Some history of the King's Head Inn on Digbeth at Birmingham in the County of Warwickshire


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The King's Head Inn was located on the north-western side of Digbeth. The pub was one of a line of buildings cleared to make way for an ice factory and cold store erected in 1899 to the rather functional designs of Ernest Chawner Bewlay. Built for the Linde British Refrigeration Company, the building was completed in 1900. This structure was restored in recent years and now houses the Prince's Trust in Birmingham.

Map extract showing the location of the King's Head Inn at Digbeth in Birmingham [1889]

Many of the properties removed along this stretch of Digbeth were of some antiquity. The King's Head Inn was an old tavern but the progressive Victorians of Birmingham had little sentiment as they strove to modernise the place.

There was quite a character in charge of the King's Head Inn during the early 19th century. Arthur Matthison became a very well-known figure in the town owing to his pugilistic exploits. The fighter gained considerable notoriety in the ring, particularly after his victory over the London-based Barney Aaron, a man dubbed "The Star of the East." Fighting for a purse of £100, the battle between the two men drew an enormous crowd and considerable interest in the press. Unfortunately, due to Barney Aaron's ancestry, the match was seen as a contest between Jew and Christian. Fought in June 1824, it was a gruelling slog, ended by a knockout Brummie blow to Barney in the 59th round. Arthur Matthison was now a BIG name in the ring.

Despite his victory, the gruelling battle evidently took its toll on Arthur Matthison and he hung up his gloves. By 1825, probably late 1824, he became a celebrity publican of the King's Head Inn. His incoming was probably a good chunk of the purse he had won.

It was reported that the police were delighted that such a figure was in charge of a rowdy tavern and noted that he kept an orderly public-house. However, his reputation no doubt led to the odd customer or two trying it on. Arthur Matthison was a lightweight fighter. Measuring around 5ft 6ins., he weighed in at 135 pounds. He therefore had little chance when a big, bruising, heavyweight bare-knuckle fighter, Philip Sampson, came into the house to cause trouble. He was another Brummie on the way up in fighting circles. He would later be famous for some big-crowd events, including the vanquishing of 'Big' Brown, landlord of the Leather Bottel of Bridgnorth. That battle was fought for big stakes at Boscobel in April 1828, a gruesome spectacle in which 'Big' Brown was saved from a vicious onslaught from the powerful Brummie. The illustration below shows Philip Sampson flooring the Shropshire publican during the contest.

Bare Knuckle Fight between Philip Sampson of Birmingham and 'Big' Brown of Bridgnorth at Boscobel Field [1828]

In April 1826 Philip Sampson appeared at the Warwickshire Quarter Sessions charged with assaulting Arthur Matthison in the King's Head Inn. Representing the plaintiff, Arthur Matthison, Mr. Goulburn stated that the publican had been compelled to bring the action for his own personal safety. The defendant, he stated, was "a man of considerable celebrity in the prize ring, and of great power and personal strength." He added that his client, Arthur Matthison, "had also been a pugilist, and had made a no less conspicuous figure among the light weights in the prize ring." The solicitor told the magistrates that the publican "had, however, for some time relinquished that profession, and now kept the King's Head public-house, in Digbeth. His good behaviour had gained him the esteem of the neighbourhood in which he lived, and his licence had been renewed in consequence of the good order he had kept in his house."

