Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Pubs of Old Baldock: The George & Dragon.

2 Church Street
(Formerly ? Norton Street).

The George and Dragon is just maybe one of Baldock's oldest pubs and according to the Baldock historical society it first appeared in town records in 1465. A grade II listed building, the current model is believed to have been erected in the Mid -18th century, being completely rebuilt in the early 20th century. A pub with a rich history, it is not only one of Baldock's biggest, but also maybe one of the town's most well known. Its Origins stove from some point around the medieval period, although when precisely is still unknown.

The original inn was quite possibly built on the site of an old outbuilding of the St. Mary's Church, a likely store of props for medieval plays; something that could maybe explain how this old pub first got its name. A name it’s assumed by historians that came from one of these plays, the story of St. George and the Dragon.

Recorded in 1591 as the meeting place of the Archdeacon of Huntingdon’s ecclesiastical court and in 1615 as being sold by a one Richard Mortimer, under the name of 'The George' to a one Thomas Grave. Certainly a place with its fair share of records which include; William Kennet from Baldock, licensee from some time around the year of 1633 until his death in 1687, and also of long standing licenses were most notably; the Parrington’s, the Richard’s and the Thomas's (in residence from sometime before 1777 to the 1830s).
From 1692 it was a busy coaching inn with extensive stabling, part of which was on the land rented from the adjoining churchyard. A large smithy stood opposite on the island in the High Street market place (later the Town Hall). Alike many pubs of this day it was never closed day or night.
Bought by the brewer John Pryor In 1777, it was a favoured travelling spot of the Quakers and is said to be the inn visited in 1655 by George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends. Also recorded in Samuel Pepys diary as a place he visited twice and advertised in a directory for 1790 as an Inn for wagons and saddle horses with good accommodation.
Despite all this happening though, incredibly, the George and Dragon did not actually become the town’s leading inn until after the closure of the old White Horse in 1864.
Shock Oliver

A famous story associated with the George and Dragon is that of the highwayman 'Shock Oliver'. A baker from St. Neots, who traded in his loaves of bread for a life of crime. 
Rife during the 1870’s it is said that the target of some of Oliver’s crimes were customers at this very pub.  
An ironic factor of this tale though is maybe the name of the pub cook at the time, quite coincidentally a one Ms. Oliver. Maybe completely un-associated with the crook, but maybe quite the opposite. Which if so it would explain how the highway man's information came about his victims leaving the pub. Was this cook his partner in crime? maybe even a relative, who informed the thief of what the visitors to the pub had, where they was going and what time they was leaving. The evidence doesn't bring an awful lot of light on if any of this was true or not, but to speculate it seems that it is.
The crimes of Shock Oliver lasted for around a decade before he was caught. After finally being apprehended in Baldock and bought to trial at Hertford Assizes, the criminal on being convicted was sentenced to execution by hanging. His final act was an attempted robbery of two men visiting that years Baldock fair. The two men in question, a Mr Fossey of Cumberlow Green and a Mr. Carter of Cottered were held up by Oliver and two assailants on the Clothall Road, assumingly on their way back home.
After a struggle though the men escaped and unfortunately for the notorious outlaw, one of his victims, Mr Carter had recognized him and on his escape from the evidence he was able to provide about his encounter, it was enough to secure the Highway mans capture.
But, despite now being dead, strangely this wasn't the last the George and Dragon see of Shock Oliver. On the journey back to St. Neots, amazingly the robber’s wife with his dead body in toll stayed the night at the old Inn. Another Ms. Oliver in this tale she could be but, if it was the pubs cook? Did she collect his body before or after her shift and stay the night before returning to St. Neots for her husband’s burial? One of the pubs greatest mysteries maybe but, if it was true it would certainly explain a lot.
The George & Dragon in recent times.
It was renovated to the cost of £120'000 in 1977 and re-launched as a 'Schooner Inn', (part of the giant 'Berni group'). The lease owned by 'the Berni group' was handed back to brewery Greene King in 1992 and three years later in 1995 after passing the lease on to fellow brewery 'Whitbred' it closed again; and remained derelict but, with money being spent to the tune of £380'000 by Greene King who re-obtained the lease in 1998, it reopened in August 1999.
A thriving period for the pub and a time which got very busy, but unfortunately it's demise came because of this. After several reported criminal incidents led to the failure to renew the popular late night licensing, the decline in opening hours proved too much for the large pub and in 2006 the brewery had no choice, but to put the popular pub out of business.
The George and Dragon was put up for sale a year later, for a figure of £750,000, under the condition that it wouldn't re-open as a pub. It has since remained derelict with many rumors circulating about what it was to become, with a steakhouse and a Wetherspoon's being the main two. Neither of these rumors though ever manifested and it's only now, last year in fact, that any new information has been made public about this old, local monument.
This information is good news for the long suffering building. After 6 years of laying derelict, the George and Dragon is set to open it's doors back up to the public again, in the coming months. Plans to redevelop this old pub include a bar, restaurant, brasserie and hotel.

"Keeping Dick Taylor".

An old wedding day tradition in Baldock and one very much associated with the George and Dragon was "Keeping Dick Taylor". A drinking game which involved downing a four pint pitcher of beer, holding the pitcher with one hand and if you used two, a fine had to be paid of a shilling. An amount equaling only 5p of todays money, but none the less back then, what today is only a pittance was worth a lot more.
The name Dick Taylor came from the pitcher itself, a half gallon silver tankard inscribed with the name of it's previous owner, a one Mr.Richard Taylor. Traced back to the latter half of the 1700's, the man responsible for this once great Baldock tradition is believed to be one of three different men. All possibly related, but the main suspect is the son of the oldest Richard Taylor of the three. A wealthy maltster and brewer, and the owner of the former Chequers down Whitehorse Street between 1767 and 1778, it is believed that this is the man who was generous enough to donate the expensive silver tankard to the town for this popular tradition.
The association this tankard had with the George and Dragon was purely because that it was in this pub that the tankard was kept. Brought out at the end of weddings, but it eventually also became a tradition at the annual Baldock Fair.
The tradition was most likely one that continued for many years. It is unclear though when it actually stopped, but any such artifact that was connected with this legend is now long lost and this old story passed down from the generations is just maybe all that lives of the fabled Dick Taylor. As for the tradition though a revival has been suggested in the past, but like all great ideas this is just maybe another one that has to reach the right person.

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