11 . Weston Longville, Norfolk: the former public house

Weston Old Red HartOnce the village hub: Weston's former Red Hart, which later became the Eagle. It closed for business in 1964 [photo Margaret Bird 2014]The public house at Weston known to Woodforde no longer has its licence, but the building still stands across the main street from the tower of the parish church.

However the village has a thriving pub still, a little to the east of the Old Hart and close to the east end of the church: the Parson Woodforde. It is very popular and serves excellent food, making it an ideal base for those wishing to explore Woodforde country.

The diarist usually refers to the outlet of his time as the Heart, as when noting – perhaps a trifle wistfully – that there were 'Merry doings at the Heart' during the traditional Whit Monday festivities. We know however from the licensing records for the 1790s held at the Norfolk Record Office (C/Sch 1/16) that it was then known as the Red Hart.

The sole outlet in the village

As now, there was only one licensed outlet in the village, despite Weston's sizeable population of 365 persons in the 1801 national census. This ratio per head of population differed markedly from the rural average in Norfolk of one public house for every 221 persons (children included).

One factor influencing the comparative paucity of drinking provision could have been that Weston was, unusually for the county, an estate village. It was dominated by the presence of the squire and Justice of the Peace John Custance at Weston House. Licensing statistics will be investigated later in this feature.

A village hub ignored by the rector

As far as we know, Woodforde never crossed the threshold of the Hart. He took care to preserve a distance with his parishioners socially, apart from a few chosen friends – notably the Custances at the big house.

The often-cited 'Norfolk Pubs' website states that Woodforde visited the Red Hart twice: on 3 May 1780 and 13 March 1785. However on the first occasion the party beating the bounds of Weston parish almost certainly gathered outside the hostelry; some had arrived with their horses. On the second occasion Woodforde specifically states that he baptised the newborn daughter of John Reeve, the Hart's landlord, in church; this was not a private baptism in the parents' home.

David Case studied Woodforde's relationship, or lack of it, with the sole local outlet in a two-part article in the Parson Woodforde Society Journal for Autumn 2001 and Spring 2002: vol. 34 no. 3 on its early history, and vol. 35 no. 1 covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An archive photograph of the Red Hart, by then named the Eagle, is shown on the cover of the 2001 Journal.

In the first article Dr Case speculates that Woodforde called at the Hart for beer on two occasions, but the wording of the diary entries makes it more likely that the rector had the beer delivered to the parsonage. Off sales formed a part of village life.

Even during the Custances' absence in Bath from 1792 to 1797 Woodforde kept a low profile in the village. As David Case has described, it was the Hart and not the rectory which served as the village hub. As vividly recorded in his diary, Woodforde held his tithe frolics at his parsonage, at some inconvenience to himself and his household. Other clerics turned to their local public house to host the celebrations.

During the 1790s Woodforde adopted a more retiring lifestyle than earlier. Even so, he had never embraced such pursuits as playing bowls on inn greens as some of his clerical brethren liked to do.

Woodforde's preference for well-appointed inns

The diarist was evidently comfortable in the setting of a prominent inn, such as the Maid's Head and King's Head in Norwich. He also frequented leading coaching inns when undertaking long journeys.

The former Pitt Arms at Burnham Market was a well-to-do establishment where Woodforde stayed on 12 September 1787. It changed its name to the Hoste Arms following the naval victory of Captain Sir William Hoste at Lissa in 1811. Magistrates' licensing sessions for Brothercross hundred, the local area of jurisdiction, were held at the Pitt Arms. They were presided over by Hoste's father, the Revd Dixon Hoste of Godwick Hall.

Burnham Mkt Hoste ArmsThe Hoste Arms, Burnham Market, formerly the Pitt Arms: the type of establishment favoured by Woodforde. The naval hero and Nelson protégé after whom it was renamed is pictured at first-floor level. Captain Sir William Hoste was the son of the local magistrate [photo Margaret Bird 1994]

Bungay Three TunsThe Three Tuns at Bungay, Suffolk: another market-town inn. Here Woodforde, his nephew William (Bill) and the manservant Briton Scurl had dinner on 3 April 1786. Again the diarist was favourably impressed [photo Margaret Bird 2012]Another inn in which Woodforde felt at ease was the Feathers at Holt, run by Elizabeth Sheppard. He referred to the widowed innkeeper by name when staying overnight on 11 September 1787 and gaining a favourable impression of the market town: 'Holt stands well, and [is] a good, decent town.'

