From ale house to popular waterside pub and now facing an uncertain future - how Charlton’s Windmill pub ground down through the decades
- Credit: Archant
As campaigners continue their fight to stop a village on the outskirts of Hitchin losing its only pub, a look back at the history of the waterside watering hole reveals colourful characters and a mysterious fire.
The Windmill in Charlton, which closed earlier this year, has had 18 official landlords since it first opened in 1846 – and in recent years the faces behind the bar changed more regularly as successive hosts struggled to make a go of the site.
The pub, which had been a popular stopping point for walkers before it shut up shop, was originally a single cottage which functioned as a beer house serving ale to agricultural workers in the early 19th century.
The building stands opposite Charlton House, where industrial pioneer Henry Bessemer was born in 1813.
It had a cottage built onto it in 1828 and in 1860 Hitchin brewer Samuel Lucas bought both premises, already known as The Windmill.
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From 1878 to 1910 George Morgan was the landlord, with his 32 year stint with his name over the door beating the 29 years Harry Rayner served between 1934 to 1963.
As the name suggests, the site was formerly a working watermill.
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Victorian miller Edward Burr and his sister are portrayed in a noted painting by Lucas which hangs in the Delme room in Hitchin Priory.
He also featured in one of the first photographs of a miller taken anywhere in the world after being captured by the camera at Mill Farm, Charlton in 1860. The mill burned down in mysterious circumstances in 1887 and George Morgan – the son of one of the workers on the estate which controlled the mill – took on the pub.
William Tobias Taylor ran the pub between 1914 and 1933. During that time Luton brewers JW Green Ltd added the pub to their estate, and in time Greens were taken over by Flowers, who were in turn eaten up by Whitbread.
Then it was taken over in 1960 by Bedford-based Charles Wells, who continued to operate the pub until controversially selling it earlier this year. The new owner wants to convert the building into a private home, but pub fans say the site could have been offered for sale as a community pub, similar to The Red Lion in nearby Preston.
Harry Raynor ran the pub for 29 years until 1963 and his son Jeff, who now lives in New Zealand recalled: “My father used to post an order form every Monday to JW Greens with the beer being delivered on the Thursday.
“In those days mild ale was the staple drink and it was not uncommon for a man to drink ten pints on a Saturday night. A pint cost four old pence.
“All country pubs used to open at 6.30am for men to get their beer on the way to work before closing at 8.30am. The licencing laws were quite strictly enforced and woe betide any landlord who was caught by police contravening the drinking laws.”
During the long hot summer of 1976, with the pub booming, it was decided to extend the pub’s car park across the River Hiz.
Villagers took umbrage, opposing the plan, and were promptly all barred.
Horrified at the prospect of losing an important part of Charlton, landowner Eric Blundell stepped in, bought the plot and secured it for future generations as a nature reserve.
Ray and Jo Lambe are fondly recalled by regulars. Although they ran the pub for only two years between 2007 and 2009 they established a great reputation for fine food allied with strong community links.
They regularly hosted a village day in aid of charity, sport on the field behind the pub, live music and supported a football team before moving on to run Preston’s Red Lion.
On Sir Henry’s Bessemer’s 200th birthday in 2013 the pub staged a re-enactment of a famous picture of Tobias Taylor presiding over a harvest auction in the pub after the First World War.
But with an estimated 30 pubs closing every week, sidelined by changing social patterns, drink drive laws and supermarket special deals, the writing was on the wall – even though supporters are determined to continue their fight.