History of the Amersham Area

Crown Hotel (14 Market Sq)

 

The Crown Hotel was originally built in 16th century, had several fires and was partly rebuilt early in the 19th century, when slates were used for the roof as they can be less steep which increased the headroom in the bedrooms upstairs. It had been a coaching inn and a post house. It has a 16th century wall painting of Elizabethan royal arms.

The Crown portico, now removed (PHO517c)

The Crown portico, now removed (PHO517c)

Part of what is now the bar of the Crown was, in the early 20th century, a separate shop with living quarters, Howell’s, a haberdashery/millinery store run by a Miss Hayward.   The Crown was bought by the Drake family in 1728 and was sold in 1928, when it was purchased by the sitting tenant, Trust Houses Limited, for the sum of £5,000. (See sale particulars in the photo gallery below).

This Sulphur Crested Cockatoo was a local hero.  In December 1935, the Crown Hotel was nearly destroyed in a dangerous fire.  The bird squawked loudly and alerted the staff and guests to the danger so that they were all able to escape.  The only casualties were two cats, including the Persian cat which was the cockatoo’s companion.  When the cockatoo died in the following year, said to be at an age of 118 years, a local taxidermist preserved him and for many years he was on display in the Crown Hotel bar.  More recently the bedroom scene of the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ was shot here.

Ghosts in The Crown?

Some say that there are as many as seven ghosts here.  One ghost shouts ‘Get Out Now’ and another has been seen several times when the pub is empty, leaning against one of the old posts.  A maid has appeared in one of the rooms and has been known to pack guest’s suitcases – was she a lady’s maid?  Another woman silently goes up the stairs and through a door which usually creaks.  There is said to be a ghost of a grey lady in old fashioned costume which has been seen in some bedrooms.

Crown Inn Yard by William Monk c1900

Crown Inn Yard by William Monk c1900

An account in a local paper in 1859 below shows that the Squire had a twice-yearly meeting here to collect rents from his tenants.

Crown meeting

 

Click on any of the photographs below to enlarge it and to see the description.  Then click on forward or back arrows at the foot of each photograph.  To close the pictures, just click on one.

 

This article by Dr Michael Brooks was published in the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced with permission.

A HISTORY OF THE CROWN HOTEL IN AMERSHAM

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, Amersham had a population estimated as just over two hundred and was an isolated village community, mostly working in agriculture on a Manorial estate, with five smaller hamlets on minor estates in the surrounding area listed in the Domesday book.

By 1200, when King John granted a weekly market and an annual fair here to the Earl of Essex, the population had grown considerably with most of the houses being on the south side of the one long street with burgage plots, many of these being occupied by tradesmen.   By 1300 Amersham had become prosperous enough to become a Borough and the burgesses sent representatives to the parliament of King Edward I.  Amersham was at a crossroads of three significant trade routes:-

The population remained fairly static at 900 to 1000 inhabitants until the 17th century, but despite the dreadful state of the roads, an increasing number of people came through the town and inns became necessary.   The first coach is known to have come through Amersham in 1662.

The present Crown Hotel had its origins as a timber-framed inn which was constructed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I on a site on the south side of the Market Square opposite the junction with Church Street.   A series of fires at the Inn destroyed much of the original oak framing, but some timbers have survived and are said to date from the 16th century.   The Victoria History of the County of Buckinghamshire dates the inn from 1620, but late 16th century seems a more likely date of origin and wall paintings in one of the bedrooms seem to confirm this.

There is a persistent, probably incorrect, story that monks from Missenden Abbey were brewing beer commercially in the town in the 15th century, but no written evidence for this has been found.   The earliest recorded Amersham brewer was Giles Watkins who died in 1636.   His sister, Elizabeth, was married to William Child, also listed as a brewer, who owned the Crown Inn in 1637.  James Child (probably his son) is listed as the owner in 1695, and his son, John, is listed as the Inn Keeper in 1728.

Following road improvements and the advent of stage coaches, the Crown became a coaching inn and post house and was extended and enlarged.   The coaches passed through an archway to stables and accommodation for ostlers and coachmen in a rear yard.  Early maps show a paddock for the horses extending southwards to the Common Platt, a back lane which also provided access.

