The King’s Head in 1904

The great debate: What is Canterbury’s oldest pub?

It’s reasonable to say that any village, town, or city in Britain is going to have enjoyed a very long period of social history.

Given the nature of the people that we are in these islands of ours, there’s more than a fair chance that much of this history involved a social glass or two of ale, wine, mead, cider, or the new kid on the block, beer.

For as long as we’ve enjoyed a tipple with our friends, there’s been the need for somewhere other than our own homes to meet up, chew the fat, comment on life’s ups and downs and generally say and do what we like – within reason – in a public house.

Being such an ancient city, Canterbury has played host to Roman tabernae, Jutish olhuse, Saxon alehouses and the whole gamut of later inns, taverns and tap rooms, all of which may be viewed as worthy forerunners of that great British institution: the pub.

The question is then, which is Canterbury’s oldest established pub? Ask this in your local on a busy Friday night and you’ll be assured, 100% pal, that it’s the Red This, or definitely the King’s That, perhaps even the Crown and Wotsit on Giblet Street, for sure mate. There always someone sitting at the bar who claims to know: he’s usually called Dave and he’s invariably wrong!

The King’s Head in Wincheap

These days, the great and final arbiter in many a pub dispute is Google but putting “what is Canterbury’s oldest pub?” into your phone will just offer you all sorts of porkies, sadly masquerading as semi-credible factoids.

The reason being, that if a pub website states (erroneously) that it’s the oldest pub in town, then that’s what Google will report: fake news!

The old GIGO maxim applies: garbage in, garbage out.

Now, before I’m howled down, I’m not actually suggesting that licensees and breweries are deliberately manipulating the interwebthingy (perish the thought!) but merely highlighting a weakness in the system.

By way of a local example. Simply because Shepherd Neame’s website states that one of its tied houses, The Parrot, is Canterbury’s oldest pub, doesn’t actually make it true, even if Google also tells you it is.

In point of fact, The Parrot is one of Canterbury’s newest hostelries, albeit in a very old building, and as Simple Simon’s only opened its pub doors for the first time just over 30 years ago, when Mike Patten took over what had previously been Radigund’s Restaurant.

All right smartarse, I hear you cry, so which is Canterbury’s oldest pub?

Well, had it not been for Hermann Goering and his friends in the Luftwaffe, there would probably be no real argument. The Royal Fountain Hotel, which stood on St. Margaret’s Street at more or less where the Marlowe Arcade is now and traded under various names for more than 900 years, prior to its destruction in the 1942 Baedeker Raids.

The Fountain Tavern, or Tap (it didn’t acquire its Royal prefix until the mid-19th century) was already older than many of Canterbury’s current pubs are now, when, in 1170, four knights reputedly popped into the bar for a quick pint, en route to the Cathedral, for a rather one-sided meeting with the then Archbishop of Canterbury: one Thomas Becket.

Had the Royal Fountain survived WW2 – and the city council’s own, equally destructive, blitz in the 1950s/60s – it would be celebrating it’s thousandth birthday in about 10 years.

In objectively assessing which is Canterbury’s oldest pub and to try and make the playing field as level as possible, I’ve employed one important criterion: continuous trading as a pub or inn.

Pubs don’t very often move premises but history shows us that their names get altered, sometimes for sociopolitical reasons, quite regularly. I’ve discounted all name changes, as well as minor address tweaks, structural modernisations, rebuilds and extensions.

Starting then, at 1700 and going back in time, here’s a representative list of some of Canterbury’s oldest pubs and inns.

  • Bishop’s Finger (late 17th c) Originally the George & Dragon
  • Cricketers (late 17th c) Originally the Cherry Tree
  • Unicorn (mid 17th c)
  • Three Tuns (early 17th c)
  • Ye Olde Beverlie (early 17th c) Originally the Beverlie Arms
  • Maiden’s Head (late 16th c)
  • Seven Stars (mid 16th c) Originally the Fox & Seven Stars
  • Falstaff (mid 15th c) Originally the White Hart
  • King’s Head (early 15th c)

So, it would appear that the King’s Head on Wincheap can make the best claim to be Canterbury’s oldest, continuously trading, pub or inn.

Within the city walls, there may be a squabble between the Seven Stars and the Three Tuns – depending on who/what you believe – but on the evidence currently available, the former pub wins by a nose.

As ever, I’m open to debate on this subject, provided that any “incontrovertible” evidence isn’t just a direct quote from “Dave at the bar!”

Should you have any old photos, or images, of Canterbury’s pubs, inns and taverns, I’d love to see them.

6 responses to “The great debate: What is Canterbury’s oldest pub?”

  1. Alastair says:

    The Maidens Head in Wincheap dates back to 1466

    https://pubshistory.com/KentPubs/Canterbury/MaidensHead.shtml

  2. rory kehoe says:

    Hi Alastair.

    Thanks for your comment. The key word in the Kent Pubs listing is “apparently” As with one or two other Canterbury’s Oldest Pub contenders, the Maiden’s Head building (or part of it for sure) is definitely older than the earliest reference to it being used as a pub/inn. Parts of the Maiden’s Head (and for that matter, the Three Tuns, Falstaff Hotel, Shakespeare et al) are 14th century, or probably even earlier. Indeed, the Shakespeare frontage onto the Buttermarket (formerly the Black Boy Inn) is based on a Roman footprint: the cellars there are amazing.

