John's website

Me and Pubs

I suspect I was a late starter when it comes to pubs as I did not have a 'local' until I was passed 21. This was the 'Railway' in Hatch End, a pub that no longer exists, but one that introduced me to a bunch of friends with whom I have continued to be in contact for approaching 40 years. Soon after discovering the 'Railway', as my home local, I also found an office local in the 'Polly Perkins' in Paddington, a pub that later underwent substantial change and was renamed as the 'Sir Alexander Fleming'.

From the 'Railway' my next stop was 'The Starling' at Pinner Green, and from the 'Polly Perkins' I moved on to a little gem situated across the road from the old Brompton Hospital in Fulham Road, 'The Crown'. This was a cracking little pub run by Dave and Jean and the location of many great office celebrations in the early 1980s. There were also occasional sorties to the "Anglesea Arms", a real ale Free House with a rustic appearance which was, and still is, in Selwood Terrace, a few yards away along Fulham Road.

Moving job and home to the Midlands, I next came upon several different pubs in Rugby - the 'Webb Ellis', the 'London House' and then the 'Royal Oak' - before my last move to Hinckley. Here, I tried a number of hostelries before eventually settling on the 'Queen's Head' in Upper Bond Street which was my 'watering hole' for some 5 years or so. It's an oldish pub on a much older pub site and has yet to join the recent mania for modernisation. A change of landlord a couple of years ago resulted in a few changes, the best by far being the introduction of an ever-changing range of real ales. It also helped that the new landlord used to be a customer and, though a local lad, is also a supporter of the best football team in the world - Tottenham Hotspur !

Although the pub has been a free house for over 20 years, the only one in the town area for most of that time, it's only since the advent of the new landlord that this status has been taken full advantage of. Some of the beers that were brought in were rare and unusual, so much so that members of the local group of CAMRA seemed to love it and the pub has found itself not only included in the 'Good Beer Guide' but also voted as the Hinckley and Bosworth 'Pub of the Year' for 2013. 

However, 'All that glisters is not gold' and there was a slight hiatus in affairs, during which I migrated for a while to other Hinckley pubs, mainly the 'Railway' and the 'Greyhound'. Neither of these managed to stand the test of time, though, and I've now returned to the 'Queen's Head' which remains, to my mind, the best pub in town.

The Queen's Head, Hinckley

A brief history of Hinckley

Hinckley is a very old market town that can trace its history back to Saxon times. It has been suggested that the town's name is derived from that of a Saxon landowner named Hinca but this seems to be more supposition than fact. Hinckley was recorded in the Domesday Book as being a relatively large village and the Norman invaders built a castle overlooking it, although this was soon abandoned and is said to have been demolished in 1173. The village became a small market town, probably at some time in the late 13th century, and it subsequently acquired an annual fair. The Parish Church of St Mary dates back to the time of Edward I (late 13th century) though some alterations are said to date to the reigns of Edwards II and IV; the steeple was, apparently, an addition in the time of Edward IV. 

Hinckley grew larger during Tudor and Stuart times and the population may have increased to as much as 2,000 by the end of the 1600s. In 1640 the first 'stocking frame' arrived in the town and this industry rapidly became the principal employment in the area. This remained the case for many years and the town prospered as hand operated stocking frames were replaced by steam powered ones from 1853. By 1846, Hinckley was said to produce more stockings than anywhere else in Britain, except for Leicester, however, it is recorded that the average weekly earnings of frame-work knitters in Hinckley in 1843 was only 5s 3d, towards the bottom end of the wage range for the surrounding area. (William White's 'History, Gazeteer and Directory of Leicestershire & Rutland, 1846) The Ashby canal was opened at the beginning of the 19th century and the railway arrived in the 1862, a Bill for the building of which had been laid before Parliament in 1846. The town gained a cottage hospital in the early 19th century, gas lighting arrived in 1834, sewers in the 1870s and piped water in the 1890s; electricity appeared in 1912.

In more recent times, the town has suffered from the decline and virtual extinction of stocking making and a failure to redevelop and re-invent itself. Successive local government administrations have produced development plans but actual change has been spasmodic. Some areas of the town are now in a poor and unwelcoming condition, though there are now firm plans for substantial redevelopment and there has been some significant change already.

