Raising a glass to the lost pubs of Honiton
PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 October 2017 | UPDATED: 08:58 10 October 2017
Throughout history Honiton’s thirsty residents and visitors have been served in hundreds of inns and public houses. Steve Jennings took a pub crawl through time.
From its earliest days, Honiton was always destined to be a stop-off point for travellers and passers-by.
Its geographical location remains a convenient midway point for traffic from London and Cornwall. And the town’s close proximity with Exeter, which became an important centre for the flourishing woollen trade in the 15th and 16th centuries, made it a popular resting place for deliverymen heading to the nation’s capital, and this subsequently helped develop the town.
For centuries, a large percentage of Honiton folk made their living from passing trade, and this included the many coaching inns, taverns and alehouses.
It is recorded that Honiton once boasted 35 coaching inns alone, but the facts have been distorted with time - and maybe the odd glass of beer - with books often contradicting the records quoted in others. What is certain is that many of these houses had the same names but in different locations around the town. The first records were made in 1530; a list that named 57 public houses. Happily five of these houses are still serving today; The Volunteer, The Vine, The Star and The Three Tuns are listed alongside The Anchor Inn, an outlet popular with sailors, now known as The Holt, having traded as Dominoes for many years. The Heathfield opened in the 1980s to join this list of Honiton pubs still trading.
When The White Lion closed its doors in 2010 and was subsequently converted into flats, it became the last in a long line of public houses that sadly became lost to the town forever. The inn had been in the west end of the High Street since 1798 and was previously known as The Oxford Inn, whose licence had been forfeited as a disorderly house. It had previously traded across the road on the north side of the High Street as The Bottle and The Anchor Inn (not to be confused with the pub previously referred to on the site of the Holt). The pub was devastated twice by fire and local legend says that when the locals tried and failed to stop the second blaze they decided instead to ‘save’ the remaining barrels of ale and drank merrily while watching the building disintegrate.
Generally regarded to be Honiton’s first inn, The Angel opened for business some time around 1509 and was hugely popular with travellers with an archway leading to stables at the rear. Conveniently located next to St Paul’s Church on the town’s Roman road - now the High Street - it traded until 1989, when it became an off-licence.
And from there the numbers grew. There have been over 100 licensed premises spread throughout the town – although the vast majority located in the High Street to accommodate the travellers. It’s hard to imagine, but among the many inn signs hung in Honiton names have included The Crown and Sceptre, The Pressing Iron and Shears, Duke William’s Head, The Ackland Arms, The Apothecaries Arms and The Golden Fleece.
Some of the town’s most established businesses and iconic buildings are sites of former inns.
In 1971 the pub on the site on one of Honiton’s most recognisable buildings closed its doors. The Globe was on the corner of the High Street and Dowell Street. It had been originally called The Carpenters Arms, The Compass and The Bakers Arms. After closing, it became The Globe Antique Centre, then a meeting hall for The Jehovah’s Witness group and is currently an accountants.
The Chopping Knife was known as The Rolling Pin, but changed names in 1843. Situated on the High Street, it burnt down in 1862 but was rebuilt. Closed in 1890 to become the Honiton Lace shop, it is now the Birds Nest, a Chinese restaurant.
The Bell Inn closed in 1850 after 176 years of trading. The pub’s main doors opened into the High Street and is now the entrance to Lace Walk. A short walk away, The Clarence Inn – named after the Duke of Clarence – is now Abingdon House Antiques.
And The Turks Head was located at the toll gates near what is now the Premier Inn.
In 1913, the population of Honiton was 3,191 and the town boasted 22 licensed houses - that is one for every 145 townies - and doesn’t include the two six-day licensees nor the two beerhouses. Each house faced a constant battle with the authorities, hell-bent on reducing this number with the police arguing that 11 hostelries within 120 yards of the High Street was too many. They probably had a point, and in that year, the authorities got their way forcing the closure of three outlets; The Vintners Arms, The Anchor and The White Hart with the unlucky licensees – who had done little wrong to be forced to close – duly compensated for their loss of income.
Today there are several reasons why pubs close; changing lifestyles and, of course, the price of a pint has increased in comparison to some of life’s other luxuries.