By the Proclamation of Bagshot of 1635, the Royal Messenger Service was opened up for the carriage of mail for the general public.  Prior to that date letters written by church, nobility, gentry and merchants were carried by private messengers or by the chain of slow carriers’ wagons.   After 1635 a national postal service was gradually developed with great social benefits.   Postal Receiving Houses were set up in inns, coffee houses and other premises where letters could be handed in or collected.   The proprietors of such premises were appointed Postmaster.

The Crown Inn was chosen to be the postal receiving house for Amersham.   The town was on a postal route ‘farmed’ by Richard and Stephen Bigg in 1663.   Mail to and from London was dropped off at Tatling End to be conveyed by local letter-carrier or post boy on foot or horseback to the Inn.   The Child family, and later the Fowler family, controlled this service at the Crown until the establishment of a separate Post Office next door in 1790.

Montague Garrard Drake of Shardeloes purchased the Crown in 1728, though his ownership was very short as he died of the gout later in that year and ownership passed to his wife, Isabella.   The Drake family continued to own the Crown until 1928.   The Fowler family became tenants and the innkeepers from about 1740, having lived in the Amersham area for many generations.   A Thomas Fowler is known to have held a life tenancy of the Manor of Amersham in 1483 and they continued as Crown tenants until after 1830.

In January 1774, William Harvey the innholder of the Griffin Inn, who was the Deputy Postmaster of Amersham, stole bank notes and bills from the mail at the Crown and absconded.   As deputy to Charles Fowler he had easy access.  A reward of £50 was offered by the Postmaster General to whomever should apprehend him or cause him to be apprehended

Fast Mail Coaches started to run from London to Oxford via Beaconsfield in 1784 on much improved roads.   A separate Post Office was established in 1790 in a house to the east of the Crown and John Fowler, tenant and landlord of the Inn, was appointed the Postmaster of what was one of the first separate Post Offices in the country outside London.   Mail was conveyed from Amersham by postboy on horseback, or later by mail cart, to link with the mail coaches at Beaconsfield.   In the Universal British Directory of 1790, is the following entry: ‘The Post Office at the Crown Inn opens mornings at 7.   Shuts at 9 o’clock in the evening.   Aylesbury stage coach to London at 10 every day except Sunday stops at the Griffin.   Inside fare 7s.  Outside 3s.6d.   Amersham and Missenden stage coach departs from the Crown Mon. Wed. & Friday at 8 in the morning.   Comes in Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday at 5 o’clock in the evening.   Fares as above.  Waggon (carriers) Mondays and Thursdays at noon to London.   Comes in Wednesdays and Saturdays at 6 o’clock in the evening.’

In 1796 John Fowler was unfortunately dismissed from his post by the Royal Mail for inefficiency in conveying the mails to and from Beaconsfield.   He had been using the post office horse on his local farm!   He however continued as landlord of the Crown and to run the Inland Revenue Excise Office from there.   This excise office continued to be at the Crown until 1907.   Charles Fowler’s name appears on a billhead in the 19th century which describes the Inn as ‘The Post and Excise Office’ and also advertises ‘Neat Post Chaises’.   In 1907 the Excise Office moved to 111 High Street.

Following a serious fire in 1802 the Crown Inn was completed refronted in red brick and Georgian sash windows were inserted.   At the same time it was re-roofed with Welsh slates.   A handsome pillared portico was added, extending from the front entrance to the edge of the pavement.   Unfortunately this was frequently damaged by passing vehicles both horse-drawn and later motorised.  It was finally removed after its almost complete destruction by a lorry in January 1963.   Amersham Town Council and the Rural District Council wanted it to be replaced.   The matter was referred to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government who ruled that the owner, Trust Houses, could not be required to reinstate it.   The Amersham Society and the Georgian Society strongly supported its replacement but Trust Houses refused to do so.   The main door to the Hotel was replaced by a window and since then the entrance to the Hotel has been via the courtyard.

