The Fir Tree Inn, Woburn Sands
1753 - 1849
1753 to 1779 - Francis Lee
The first definite, identifiable, record connected to the Fir Tree Inn comes in 1753. The Buckinghamshire Register of Ale Houses was compiled by the Clerk of the Peace between 1753 and 1828, and records the existence of an inn just south of Hogsty End, Wavendon (as Woburn Sands was then known) on the western side of the road to Woburn. Here, “The Shoulder of Mutton Inn” was licensed to Francis Lee. This stood where Fir Tree Cottage now is, about opposite the old entrance to the Fullers Earth works on Woburn Road.
Before this date, there are records in the parish registers of Ridgmont of a Lee family, and a Francis Lee had married a Mary Dudley there in June 1736, and they had had a son, Thomas, christened in August 1739. It is possible that this Francis is the innkeeper, as the Francis Lee of the Shoulder of Mutton died in 1779, and if he were 16 when married, this would make him 59 at time of death. There was also another Lee family, William and Martha, baptising their children around the same time, who christened two sons and a daughter between 1734 and 1739. Perhaps William was Francis’ brother.
However, there is a stronger connection to a Lee family of Wavendon. There is record of a birth of Mary Lee to Francis and Sarah Lee in 1717. It will be seen that Christian names were carried down through the Lee family, so it is possible that this Francis was also the father of the Francis Lee who was licensee of The Shoulder of Mutton. This pub name was often used by landlords who were also butchers by trade, as well as being a popular food item at an inn!
The mapmaker has clearly shown the steep hill between Woburn and Woburn Sands, which was infamous for bogging down horse-drawn carriages until a cutting was made through it. This road was a Turnpike road, and with no organised police force, and most people being armed, this was still a dangerous time to be running a public house on a busy carriage road. We will never know the type of clientele who frequented the old inns of Hogsty End at this time, but I can imagine them as being pretty rough and ready places. The black dots by the road just at the end of the word "Hogsty" is where the original inn stood.
According to the Ale House Register, in 1773 Francis changed the name of his inn to “The Grey Hound”. Perhaps they owned one, or there may have been a local champion dog who took part in races over Aspley Heath, which at that time was open heath land, not the dense woodland we know today. The greyhound is also the symbol for the Duke of Newcastle, and a type of mail coach, just the sort that would have being using this road, having turned off Watling Street at Hockliffe.
The local landscape was soon changed forever, when Major Francis Moore of Aspley Guise planted 51,376 fir trees on 500 acres of land on Aspley Heath in about 1778. For doing this, he was awarded a gold medal from a society which is recorded variously as either “The Society for Encouragement of Art and Manufacture”, or “The Society for the Cultivation of Land”.
1779 to 1784 - Mary Lee
The next year, in 1779, Francis Lee died and was buried at Wavendon, but his inn was taken over by his widow Mary. James Asser’s map of Aspley Guise in 1782, shows a “House Stables and Co.” on the inn site, just beside an area called "Stubb's Earth Pit", while the present site of the modern pub on the corner of Aspley Hill and Woburn Road is noted as belonging to Mr. R. How. This was Richard How of Aspley Guise, a member of an affluent merchant family who live at The Old House. The family were Quakers, and very much involved in the Friends Meeting House at Hogsty End, which has been operating since the 1650's.
Most mining was done by “bell mining”. A shaft was sunk down to where the layer of Fullers Earth was, then a man was lowered down to dig out what he could, in an ever increasing bell shaped hole. The product was hauled up the shaft to the surface, until the hole created was in danger of collapse. Then another shaft was sunk beside it, the spoil used to back fill the first hole and shaft. It was a very dangerous method of work, which was last used in 1891, although there had been examples of open cast mining in use for many years by then. Many local men would have been involved in mining, refining or transporting the mineral, and working up a quite a thirst doing so.
1784 to 1788 - Martha Lee
There is a burial of a Mary Lee at Wavendon in 1784, and the Bucks Alehouse Register begins to record a Martha Lee as the licensee from this year. Martha was certainly a name used by the local Lee family, and Martha continues in the license book until 1788. For one year, 1786, an Edward Shouler is also recorded, but he was also noted as the licensee of The Leathern Bottel at Wavendon. Could there have been some errors in the clerks work? What is not mistaken is the next change of name, which also occurred in 1786.
