The Fleece Hotel in Westgate Street Gloucester has been in the news lately. The historic inn closed in October 2002 and was shamefully left to rot: an important part of Gloucester’s history crumbling away behind locked gates.
The South West of England Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) owned it from 2003, with the aim of incorporating it into a wider development scheme, but for a variety of reasons nothing came of it. Then, finally, in 2011 Gloucester City Council took it over and some actual work began.
Both the Citizen and Punchline magazine have featured it in the past couple of weeks and it appeared on BBC Points West on Friday. The reason for this sudden surge of interest is that the council has come to the end of a £350,000 restoration to stabilise the building and is now looking to move on to phase two. This is the critical phase that requires someone to take the building on and bring it back into use.
This, then, seems like a good time to consider the Fleece’s impressive history.
In the beginning…
All that you can see of the Fleece from the street is a black and white timber framed building above some small shops and an archway with the date 1497 above it. The inn, however, is much more extensive and its origins are much older than this.
Originally owned by St Peter’s Abbey, The Fleece, like the New Inn, is said to be one of the Great Inns of the Abbey, built to house pilgrims to the tomb of Edward II, who was buried at the Abbey, now the Cathedral, in 1327.
The original inn is not visible from the street – you need to go through the archway into the courtyard and the inn is then on your left. The building dates from at least the time of Henry III (1216-1272), when it was part of an extensive tenement owned by a merchant called Benedict the Cordwainer. It was subsequently split into three parts during the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), one of which had a cellar and was owned by the Abbot of St Peter. There is, however, no mention of it being an inn at this time.
This original building was re-built, above the cellar, in 1497; the date above the archway. There is still no definite mention of it being an inn, however, until between 1525 and 1544 – a bit late for Edward II’s pilgrims. It is not given a name at this time.
The parts of the Fleece visible from the street were also built at this time. They are completely separate from the original building and some of it was originally part of the inn, but part of it was a separate shop and house.
The Monk’s Retreat
Throughout all of this rebuilding the cellar remained.
There are many myths and theories surrounding this cellar. Being part of an ancient building, once part of the Abbey, inevitably there are theories about it being part of a tunnel. There are loads of theories of tunnels in Gloucester and this one is said to have run from Llanthony Priory to the Abbey: quite a feat of engineering.
In reality, it is a twelfth century tunnel-vaulted undercroft – basically a cellar. Gloucester prospered in the twelfth century and some merchants got very rich. With that wealth they were able to build stone houses and stone cellars or ‘undercrofts’, which allowed foodstuff and valuables to be kept both cool and protected from fire – a major problem in towns densely packed with wooden houses.
What do you do with such an impressive and historically important structure? You turn it into a bar of course. It was called the Monk’s Retreat and was frequently referred to as ‘The Most Curious Bar in England’. It still existed up until at least the mid- to late-1980s when I drank in there, totally oblivious to the historic arches supported on round Norman pillars, and I had no idea that it had been described as the finest example of its type to be found in Northern Europe.
Ups and Downs of the Fleece
In 1534 the inn was let by the Abbey to Alderman Henry Marmyon, twice mayor of Gloucester. With the dissolution of the Abbey in 1540 ownership of the inn passed to the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester Cathedral.
The inn was leased to Gray Cox in 1673, at which time it was known as ‘The Golden Ffleece.’ The ‘Golden’ bit of the name was later dropped, leaving it as just as The Fleece – the first mention that I have found of it in licensing records dates from 1681, where it is referred to as ‘the ffleece’.
By 1770 the inn had fallen into disrepair, the only time in its long history that it was closed until now. The Cathedral tried to rent the ailing inn to the mayor and burgess of the city to make a market and shambles on the site – history seems to be repeating itself!
The city worthies declined the offer and it was subsequently it was leased to the Dean, Dr Josiah Tucker, who was recognised as the leading economist of the day. Considerable alterations and repairs took place between 1772 and 1778, by which time it was once again licensed. From 1791 it ranked as one of the chief inns in the city.
The Fleece was sold by the church into private ownership in 1799. Further extensive additions were made to the hotel throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century, including the perpetration of a great fraud on the apparently half timbered upper floors. These are actually timber frame and brick, but in the early twentieth century the whole thing was rendered and boards were applied to imitate timber framing.
A pamphlet from 1949 boasts that the inn had been ‘extended and now consists of thirty-seven fully equipped bedrooms accommodating sixty-eight guests, together with Writing Room and Lounge, Billiards Room, Stock Room and spacious garage.’ The hotel attracted its fair share of celebrity guests including Gracie Fields, Kim Philby, the spy who defected to Russia, and Margaret Thatcher.
And then, in October 2002, The Fleece closed.
The future of the Fleece is at least now looking better than it has for a long time, but it largely depends on who comes forward to take it on. A mixture of hope and speculation has suggested that it could be used in some combination of hotel, offices, shops, restaurants, bars and even housing.
Being such a great part of Gloucester’s Heritage it would be a shame if it didn’t remain open to the public in some way. Being within a stone’s throw of the Cathedral and the fact that Westgate Street is the most interesting, eclectic and non-big-corporate parts of the city it would be nice to see it turned into something with a little flair, individuality and imagination. It would also be really good to see the Monk’s Retreat opened up as a bar again.
Information adapted from The Story of Gloucester’s Pubs