The Fir Tree Inn, Woburn Sands
1850 - 1899
In 1850, Francis was able to purchase the freehold of his site from the owner, James Young, junior, for £250. It was described as: "...Yard and garden... adjoining brewhouse, stable and other outbuildings in occupation of Francis Lee and used as a public house called "The Fir Tree" and also premises adjoining garden and ground, barn, and barn late in the occupation of Jonathon Putman." He took a full mortgage from John Green of Woburn for the money, but it would appear he handed over the inn to his son, another Francis, to run, although the licence stayed with Francis senior.
In the Bucks Herald of 2nd November 1850, a report under the Newport Pagnell Petty Sessions, before the Rev. Geo. Phillimore, the Rev. D. B. Langley, and W. G. Duncan, Esq.of Wednesday Oct 30, reads that:
This is the first news report that I have found mentioning the inn, apart from the auction sale in 1840. With literacy rates rising, local newspapers were springing up, and the local petty court sessions were a good source of news to keep their readers informed of local affairs. It does mean that the only news that was recorded tended to be bad news, when fights or arguments became so serious that the village constable was called. We will see that over the next fifty years, depending on who the landlord was, the Fir Tree either came up quite often in these reports, or is absent completely, a good reflection of the landlords' control, perhaps?
It is also interesting to see the inn 'move around' between Woburn Sands, Wavendon, Aspley Heath or Aspley Guise, depending on the view point of the Reporter!
It is useful that the next census came along in 1851. This snapshot shows that Francis (who gave his age as 71) and his wife (63) were looking after one of their grandchildren, Francis Harodine, (age 9) at least for that particular night, (30th March) at an address separate to the inn, while their son, now the third licensee called Francis in this story, was at the inn with his wife Eliza, who is noted as being either blind, deaf or dumb, and their three children; George (5) Edwin (2) and William (3 months). Although clearly listed at “The Fir Tree”, Francis had his occupation listed as a timber haulier, a sideline he must have been using some of the yard space for. Eliza is listed as a dressmaker.
As well as local arguments or even fights to contend with, there were (and still are!) strict licencing laws to abide by, preventing landlords from serving someone who was, or appeared to be, drunk. Not always an easy task. From the Bucks Herald of 27th October, 1855:
...but a far more serious incident occurred just over a year later. From the Bucks Herald, 25th October, 1856:
Francis' first wife Eliza had died soon after 1853, and Francis re-married, to Ann Savage, who was the daughter of a Potton butcher, in November 1857 at Bedford St. Mary. She was the same age as him. It is strange that he chose to describe himself and his father in the register as 'Timber Dealers'. Perhaps it was a more reputable trade than that of innkeeper? She also bore him a daughter, Mary Ann, born in 1860.
1860 to 1868 - Francis Lee
As well as another baby to look after, 1860 brought him more responsibility, as his mother Mary died, and as the eldest son, he inherited ownership and licence of the Fir Tree. Marys' other son, Thomas, was bequeathed one of the family cottages in Leighton Hollow. Maybe Francis was feeling the pressure, as a Beds Times report in July 1860 states:
"Assault Francis Lee, Woburn Sands, was charged by William Daniel, bricklayer, Aspley, with assaulting him at Aspley in the 15th ult. It appeared that Daniel met the defendant and asked him for his little bill, whereupon Lee said, “I’ll pay you now,” and forthwith administered a punch to the head, which knocked him down and blacked his eye. Fined 5s and costs. Paid."
In 1861, the next census occurred. Listed as just “a Public House”, Francis and Ann Lee are there, with their four children, along with two sawyers staying at the property as well, Henry Clapman, aged 35 and William Sharpe, 31.
After just seven years in charge of the pub, it is sad to relate that Francis had got into severe debt, and had to mortgage his property. He transferred the mortgage on more than one occasion, desperately trying to raise capital. Firstly, he transferred it from John Green of Woburn, to James Fowler at 4% a year, and borrowed another £90 from Fowler, then there are further documents relating to a transfer from William Goodman of Toddington and Frederick Fowler to the Fowler brothers of Woburn, who ran a brewery there. He borrowed £83 from Bull, the Newport Pagnell solicitor in 1867, and could not repay it. Bull took the small cottage which adjoined the inn in part payment, but the sale of it did not cover the outstanding debt.
How it all failed so quickly after so many years of successful business is very sad. There were only a few other Lee family members left locally, so perhaps there was no-one left to rely on for help and support. Perhaps the inn that his father had built on the corner was overshadowed by the larger Swan Hotel and the Maypole Inn just across the road. His granddaughter believed that he had stood surety for a man and been let down, but perhaps he was just a bad businessman!