Arthur Matthison, on examination, stated: "I keep the King's Head public-house, in Digbeth, Birmingham, where I have lived for eighteen months. I was a pugilist formerly, but I have left off the profession a long time. Sampson is a much stronger man than I am, for he has challenged all the world, excepting one man. The defendant, with two of his friends, came to my house at half-past eleven on Saturday evening, the 4th of March; they called for a tankard of ale, which was given to them. I had heard on that day that the defendant had said there were nothing but wankers and rogues frequenting my house. I told him of it as calm a manner I could. He did not deny it, but treated it with contempt; and told me I had been a prig, a buzz, and a thief, and had been concerned in stealing a watch. I then told him I was no more like a thief than him, and that he was a greater thief than I was. He then began to say I could never fight in my life. He said anybody could beat me, and as for him, he could beat me in a minute. I said he could not beat me in twenty minutes. Both my hands were in my breeches pockets at this time, and I had no idea he was going to strike me. He said he would lay a guinea to a shilling he could beat me a minute, and put his hand in his pocket as if to pull out a guinea, but instead of that he struck me on the nose with his left hand, and knocked down on the floor. I had done nothing to offend him. He then ran at me and kicked me violently under the chin, which roused me up [a laugh] from a state of stupor, from the former blow on the nose, and from the blow and kick I was covered with blood. I had but just got up when he attacked me again; he ran me and closed, and threw me down and fell on me. Mr. Garvey then interfered, by laying hold of his arm, and saying, "don't kill him, Sampson." He then threatened to kill Mr. Garvey. Bishop, one of Sampson's friends, then interfered, and pulled Garvey away, who went out and fetched the watchman. Sampson got up, and kicked me deliberately about the head and face three times. I got up again, and when I saw him coming towards me, endeavoured to defend myself. He soon knocked me down again, and then kicked me three times more; once on the mouth with his instep, which knocked my lips almost to atoms; one kick near the eye, and one about the ear. I had several large lumps on the head from the kicks, which gave me much pain, and I could not open my mouth with any pleasure for a fortnight. Mr. Garvey now came in with the watchman and three of the patrol, and I gave Sampson in charge, and he was taken to prison." William Davis and Maurice Garvey confirmed the testimony of Arthur Matthison.

Bizarrely, the magistrates, despite the protests of the solicitor, did not allow the defence to call any witnesses. Sampson addressed the Chairman, and said "he thought he had not had justice done to him. If his witnesses had been examined, the case would have borne a very different complexion." The jury found the defendant guilty on the first count and The Court then sentenced Sampson to be imprisoned to one calendar month in gaol, and at the expiration of that time to find sureties, himself in £40 and two sureties in £20 each, to keep the peace for one year.

He may have come off worse following the surprise attack by Philip Sampson, but when prepared for combat, Arthur Matthison could be quite handy. In November 1829 there was an incident at the Coach and Horses at the Sand Pits and the way it was reported used some jocular and florin language. The occurrence, it was stated in the Hereford Journal, "strikingly illustrated the truth of the scripture adage - "that the battle is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift." It was reported that "two navigators, of Herculean strength, and each weighing at least fourteen stone, after indulging themselves in few quarts of Mr. Bromage's good tap, refused to pay for their liquor, and not content with abusing the landlady for her impertinence in expecting a "remunerating price" for her beverage, threatened to kick the landlord out of his house. Fortunately for the pocket of the host, and the future good manners of his customers, little Arthur Matthison [of pugilistic celebrity] was in a room adjoining, and being informed of the circumstances related, tendered his assistance to his brother Boniface. Nothing could be more timely. Arthur, with his usual civility, first demanded the cash, which being, by the unsuspecting navigators, indignantly refused, accompanied threats of immediate extermination, our little hero planted his left on the nasal organ of one of the unruly, and brought him down to his mother earth. The second immediately commenced the attack, but he was shortly laid by his friend. Unlike, however, the first assailant, who prudently preferred a horizontal to a perpendicular position, he rose and renewed the combat. Three more rounds were fought, at the close of which the poor waterman cried "hold, enough," and, on payment of the shot, both "the well-beaten big ones" were allowed to depart to their vessels."

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Birmingham : Notice of an appearance by Arthur Matthison at the Theatre Royal [1829]

Arthur Matthison enjoyed celebrity status in Birmingham and did a little treading the boards at the Theatre Royal in November 1829 when he appeared in the romantic drama Valentine and Orson.

