With pubs facing a tough time, Chris Upton recalls some of the drinking dens of the past.
These are difficult days in the life of our public houses. The storm of recession, the smoking ban, cheap supermarket booze and high rents have drawn their existence into question and nowhere has seen greater losses than the West Midlands.
“Business opportunity” signs hang where once was a dog and duck or a king’s head.
The course of life has never run entirely smoothly for the publican, who is probably more subject to changes in legislation than any other profession. In the early 19th century, many landlords had a second job which they ran from the same premises. It was a useful backstop if trade dropped in the brewing business.
“We find many of our retail brewers,” reported The Birmingham Journal in 1830, “keep cook’s shops and others are barbers and hatters.” Mr Faulkner, who was a retail brewer in Peck Lane in the 1830s, also owned a gun-making business.
The new Beer Act of 1830 was chiefly responsible for this state of affairs. In an effort to give a boost to the barley industry (and probably to buy a few votes in rural England at the same time) the pub industry had been opened up to all and sundry. Anyone who got himself or herself a licence could sell beer and ale, even from their own homes, so the number of licensed premises shot up, along with the competition.
At the same time, so that the government could be seen to be encouraging brewing, but not giving the green light to alcoholic excess and dissolute behaviour, closing time was brought down to 10pm, and any form of game-playing on the premises – cards, bagatelle, skittles – was outlawed, whether it involved money or not.
No fewer than 400 new pubs opened in Birmingham over the following couple of years. These were quirky places with distinctive names, so different from the drab corporate replacements of today. Savour their strange monickers: The Swan with Two Necks in Deritend, the Frighted Horse in Handsworth, the Rising Sun in Fisher Street, the Grand Turk in Bell Street, the Dog and Jacket in Aston, the Dolphin in Suffolk Street.
Then there was the Rocket in Little Charles Street, which was arguably the oddest of them all. The owner was one William Ashley and he doubled up as a firework manufacturer. More unsettling for the drinkers, the explosives were made and stored on the premises.
Mr Ashley had been in business for at least 15 years and it’s likely that he opened a public house as much to advertise his other profession as to sell large quantities of beer. ‘The Rocket’ said on the sign exactly what to expect.
Technically, what Ashley called himself was a “pyrotechnic artist”. He manufactured fireworks for public shows, at a time when public fireworks were all the rage, distributing them widely across the country. As a town with a large gun and explosives industry, Birmingham was the ideal place to be based. Gunpowder was not hard to get hold of.
The inevitable happened, of course; it is something of a surprise that it took 15 years or more to occur. After all, until very recently, smoking and pubs went together as effortlessly as sparks and fire. William Ashley was away when the explosion took place, making the final preparations for a show in Worcester. He was waiting for the fireworks to be packed up and sent to him.
The packing itself was taking place up in the club room, as they called it, above the pub. Downstairs, Mrs Ashley and a few customers were having lunch.
What was in the packing room tells us much about the early 19th-century pyrotechnic industry. There were around 50 rockets, six-dozen catherine wheels, the same number of gerbs or larger rockets, 18 four-pointed stars, crimson lights, one dozen pumps and a large quantity of gunpowder.
The crimson lights were probably the most volatile of the fireworks, consisting of spirits of wine, strontium and potassium chloride. Quite what caused them to go off is hard to say; there was not enough left of the packer to ask.
It’s not uncommon for there to be fireworks in Birmingham pubs, but they are usually metaphorical. That May afternoon in 1834, the Rocket’s customers saw the real thing.
The spectacular and colourful explosion was likened to an earthquake, and every window in Little Charles Street was blown out, along with the front wall of the pub. It’s surprising that Mr Ashley could not hear and see it from Worcester.
Mr Ashley’s workers were a mixture of men and women. One employee, Ann Gregory, survived to give evidence at the inquest only because she had just gone into the water-closet off the club room. Nevertheless, she was still blown into the street.
Her fellow workers were not so fortunate. Three of them - two men named Crockett and Bennett and a woman called Caroline Hewson - were rushed to the General Hospital. Had they been facing the right way, they might have got there by air. All three died from their injuries.
The coda to this story shows both the good and bad side of Birmingham in the 1830s. Immediately after the explosion, a troop of Hussars were despatched from the Barracks to prevent “depredations”. A pub with no front door - no front wall, to be strictly correct - and no landlord was too good to be true.
Many in the area had dreamt of an opportunity like this.
Yet at the same time, within days of the disaster, a relief fund had been launched to raise money for the families of the victims. Several hundred pounds were quickly collected to ease their suffering.