However, he was discharged from bankruptcy within six months. Northampton Mercury, 16th May 1868:
One of her letters to Parker reads:
In the 1871 census, they were living at 8 Hands Court, St Cuthberts, Bedford, but had moved to Pilcroft Street by 1881. They were at no. 52, and appear to have rented it from Thomas Manton, who owned the beerhouse next door. Perhaps he knew Francis through the trade. The 1881 census shows him as a labourer, and his daughter Mary Ann as a laundress. The move to 9 Howard Street had occurred by 1887, and they were still there for the 1891 census, when Francis was 72. He is recorded as a General Labourer, and his wife Ann, 71, a char woman.
They were there when Francis died in March 1898, and was buried in Bedford Cemetery. Ann joined him there in August 1902. This was a sad end for a family who were so involved in the early history of Woburn Sands for so long.
The reference to the first trains coming through Woburn Sands is very interesting. The Bedford to Bletchley line was officially opened on 17th November 1846, which is only about 25 years after the first lines were opened in this country. Bletchley was then still the smaller neighbour of Fenny Stratford, which had become the important local point as it had the Grand Union Canal. There was some talk of the line starting at Wolverton, but this was discounted as the line would have had to have been two miles longer. The project was started by the Bedford Railway Company, formed in 1844, who approached the London and Birmingham Railway. (They, by merger, became the London and North Western Railway just a few months before the eventual opening of the branch line.) The 7th Duke of Bedford reacted uncommonly compared to some of the other aristocracy of the time, and welcomed the line across his lands. He was astute enough to see the benefits to his agricultural endeavours, being able to import the materials he needed and export his resultant crops easily and cheaply. The Duke was not the only landholder, and the railway passed through the land of four owners in Wavendon parish, and seven in Aspley Guise. To avoid there having to be two crossings so close together in Woburn Sands, the original Cranfield Road was turned sharply to meet Station Road. It had previously carried on its course and came out where the present entrance to the recreation ground now is.
The Duke had been due to cut the first soil at a ceremony at Ridgmont, but as the event was delayed a few days, he was unable to attend, and the Duchess performed the ceremony instead. The spade and barrow used are still on display at the Abbey. When the opening day in 1846 came, a train of 33 carriages containing 600 people, (which allegedly only filled 27 of them) travelled from Bedford to Bletchley. The trip took one and a half hours, and ended on a disappointing note when 3 carriages became derailed just as it entered Bletchley. Once this was sorted, the train returned to Bedford, and 200 people attended a banquet at the Bedford Assembly Rooms.
It is interesting to note, that upon opening, our local station was known as simply ‘Woburn’. It only officially became ‘Woburn Sands’ in 1851, although some timetables persisted with 'Woburn' for several more years. This was probably in deference to the Duke, who had supported the project so much, and allowed him to have his ‘own’ station. Quite what visitors thought when they arrived and discovered they still had further to travel, mostly up hill, to reach Woburn proper is not recorded, but they probably thought Woburn was a prettier name than Hogstye End, which was still being used alongside Woburn Sands. The first Stationmaster here was R. Snape, who earned £110 per year, £30 more than his Fenny Stratford counterpart.
The pretty half timbered station houses which can be found at most of the stations on the line are said to have been styled so at the insistence of the Duke. The area around the station quickly became a hub of business, with brickworks sidings, timber depot, cattle dock and a coal depot based there, as well as a manure sidings, and later a gasworks, which also had its own sidings beside a large gas holder.
Passengers were able to reach London in half the time of the stage coach from Bedford and for half the price. It is not surprising that the Bedford Times coach ran for the last time less than a week after the line opened. Four passenger trains a day ran to start with, but this had increased to seven by 1890.
The line was extended further westwards to Oxford by 1851, and eastwards to Cambridge in 1862. This connection of the university towns lasted over a hundred years, but both ends were closed in the Beeching cuts of 1967, so the line reverted to just Bedford to Bletchley, which survives still, mainly due to the number of children going to Bedford schools.
1868 to 1870 - John Litchfield
Back to the Fir Tree story. There is an Ordnance Survey map from 1869, which has "The Fir Tree" detailed on it, but it looks like it refers to the old site. Perhaps they had just copied information across from earlier versions. It is interesting to note that the village is still detailed as “Hogsty End or Woburn Sands”, an instance of both names in common usage. There is an in-depth analysis of the change of name of the village elsewhere on this website.