Trotting Horse by James Clark [c.1890]

Arthur Matthison was also involved in other sporting events. In May 1834 he officiated in a horse-trotting event that captivated the region and was covered in the national press. The Birmingham Advertiser reported that the sporting gentry of Birmingham and surrounding region had anticipated with "a considerable degree of anxiety to the decision of a trotting match against time, for the tidy sum of £200 a-side. The bet was made by Mr. Chawner, cattle dealer, and accepted by Mr. Twist. Chawner bet that a mare belonging to Mr. Taylor of Gosta Green could trot at seventeen miles within the hour on the road between Burton-on-Trent and Lichfield.

Preparations for the event were made for a Tuesday morning and, on the prior evening, the inns of Lichfield and Burton-on-Trent were crowded with people from all parts of the region, and even some from London, anxious to witness so extraordinary a performance. There was plenty of activity in the betting market and the odds were cut from 6/4 to evens by the time of the mare's arrival at the start line. The mare's owner displayed great confidence by placing a bet of 25 guineas for a successful outcome.

During the night the rain fell heavily, which by some was considered extremely favourable to the mare. Arthur Matthison, landlord of the King's Head Inn, and Joseph Butler, a maltster of Coleshill Street, were appointed umpires; and John Scholfield, a butcher of Dale End, was the referee. Mr. Chawner rode the mare in person. Soon after seven o'clock, the weather being still extremely wet, every preparation was made for the race; and at half-past seven precisely the start was given, and the mare went off at a rattling pace. The run down the hill, soon after starting, was said to have been tremendous; most of the horses following, although on the full gallop, were soon completely beat off.

The distance of the event was 8½ miles out and 8½ miles in; the end from starting being within about three miles of Lichfield. The umpires and referee accompanied the mare - but in order to keep up with her - and that was with great difficulty accomplished - they were obliged to change horses halfway. The pace at which the mare went is said to have been most tremendous. She went the first three miles in 9 minutes and 2 seconds, and sixteen miles in 50 minutes. In the course of the race she rose three times, and, according to agreement, turned upon each occasion; these, with the turn at the eight and a half miles, made in all four turnings. The mare completed her match with the most perfect ease, having trotted the seventeen miles in 55 minutes and a few seconds. The last mile she was pulled up, and came in at a slow pace. On being taken to her stable she appeared quite gay and ate her hay with her usual appetite.

Birmingham : Benevolent Fund for widow and children of Arthur Matthison [1840]

Things caught up with Arthur Matthison in 1840, perhaps the result of so many head injuries during his time in the ring, along with the beating he received at the hands and feet of Joseph Sampson. He was ill for some time before he passed away in his 40th year during July 1840. For all his exploits and involvement in betting circles, there was no provision for his widow and eight children. He may have been involved with an ill-fated attempt to open a second pub, the Queen's Head on Camden Street. Whatever the reason for his monetary issues, a benevolent fund was established to help Sophia Matthison bring up the family.

Birmingham : Notice for an auction of the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1842]

The census of 1841 reveals that Thomas Horton was in charge of the King's Head Inn. However, it must have been a tough act to follow Arthur Matthison. Certainly, his stay at the tavern was brief and the above notice appeared in the Birmingham press in February 1842. The sale notice provides a glimpse of the premises and also shows that the house was retailing homebrewed ales.

Birmingham : Advertisement for Herbert Hudson at the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1842]

Birmingham : Advertisement for Herbert Hudson's Concert Room at the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1843]

Herbert Hudson was the successful bidder at the auction for the King's Head Inn. By September 1843 he was claiming that forty thousand people had frequented the tavern. His concert room was certainly packing them in. Mind you, the admission was free so what's not to like, apart from some of the dodgy acts performing on the stage! Herbert Hudson was clearly a popular publican for, on New Year's Day in 1849 a "sumptuous entertainment was given at the King's Head Inn on the occasion of presenting a testimonial to the landlord." Herbert Hudson was presented with a silver cup, one side of which featured three figures in bold relief, representing Comedy, Tragedy and Charity; and over the latter a book of music, on which was engraved the titles of some favourite songs. On the other side of the cup an engraving had the inscription: "Presented to Herbert Hudson, by a few friends, as a slight testimonial of their admiration of his manly and straightforward conduct, as well as for his unwearied exertions, on all occasions, in the cause of benevolence." The cup was designed and manufactured by the silversmith and jeweller Samuel Keeley of New Street.

