there have been many changes to the types of service and entertainment offered by the drinking establishments of Britain, let alone in Helmdon, which reflect changes in attitude and fashion, social and economic conditions, and changes to the law.


Audrey Forgham  (First published in Aspects of Helmdon, No. 2)


Sources and Acknowlegements Parish records, including churchwardens’ accounts and parish registers, and wills, land tax returns, census returns, maps, victuallers’ recognisances and licences in the Northamptonshire Record Office. Maps and documents at Magdalen College, Oxford. My thanks to the archivists.


My appreciation to those who willingly gave up their time to talk to me, including Reg Jeacock, Jean Simmonds, Tony Smith, Carol and David Brookhouse, Joyce Payne, Harold Seckington, Mary Turnham, and Richard and Sally Phillips. My thanks also to author and county historian Peter Hill who read my article and made sure that I was accurate when it came to the history of public houses in general.



William P. Ellis, Village Life in the 17th and 18th centuries, as told by the parish registers of Helmdon,1900, privately published. There is a copy to be seen at the Northamptonshire Record Office

Peter Clark, The English Alehouse, A Social History, 1200-1830, Longman, 1983

Helmdon Women’s Club, Things We Could Tell You About Helmdon, 1993

George Turnham, My Helmdon, 1998, privately published by the author



Victuallers’ Licences: Records for Family & Local Historians compiled by Jeremy Gibson & Judith Hunter, The Federation of Family History Societies, 1994


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