It would seem that the new owner Alfred Smith had immediately leased the Inn to Rogers & Co. of Newport Pagnell. By December 1868, John Litchfield was installed as landlord, as The Northampton Mercury reported on the Newport Pagnell Petty Sessions in their 19th December, edition:
...but this was just the start of Litchfield's problems... From the 3rd March, 1869, Northampton Mercury:
...then 3rd July 1869, Northampton Mercury again:
At the end of October, Litchfield was tricked into buying two hundred weight of lead from William Farr, a local carter. The lead turned out to be the guttering which had been removed from the stables near Froxfield gate on the Duke of Bedfords estate! Before Litchfield learned it was stolen, he had already sold it on to a scrap dealer in Derby. Litchfield was called as a witness and described himself as a publican and dealer, although the inn was not named in the report which appeared in the Beds Times. Farr tried to argue that he had passed the money he received on to a stranger, and therefore had not profited from the crime, although Litchfield had done so, as he received more from the scrap dealer than he had paid Farr! The court would not accept this, and Farr was sentance to four months.
The following three items all come from The Northampton Mercury, 13th November, 1869:
It does not seem that the convictions were any kind of deterrent for doing the same thing again. Northants Mercury, 18th December, 1869:
The New Year was no better for Litchfield. 29th January, 1870, Northampton Mercury:
Then Northampton Mercury,12th February, 1870:
It wasn't even just his inn that got Litchfield into trouble, 2nd July, 1870, Northampton Mercury:
Racing to get back to the inn before another fight broke out? He was too late... The Northampton Mercury, 23rd July, 1870:
By September 1870, the local Magistrates had heard the name "Litchfield" and "Fir Tree" at least nine times, and this was too often for them, so at the Newport Pagnell Petty Sessions, the Northampton Mercury reported:
...yet it wasn't enough to stop the spate of trouble. From the Croydon's Weekly Standard of 22th October:
1871 to 1877 - Jesse Cooper
So after two turbulent years, Litchfield was sent on his way, and things seemed to calm down considerably! By November 2nd, Rogers & Co. were back at the Petty Sessions, and had the licence transferred to Jesse Cooper.
The 1871 census shows Jesse Cooper, aged 49, listed as a glove maker and innkeeper. Eliza, his wife (38) and William his son (13) were with him, as were another family: Thomas Jackson (24), Elizabeth (24) Caroline (5), Charlotte (2) and Thomas, a baby. James Young, now 72 and widowed, was also still on site, probably in the little cottage adjoining the inn, but he too had his share of trouble, although nothing like as much as Litchfield... From the Leighton Buzzard Observer 6th June 1871:
Most licensees seemed to have had a second trade. With all the outbuildings, there was scope for other work to provide a second income. With the inn, a brick yard, timber dealers and now glove making, the site has seen a wide variety of uses over the years.
More details can be gleaned from a licensing report conducted in 1871. In it, the local pubs are identified and listed with occupier, owner and leaseholder. This shows Alfred Smith still leasing to the brewers Rogers and Bull, of Newport Pagnell, who in turn employed Jesse Cooper. The Brewery was founded in the late 18th century by the Meacher family; it had transferred several times, and was now owned by George Osborn Rogers and his brother in law, William Bateman Bull.
It would have made good business sense for Smith to lease out the inn to another firm who could provide a locally recognised product, and a licensee, rather than having to worry about brewing beer on site, and finding good staff to manage it. Other details recorded on the report show that there were 976 people in Wavendon at the time of the 1871 census, occupying 203 houses. It also records that there were no convictions between the five pubs listed viz. The Fir Tree, The Leathern Bottle, The Wheatsheaf, The Red House and The Swan, so it seems Cooper was running a respectable house.
The name "Fir Tree" still came up at the Petty Sessions, but at least it wasn't the main focus of attention. From the Northampton Mercury, 12th December, 1874:
Cooper didn't get off to the best start with his new employers. Just two months later, he was involved in a court case. At least the inn wasn't named! This piece appeared in the Bucks Herald, 3rd April 1875:
Perhaps Allfrey and Lovell saw the annual lease of The Fir Tree as too high an expense, or were interested in consolidating their holdings, but by July the next year, they had bought the freehold of the inn from Alfred Smith. There exists at BLARS a scrap of paper in a bundle of deeds which reads:
There is a sum on the reverse of the paper, which adds £19 4s 3d to £630, making a total of £649 4s 3d. I believe this to be the total purchase price paid to Smith by Allfrey and Lovell. Thus this local inn passed out of the hands of local Woburn Sands control, and into the world of breweries and business.
