The season of the Nativity Play is upon us, time for that annual ritual of anxious adults, conspicuously trying to look inconspicuous, cajoling hosts of diminutive angels and recalcitrant sheep into performing their allotted roles. This year, so the parish news-sheet informs us, children (and parents) are invited to dress up as their favourite character and any number of Marys, Josephs, ‘wise persons’ and animals may take part. The prospect looms of an unseemly free-for-all featuring seven virgins of unspecified degrees of wisdom, 16 eastern sages (fair enough, the Bible doesn’t actually say there were three), a vast herd of oxen and a heavenly trio.
But there was one memorable performance a few years ago when the undisputed star of the show was that character normally seen as a mere bit-player, the innkeeper. Responding to Joseph’s persistent knocking with a peremptory “Go away, you’ll wake the kids!”, a weary “OK, OK, what do you want?” and finally a resigned “Well, I suppose I could open the stable.”, he went on to exercise his midwifery skills and then proudly ushered the shepherds and the Magi in to view the new arrival. I wonder why the innkeeper doesn’t feature in the traditional line up of crib figures? Perhaps he does in Spain where the tableau includes a plethora of extras, not least the ubiquitous Caganer (I see the footballer Ronaldo has been honoured as the latest model for the guy with his pants down). But I digress.
Beer is in my blood (rather too much of it according to my doctor, who has predicted dire consequences if I fail to lower my blood pressure, lose a couple of stone and reduce my alcohol intake, so I may have to become Moderatus Bibendus) and it will not surprise you to learn that one or two of my forebears followed that noble profession which is my theme for today.
My great-great-great-grandfather, John William Murray, was landlord of the Ship in Lymington. When I began my drinking career there were 23 pubs in Lymington. Alas, no more: the Angel in the High Street, where General Wolfe spent his last night on English soil, is still there but the Bugle, another old coaching inn, has long gone, as has the Kings Arms, where I recall going with the late Frank Harris after ringing at St Thomas’ church (8, 20 cwt) and drinking Guinness from those elegant glass jugs it used to be served in. The Olde English Gentleman, once a rare Devenish pub in an area dominated by Strongs of Romsey (remember the railway hoardings “You are now entering the Strong Country”?) is now, I think, a restaurant or wine bar but I was pleasantly surprised to find the old sign hanging outside the brewery museum in Weymouth recently.
But go down the steep cobbled Quay Hill at the bottom of the High Street and you will still find the Ship on the quayside. According to family lore, John William came from Whitley Bay, was skipper of a collier bringing coal from Newcastle to the south coast and was so taken with Lymington that he decided to settle there. He may have spent some time in Portsmouth, for he married a girl from Alverstoke, and the family certainly lived on the Isle of Wight for a while because my great-great-grandfather, William Dempster Murray, was baptised at Bembridge, but in the 1841 census John William is recorded as being a publican at the Quay, Lymington.
His sons continued the seafaring tradition. One went to Australia and his mother always left the back door open in case he should return but sadly he never did. William Dempster went on to become Pilot of Lymington and there is an engraving looking up the High Street towards the church with the portly figure of Pilot Murray in the foreground. (During the 1980s this picture was used as a place mat by the Stanwell House Hotel whose proprietor, Jeremy Willcock, was a former ringing friend of mine, though to the best of my knowledge he has not rung for a long time.)
Another descendant of John William and a well known character in the town was ‘Dummy’ Murray who worked for Mew Langton’s brewery in the 1920s when my mother was a young girl. (W B Mew, Langton & Co’s Royal Brewery was in Newport, IOW, but had a number of tied houses on the mainland. It was taken over by Strongs in 1965 and thus subsumed into the Whitbread empire three years later.) Dummy (or Dumbie) is referred to in a local history “The river is within us” but the book does not mention that, although a deaf-mute, he was capable of articulating the word ‘bugger’ and apparently did so with monotonous regularity.
My other connection with the licensed trade is a little more tenuous. If you go to Haverhill (And doubtless some of you will be thinking why on earth would one go to Haverhill? When I mentioned on Ringing Chat that I used to be taken there for my holidays, my parents were accused of child abuse.), you will find a Greene King pub called the Black Horse, opposite the recreation ground where I broke my father’s glasses on the see-saw in 1954, and on its wall is a sign indicating that the adjacent alleyway is called Nunn’s Yard. It appears that this was named after a former landlord, George Nunn, who is listed in the 1861 census as a baker and beer seller.
My father’s family had been in Haverhill since around 1700 and possibly much longer but as St Mary’s church (6, 13 cwt) was destroyed by fire in 1665 no earlier parish records exist. If the aforesaid George Nunn was the son either of John or of George, both sons of Thomas, then he was my second cousin five times removed. However the link has yet to be proven and it is quite possible that he came from an entirely different lineage - the name was not uncommon around the Suffolk/Essex borders - but it would be gratifying to know that I have a pub on both sides of the family.
Talking of publicans, I have made the point before that a good or bad licensee can make or break a pub. My lovely local, the Hope, has gone from strength to strength since Sarah and Robin took charge just over a year ago and has now achieved recognition by Cask Marque and a listing in the 2010 Good Beer Guide. Should you find yourself in West Norwood, do pay it a visit - you might even have the privilege of buying me a pint!
Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.
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