The Queen's Head

For at least the last 270 years, the Queen's Head has stood in Upper Bond Street. Documents in the possession of the landlord testify to the existence of a pub of this name or, the name 'The Old Queen's Head' on the same site since 1741 although the current building probably only dates from the second hald of the 19th century; before this, a thatched building stood on the site. References to the pub inevitably become rarer as we go back in time, however, Holden's Triennial Directory for 1809-11 apparently lists the Old Queen's Head and this is currently the earliest established mention. 

Pigot's directory for 1822 records that the landlord of the 'Old Queen's Head' was then a J Lole; oddly, 'Lole' is a name that occurs in my family tree, though I doubt there's a link here. In 1828 it was Thomas Smith in charge and he was still there in 1835. The 1841 census records Thomas Smith as a publican in Bond Street, though without naming the establishment; he was a man of 50 and seems to have had a wife named Sarah and a teenaged female servant living with him. The Directory for 1841 records Thomas Smith as landlord of the 'Queen's Head' (the 'Old' in the name having been dropped), and White's 1846 Directory has a similar listing. Thomas Smith may well have died in 1847, and in 1851, the landlord was probably a James Hudson who hailed from Market Bosworth. William Lingham Lees was close by, employed as a grocer and baker. and in 1854, the landlord was recorded as William L Lees (Melville's Directory & Gazeteer, 1854); in 1855, the landlord was William Lingham Lees (1855 Post Office Directory) who also operated a bakery on the site. Lees was the father of the Robert James Lees who now has a commemorative 'Blue Plaque' in his honour affixed to the adjoining building.

By 1861, the pub had passed to one Charles Sargent and William Lees had moved to Market Place as a joiner and builder. (Drake's Gazeteer & Directory 1861) Sargent was a married man, aged 38, from Burton Hastings, his wife Elizabeth being from Sharnford; the couple had 4 children and a maid. The area around the pub was then dominated by hosiery workers who, no doubt, took frequent advantage of its proximity. The pub is not mentioned in Slater's Directory of 1862, suggesting the possibility that this was when the old building was demolished. In 1863, Charles Sargent was again recorded as the landlord, in White's History, Gazeteer and Directory of that year.

In 1870, the pub had again changed hands with the landlord being recorded as George Pegg (Harrod's Directory 1870), but the 1871 census is unclear; the landlord may then have been Daniel Chambers, a married man from Oadby, the returns showing him as being adjacent to Queen's Head Yard and employed as a publican, but there is no other indication. He could equally well have been landlord of the Black Horse. By 1875 the Queen's Head was in the hands of George Bass (Barker's Directory, 1875) and he was again recorded in 1876 (Post Office Directory 1876), as  'victualler' at the pub in 1877 in White's History, Gazeteer and Directory of that year. and in Wright's Directory of 1880 as publican. Bass had moved on by the time of the 1881 census when John Simmons, a 37 year old family man from Wilmcote in Warwickshire, appears as the new publican; it seems probable that John had married George Bass's daughter, Mary Ann, in 1866 so the pub actually remained 'in the family'. George had not moved far either, being then resident in Factory Road. John, his wife and children made the Queen's Head their home for the next decade and more.

Wright's 1887/8 and 1889/90 Directories name John Simmons as victualler of the Queen's Head, 28 Upper Bond Street; in Kelly's 1891 Directory, the entry was expanded to "Queen's Head P.H. 24 Upper Bond Street; every accommodation for travellers & good lock-up stabling", perhaps suggesting that the John had taken steps to expand the business. By this time, John was recorded as living in the pub with his wife and 9 children - where 'did' they put the travellers ? Wright's 1892 Directory gives the address as 28 Upper Bond St. but Kelly's 1895 Directory again gives the property number as 24 and also records that the publican was then a John Moore; Moore was still the publican in 1899 according to Wright's Directory of that year but he had moved by the 1901 census when the publican was George Wykes, a native of Hinckley. By 1908, the pub had changed hands again with the landlord then being James Mason according to Kelly's Directory; the 1911 census had James Mason, a 56 year old local man as the publican at 24 Upper Bond Street, and he was still there in the following year when it appears that the street had been renumbered again - the pub address was then 40 Upper Bond Street. The 1916 Kelly's Directory of Leicestershire & Rutland recorded a further change of landlord with a Frank Bonnett then behind the bar.

