Despite Oldbury’s town centre being reasonably small, over the centuries its hostelries and inns have congregated in unusually disproportionate numbers. Those looking to slake their thirst would not have had far to travel. Closing time must have resembled a scene of an epically cast film, the thronging masses valiantly attempting to navigate their way home on a no doubt unsteady and meandering path. Those days are far behind us and so are the majority of the public houses that were shelter to the many stories and events that we are all in many ways the natural descendants. This is a brief study of some of these buildings and those who frequented them; it is an aspect of our social history to be preserved if only now in our fading memories.
AT the beginning of the 1920s there were 50 public houses trading in the town centre itself and some within a mile’s radius.
Within today’s immediate town centre there are incredibly only four public houses actively trading; three in Church Street, one of which has appeared only in the past 12 months or so and a lone operator in Birmingham Street.
Walking down the left hand side of Birmingham Street and set back slightly as if shying away from its 21st century environment, there’s the Bulls Head, where since 1793, the men and women of Oldbury have supped their ale and sipped their gin.
Originally it was called the Ye Olde Bulls Head, being re-named 10 years later. The Brookes family’s tenure was one of the longest, from 1845-1861; William Brookes supplemented his income as a pawnbroker.
Tragedy arose when the pub was hit by an outbreak of smallpox that badly affected the town in 1893.
A new chapter began in 1900 when the premises were re-built, this being the public house we encounter today. However, the façade of this, one of Oldbury’s oldest, is now sadly boarded up, its future undecided and its memories locked away, maybe now eternally so.
No list of Oldbury drinking establishments would be complete without a mention of the Talbot Hotel which stood at Market Place, facing most points of the compass.
It opened its doors in 1845 and didn’t just function as a repository for the thirsty. For example, the Inland Revenue ran from here in 1850 and in 1889, Oldbury Cycling Club were promoting their sporting prowess from the same venue.
For a decade, from 1910, a long serving councillor for the town pulled pints here; he was Henry Machin, universally known as ‘Fred’.
More celebratory occasions were witnessed at the Talbot in May, 1945 when it hosted a dinner dance to mark VE Day. The menu’s choice of starter reflected those post war years, giblet soup being the evening’s appetiser!
Mention of the above would implore me to note what ostensibly was its natural forerunner - The Old Talbot. Certainly one of the town’s oldest, it was built in 1759 and was situated in Birmingham Street. The pub was an early coaching house on the road leading from Birmingham to the north and west. Some of its earliest licensees were the Parish family, who were the hosts from 1829 to 1860.
The Duckhouse family also made their presence felt; the head of this clan George was already involved in the brewing industry from at least the early 1850s until he set down roots at the Old Talbot around 1871.
The volume of these establishments in the town becomes somewhat ironic with an anecdote from 1900. In May that year an inquest was held at The Old Talbot into the untimely passing of a Louisa Smith. Mrs. Smith was known as a prolific drinker and had fallen downstairs at her lodging house in Church Street after a particularly heavy ‘session’.
Perhaps the deceased had crossed the threshold of just one too many inns that fateful day.
The Old Talbot closed its doors in 1961 and after a long period of standing in a pathetic state of disrepair was demolished in 1980 during the town’s major redevelopment.
Local historians will be aware that the name Hadley appears with expected regularity in any brief resume of Oldbury’s inns and hostelries and it may be considered bordering on the criminal not to make mention of The British Lion which had stood at the junction of the now extinct Talbot and Inkerman streets since at least the early 1860s.
It was universally given the sobriquet of Pop Hadley’s and in fact I do not know of any individual who referred to it by its correct title, which no doubt is a tribute to the family of the same name who were landlords there from 1888 onwards and intermittently so.
Positioned just outside the main town was The Prince of Wales in Bath Row, modern day Dingle Street, and once more marked by the presence of the aforementioned Hadley’s, the last of whom, a Mary Anne, was succeeded in 1896 by a William Trueman.
Many Victorian licensees were also brewers in their own right and their names were often seen on jars, flagons and glass bottles that stored their respective ales and spirits. William Trueman was witness to such phenomena as can be seen by the photograph, above right.
At the Red Cow in Church Street, it appeared that you didn’t have to drink too much in order to lean at unusual angles as the floor was somewhat horizontally challenged! A further anecdote is that visitors there were not just of the human kind.
An after hours imbibing once swore testament to a drinker’s lap becoming host to an uninvited rodent! Its last days were observed in the late 1970s after nearly 150 years of service.
I would in conclusion like to make reference to the many other public houses whose names are now lost in the haze of our collective memories.
Which reader can recall the Bustle House, the site later occupied by Woolworths, the Builder’s Arms in Portway Road or perhaps the quaintly named Harmonic in West Bromwich St? There are also those now so distant in time that they no longer remain in any current living memory.
There was a Noah’s Ark in Church Street, an Old Barn a few doors down, The Rollers Arms opposite the former Canal Street, a Rose in June in Shidas Lane and finally there is the Spademaker’s Arms of Furnace Row whose nick-name was the curious, if not a little worryingly, Bug & Blanket. Perhaps this was so called as it gave a welcome to creatures much smaller than those regular drinkers.
It ceased trading in 1908 so maybe the reason is now lost permanently in both former physical minds and discarded written records.
However, public houses are and always have been depositories for our social and local history and despite the popularity of these now in seemingly permanent decline, the stories they evoke must, where humanly possible, be retained for both posterity and for our successive generations to guard jealously as this too will be their future inheritance.
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