The Fleece Hotel: A new Life for an Ancient Inn

Fleece Now

The Fleece as it looks now, on the left in the foreground

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.

Fleece Courtyard

The Fleece courtyard with the original old inn on the left

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.

Monk's Retreat Bar

Monk’s Retreat Bar

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.

Monk's Retreat Now

Monk’s Retreat Now

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.

Fleece Hotel SignThe 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.

The Fleece

The Fleece before the fake timbering was added

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.

What’s Next?

Fleece Courtyard in poor state of repair

The Fleece Courtyard looking a bit sorry for itself – taken September 2012 when it was opened up for the Heritage Open Days

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

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About Darrel Kirby

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33 Responses to The Fleece Hotel: A new Life for an Ancient Inn

  1. Ian B says:

    What an opportunity the Fleece is for someone with money and an appreciation for history. Look what was done with Robert Raikes House.

  2. Darrel Kirby says:

    Indeed – Sam Smiths threw a lot of money into Robert Raikes. At the Fleece the council have already done much of the work, it just needs someone with vision. The worst thing would be if it became purely offices or apartments, meaning it would be lost to the public.

    • Ian B says:

      Exactly. There is enough of Gloucesters History already out of bounds as it is. BTW just got your 3 books from the library – fascinating stuff. Don’t worry will buy them eventually to top up your pension!

      • Darrel Kirby says:

        Hope you enjoy the books. If you are tempted to buy them I recommend the Tourist Information Office if you are in town – keep the money in the city (as well as my pocket :-))

  3. Margaret says:

    My mother worked at the fleece hotel for many years her boss was Mr Rich she was still making coffee there for guests at the age of eighty plus,I have memories of seeing the bar in the Monk’s Retreat,interesting to read this. Margaret Williams Huntley.

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Good to hear from you Margaret – always nice to hear first hand memories from these iconic old buildings.

    • Katarina Porou says:

      Would you have any photos please? I am interested as I am told an ancestor of mine used to be publican….

    • Paul Pullan says:

      Hi Margaret,
      I’m seeking information on a relative who worked at The Fleece in the early 1950s. She was a waitress called Gwyneth Roberts and I believe she “lived in” before moving to live in Pontyclun.

  4. Sonia Harrop says:

    I have read this piece with great enthusiasm. We visited The Fleece Hotel today, all the way from Chester. It was once owned by my great grandfather and passed on to my nana Jean Rich (Rimmer) and her siblings, Michael Rich, Jim Rich John Rich and Enid…we have some family photo’s of our family drinking at the Monk’s Bar in the mid 80’s, so it’s a very special place. Regards…Sonia Harrop.

  5. Darrel Kirby says:

    Glad you enjoyed it Sonia – have you seen the reply from Margaret, above, seems she worked for your family there. Still hoping that it will be open again before too long.

    • Sonia Harrop says:

      Hi Darrel….yes I have seen all the comments. Please keep me up to date with everything. We all want to come down when it re-opens.
      I am on face book too, as Sonia Roberts!

      • Darrel Kirby says:

        I will definitely be keeping my eye on the Fleece and blogging any major developments.

  6. Jenni Gregory says:

    Hi Darrel. What a great story. 70 years ago tomorrow – Sept 4th 1943 – my parents spent the 1st night of their honeymoon in The Fleece. My now 92 year old mother, remembers they had a fish and chip dinner with a bottle of Burgundy. How fantastic it would be if it were to become an hotel again and I could take her to stay there for a night. Please keep me up to speed with progress.
    Jenni Gregory

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Thanks Jenni, glad you enjoyed it – it sounds like you have a good story of your own. As far as I know, still no word on what’s happening to it, but the Monk’s retreat will be open for the Heritage weekend later in the month.

  7. Eddie Rich says:

    Hi Darrell, I have really enjoyed reading your article. I am so very proud of my family having been custodians of a part of Gloucester’s history. Having grown up in the Fleece until it’s closure, I have incredibly fond memories of our amazing staff, fabulous customers and causing havoc playing on the roofs with my younger brother. I’ve recently relocated back to Gloucester with my own little family and am gutted with how the old place has been left. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future holds for the Fleece. I hope they really show off its finest features and hidden treasures as they develop it for the future.