(Details for 1916 to 1980s to be added)

More recently, the Queen's Head was acquired in the late 1980s by Ann Godfrey and Michael Denehy, and subsequently became a location for regular and ad hoc musical entertainments. Anyone with an instrument and an interest could turn up and join in, creating an environment that was unique in the town. Finally, in late August 2010, the Queen's changed hands for the last time to date, with Phil Jackson and Dawn taking over. This latest change saw some internal re-arrangements but, most significantly, full exploitation of the pub's long-established 'Free House' status; a range of real ales from all corners of the country appeared, well kept and drunk with great enthusiasm by locals both old and new. Although most of the music has gone, prices have increased and opening hours have been significantly reduced, the pub remains highly attractive to many locals even though many former regulars are no longer such. While it is a shame that not all the changes have been entirely to my liking, they did provide the impetus for me to explore further afield, which has been interesting, educational and mostly enjoyable. That said, the 'Queen's' remains popular and the beer remains excellent, so much so that the local branch of 'CAMRA' voted it their 'Pub of the Year' for 2013. Needless to say, I have also returned and consider it to be my 'local' of choice once again.

The old thatched building from a sketch in the Queen's Head

Moving on to the 'Railway'
For a period during which I and my friends had what could be called 'an issue' with the 'Queen's Head', we looked around for a new 'local' and, although there are many pubs within a couple of miles, none has so far ticked all the boxes. Initially 'The Greyhound' was the pub of choice and then we tried the 'New Plough' and the 'Railway Hotel' which, despite its name, does not actually have any rooms available and doesn't serve food. Nonetheless, for a year or so it was the 'Railway' which became our most regular watering hole. It was a good old fashioned pub close to, unsurprisingly, the railway station, but also a 25 minute walk from my home, so a bit of a trek if the weather wasn't too good.

The 'Railway Hotel' is another oldish pub though nowhere near as old as the 'Queen's Head'. The evidence suggests that it was built in the late 1860s some time after the opening of the railway line and station in 1862/3; this was originally a stop on the South Leicestershire Railway which was taken over by the LNWR in 1867. Identifying exact dates has proved difficult and there is no mention of either the station or the hotel in local directories until 1870 when the station was noted in Harrod and Co's. directory of that year. However, there was still no record of the 'Railway Hotel' and the railway company had a parcels' office at the Union Inn in the Borough, suggesting that the hotel may not have been opened at the time the directory was compiled. The first clear record of the 'Railway' appears in the 1871 census when 27 year old Tom Morris was a saddler and publican at the hotel and he was still in residence until at least 1876. In 1877, Morris had moved to the Union Inn and the 'Railway' was under the management of William Draycott though how long he remained in residence is unclear. He wasn't recorded there in 1880, when the hotel is not recorded in Wright's directory, and in the 1881 census the publican was William Bradley who had previously been a wine and spirit merchant in the town.

William Bradley remained at the 'Railway' for a number of years, Kelly's 1891 directory recording him as being a wine and spirit merchant and livery stable keeper; in 1892 he was described as being a 'trap letter' but he had departed by 1899 when the publican was named as Charles E Walker. By 1901, Walker had been replaced by Samuel Beech who was recorded as being the hotel proprietor in the census of that year; Beech had arrived from Newcastle via Leicester perhaps demonstrating that Hinckley was then a town that attracted immigrants from far and wide though how long he stayed is unknown. By 1908 he had been replaced as publican by William Goode, a local man, who remained in possession beyond the 1911 census and at least as late as 1916 when he was still recorded as being in residence in Kelly's directory of that year.