The fir trees that Major Moore had planted were now about 8 years old, and the old bare Heath was no more now that a carpet of trees was springing up. The Lee family must have been prepared to move with the times, and they renamed the inn, “The Fir Tree”.
1788 to 1810 - William Morris
This corresponds perfectly with the first mention about the inn in a newspaper that I can find. On the 1st November, 1788, the Northampton Mercury ran this advert:
"Fir Plants & C. - All sorts of Scotch, spruce, Larch, Weymouth Pine, Silver and Balm of Gilead Fir Plants, from one to ten feet high. Also Ash, Chesnut, Laurel, Holly, and Crab sets, to be sold cheap. Enquire at the Fir Tree, Hogstye-End, near Woburn, Bedfordshire; or Mr. Richard Randall, Upper Bell, Aspley Guise, near Woburn aforesaid."
It looks like Major Moores' trees were a booming business!
There are two detailed maps of the area, showing the inn and its buildings, both drawn in 1791, and now in the Russell Collection at Bedford & Luton Archives (BLARS R1/221 and R1/290). The first shows the inn buildings clustered around an open yard, with gardens and yards surrounding them. The gardens are to the south of the inn, and would have been seen first if travelling from Woburn. I imagine that quite some care would have gone into these to attract passing travellers and coaches from the main road, who had just struggled over the sand hills, possibly with the passengers having to help push, as in Cruickshank's cartoon. Perhaps it was also the nursery grounds where Mrs Morris was cultivating trees to sell. The land slopes upwards quite quickly behind the inn, and a measurement of 2 acres and 1 rod is shown for the inn and its grounds.
There is also a reference book (BLARS R2/114) for a third map which gives a description of the Aspley Woods area. Alas, the map which showed where exactly the numbers referred to has not survived, but under the heading of "Aspley Wood" the following appears:
Moore's fir trees were still relatively young, and it is interesting to imagine how the area looked in mature oak trees, so dense that the undergrowth had difficulty in surviving. The oak would have been seen as a profitable crop. I wonder if any of it made it's way to the British naval ships of that period? Also in the same book, no. 30 on the schedule is identified as "Mermaids Pond", a local name much older than most would imagine.
The business of The Fir Tree selling Fir trees in 1788 had not been a one off event. This from the 24th January, 1795, Northampton Mercury:
"To Planters - A large quantity of exceeding fine Scotch Firs, between two and three feet high, Spruce Firs - Weymouth Pines, in a very thriving state, may be had immediately, by applying to Mrs Morrice, at the Fir Tree, Hogstye End, Bucks; also Weymouth Pines, from eight to ten feet high, very fit for decorating a pleasure ground, as hiding any disagreeable object, may be had, by applying as above, on very reasonable terms."
..and in the summer, they sold turnip seed to supplement the income from the inn. Northampton Mercury 25th July:
"To Be Sold - A large quantity of Norfolk White and Green Turnip seed, of this years growth, wholesale and retail. Enquire of Wm. Morris, at the Fir Tree, Hogstye-End, near Woburn, Beds"
By now, the corner plot at Aspley Hill, where the modern pub is, had transferred from Richard How to Francis Moore, so he now owned both the site of the original inn, and where it would be based in the future. The next year, Francis Moore sold the site of the original inn to The Duke of Bedford. William Morris continues to be recorded as licensee until 1810, but before then, the name of Edward Lee, son of Francis, begins to appear in documents relating to the west side of the Turnpike Road, where the inn stood. He is mentioned in both 1797 and 1798 in relation to paying for the upkeep of certain sections of the road. (BLARS R4/608/23/1-2).
As early as 1793, The Northampton Mercury announced each year the Hogstye End Statute Fair, held at an inn each year, where farmers and estate managers could go to hire on staff. This seemed to alternate between the Coach and Horses (which we now know as The Swan) and the Weathercock, but always ended with a "dinner on the table at one o'clock".
The Lee and Morris families were certainly tied quite closely together, as this advert from the 1st September, 1804, Northants Mercury shows:
"Stolen or Strayed - Late on Sunday Night the 26th, or early on Monday morning, the 27th August, 1804, from a close belonging to William Morris, Hogstye-End, near Woburn, Beds., a bright-bay mare, of the nag kind; aged, about fourteen hands and half an inch, has a star in her face, and two knobs on her back, done with saddle. Whoever will bring her to the Fir Tree, Hogstye-End; or to Edward Lee, horse dealer, Leighton Hollow; will be handsomely rewarded, and all expenses paid, by Edward Lee."