1878 to 1879 - Francis Farr
Perhaps the brewery used this change to install their own man, as the next landlord was Francis Farr. After a few quiet years with Cooper in charge, the fights and arguements were back. Northampton Mercury, 25th May, 1878:
Bucks Herald, 14th September, 1878:
Just as Mrs Lee had been, Farr was to be a victim of a drunken assault. From the 10th May, 1879 Bucks Herald:
Northampton Mercury,13th December, 1879:
1881 to 1884 - David Giltrow
By 1881, Farr had left, and had been replaced by David Giltrow. Giltrow had moved down from Stanbridge with his wife in 1874, where he had been a butchers boy. He first took over The Anchor in Aspley Guise, then transferred to The Fir Tree, where he lasted just 3 years, before moving to the Royal Oak in Woburn in 1884, where he stayed until 1889. Then it was on to The Fox and Hounds at Potsgrove until 1914, making him a local landlord for 33 years, quite an achievement!
Census time came around again in 1881, whilst he was at The Fir Tree. Giltrow was 32, and his wife Ruth, 24. They had 3 children, George, 4; Lydia, 3; and Walter, 3 months. Giltrow described himself as a Beerseller and Dealer. He had a nasty accident in November that year, when he was thrown from his pony and trap when it collided with one of the iron bollards on the pavement in Woburn. He wasn't seriously hurt, but the trap was totally smashed, this incident was recorded by The Fenny Stratford Times. Also this year, Henry Fowler, late of The Brewery, Woburn, who had once held the mortgage to The Fir Tree in the 1860's, was committed to the lunatic asylum, and a distress warrant issued for non-payment of rates.
In August the next year, Giltrow got himself into some trouble, and was summoned on a charge of assault on James King, but the case was dismissed. A more curious story was reported in March that year, when The Fenny Stratford Times and Woburn and Woburn Sands Chronicle wrote:
What was going on? Was Giltrow operating some kind of Sweeney Todd-type business? I believe it was more likely in connection with the piggeries on the Fir Tree site, and the slaughtering he may have been doing. Certainly, in June 1883, Giltrow brought a court case against a Cranfield dealer, Titmus, for recovery of the cost of some pigs he had provided. Soon after delivery, and before payment, one of the pigs died of swine fever, and the other two were ordered to be destroyed to control the spread of infection. So Giltrow had dealings in pigs, and we know from the description of the site that it contained piggeries. The Post Office had once operated out of a building at the bottom of Aspley Hill.
In the Northampton Mercury,19th May, 1883, Giltrow was charged with serving liquors after closing hours. Mr Walter B Bull appeared for the defendant, and the case was dismissed with a caution.
Even after Giltrow had left this pub, and was landlord of the Fox and Hounds, he was still involved in pig dealing, as he was brought up on a charge of removing pigs from Bedfordshire into Buckinghamshire without a licence. Giltrow claimed he did not know that Salford was in Beds, which was hotly disputed by the policeman appearing. He was fined 40s and 18s 6d costs, quite a considerable amount. He asked for time to pay, but the policeman thought he could pay immediately, as he said he had seen him at the bank that morning. Giltrow replied to the Court that there were plenty of people who had bank accounts but no money in them!
1885 to 1887 - William George Cooper
One event that the pub seemed to be regularly used for was inquests. The landlord changed again in 1885, and William George Cooper, who was also a hairdresser, moved in. The next year he was called to give evidence at such an inquest held in his own pub when a local resident died. The evidence and newspaper report paints a colourful picture of the deceased:
Tomkins was later found dead by his landlord, Farr, who summoned Cooper, the local constable and the local Doctor, Dr. King. The doctor reported that the deceased's body was “ ...well preserved. He was a man of drinking habits.” I can't help thinking he was inferring that the deceased was well pickled! The jury decided on ‘Death from natural causes perhaps apoplexy’.
1887 to 1888 - Charles Turnock
Perhaps it was the death of a valued customer, probably from over indulgence over the years which hurried Cooper on his way, but by March 1887, he had left the inn. The next landlord was Charles Turnock. The transfer of the licence to him cost 1s 6d to the police and 8s 6d to the court. Northampton Mercury, 12th March, 1887:
"The Fir Tree, one of the oldest roadside inns at the foot of the sandhills, which were for many years past with difficulty traversed by coaches, waggons, or the lightest vehicles, has lately become tenanted by Mr C Turnock, who hails with high testimonials from Chipping Norton. The house was transferred to him on Friday last, at the Woburn Petty Sessions. Messrs Allfrey and Lovell of Newport Pagnell, are leasees."