It's clear that ownership of the hotel passed to a brewey at some point and ultimately to Marston's; when this occurred is not known but, sadly, it was a Marston's house, for a good few years. Given its location and very low prices (Burton bitter £2.25, Pedigree £2.70 up to early 2013) I had difficulty understanding why this pub wasn't much busier, but I suspect this was principally a result of the brewery's lack of investment and their egregious 'Retail Agreement', under which it was managed for far too long. This agreement is an arrangement which ensured horrible instability for a long period, with as many as six management teams between the middle of 2011 and early 2013; hardly a recipe for success. Although the locals took the turnover and even a couple of spells of closure in good spirit, many slowly drifted away and the pub was eventually sold to a small Leicestershire pub-owning company, 'Steamin' Billy' in January 2013. Marston's closed the pub for a few days prior to the new owners taking control, though 'Why' remains a mystery, and it re-opened on 15th January, a little before the planned time of 6:00pm, with the same house management in place but supposedly with a new philosophy underpinning the business. We were promised the introduction of numerous handpumps and a real emphasis on quality and service.

Regardless of what was said, 'Steamin' Billy's'  actual peformance after they took over was pretty abysmal. The cellar was badly flooded for more than 2 weeks and very little was done about it. Pub stocks became almost non-existent and the new owners were hardly seen; opening hours were reduced drastically and the pub was eventually closed without the owners even have the decency to explain the position to the loyal customers. A period of refurbishment followed and it re-opened after a couple of months looking rather messy; the carpet was horrible and the furniture looked as though it had been rescued from a local tip. Marston's beers had been replaced by a range of 'Steamin' Billy's' own branded ales, no longer brewed by themselves but under licence by a larger company, and, although the price of the real ale was reasonable, the price of lagers had sky-rocketed. They have since started providing food which is far from cheap and this is a pub which I no longer use.

The Railway Hotel seen from Station Road

It seemed clear that the new owners had little or no interest in their existing customers and certainly no interest in keeping them. A further fly in the ointment was the overall nature of the refurbishment which centred on 'updating' of the interior, and an emphasis on attracting those who like late nights and very loud modern 'music'. Multitudinous hand pumps notwithstanding, it was no longer a 'pub' as I understand the word and I moved on again, this time making the 'Greyhound' my main home for a while. Sadly, this turned out to be an even worse story than the 'Railway'. Some of my further thoughts as I travel around will appear on my Pub News & Views blog 'Pub News & Views Blog'.


Hinckley used to have a large number of pubs, as many per square mile or per head of population as anywhere in the country. Most have already gone and even in the relatively few years I've been living in the area several have closed and some have been demolished - the 'Hollybush', the 'Barleysheaf', the 'Castle', the 'Galaxy' and the 'Middlefield Inn' spring to mind but there have undoubtedly been others as well which are probably listed on the CAMRA website. As things now stand, there are indications that Marston's, the brewery that has effectively owned the town for many years, is losing interest in its estate in Hinckley, probably with little consideration for its future use. The 'Black Horse', the 'Weaver's', the 'Red Lion' in Burbage and probably 'The Union' have all had their leases up for sale, presumably because their current licensees have found it impossible to live with the brewery's demands, but with little interest apparently being shown; nearby, the leases for the 'Blue Pig' and 'Axe and Compass' in Wolvey have been on offer. Additionally, the freeholds of the 'Greyhound' and another town pub, the 'Prince of Wales' have been advertised and there may be others in the pipeline, too. It seems that Marston's has decided that Hinckley is not a place in which it will make any money.

The worry here has to be that pubs in Hinckley are losing money, quite possibly because the local council has failed, for many years, to develop the town centre. Those whose leases are on offer may eventually close if the current leaseholders cannot find buyers and decide that it's not worth carrying on. Where freeholds are available, the danger is that the pubs will be bought by parties who will turn them into supermarkets or convenience stores; even if they're bought by people who want to keep them as pubs, where is their trade to come from and what changes will be made to attract customers ? 

I truly fear for the future of pubs in Hinckley.

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Having been a confirmed 'real ale' drinker for over 40 years, and even enjoyed a few events organised by them in the past, I've finally become a member of the Campaign for Real Ale - 'CAMRA'. 'CAMRA' is dedicated to supporting traditional pubs, breweries and ales, and anyone who enjoys the atmosphere and camaraderie of a traditional English pub really should consider joining. For those who'd like to learn more, a link to the local Hinckley & Bosworth branch can be found below.

Hinckley & Bosworth CAMRA