Female licensees

Forceful, capable women ran even the largest inns. Mrs Sheppard was one of Holt's most prominent citizens, being in charge of the post office, excise office and a postchaise service all run from her establishment for thirteen years.

Licensing was however governed by statute law, which adopted the principle of coverture whereby a wife's legal identity and property were subsumed into the person of her husband. Elizabeth Sheppard was acknowledged by the JPs and Clerk of the Peace as the Holt innkeeper only on the death of her husband John in 1780, even though it is very likely she had been active in the management of the inn during his lifetime.

Similarly Elizabeth Ballard took over the running of the Pitt Arms from her late husband William, whom Woodforde mentions at Burnham Market. On her remarriage she had to relinquish the licence to her new husband, as recorded in the alehouse register in the Norfolk Record Office.

Many male innkeepers had a second job, such as carpenter, blacksmith or ferryman; debt and bankruptcy were a constant threat. John Reeves of the Red Hart at Weston was a farrier by trade. It fell to their wives and children to run the public houses, as we learn from the diary of Mary Hardy. A contemporary of Woodforde, she was the wife of a Norfolk brewer and worked an eighteen-hour day in one of their tied houses during an innkeeping interregnum.

Regulation by the magistrates

JPs found themselves responsible for issuing most of the licences. The regulations applied to all types of licensed premises, ranging from the spacious coaching inn boasting a variety of services to wayside alehouses. The Red Hart would have been classed as an alehouse. The term 'beerhouse' was not introduced until the Beer Act of 1830, which ushered in some deregulation of the industry.

Distinctions had been maintained historically between inns, taverns (found largely in towns) and alehouses, determined by the level of services provided. By Woodforde's time such classifications had largely become irrelevant. All three types of premises were regarded simply as public houses, with individual duties imposed for the sale of beer, wines and spirits as required by each outlet.

Norfolk's dense distribution of public houses

During a decade regarded as one of suppression elsewhere, the number of public houses in rural Norfolk as a whole is registered as rising by eleven between 1789 and 1799: from 935 to 946. On the whole the JPs operated a relaxed regime even in that turbulent decade politically.

Using the alehouse register we can calculate that in Woodforde's own area of Eynsford hundred, containing 8175 people in the 1801 census, the ratio per head of population was one public house to 240 persons, close to the county average of 221.

A key factor behind the magistrates' thinking could have been the near stranglehold of the wholesale brewer. Tying of public houses proceeded early and apace in East Anglia, encouraged by the flat landscape which aided distribution by beer cart up to more than twenty miles from the brewery.

Very few outlets other than those in remote areas were free of the tie. In the western half of Norfolk, a generation after Woodforde's death, only 91 of the 721 innkeepers were publican brewers. In the eastern half of the county (Weston standing roughly on the boundary) tying was even more firmly established. Only 39 of its 963 public houses brewed their own beer. (These figures relate to the excise year 1821–22 and are derived from Parliamentary Papers: Command papers – Minutes of evidence (1822), XXI.139.)

The JPs knew full well that the wholesalers, with large capital investment in their brewery and anxious to retain a secure retail base, were jealous of their reputation. The brewers would not permit their innkeepers to keep riotous houses for fear of losing not only the licence but the outlet as well. And a strong drinks trade benefited the national economy. Suppression of retail outlets would reduce Government income from this highly-taxed sector.

We never learn from James Woodforde whether the licensees of the Red Hart at Weston did their own brewing or were supplied by a wholesaler. Commercial breweries existed nearby at Reepham and East Dereham; also, until 1784, at Cawston and, until 1790, at Guist.

The Hart stood within easy reach of dray carts from these four brewing towns and villages. Additionally the numerous brewers based in Norwich would have viewed the twelve miles to Weston mostly along a very good road as no obstacle to cost-effective draying.

An award-winning brewery named after the rector

It is perhaps ironic that a man who turned his back on his local should nevertheless have a very successful brewery named after him. Ray Ashworth, who in 1981 founded Woodforde's Norfolk Ales, later known as Woodforde's Brewery, chose to name his fledgling enterprise after the enthusiastic clerical home brewer who produced strong audit ales for his tithe frolics at Weston Rectory.