Turnock may have came from Chipping Norton, but he was born in Shiplake, Oxon. He was 38 on taking the Fir Tree, his wife Elizabeth was 33, born at Easton, Northants. They had two sons, both of whom had been born in Chipping Norton: Harry, 10, and George, 8, and a daughter Gertrude Elizabeth, who was baptised at St. Michaels the first month they moved here. Six years before, at the time of the 1881 census, he was recorded as an ironmongers shopman in Chipping Norton.
As previously mentioned, as well as the innkepper, Cooper had been a hairdresser, and his leaving had left this local service to be filled as well. In the North Bucks Times of 18th March, 1887, a small advert appeared:
"W. Gayton - Hairdresser &c (of Fenny Stratford) Begs to inform the Public of WOBURN SANDS and District, that he has taken the premises near the "Fir Tree", where formerly the business of a hairdresser, &c., was carried on, and that he will attend there every Friday from 9a.m. by strict attenttion to business he trusts to merit and received a share of public patronage. Umbrellas - Neatly repaired and Re-covered at moderate charges"
Whether Cooper had been an umbrella-fixer too is not recorded, but like landlords before him, Turnock found that not all his customers could handle their drink... Beds Times 1st September 1888:
A couple of months earlier, in July 1888, had come the first indication, via the Beds Times, that major building work was under way:
There is no detail about what had already happened to make these works additional, but this marks the beginning of the end of the old thatched cottage-type Inn that had been in use since Francis Lee moved to the site in the late 1830's, and the move towards a purpose-built brick Hotel.
Turnock had another daughter, Beatrice, born in February 1888, but it seems he ran a fairly quiet house as there are no local news reports about trouble at the inn, until September 1888, when William Farmer was charged with being disorderly and refusing to quit the Fir Tree. He was fined 5s with 10s 6d costs. Then Turnock made a serious error, and in October was found guilty of being drunk on his own premises. I'm sure the brewery owners would have taken a very dim view of this, and it is unsurprising that another landlord was quickly installed by mid December, Walter Bailey taking the helm.
1888 to 1889 - Walter Bailey
The minutes of the Highways Board for Woburn recount that Messrs. Allfrey and Lovell have:
It was resolved that the necessary steps be taken to remove the encroachment. Building work was underway, and at the transfer of the licence to Bailey, it was recorded that the bench felt it was an underhand way of getting a licence for a new inn, as the old one had almost entirely been pulled down, and the inn that had held the sign ‘Fir Tree’ could be said to have ceased to exist. Eventually, they decided to issue the licence, and see what the annual licensing panel would say, but they warned Bailey that if he chose to serve beer in the new part of the inn, it was at his own risk, as the licence was for the old part only. This conjures up a marvellous image of all the old seasoned drinkers desperately crammed into the remaining derelict thatched part of the inn, while the gleaming newly built part stood empty. I doubt very much if that was the case, but it always makes me smile! The Bailey family had already been involved in running the Weathercock for many decades, and would later take charge of The Station Hotel for a couple of years.
In January 1889, Allfrey and Lovell were finally summoned for their building encroachment and obstructing the highway at the Fir Tree. After some legal arguments about what constituted obstruction, and how the improvements were a benefit to the road, Allfrey and Lovell were fined 5s. They appealed against this relatively small fine, and agreed to meet with the Highways Board to view the problems.
The Board agreed to remove their objections if the Brewery put down a proper curb and channel round from Woburn Road to Aspley Hill, and also a drain to take the surface water. This was agreed to by the brewery, yet nothing was done. Continual complaints in the local papers and in the Highways Board minutes drag out until June 1889, when a special meeting of the Highway Board heard that an inspection had discovered that the 9 inch drains had all been connected up with 6 inch pipes, and “..that the whole thing was a muddle from beginning to end.” More complaints followed, and it was reported in the Beds Mercury that the drain outlet was stopped up, and that the drain had been put in so badly that it was below the sewer. The area still floods badly today, and now we know why! The Woburn Highways Board minutes tell their own story:
When the above news made the Northants Mercury, the inn was referred to as "The Fir Tree New Inn", the only time I have ever seen that name used.
Another local tragedy had its inquest at The Fir Tree in September, after Miss Emily Summerly, daughter of Henry Summerly, the cooper of Aspley Heath, was thrown from a pony and trap near The White Horse at Husborne Crawley and killed.
Any court case involving a landlord is not good publicity for the pub concerned, and in October, Bailey was called as a witness at the case of two men charged with being drunk and refusing to quit The Fir Tree. Henry Clark was described as being from Woburn and was deaf, while Daniel Webb was from Aspley Guise. Bailey had been out, and returned to his pub to find the two defendants drunk. They started an argument about subscriptions paid into a shoe club that Bailey ran. Clark said that he had paid in a shilling more than Bailey had entered in the receipt book. Bailey took exception to being called a thief, and removed Clark from the inn. This is where accounts differ; Bailey saying he asked Clark to leave, who refused, and had to be thrown out. Webb then came into the inn and asked for Clark's basket, and starting another argument about what Clark had been thrown out for. After asking the landlord outside for a fight, he too was ejected. Bailey said Clark had been nothing but trouble since he moved in.