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Birmingham : Advertisements for the Spread Eagle in the Bull Ring and the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1853]

I was chuffed to see this pair of advertisements that appeared together in December 1853. It not only names the new proprietors of the King's Head Inn, but it also shows where Herbert Hudson went after moving out of the pub. With the huge takings from his music hall at the King's Head, he opened his new enterprise on Spiceal Street in July 1853. The advertisement also reveals that Herbert Hudson was also a performer in addition to being a concert hall proprietor. In 1850 he was billed as a "renowned comic singer and actor" when making an appearance at the Theatre Royal in Wolverhampton. He advertised the Midland Counties Concert Hall at the Spread Eagle in September 1854, citing ill-health. In May 1855 he suffered facial injuries in a train accident at Dudley. The entrepreneur died in April 1858.

Tavern Check issued by Messrs. Mackney and George at the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [c.1853-4]

Messrs. Mackney and George issued Tavern Checks for the King's Head Inn, to the value of 3d. These could have been used for gaining entry to the harmonic rooms but I suspect that they were purchased in the bar and then used to hand to waiters during intervals in order to get more refreshments. Patrons could therefore remain in their seats whilst a waiter ran to the bar to get their glasses refilled. The tavern check above was sent to me by David William Earle and I am very glad he got in touch. I imagine that this is a rare example of a tavern check and the issue date was very narrow [c.1853-4].

Song Sheet featuring Edmund William Mackney [1861]

The King's Head Inn continued its success as a music hall when taken over by Messrs. E. W. Mackney and G. H. George. Indeed, in the former the tavern boasted a national star celebrity. Born in 1825 into a London theatrical family, Edmund William Mackney first appeared in pantomime when only nine years of age. A couple of years later he witnessed the visit of an American blackface minstrel Thomas D. "Daddy" Rice, the sight and sound of whom inspired him to follow a similar career path in the UK. Dubbed "The Great Mackney," he became one of the big stars of early Music Hall. A notable dancer, he also played piano, banjo and violin during his sell-out shows. Retiring from the stage, he settled in Enfield, Middlesex, where he started a new career in cultivating roses. However, like boxers who retire and end up making a comeback, Mackney returned to the stage in later years. In 1897, he published an autobiography, "The Life and Reminiscences of E. W. Mackney, Ethiopian Entertainer." He came to the end of his extraordinary life at the age of 84 in 1909.

Birmingham : Advertisement by Messrs. E. Mackney & G. H. George for the Harmonic Rooms at the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1854]

G. H. George, Edmund Mackney's partner at the Harmonic Rooms was also an entertainer. After their time at the King's Head Inn, he and his wife became a popular duo act appearing at various theatres in the region, most notably at Day's Concert Hall on the corner of Hurst Street and Smallbrook Street. After a particularly successful run there, Mrs. George was lauded for her ability to please an audience so well by her comic singing that the audience were never satisfied and demanded several encores.

Birmingham : Notice for an auction of the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1854]

Notices for an auction of the King's Head Inn appeared in July 1854 and seems to mark the end of the involvement of Messrs. E. Mackney & G. H. George, both of whom were enjoying career highs on the stage so perhaps focused on their live performances. The notice provides some detail of the premises. The incoming was high in comparison with other public-houses and no doubt reflected the footfall enjoyed by the harmonic rooms.

The man who took the plunge and raised his hand to win the auction was William Piercy Smith, a publican who, along with his wife Sarah, had worked his way up the greasy pole of pub tenancy. In 1848 he was the licensee of a beer house in King Alfred's Place. From there the couple moved to the Blue Pig Tavern on Moor Street. Taking on the King's Head Inn was a step up and carried some financial risk.

