Yes I know I promised we were going on safari and we’re at yet another car park but bear with me. Whilst I was perusing some old history books looking for some information on Oxenbury Field, I found a number of other creatures featuring in the long list of lost places names. Golding’s Heron, Eagle Square by Gresley Row and Bird in Bushes up at Curborough. The latter was almost reinstated by the Housing Committee in 1957 but the suggestion ruffled a few feathers in the city council, with Cllr Wesley Hines chirping up to say ‘Accept this and we might as well have a Toad in the Hole Street too’. Was Cllr Hines was referring to the documented Toadshole Piece over at Christian Fields or just being a silly sausage?
I can’t resist a bit of whimsy and so it was a fantastic beast which leapt out at me and I was pretty sure I knew where to find it. And that is how I came to be standing in Sandford St car park looking for a unicorn. Until the middle of the last century and perhaps even more recently than that, the space behind what is now S&J Music on Bird St was known as Unicorn Yard. We know a little about some of those who lived there, particularly the ones who misbehaved. Percy Bolt, a cab driver employed at the Swan was fined a shilling for being drunk in charge of a horse and cab in Bird St on 9 April 1889. In January 1912, Arthur Osborne was summoned and fined for being drunk in Unicorn Yard. Later the same year, in July, he was back in court on charges of aiding and abetting Ellen Keenan who was charged with indecent conduct in a lane leading to Pipe Green. If ever the council are looking to name this lane, might I suggest calling it Toad in the Hole Street in their dishonour?
The name Unicorn Yard came from a pub of the same name, described in 1933 by local historian JW Jackson as a very old and extensive inn standing next to the present Kings Head. It seems it had ceased to trade as an inn even by 1819, when Lomax and Newling wrote that the house next to the Kings Head Inn was a considerable inn known by the sign of the Unicorn and the large court surrounded by houses retains the name Unicorn Yard. Until fairly recently (although not quite as recently as the 1990s feel they should be), the yard was accessible from Bird St via an entry. It was only when I was stood outside S&J Music looking for signs of where this had been blocked up that I had a mental breakthrough. Was I actually looking at what had once been the Unicorn Inn? I checked the listed building description and given that it says that 23 Bird St probably dates to the 15th century with 18th century alterations, I realised that I probably was. Even more compelling was the Staffordshire HER description that beneath layers of modern plaster, 23 Bird St is a rectangular timber framed building, once probably jettied.
At this point I need to pop next door to the Kings Head for a minute which is easy enough to do as there is a door connecting the two buildings. No I hadn’t ever noticed it either.
Something I had noticed however was a plaque on the wall claiming that the entrance was part of the original timber framed building. As there was no mention of this in the listed building description which says the Kings Head was rebuilt as a coaching inn in the mid to late 18th century, I’d always taken this with the same pinch of salt as the story the pub was haunted by a laughing cavalier who had been murdered as he left the premises. The Staffordshire HER however, suggests that it shares a timber framed wall with the Unicorn (yes, that’s what I’m calling it now) which would make this plaque more accurate than I’d arrogantly given it credit for.
I shall therefore be generous with regard to the other sign in the entrance, pronouncing it to be ‘The Oldest Pub in Lichfield Circa 1408’. So generous in fact that I have put my scepticism aside to look into whether the Kings Head could in fact be the oldest pub in the whole of this sceptred isle (let us not concern ourselves with claims that it isn’t even the oldest pub in Lichfield). We know the Kings Head has at least 15th century origins, albeit under its original name of ‘The Antelope’ which is recorded as standing alongside the Unicorn in 1495. Some of the claims to be Britain’s oldest pub are based on similar documentary evidence, others seem to be based on the fact there is a sign outside saying that it is. So I have a cunning plan for getting the Kings Head crowned as the oldest pub in Britain. We could spend ages hunting through the archives for an earlier reference but let’s be honest, that would be wasting valuable drinking time. Why don’t we just make a new sign that says it dates back to 408? Sorry, what’s that Norwich? You have a pub which started as a brewhouse run by monks in 1249? Pah, we had Romans coming here when the Mansio in Letocetum closed after the fall of the empire. Would you Adam and Eve it, eh? Also, how many spires has your cathedral got? If enough of us repeat something enough times someone will write it down and then it’ll become a fact. Isn’t that how local history works?
I jest of course. We don’t need to make stuff up. The Kings Head is the proud home of the Staffordshire regiment and, serendipitously for a pub known as The Bush for a while, in 1830 was home to a gooseberry bush which became famous for cropping twice in one year. Before I call closing time on the subject for now, let’s just head back to the Unicorn for a moment. The Staffordshire HER suggests that at one time the building was used as an annex to the Kings Head and the idea of the two neighbouring inns effectively becoming one around the time that the Kings Head was transformed into a coaching inn seems to make sense. Which is probably more than can be said for most of this blog post…