All of this had to be patiently explained to Clark and his wife, who was also deaf. According to the accused, an entry had been clearly rubbed out from the receipt book, and Bailey didn’t stop to ask them to leave, he just rushed around the counter, struck Clark and pushed him out. Webb received similar treatment when he asked for Clark's basket. Witnesses backed up the two customers, and the Magistrate did not consider the case strong enough to pursue, and dismissed the charges, a decision which the paper reported appeared to be immediately understood by Clark, deaf as he had previously seemed to be!
1889 to 1913 - Benjamin Garrett
At the December 1889 Petty Sessions, the licence for the inn was transferred to Benjamin Garrett, who was born locally in the tiny village of Milton Keynes. After 22 years of landlords who hardly seemed to have settled in before moving on again, (some against their will...) it was about time someone invested some serious effort into running the newly rebuilt inn, and transform it into a profitable business. Garrett was to be that man.
According to ‘The Liberal News and North Bucks Flying Post’, he started by hosting a supper at the inn as a “house warming” and invited a number of working men and neighbours. He was 42, and at the time of the most recent census (1881) was living in Great Harwood, Lancashire, working as a coal agent. His wife, Catherine, was also born in Milton Keynes, and was the same age. There were several Garrett families around at that time, and tracing the families has proved difficult, but it would seem that Ben was the son of Samuel and Elizabeth, of Bow Brickhill, and Catherine was the daughter of another Garrett family, George and Marianne, both sets of Garretts were labouring families. Possibly they were cousins.
His new venture almost never got off the ground, as Garrett was knocked from his cart. Speeding is nothing new! The Northampton Mercury 18th January, 1890:
"Running-In Case on the Highway. B. Garratt v. George Pike. The plaintiff is innkeeper of the Fir Tree, Woburn Sands, and defendant is a farmer living at Newport Pagnell. In November last, about a mile from the latter town, they met on the London-road. It was broad day light. The road was 21ft. wide between the grass edge. A cart belonging to William Potts was standing close to one side. The plaintiff and defendant passed each other just opposite the standing cart. Garratt alleged that he pulled in and got close to the standing cart, leaving plenty of room for Pike to pass, who was driving at a rapid rate, and ran into his trap, the crash throwing him out and causing injury to himself and trap, for which claimed 30s. Petts gave evidence, and said there was plenty of room for Pike to pass. The Judge made an order for the amount claimed."
Perhaps it gives the wrong impression to be recounting court case after court case, and I'm sure that far more was happening than drunkenness and bar room fights, but these are the stories which made the local papers and can be traced today. Alfred Hirdle, of Ridgmount, and William Munn of Aspley Guise, were summoned for being drunk and disorderly at The Fir Tree in April 1890. Arguments were made for both side over “a little row” and the magistrate found the testimony so confusing that he threw the case out.
However, the local constabulary came back with fresh evidence and recalled the men in May, much to the defendants’ disgust. William Smith gave evidence that they had been threatening and asked to leave by the landlady, to which Hirdle replied “You were as gay and fresh corned as any of us!” Ralph Collins, Andrew Smith and Thomas Cox gave similar accounts. P.C. Hewitt was asked by the landlord to remove the men from the inn. After the last summons, Hirdle had said that it was the first time he had ‘got off’, and now told the court:
Although William Farmer spoke in their defence, the duo were found guilty. Hirdle was fined 10s and £1 4s 6d costs or 14 days hard labour, and Munn 5s and £1 4s 6d costs or 7 days. Hirdle elected to serve his time, but Munn’s friends paid off his fine, so he avoided incarceration. The Chairman of the magistrates entreated Munn to have no dealings with the incorrigible Hirdle, and to “avoid him like the plague or he would be ruined, body and soul.”
Now comes the strange part. Having just confirmed that the men were indeed drunk, Garrett was brought up by the same court for permitting drunkenness at his inn, and was found not guilty! The same witnesses were called, who all stated that Garrett endeavoured to conduct the house well. His lawyer argued that it was un-English to get the Garrett to give evidence against the men, then to be charged himself. The very next case before the Court was Hirdle again, charged with being drunk at Ridgmount on a separate occasion. He received another 7 days.