Just across from the old Fir Tree site is another entrance into the woods. Here, the Henry VII Lodge was built in 1810 - 1811. Of course, this is not during the reign of Henry VII, but the name referred to the Gothic style of building.
I'm sure the locals gaped in wonder at this building when it was new. It still attracts attention now. It originally had two neat little hedge mazes, but they fell into decline and have been cleared away. They stood just to the north of the cottage, and the full description of that house and gardens can be found elsewhere on this website.
Edward Lee and his wife Mary had three sons, and they enjoyed 13 years of running the Fir Tree Inn before his death in 1823, aged 76. His will had been written in February 1818, and tells us he was the owner of three cottages in Leighton Hollow and some land at Longslade.
It would seem that this second Francis Lee was baptised on 10th October 1784, but according to the 1851 census, he says he was born in 1770. As well as the inn, he also inherited the old house in Leighton Hollow, with garden and orchard, and in the deeds he is described as victualler and farmer.
In 1811, at the age of about 41, he married Mary Sharpe of Aspley Guise. She was 19, and they produced seven children:
In 1826, the Lee family bought and mortgaged some land on Longslade Lane. Francis, Edward and William Lee all signed the deeds, and it's interesting to note that only Francis could write, the others just making their mark.
In an 1827 inventory for the Ampthill brewery of John and Joseph Morris, now at Bedford Archives, Francis Lea of Hogsty End is listed as owing the brewery £16 2s 9d. They considered the debt 'Doubtful'. I would have thought that Lee would have brewed his own beer on site, but perhaps demand had outstripped supply. Also this year, the Bucks Licensed Victuallers report shows that a William Lattimer of Hanslope was standing surety for Lee. Lattimer ran "The Watts Arms", and Lee returned the favour by standing surety for him. Forty years later, the practice of standing surety for another landlord would lead to a great deal of trouble for the Lees...
Although identified on a map above as belonging to the Duke of Bedford, the site of the present pub had been sold by the sons of Francis Moore in 1829 to James Young, identified in the conveyance as the local brickmaker. He paid £120. Moore’s sons could not produce any deeds to the site, but believed the site had been a gift from their father. Young was already in occupation of the site, using it as a brickyard. It was described as “...three cottages, brewhouse, woodbarn, stable, hovel and other outbuildings...” which had been erected by Young. The site was much larger than today, having a frontage of 56 yards to the Woburn Road, 48 yards to Aspley Hill, and 44 yards on both other sides. James died in 1839, and his property was split between his two sons, James and Henry, and his wife. James Young junior inherited the Aspley Hill corner plot and buildings.
Before the last of Francis' children was born, there was a major event in the Fir Tree history. Francis is listed in the 1840 Tithe Apportionment as now being at the new site on the corner of Aspley Hill and Woburn Road. Local historian, Arthur Parker, believed the transfer must have been made sometime in the late 1830's. He surmised that it was possibly a fire which led to the move. Old timber thatched buildings were often destroyed this way, and perhaps Francis wanted a more central location for his business, at the junction of two main roads. With the coming of the railways and canals, perhaps there were fewer carriage customers to stop at the little inn on the roadside. The building on the old site is not included on the Tithe, so it must have been destroyed, by accident or design, before 1840.
The Tithe Apportionment also shows that James Young was the owner of the site, so Francis was his tenant. Perhaps they had had an offer from the Duke of Bedford for their old plot, and used the capital to start the new inn.Maybe it was the facility of the brewhouse which appealed to Francis, and he could have started afresh, however, when the transfer was made from the old inn to the new, they decided to take their inn name with them.
This auction notice from the Northampton Mercury, of 1st August 1840, lists Lee as having 8 1/2 years left of his tenancy. Perhaps it had been a 10 year lease, meaning they had moved in mid 1838:
Just to cement the relationship, Francis' oldest son, another Francis, was now 28, and he married Eliza Peters Young on 3rd July 1848 at Wavendon, who was the daughter of James Young. So the tenant publicans son had married the site owners daughter, and a new chapter of Fir Tree history began.