Birmingham : Advertisement for stabling at the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1861]

William Piercy Smith held the licence of the King's Head Inn until his death in September 1862. I am not sure to what extent the harmonic rooms were retained during this period. It may be that the premises went through a transitional period. Competition in the music hall business was fierce and the emergence of large concerns may have caused the closure of some houses. The above advertisement above suggests that William Smith was steering the King's Head Inn towards catering for visitors to the markets. However, an incident on the premises suggests that some form of entertainment was being offered. In March 1858 George Henri was charged with stealing a large quantity of wearing-apparel from the King's Head Inn. He had made his way to Hull but the long arm of the law caught up with him and he was hauled back to Birmingham where the magistrates committed him for trial at the Sessions.

Another swerve in the business was evidenced in October 1859, when members and friends of No.1 Lodge of Philanthropic Brothers met at the King's Head Inn for their first anniversary bash. William and Sarah dished up "an excellent repast" after which the evening was enlivened by a selection of glees and duets by brothers Job Shaw and Bedford. It is hard to think that the Smith's could accommodate such gatherings if they were busy running a music hall.

Birmingham : Notice for a sale of the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1869]

Following the death of William Smith, the licence of the King's Head Inn was transferred to widow Sarah. She remained at the helm until illness forced her to advertise the licences, good-will and possession of the house during 1869. She had married Thomas Fletcher and, although he held the licence from 1867 the premises were still technically held by her. Sarah Fletcher died in October 1869.

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The licensee of the mid-1870s is something of a minefield. White's directory published in 1875 lists Gustave Niay as publican. Now, that may not seem such a common name in these parts but there were two of them, father and son. Perhaps there were three. The movements and different trades of these is a right spider's web. I suspect a lot of dodginess along the way. Gustave François Antoine Niay was born in October 1837 in the French town of La Fère to the south-east of Amiens. He married Sarah Stanier Mantle in July 1866 at Wolverhampton. It was at this town that their son Gustave was born in the following year on November 5th. In 1869 he was recorded in the United Grand Lodge of England Freemason Membership Register as a soda water manufacturer living at Hill House at Hockley. In this business he was in partnership with Percy Cocker and Ludford Docker. However, the partnership was dissolved in June 1871. In the following year he was listed as a French butter merchant with an office in the Exchange Buildings at Stephenson Place.

From 1872 until the early 1880s Gustave and Sarah were living at Wylde Green. He almost certainly installed managers to run some of the pubs for which he held the licence. The trade directory listing of 1875 suggests he held the licence during the preceding year. However, after a spell by George Longmore, the licence was transferred to Gustave Niay for the second time at the fag end of 1876. Between these dates, in December 1875, the licence of the Minerva Tavern on Great Barr Street was transferred to him. And yet in Kelly's Directory for Staffordshire published in 1876 Gustave Niay was listed as licensee of the Wellington at Waterloo Road North in Wolverhampton. In March 1878 the licence of the Windmill Inn on Spon Street at Coventry was transferred to Gustave François Antoine Niay. At this time he was in partnership with Joseph Bolton as a potato and provisions merchant. This partnership was dissolved in March 1879. In the following month newspapers across the nation printed that a petition for liquidation had been filed in the Birmingham Bankruptcy Court by Gustave François Antoine Niay, licensed victualler and provision merchant, of Birmingham and Coventry, with liabilities estimated at £10,000 and assets undetermined. I have seen publicans owing several hundred pounds but we are talking a five-figure sum here!

More scandal was to follow in July 1890 when Gustave François Antoine Niay, landlord of the Mitre Hotel in Victoria Street, Wolverhampton appeared at the Wolverhampton Police Court for allowing his licensed premises to be used for the purpose of betting. His wife, Sarah, was charged with assisting in conducting the house for the purpose of betting of race horses. Their son, Gustave, appeared on a similar charge. The police executed a sting operation in which an officer in plain clothes placed a bet on a horse with Sarah Niay at the servery of the house. Once he spotted where she kept her book and slips, another policeman was called and he scaled the counter and seized the evidence. The books revealed that, in just four days, 559 people had placed bets in the Mitre Hotel. The Mayor said that the betting had a demoralising effect upon the community so the magistrates fined the family heavily. Sarah Niay was fined £100 as the key bookmaker. Gustave Niay was only fined £10 as he had not actually been seen taking bets.