[Alfred Hirdle eventually passed away, whilst serving a sentence in Bedford Prison in 1900, aged 49. The doctors said cause of death was 'Profound Disturbance of the Brain and Apoplexy'. Hirdle was infamous in the area, as his total of 59 convictions, mostly for being 'Drunk and Disorderly' bear testimony. Every landlord for miles around must have breathed a quiet sigh of relief!]
There were certainly more normal activities occurring at the pub. In December ‘The North Bucks Times’ featured a piece on a bagatelle match between two home teams, and there was a excellent supper the next night, at which Alfred Smith, late owner of the inn, and William Pettifer of Aspley Heath presided. Songs were sung and toasts submitted. In the days before radio or jukeboxes, people made their own entertainment.
It would seem Garrett was committed to building the new inn into a modern, vibrant business. This is the first reference to the inn as a 'Hotel', and the first official advert I can find. He seems to have covered all the possible clients, both locals and visiting tourists. The advert ran for six months.
It may seem strange to be promoting the pub as a rest stop for visitors to the woods, but this wasn’t the dog walkers, mountain bikers and ramblers who mostly use them today. In 1858 Dr. James Williams had published “The Topography and Climate of Aspley Guise, in reference to their influence upon Health and Disease, as compared with celebrated English and foreign localities with remarks on the hygiene treatment of consumption and other affectors for which the locality is most suited”. This set out with comparison graphs, the rainfall and temperature for Aspley Guise, Torquay, Hastings, Nice, Madeira and Pau among others.
Dr. Williams had moved to Aspley from Herefordshire, on grounds of ill health, and was so impressed with the effect on his illness, he wrote:
This was just the push that the health-conscious Victorians needed to come flocking to the district every weekend and bank holiday, to wander around the woods, taking in the (alleged) health-giving airs. Woburn Sands built a reputation of almost spa-like proportions. I have seen reports that upwards of a thousand people had been counted coming off the trains at Woburn Sands on a hot weekend. All these visitors needed services. Some wanted to stay overnight, and sought out boarding rooms. Others just wanted souvenirs to show their friends, meaning several china shops flourished, and nearly everyone wanted to send picture postcards to their friends, showing them where they had been. The postcard craze took off after the turn of the century, and the penny post and speed of service made it the easiest way to communicate with family and friends. Several local photographers were operating, and many of the High Street shops sold their own range of local views, including Pikesleys at the Post Office, Gregory the stationers, W. H. Smith stationers, Bathurst, the chemist, and of course the local photographer Robert Cheetham.
Another Licensing Report was compiled in 1891, and compared the Fir Tree to The Weathercock, The Duck (on Aspley Heath), The Royal Oak and The Maypole on Aspley Hill. The rateable value of the pub was 22s, nearly double that of the others, except the Weathercock which was set at 15s. These two had full licences while the other three only had 'on and off without wine' licences. The Maypole had had a conviction during the year for permitting drunkenness.
The census occurred again in 1901, but Garrett and his wife were the only occupiers that night. In September, Garrett had a application for an hours extension for the occasion of the statute fair turned down after the police objected, and also this month the Woburn Sands Band were due to turn up and play but failed to materialise. However, he got an extension through successfully in January 1892, for the occasion of a supper. The only other noteworthy event this year saw William Shaw, a local labourer, summoned for disorderly conduct and refusing to leave the pub. There was confusion as to whether the premises mentioned were licensed, as they were open to the road, so William must have been asked to leave what is now the car park! The case was dismissed.
With such competition around him, and a growing temperance movement asking all to sign the pledge not to drink and holding marches and rallies, Garrett needed some good marketing and business acumen to keep bringing in the customers. Events for all sorts of groups and societies were arranged at The Fir Tree. In January 1893, he advertised again, with a small paragraph in ‘The North Bucks Times’:
In the same edition, there is a report of the Woburn Sands Band having their annual supper at the hotel. The 17 band members were joined by eight friends, and enjoyed a “sumptuous spread” with meats provided by Dentons, and then Mr. Hampden Luttman played the pianoforte to accompany singing by Messrs. Seabrook, Randell, Christmas, Collins, Denton and Emms. Seabrook was now the bandmaster, and it was noted that the band had reorganised under new rules, and was in as prosperous condition as ever before.
In August, a young man called Jenkins was run over just after leaving the hotel. He was trying to avoid a vehicle in the other carriageway in a rain storm, but fell under the Woburn Omnibus, which ran over his shoulder, arm and side. He was seen to by Doctor Grant, and it was reported that he was progressing favourably.