In his book ‘Recollections of Old Country Life’ John Kersley Fowler tells the following story, thought to refer to the year 1810:- ‘My grandfather was a tenant of a large farm of Mr. Drake’s of Amersham and also the Crown Inn.   One morning at the beginning of the century the usual cry of “Job” was heard.   My grandfather went to the door of a yellow post-chaise and saw a kindly-looking benevolent old gentleman sitting in a corner in hunting costume, who ordered a chaise and pair to Windsor, which was 15 miles off.   The first turn was old Tom King (the post-boy) who quickly got out the yellow.   The old gentleman got in and was bowled off to Windsor.   When Tom returned at night, he was greatly excited and declared that he had been driving the King, George III.   On the anniversary of the event, for a holiday he spent it sitting in the corner of the yellow post-chaise, where the King had sat, smoking his pipe, drinking sundry pots of beer and treating all comers that they might pledge the King’s health.   And he enlivened the company and destroyed the peace of all who heard him by playing ‘God Save the King’ on his key-bugle till late at night when he was overcome by the ale and the smoke.   When Tom ceased to be the “boy” he became a pensioner of the Fowler family.   He was regaled with a good dinner and plenty of ale on each anniversary, but on condition that he did not play his key-bugle.’

When coaching was at its peak between 1820 and 1830, W.Tollett ran a coach from Wendover via Amersham to Uxbridge and on to London.   This ran on six days a week, leaving the Crown at 8 a.m. returning at 6 p.m.   W. Wyatt also ran a six days a week service to and from Rickmansworth leaving at      6 a.m. and returning that evening.   Horses were changed roughly every 12 miles.   Each Amersham Inn kept a chaise and pair for hire.   Travel times continued to improve with better roads and coach designs.   The arrival of the railway however gradually put an end to coach travel.   An omnibus service was begun from the Crown to railway stations in adjoining towns and then to Amersham station when the Metropolitan Railway finally reached the town in September of 1892.   The last of the stage coaches to Wendover ran in the late 1890s and so the Crown ceased to be a coaching inn.

From the reign of Queen Elizabeth I right through to 1872, the Court of Petty Sessions met at the Crown.   This evolved to become the local Magistrates Court which met there on the last Monday of each month.   In 1872 this was transferred to the Market Hall and in 1952 to Elmodesham House.   After Chiltern District Council built new offices in King George V road in Amersham on the Hill, the Magistrates Court moved again to that location.

Besides King George III, many famous people have visited the Crown and numerous celebratory dinners and functions have been held there.   The Drake family quite openly ensured their share of the Parliamentary vote by entertaining the electorate there before and after local and national elections.   The Drake’s bill at the Crown for the 1790 uncontested election was £73-7-6d.   (At the Griffin their bill was £88-9-4d. with an additional guinea for the band.)   John Fowler’s bill survives for the 1796 election.  Thomas Tyrwhitt Drake’s official expenses were £395-11-8d. of which £135-4-6d. was spent at the Crown:- (Dinners & Suppers £40; Punch       £8-10s.; Beer, Cyder & Tobacco  £ 9.10s.; Tea & Coffee £3-3s.; Wine £72.10s.; Fruit £1.11.6d.)

The Amersham Fire Brigade held its Annual Supper at the Crown from the 1870s.  The inaugural meetings of the Amersham Tennis Club were held there in 1886 and of the Amersham Football Club in 1890.   In that year the Drakes hosted a special celebratory dinner after some very popular horse races which they had organised.   Arnold Bax, the Composer and later the Master of the King’s Music, used the Crown for secret trysts which his mistress, the pianist Harriet Cohen from 1916 onwards.   He later wrote a poem entitled ‘Amersham’ dedicated to her which he set to music which described the Crown as ‘the inn of dreams …. in the drowsy town’.  In recent times the Crown has featured in many films and television productions.  The Elizabethan suite overlooking the courtyard, where stage coaches used to deposit passengers, featured in the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’.

Artists have depicted the Crown in many of their pictures, including a fine 1840 Buckler drawing in the County Museum, presented to that museum by George Weller, the Amersham brewer, in 1925.   This appears on the dust cover of Julian Hunt’s ‘History of Amersham’.   Amersham Museum has a very comprehensive collection of photographs, including the now-digitised glass slides made by George Ward, showing the Hotel in many guises over more than a hundred years.  (See above).