Amid several financial scandals, the couple sailed away into the sunset. In April 1891 Gustave François Antoine Niay appeared in the Court, Governmental & Criminal Records for Sydney, New South Wales. He seems to have flitted again to another part of the world for in South Africa there are entries in the Court, Governmental & Criminal Records for that place. He died in 1908 and was buried at St. John's Churchyard at Wynberg in Cape Town. For anybody researching their family tree and coming across the name of Gustave François Antoine Niay, good luck unpicking that lot.

Birmingham : Clear-Out Sale of Furniture, Fittings and Effects of the King's Head Inn on Digbeth [1898]

The last licensee of the King's Head Inn was Thomas Henry Smith. Born in Liverpool in 1849, he was manager in the early 1880s and later took over the licence. As a result he and his wife Mary kept the place for almost two decades before its closure and demolition.

Licensees of the King's Head Inn

1825 - Arthur Matthison
1841 - Thomas Horton
1842 - Herbert Hudson
1854 - 1862 William Piercy Smith
1862 - 1867 Sarah Smith
1867 - 1879 Thomas Fletcher
1870 - 1871 James Chaplin
1871 - Harry Bishop
1874 - James Lowe
1875 - Gustave François Antoine Niay
1876 - George Longmore
1876 - Gustave François Antoine Niay
1880 - William Millner
1883 - Samuel Smith
1886 - P. Edwards
1888 - 1898 Thomas Henry Smith
Note : this is not a complete list of licensees for this pub. The dates of early licensees are sourced from trade directories, census data, electoral rolls, rate books and newspaper articles. Names taken from trade directories may be slightly inaccurate as there is some slippage from publication dates and the actual movement of people.

"Corwick Halman [27], drover, court, Digbeth, was charged with being drunk and breaking a large looking-glass, value £2., belonging to Thomas Fletcher, King's Head, Digbeth. On the previous evening prisoner was drunk and very disorderly at the prosecutor's house, and quarrelled with another man who was there. He took up a cup, and threw it at the other man's head. The cup missed its mark, and struck a looking glass, smashing it into pieces. Prisoner, who had been previously convicted, was ordered to pay the damage, £2., and a fine of 20s. and costs, or in default to go to gaol for one month."
"Wilful Damage"
Birmingham Daily Gazette : December 24th 1869 Page 4.

"Thomas Davitt [36], labourer, having no fixed residence, and Martin Davitt [23], gun barrel borer, Green Street, were charged with being drunk and disorderly in the house of James Lowe, King's Head, Digbeth and assaulting several policemen. On Sunday evening the prisoner Marin Davitt entered the King's Head in a state of intoxication and the landlord's daughter refused to supply him with anything more to drink. Directly afterwards Martin began a quarrel with someone in the shop, and the landlord endeavoured to put him out. The other prisoner coming in, however, [Lowe's] efforts at ejectment were unsuccessful. The police were called in, and such was the violence of the prisoners that it took four officers to remove them. In the struggle one policeman received a kick from Thomas Davitt in the pit of the stomach, and, to use the prosecutor's own words, the officer was completely "doubled up." The other policemen were also badly treated. Thomas, it was stated "very frequently becomes a teetotaller but now and then breaks out." Mr. Kynnersley said the prisoners were, with their two brothers, a perfect pest to society. One had been before the magistrates 24 times, another 20, a third 25 times, and a fourth 12 times. In the present case the prisoners were sentenced to six months' hard labour each. The prisoner Thomas, as he was leaving the dock, said it was likely they should frequently be in the dock while there were such men as the four policemen called in as witnesses in the force. They [the prisoners] would be here again probably very soon."
"A Pest To Society"
Birmingham Mail : January 20th 1874 Page 3.

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