In 1894, the Fir Tree was again the centre of a nuisance case, but this time it revolved around a neighbouring property, that of George Elmer, who ran a horse-slaughtering business. The complaint was that the smell from decaying horse flesh, and the boiling of the meat, was terrible. Garrett was called as a witness, and said that the smell problem had been occurring for four or five years, and that men entering his hotel after visiting the yard were tainted with it. Elmer was found guilty and prohibited from allowing it to re-occur. In November, Garrett and a Frank Elmer found themselves in court over an assault. Elmer had quarrelled with a man called Richard Seal, (who was described as a Beerhouse keeper of Aspley Heath) over some rabbits. Elmer and Seal were thrown out of the Fir Tree, with Joseph Griffen being given a black-eye in the process and Seal offered to fight Elmer for £5, but Elmer refused. Both men were convicted, with Seal receiving a larger fine as he was a beerhouse keeper who should have known better!
It was reported that B. Garrett, innkeeper, had joined Aspley Heath Parish Council in March 1896. The next year was the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and as well as other local events, there was an ox-roast in Swan Field, the open ground where Downham Road was later built.
By the next summer, people were coming from far and wide to take advantage of the new room. From The Luton Advertiser, 10th June 1898:
"Luton Early Closing Association - The first outing of the season took place on Wednesday afternoon, when a party of 60 visited Woburn Sands. About 30 travelled in brakes, and the remainder cycled to the destination. On arriving at 5 o'clock, a tea was provided at The Fir Tree Hotel, Mr Garrett affording splendid accommodation. After tea, the beautiful wood were visited until dusk, and from 8 till 9, the members enjoyed dancing in the dining room of the Hotel. Home was reacehed at about 11.30, after a very successful outing." The same paper reported that the Luton Wellington Street Tract Society and Sunday School Teachers had combined their annual outing, and come to Woburn Sands and had their tea at The Fir Tree in July 1899, and later in the same month, even other pubs were having their outings to The Fir Tree. Luton Advertiser, 21st June 1899: "An outing in connection with the patrons of that well known establishment "The Windsor Castle" Albert Road, so ably conducted by Mr E. Kenney, for many years, took place on Monday last. The party, numbering some 25, left shortly before 10 o'clock, proceeding to Woburn Sands in a spledidly equipped 3 horse brake supplied by Mr G. Powdrill. Shortly after arrival, the party sat down to a well appointed cold luncheon at The Fir Tree Hotel, afterwards dispersing to take a quiet stroll to admire the natural beauties associated with the district..."
.. and the Spread Eagle in Dunstable sent 35 members of their Slate Club for Sunday tea a week later. The summer months were popular for tourists to come to Woburn Sands!
The smell from the horse-butchery business next door to the Hotel was still causing concern in January 1899. It was brought up as part of the Surveyors report to Woburn District Council. An 'Order for Abatement' was issued, and it was noted that if not acted upon, proceedings would follow....
The 19th century ended on a sad note for Woburn Sands, with a shocking murder and suicide, which was described as “..the most awful tragedy that has ever occurred in Woburn Sands.”. In January 1899, a man called George Jeffrey had been lodging with James and Eliza Burt for about six years, in one of the cottages on Woburn Road, just past The Fir Tree. Jeffery had been a drayman for the Northants brewers, Phipps and Co., but had recently been sacked. He had then worked for Benskins Brewery, who had a depot in Woburn Sands, as a bottler, but had also been sacked from that job, about six weeks prior. Since then, he had found employment as an Ostler (a stableman and odd job man) at The Fir Tree.
Another strand of Garretts business was renting out bicycles. There was phenomenal interest in cycling at this time, and large numbers of visitors would have wanted a bike to tour the local area and get to the Abbey etc. One evening in July, George Munn of Aspley Heath rented a bike from the Fir Tree to go to Bedford. For his 2s 6d, he had to have the bike back by 9am the next day, with its lamp still attached. Munn later telegraphed Garrett that he had been offered 35s for the bike, and asked if he should take it? Garrett replied that £2 was the minimum he would accept, but heard no more. Four days later, Garrett went to Bedford to find his bike. He found Munn had sold it to John Savage, a customer at The Nelson Inn, but the lamp was missing. Munn had pawned the lamp for 1s 6d, and sold the bike for £1 7s 6d.
Although Munn claimed that he was going to come home and pay for the bike in full, he could not provide any witnesses to back this story up, and was committed for trial at the Bedford Quarter Sessions.
The last fact to record from the 19th century is that the brewers who owned the pub, Allfrey and Lovell, changed their trading name to "The Newport Pagnell Brewery Company". And so The Fir Tree moved into the 20th century...
Last updated May 2018