David Juler, curator at the Museum of Oxford, on the stories in a new exhibition celebrating the city’s long tradition of pubs and brewing opening in 2020
Pubs and their histories are easily relatable to people’s experiences today; in Oxford we’ve got pubs with connections to Shakespeare and to Tolkien but we’ve also got stories about pubs where the policemen would go and talk and where the postal workers would go so they connect all kinds of different things.
Take the King of Prussia, which opened in Oxford’s Rose Hill in 1816, during the First World War ‘for diplomatic reasons’ it was renamed the Allied Arms (the King of Prussia at that time being Kaiser Wilhelm II).
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It was said that at one stage the Allied Arms pub sign showed Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. The version of the pub sign we have features a golfer (holding a pint), a rower and a cricketer.
In the 1970s it changed its name again to The Ox and then went back to being called The King of Prussia in the 1990s, when it was presumably acceptable to go back to being called that, before eventually closing down in 2005.
It’s now the site of a Co-Op, which is rather sad, but that mirrors the fate of other pubs in Oxford and elsewhere. Since starting this project looking at local pubs and breweries I get a real sense of the scale of pubs closing down and disappearing right across the city.
As for pubs changing their names, that seems to happen quite frequently. We had a chap who came to us with a collection of photographs of city centre pubs he and his father had taken in the 1990s, and I would say the majority of them had changed their name since then, which is a short period of time. That could be down to a change of landlord, changing fashions or a change of use – becoming more of a restaurant and renaming it to become more appealing or upmarket – but it was surprising to see the scale of the name changes.
A lot of these pubs had very specific origin names; location can have a big part to play. We’ve got a pub called The Castle, which is very close to Oxford Castle and others by rivers or the canals, but when you look at them closely many of their names seem completely random.
The Allied Arms was a very specific case and changed its name because of the times, but we don’t know why it was originally called The King of Prussia (perhaps it was because of the Prussian involvement in the Battle of Waterloo?) but we do know it was one of many pubs in the city tied to the famous Morrells Brewery.
Morrells was the longest lasting family-owned business in Oxford dating back to the late eighteenth century.
Richard Tawney began brewing at The Lion Brewery in 1743 and in 1797 his son, Edward, went into partnership with Mark and James Morrell and between then and 1998 it brewed under their name. It then passed down through the family with the name surviving a bit of marrying into other Oxford brewing families. It turns out there’s quite a bit of marrying across different brewery families in Oxford.
At one point Morrells owned over 100 pubs in the city where they delivered beer for most of their history by horse-drawn dray, so most of their pubs remained in an area which they could take the beer to.
The names chosen for their beers also have a close link to Oxford. There was a College Ale and another called Castle Ale. The brewery site itself was very close to the Oxford Castle on St Thomas Street, an area of city renowned for having good quality water, because it’s important when you’re setting up your brewery to have really good quality water to brew with
Sadly I never had a pint of Morrells before the brewery was bought out in 1998, but what I have had a look at is the National Brewing Library at Oxford Brookes University and also the Oxfordshire History Centre in St Luke’s in Oxford who have a lot of the brewery books for Morrells.
The exhibition, which is going to be part of the development of the entire museum, will tell these stories via a display about Oxford’s pubs and breweries, which will include the stories of Morrells and the Allied Arms and its pub sign.
There will be beer bottles from Morrells Brewery, stoneware ginger beer bottles, bottle labels, a spittoon from what was the Elm Tree pub on Cowley Road, (actually now a pub called Big Society), an eagle from the gates of the Eagle Steam Brewery, an Elizabethan wall painting from the Salutation Tavern, hop weighing equipment, firkins and trollies to explain about pubs and also the process.
As well as the objects there are stories such as the St Scholastica Day Riots, which are really important for explaining the history of the town versus gown story, which refers to the historic tension between Oxford University students and the townspeople.
In 1355 at the Swyndlestock Tavern, which was literally just across the road from where the Museum of Oxford is now, a riot broke out because of the quality of the wine being served. Some students were very unhappy and this dispute kicked off a massive fight; although there’s not actually a specific number for the amount of townsfolk killed, this pub brawl resulted in 63 students dying.
The mayor and bailiffs ended up having to attend Mass for the students who died and walk through the town ‘bare headed’ – a tradition that lasted for almost 500 years.
There’s a long history to that kind of tension in Oxford and even earlier in 1209 there was an incident where students and townspeople fought, resulting in people getting killed which led to people setting up in the University of Cambridge.
But throughout most of the history of the city, pubs have been there, feeding into the histories of Oxford.
David Juler was talking to Richard Moss
The new pubs and brewing exhibition will be at the heart of transformed Museum of Oxford, which was partially closed in 2011 but is due to re-open in late 2020, tripled in size, to tell the often-overlooked story of Oxford, its people and its communities through exhibits, objects and oral histories.
To support the Museum of Oxford’s crowdfunding campaign to raise money for its new development visit: https://www.artfund.org/get-involved/art-happens/help-us-create-the-first-exhibition-at-our-new-museum-of-oxford
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