The Museum also has a fine collection of old postcards featuring the hotel and the courtyard.   Trust Houses Ltd. commissioned Walter M. Keesey to make sketches of many of their hotels and inns and he made a charming study of the courtyard.   The pillared portico may be seen in the Museum in a fine watercolour by Beatrix Potter, painted during a visit to the town in 1905.

At the east end of the Crown a first floor bedroom has a wall, bearing what is thought to be part of the original 16th century decoration.   The design is of rectangular panels, 18” by 14” with a shield-like cartouche in blue-grey, green and yellow separated by a 3” wide band of dark claret colour.   The centre of the cartouche is thought to be a representation of a slab of marble, each one being slightly different.   The lowest row of panels is cut short horizontally, suggesting that the floor of that room has at some time been raised.

In a ground floor room fronting the High Street, previously the coffee room, there was for many years a plaster panel 4’6” wide and 3’6” high depicting a crudely drawn Tudor coat of arms in colour outlined in black (see above).   It became damaged and discoloured from its position over the fireplace, which is still marked by the original frame.   A reproduction in colour, painted by Elizabeth Moore in 1946, may now be seen over the fireplace in the bar.   The arms depicted are those of Queen Elizabeth I showing the quarterings of England and France which were in use from 1404 to 1603.   The right hand supporter is a dragon rather than a unicorn.   Local folklore has it that it was painted at the Crown to commemorate the visit of the Queen to Shardeloes Manor when William Tothill lived there.  He acquired the Manor in 1595 and she died in 1603.   One authority gives the date of 1592 for her visit, but this must be incorrect.   The Drake family still have in their possession portraits of the Queen and Thomas Hatton, said to have been presented after the visit, acquired following William’s death in 1626.   Joan Tothill was married to Francis Drake in 1603.   There might be other reasons for the coat of arms being at the Inn;  the Petty Sessional Court was held there.  Queen Elizabeth also visited the Russell family at Chenies Manor on 23rd July 1570, but the Crown may not have been built at that date.   Queen Anne of Denmark visited Shardeloes between 1603 and 1619 but her coat of arms was different.

In 1933, the landlord of the Crown had a pet white sulphur-crested cockatoo which the press reported as ‘a very dignified and friendly old gentleman, said to be 100 years of age’   This bird became something of a local hero in 1935 when a serious fire began at 4 a.m. which caused great damage to the stillroom, the saloon bar, the lounge, the office and almost all of the upstairs rooms.   The screeching of the cockatoo alerted staff and guests who escaped unharmed.   The firemen saved the bird but the landlord’s treasured Persian cat, its inseparable companion, was found dead under a table in the dining room.   The bird lived for a further few years and on its demise was mounted by a taxidermist and for many years sat under a glass dome in the bar.   A wall-mounted notice alongside paying tribute to the bravery of the bird unfortunately gave the wrong year as 1932;  press reports of December 1935 confirm this.  The heroic bird is now in the Amersham Museum.

The Crown is one of the many old Buckinghamshire inns claiming to be haunted.   ‘Ghosts of Buckinghamshire’ records that a grey-clad female figure has been seen, particularly in the bedrooms of visitors where clothes are said to be repacked in, or sometimes removed from, luggage.   Was she a lady’s maid carrying out her duties?   Other local legends report that a maid had an illegitimate child with the owner, who then killed her and the child.

A recent visitor requested a change of room after waking to see a shadowy figure turning down his bed.   A student employee on night shift has reported seeing a female figure who then departed soundlessly through a door and up a staircase, both of which normally creaked.   No attempts at exorcism are known at the Crown, unlike at the Chequers Inn, where exorcism was attempted in 1953, 1964 and 1982.   The Crown recently featured in a television ‘Most Haunted’ programme.

Trust Houses Ltd, later Trust House Forte and Heritage Forte, who had purchased the Hotel in 1928 when it had nine letting bedrooms and only one bathroom, sold it to the McDonald hotel chain in 1963.   Since then there have been many additions and alterations to the property.   On 24th September 2004 it was acquired by Dhillons, who have carried out further modernisation and refurbishment.  It now has outdoor dining facilities where, in the courtyard, coaches in the past disgorged tired travellers in need of rest and refreshment.