But in days gone by, inns and houses were likely to close for other reasons. Houses destroyed by fire include The Green Dragon, in New Street, alongside High Street pubs The Greyhound, The Hare & Hounds and The Blacksmiths Arms. The last pub was part of a fire that destroyed 115 houses. Among those closed as a disorderly house included The Blue Ball, in Northcote Lane, and The Royal Oak, in Warwick Place. Same scenario for the aforementioned The Oxford Inn, which subsequently traded as The White Lion.
And you have to feel for the owners of The Curriers Arms, an alehouse situated in New Street next to the junction with Queen Street. This house was closed by a local solicitor, Mr Aberdein, who complained it was simply too close to his office!
And one very popular inn was torn down to help develop the town. In 1967, the Lloyds Bank building had a pub on each side. The Black Lion Inn (earlier called The New Inn) had stood since at least 1663 on the corner of New Street, which was then a single-lane road of similar size to Silver Street. The pub was demolished to widen New Street to accommodate the growing flow of traffic to the town centre from the growing Littletown settlement. The statue of a black lion that stood in the inn is now on the other side of the bank in the Black Lion Court, which was actually the site of The Exeter Inn until that was demolished in 1975.
Three more pubs closed in 1975, all in the High Street within close proximity. The Kings Arms was originally called The Bakers Arms, present since at least 1766. This was one of the inns where hot pennies were thrown. After closing it became Kings Arms antiques; it is now a clothes shop.
The Lamb dated from the 1740s and was originally known as The Lamb and Flag. For a while after it was Honey Bees café and is now a branch of William Hill bookmakers. And The Fountain Inn was on the south side of the High Street dating from the 1780s and named after the town’s fountain nearby. It is now Fountain Antique Centre.
There have been some weird and wonderful names; one being the delicately named The Knackers Hole, in Northcote Lane, next to the Knackers Yard, where horses were slaughtered. When Ann Smyth replaced her father James as proprietor in 1700, she changed the name to The Mermaid. A wise choice.
But not all houses were in the main drag with a few in locations not always famed with a walk to the pub. The Cider House, for instance, was situated on Mill Street, opposite Honiton Brewery, which closed in 1860. Pott House was in Clapper Lane and The New Inn, in Axminster Road, which, one assumes, is now Kings Road, the main A35 into the town.
The family of one of Honiton’s most famous residents owned a pub in the town. The White Horse sat on the corner of Silver Street in the High Street and was owned by George Humphreye, whose great-grandson was Ozias Humphreye. Born in the town in 1742, he became a leading painter of portrait miniatures. Elected to the Royal Academy in 1791, he was appointed as portrait painter to George IV in 1792. The pub closed in 1937 and has been mostly used for retail since.
Two doors up was The Three Cups Inn, which employed one of the earliest reward schemes. In the 1950s a coin was found in King Street with the inscription of three cups. This was a token given as change for the customer to redeem for drinks at a later visit and as skittles prizes. This inn became the Devonia Cinema owned by a Mr Harris, who employed a blind pianist to accompany the silent movies of the 1920s.
Honiton’s pubs had some famous visitors too. In 1835 a young reporter for a London newspaper called Charles Dickens was booked into The Golden Lion, having been to Exeter to cover that year’s election. But, keen not to lose his exclusive story, he made a swift exit home when he saw a rival reporter in the bar.
Horatio Nelson was said to frequent several of the town’s hostelries as he journeyed from Plymouth to London and even royalty enjoyed the town’s facilities, with James II a regular of The Dolphin, which was mentioned in his memoirs.
Recent years have seen more closures. The Carlton Inn closed its doors as a hostelry in 2009 and in the past couple of years both The Red Cow and The Railway have closed their doors, although they could re-open in future. The same could be said of The Dolphin, which was later called The New Dolphin Hotel. Originally owned by the Courtenay family as their manor house, who held the title as Earl of Devon for many years, the name came from the dolphin on the family crest. The hotel was sold in 1922 for £5,700. The site remains empty at the time of writing.
Today Honiton remains a town that attracts passing trade. There was a time when those walking through Honiton’s High Street would pass a licensed establishment every two to three buildings.
Today one would barely realise that behind the front of so many of the shops and tea rooms, there once stood an inn where locals relaxed after a day at work and weary travellers rested; where tales were shared and business deals negotiated. And where the ghosts of thousands of revellers of days long gone still raise a glass. Or two.
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