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Thanks Eddie, glad you enjoyed it – we all have our fingers crossed for it’s future, but at least the structure has now been secured. Take the opportunity over the Heritage weekend to visit the old Monks Retreat and, if you’re interested, I’ll be doing a guided tour of Gloucester’s historic pubs on Sat and Sun – including the Fleece, although sadly I won’t be able to get inside.

  8. Dan Harrington says:

    Hi Darrel,nice to read about The Monks Retreat below the Fleece Hotel. When I was stationed at Barnwood in the RAF. This is one of the Pubs we used to go to( among many!) Sitting on the upturned barrels & drinking ale was all the rage in those far off days(1956/57) when beer was a good price. I remember one of our group the more he drank the more miserable he became until tears streamed down his face( then again it acts in various ways with different folk ).

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Good to hear from you – that was a bit before my time, but it looks like it was a great place in those days. You’re right about beer affecting people in different ways, but I think I’d go on the wagon if it had that effect on me!

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  14. Alexander Robin Adair says:

    My wife and I had a one night stay at the fleece in 1992 whilst on a return trip from visiting my brother in law who was a business man inn Paris. We were returning home to Dundee in Scotland. It brought back memories eg asking for a room late in the evening to a gentleman who doubled up as barman and doorman. What my wife and I both found amusing as I’m sure he did was understanding one another with our accents . However the room we got was spotless with the most heavily starched sheets I have ever slept on. The room whilst lying in bed reminded me of my parents bedroom from 50 years ago it was very old fashioned accompanied by sloping floors and wardrobe. That said the whole place had character which my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed.The two meals we had there were excellent and very reasonable.I was very sorry to hear of the problems this old coaching inn is having as it would be a great shame to lose such an iconic building. I personally think it would be retained as a coaching inn or similar

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Thanks for getting in touch Alexander. Sadly I never stayed there, but it sounds just like I imagine it should have looked. I agree that it would be a shame to lose it – I am sure the building will stay, but I’d be surprised if it comes back purely as a hotel now.

  15. Steve Dudson says:

    Hi Darrel, what was the outcome of the redevelopment. The reason I’m asking is I’ve come across an old postcard from the Fleece Hotel showing the Monk’s Retreat. The unusual thing about it is it’s been used as receipt for foodstuff bought by the hotel and is dated and signed 28-07- 11. That would of course be 1911.

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Postcard sounds interesting – a fascinating receipt I’m sure!
      As far as I am aware the Fleece is still awaiting a buyer, so no news yet.

    • Katarina Porou says:

      Can you put up a photo please

      • Darrel Kirby says:

        Apologies Katarina, I just noticed I haven’t replied. The only photos I have are those already used in the blog so unfortunately I can’t help further. You may find more in Gloucester archives.

  16. Paul Crabb says:

    We (at Ilfracombe Rugby Club) used to stay here every year, when on our mini tours. This would have been in the 90’s? As far as I can recall, by that time, the whole building was run by the owner, who had an old fashioned name like ‘Cyril’ or something. Had an extremely unusual way of looking at the world. At the time, he would tell stories about Sainsbury offering him millions, but he refused, as he thought his children should have it, and they decide. I assume from reading above, this was the ‘Rich’ family?

    • Darrel Kirby says:

      Thanks for sharing your memory Paul, it is great hear these stories. A building like that should definitely be run buy someone with an old fashioned name. Sounds like he probably should have taken the millions, but lucky for he didn’t.

      • Paul Crabb says:

        I think he already needed it then Darrel! Where carpets had worn through (near doors, sinks etc) he’d just cut out different coloured squares and glued them on top! When I arrived late one year, he offered to take me to the pitch. It was an hour later before we both realised he had no idea where it was! It was like staying in Fawlty Towers, probably worse, but we loved it for all that.

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