    However, the criterion I set was that a building must have had continuous use as licensed premises, which places the Maiden’s Head (as a pub) in the latter part of the 16th century.

    The Cathedral Archives hold the mediaeval licensing rolls for Canterbury and as far as I know, that’s the earliest record of local pubs that there is. There may be older records at the British Library and as a member I have reading rights. Be assured, it’s on my “to do” list!

    Apart from the Fountain Tap/Inn, the Falstaff (then known as the White Hart Inn) and the King’s Head, no other mediaeval pubs make it from the Cathedral Archives’ 14th century records into the Tudor period, wherein we find the first references to the Fox & Seven Stars and the Maiden’s Head.

    Canterbury must be one of the few places in the world, where half a dozen of its current pubs have cumulatively racked up upwards of 2,000 years’ continuous licensed trading. Whichever way you look at it, that’s an awful lot of pints!

  3. Alastair says:

    Hi Rory,

    I was told that the Maidens Head building was taken down and moved along the street at some point in its long history and that it is called the Maidens Head because knights visiting the Cathedral used to leave there ‘Maidens’ there when they went into the City. There are some fantastic ancient beams in the loft space and bar area, it is amazing to think what the building has seen while enjoying a pint at the bar!

    It would be good to know what you find out as you work through your ‘to do’ list!

    Regards,

    Alastair

  4. rory kehoe says:

    Hi Alastair.
    Well, I’ve done some more digging and turned up a few more nuggets of Canterbury pub information but nothing specifically about the Maiden’s Head.
    I’m not sure about the story of pious knights leaving their maidens in the pub! In those days, Wincheap was a wagon making/selling area outside the city walls, so probably not such a secure place to leave your horse, let alone your missus. My personal jury is out on this one. I’d always thought the name referred to the Virgin Mary, or The Fair Maid of Kent (Joan, the wife the Black Prince, who’s buried in the Cathedral) but I’m open to alternative suggestions.

    I’ve not heard of the Maiden’s Head being moved from another site. Is this documented anywhere? Several of Canterbury’s mediaeval buildings were moved “for safety” in the 19th century, some because the land they stood on was needed by the railway companies. Two of these buildings were relocated to St. Dunstan’s Street but suffered the misfortune of being destroyed by the Luftwaffe: the irony being that of they’d stayed put, they’d have survived the Baedeker Raids. Heigh ho!

    One other casualty of the war was the Crown, which stood on the corner of Burgate and Iron Bar Lane. Had it survived WW2 it would have given the Fountain a run for its money. According to my latest research, I have it trading for over 700 years. The Crown was badly damaged in an early air raid but patched up, it carried on trading, only to be totally destroyed in 1942.

    I’ll keep my eyes open for any other Maiden’s Head information. I popped in over the summer and it seems to be reaping the benefit of enthusiastic management. Good to see.

  5. Dougie! says:

    What about the Cherry Tree which says it was built in the 1300s on the outside?

  6. rory kehoe says:

    Hi Dougie.

    Good Q. Though by comparison to some of the longer-serving pubs in Canterbury, the Cherry Tree’s 13.00 may as well be the time it started pulling pints!

    The Cherry Tree name only goes back c.70 years when the pub, then owned by Thompson’s Walmer Brewery, changed from being the Fleur-de-Lis Tap. This referred to the Fleur-de-Lis Hotel, round the corner on the High Street, which operated for several hundred years in a building dating, in part, from the 13th century. Basically, the tap was where the hotel employees, ostlers, guests; servants and tradespeople were expected to drink, rather than in the hotel’s bar. The Fleur-de-Lis Hotel operated from the late 17th century (possibly earlier) until the early part of the 20th century, when it seems to have hit hard times. It limped on, under various owners, until closure, shortly after WW2 and its demolition in the late 1950s.

    Prior to being the Fleur-de-Lis Tap this house was called the General Havelock, named after hero of the Indian Mutiny. The earliest reference to the pub is in 1859 which may suggest that the licensee was an old soldier who admired the famous General, or who wished to solicit custom from the many troops stationed in mid-19th century Canterbury. Unfortunately, the 1859 reference alludes to a rather different kind of solicitation within the pub and the Police report describes this.

    Two Qs then remain.
    i) Did the landlord of the General Havelock change its name to signify a change in pub policy and clientelle? The guv’nor in 1861 was William Miles: this is the same year the pub’s name was changed to the Fleur-de-Lis Tap.
    ii) Was the General Havelock trading before 1859 and if so, under what name and with whose monicker over the door? If it was, then it’s not in any of in the Canterbury trade lists, tradesmen’s directories, or in the city’s licensing records. Even a simple Beer House would have had to have been licensed and appear in the latter. Beer Houses only go back to the early 1830s when the law was changed to allow such an establishment to open and trade legally.

    One thing’s for sure. The pub we now know as the Cherry Tree occupies a building which has been there, in one form or another, for a very long time. Parts of the core structure are mediaeval, as has been discovered when building works have been undertaken. Under its various names, as a pub, the Cherry Tree is a relative newbie but one with nothing, if not a very interesting history.

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