LONG BEFORE the current era of the ubiquitous boardedup, redundant pub, there was one old boozer which occupied a lonely corner of Dudley town centre and still bore the name by which it had become locally famous, despite not serving a single drop in decades.
That pub, which is still there even now, was the Gipsies Tent. Gavin Lawson has written the following after being allowed the chance of a lifetime; a visit to the old place which has fascinated him, amongst many others, for so long: “IT WAS some years ago when I first became aware of the Gipsies Tent in Steppingstone Street, Dudley, and started to hear the story of a pub trapped in time.
Apparently the brothers Don and Bert Millard who ran it, one day in the late ‘70s just shut the doors and didn’t open it again. The pub was said to have been left as it was that day, completely untouched, and I always had a strong desire to get in and have a look.
“Over the years I heard more stories of the Millards who arrived in Dudley in 1867 when George Millard, on his way to Liverpool, stopped in Dudley for a drink and bought the pub then named The Jolly Collier, and changed the name after the traveller encampment over the road.
“One clear and bright Sunday in September 2009 I received a text from a friend and my wish came true: I would be able to enter the legendary pub. Alerting Tony Hitchmough, pub historian and the Dudley CAMRA branch pub preservation officer, we gathered outside the public house and were met by Alun Davies, the cousin of the current owner who inherited it when Don Millard died in 2007. We were then given a conducted tour all over the building with Alun sharing his memories and family stories with us.
“The family had removed the personal possessions. The bar, bar back, fittings and casks had been removed by the Black Country Living Museum who declined the actual building itself as being too big. Vandals had been in but had not done as much damage as one might fear.
“The stove still stood in the middle of the bar, a baby grand piano and electric organ occupied the lounge, sheet music was scattered about, Don being a keen musician, and the remnants of over 140 years of occupation by the same family lay all around.
“Bits of the brewery, various beer based equipment, rusty tools and an accumulation of various detritus were in the extensive cellars; the scullery had a range, ancient bottles in the cupboards and dishes in the stone sink; ancient radios were piled up. I was given a stack of canal boating magazines from the early 1960s, Don being a keen boater and myself being a member of Dudley Canal Trust, who had held their meetings there in the early years.
Closure “Alun was asked about the story that the brothers hadn’t spoken for years even though they lived together. He told us that this was an act they put on for the customers but untrue in reality.
“Alun explained that the reason for closure was that since at least 1958 the pub had been under threat of a compulsory purchase order and when the Millards were told that to retain their licence they would have to invest a considerable sum to bring the establishment up to standard, Dudley Council refused to make a decision and so the brothers decided to close. Letters from the council about compulsory purchase have continued for 50 years.
“Even though the pub had been stripped of most of its trappings and was in its final time, the view being that it would probably be demolished before too long, I came away with a tinge of sadness, yet with a feeling of wonder. A dream had come true for me.” Gavin’s fellow enthusiast and brewing historian Tony Hitchmough has provided us with a detailed history of the Gipsies Tent: “The earliest mention of the pub is in 1841, when John Whitehouse was the licensee of the Jolly Collier, as it was known then. It was a beerhouse, which meant that it was only allowed to sell beer. By 1851, William Griffiths, from Montgomeryshire, was licensee and brewer. Ten years later John Cleavely, from Stoke Severn, also a brewer, was here.
“1867 was a significant date in the pub’s history.
The Smart family had been running the house during the mid 1860s, and in 1867 Daniel Smart was here. Travelling to Liverpool from his home in Gloucestershire, with the intent to migrate to America, was one George Thomas Millard.
He arrived in Dudley, and apparently changed his mind, and bought the Jolly Collier instead. It was he who changed its name to the Gipsies Tent.
“In 1861, George had married Elizabeth Cornforth, but she died. He secondly married local girl Harriet Somer Wilkes on 6th February 1876. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Harriet, and two sons, George and Harry. He replaced the original brewhouse with a fourstorey, three quarter ‘Little Model Brewery’, and so Millard’s Brewery was born.
“George died on 31st December 1898, and was succeeded in the business by his widow. In 1914 the front of the pub subsided because of a former drift mine underneath it. This gave the opportunity to extend the pub, as well as a chance to ‘modernise’ the interior, the whole of this work cost £5,000.
Harry Wright Millard took over during this eventful year, his mother survived another seven years.
“Harry had married Annie Smith in 1901, but she died, and he later married his second wife, Clara.
“Harry had a number of outside interests. He was captain of the Dudley Water Polo Club, and in the 1930s he was chairman of the Brierley Hill and District (Free Home Breweries) Association.
He died in 1957.
“The business passed into the hands of Harry’s bachelor sons, Don and Bert. Bert held the pub’s licence. A number of clubs and societies continued to meet here during this period. Brewing ceased in December 1961 and the brewery building was finally demolished when it became unsafe in 2006.
“In the 1950s the pub had come under threat from the planners and, combined with the Magistrates’ refusal to renew the licence unless expensive repairs were made, the brothers closed the pub in 1980. They continued to live in the building until their deaths.” This history of the Gipsies Tent also appears in Hitchmough's Black Country Pubs.