Last month I blogged about plans to re-open the Union in Westgate Street under its original name, The Sword.
A photo appeared on Twitter earlier in the week, posted by Emily Knight Gibbon, indicating that things are progressing well towards its planned opening date on March 1st.
The photo shows the revamped pub frontage, complete with new name “The Sword Inn”.
It also includes the claim “Gloucesters oldest public house established 1680”
Along with favourable and supportive comments and re-tweets, this also raised concern by some about the lack of apostrophe.
My concern was more fundamental: I believe this claim to be untrue.
The claim was repeated in a Citizen story on Friday.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to in any way denigrate the plans to re-open the pub. The plan to reopen it as a ‘cider and pizza house’, although somewhat questionable in fulfilling its stated aim to take it ‘back to its roots’, sounds like a great addition to the Westgate pub scene.
But I couldn’t let this claim go unchallenged
The claim is elaborated on slightly in the Citizen, with new landlords Christine and Peter Sheehy reported saying that “The Sword Inn is the oldest inn in Gloucester as it has been running as a pub since 1680”
It is true that one half of the building was indeed a pub called the Sword by 1680. I couldn’t say for sure whether this is when it was ‘established’, it is just the earliest licensing records that I could find for it. It could potentially be older, unless Christine and Peter have found more definite evidence of its origins.
But does that make it the oldest public house in Gloucester?
What about the New Inn?
The New Inn was built by St Peter’s Abbey between 1430 and 1450. That gives it a good 200 years on the Sword.
Maybe they discount the New Inn because it was an inn, not a pub. We could get into a confusing discussion about pub classification at this point, because the term ‘public house’ only came into use in the late seventeenth century as a general catch-all term for inns, alehouses and taverns.
But let’s avoid the confusion and accept that maybe they could have an argument: the primary purpose of the New Inn was accommodation rather than drinking, although the two obviously went hand in hand.
We will also need to gloss over the fact that this argument would hold more water if they hadn’t appended the word ‘Inn’ onto their new pub name and if they weren’t reported in the Citizen as saying it ‘is the oldest inn in Gloucester’.
So what about the Lower George?
This was already well known by 1535, although admittedly it was then known simply as The George. The ‘Lower’ prefix was added by 1686, to differentiate it from the Upper George further up Westgate Street.
If the claim, therefore, is that it is the pub trading under the oldest original name, and we are being fussy, that could rule out the Lower George by just six years. Although if we are really being fussy, we could rule that the addition of ‘Inn’ to the Sword’s name is little better.
By the late eighteenth century the Lower George had also become an important inn, so maybe it is also discounted in the same way as the New Inn.
The Fountain is definitely an older pub than the Sword.
Its origins go back to Henry III (1207-72) and it was almost certainly a pub by the time of Edward II (1307-27). It was definitely a pub by 1455.
But the name is once again a problem: it wasn’t originally called The Fountain. It has, however, been called The Fountain since 1672, so the name still pre-dates The Sword by eight years. Are we discounting it because it has to be trading under its original name? Or is it again because it was a coaching inn in the eighteenth century?
My final challenge for the title of oldest public house is the Pelican.
I have found records for two pubs of this name, with the earliest records being 1679 for one and 1680 for the other. I can’t tell which survived to become the Pelican we know and love today, but at the very least it means that it ties with The Sword for the title of oldest pub under these convoluted terms. And The Pelican is far too small to have ever been an inn.
So, my conclusion from all this is that, if we are to be ruthlessly accurate, The Sword’s claim should read:
“Gloucester’s (probably) joint oldest public house, which was never an inn (although it now claims to be one), and trading under almost its original name, established by 1680”
They might need a bigger sign.