Some history of the White Swan on Floodgate Street at Digbeth in Birmingham in Warwickshire


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Located on the corner of Floodgate Street and Little Ann Street, the White Swan has traded under a number of names including the Swan Inn, Birmingham's Own, Horan's Tavern, The Eagle and The Ruin. In a different life the building also traded as the Spring Gardens, a successor to the establishment that was an early tourist attraction of Birmingham which, during the late 18th century, combined a licensed house with pleasure garden, horticultural retail outlet, tea gardens and a destination catering for those on boating excursions that departed from Apollo House in Moseley Street.

Birmingham : Advertisement for the Spring Gardens at Floodgate Street [1791]

Samuel Fallows was listed at the Spring Gardens in a trade directory published in 1786. However, the above advertisement from Aris's Birmingham Gazette published in October 1791 is interesting in that it seems to be promoting a "new commodious house and gardens." I believe that the original Spring Gardens were located on the south-east side of Floodgate Street with the gardens on the river bank. The enterprise was possibly operated on land owned by John Cox, a saw and screw maker who was also listed as a publican at Floodgate Street within Birmingham's second trade directory of 1770. He was further listed in Swinney's trade directory published four years later. In the first directory for the town [Sketchley's 1767] John Cox was publican of the Three Doves in Mill Street.

The above advertisement suggests that Samuel Fallows had moved the business from Cox's Gardens to a new property "erected on the corner." Certainly, by the time of early 19th century maps, the Spring Gardens was marked on the corner of Floodgate Street and Little Ann Street.

Birmingham : Map Extract showing the Spring Gardens at Floodgate Street [1808]

All available evidence points towards the Spring Gardens being on the corner of Little Ann Street. However, in the early 1820s the old licence was transferred to another property on the eastern side of Floodgate Street. This was possibly the former house of John Cox as the name of Cox's Gardens resurfaced in later years.

Birmingham : Map showing the locations of the Spring 
Gardens and Swan Inn on Floodgate Street [1880s]

To help make things clearer I have combined two plans [above] to show the locations of the Swan Inn and Spring Gardens. As the latter was not on land owned by the Gooch Estate it was not mapped on the 1875 plan. So I have overlaid a section from an O.S. Map dating from 1889 which shows the Spring Gardens on the opposite side of the street and on the other side of the railway. The old licence of the Spring Gardens was seemingly removed from this corner position to these premises in 1822.

Birmingham : Advertisement 
for an auction of the former Spring Gardens public-house on the corner of Floodgate Street and Ann Street [1831]

I had suspected that the building on the corner of Little Ann Street dated from 1791 when Samuel Fallows announced to the people of Birmingham that he had moved to a new building "erected on the corner." It was Thomas Tabberner who obtained permission to move the old licence in 1822. And the above advertisement proves that the corner property had been de-licensed. In November 1831 the building formed part of a cluster of properties being sold at auction. Here it can be seen that it was a "former public-house" and occupied by the Licensed Retail Brewer John Wagstaff. Note also that the 'Little' element of the street name was not used at this time.

I have not seen any evidence that John Wagstaff was a retail brewer so he was not selling from these premises. He would have been what was called a common brewer, using the existing buildings to produce ales and then delivering them to other pubs in the locality.

Birmingham : Rate Book entry for the Swan Inn on Floodgate Street [1835-7]

The house did become a retail beer house known as the Swan Inn during the mid-1830s. Indeed, this could only happen after legislative changes of 1830. The earliest record I have seen of the Swan Inn is a rate book of 1835 that recorded Mary Cooper as the occupier. In the rate book her name is crossed out and the name of the following occupant, John Smallwood, has been inserted. Both he and Mary Cooper paid rent to the leaseholder of the property which the book shows to be a person called Lowe. This was possibly William Lowe, a shopkeeper who controlled a number of properties in the locality. He was probably the successful bidder at the auction for Lot 3 in 1831.

In the following plan I have focused on the immediate vicinity of the Swan Inn. There were other public-houses in Floodgate Street but the pubs marked below were the houses competing for trade with the Swan Inn.

Birmingham : Extract from a Gooch Estate plan showing a section of Floodgate Street and Little Ann Street in Digbeth [1875]

When the Swan Inn opened for business the Spring Gardens had built up a reputation as a destination tavern with gardens, footpaths, grottoes and a modest arbour. With such a pleasant river environment on the doorstep, it is easy to see why the first licensee should select the Swan as a trading name. Indeed, just a few metres to the north of the property, on the other side of Little Ann Street, there was a large mill pool on which swans possibly settled and nested. This body of water could be dangerous. In February 1827 a young man named Samuel Roe lost his life when skating on the pond and fell through thin ice. It took almost an hour for his body to be recovered. An inquest was held at the New Spring Gardens along the road.

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The sign of The Swan first appeared in the 14th century and is thought to originate from either a direct allusion to the swan itself or a coat-of-arms featuring the bird. Indeed, in this latter guise, Henry VIII and Edward III favoured it. In early times the swan was a symbol of innocence and this is perhaps the reason why the White Swan is such a common variant.

As mentioned, the building probably dates from 1791. Although featuring on the Gooch Estate plan of 1875, the property was erected on land belonging to the Trustees of King Edward VI Grammar School.

The Swan Inn is not listed in Pigot's directory published in 1835, data that largely relates to the previous year so it would seem that Mary Cooper was the first licensee of the house. Her successor may have been the son of John Smallman who once kept the King's Arms in nearby Moore's Row. The next directory in my possession is Robson's 1839 book in which Richard Grimmett is listed at No.24 Floodgate Street, the original address of the property. He is listed in the Electoral Roll of 1838. There is a Richard Grimmett in the criminal records of January 1843 but I do not know if it is this publican or another Richard Grimmett. The case was heard at the Birmingham Quarter Sessions. The name is not common so it is possible that this was the person sentenced to seven years transportation for two counts of larceny. This person departed in September 1843 bound for Van Diemen's Land in Tasmania. Born in 1802, Richard Grimmett was a bricklayer by trade. He had kept the Swan Inn with his wife Sarah.

John Davis took over the Swan in 1842. He appears in an 1845 ratebook for St. Martin's. His annual rent for the Retail Beerhouse was given at £28.0s.0d. However, his rates of £2.0s.0d. were marked in the book as void or uncollectable. William Deebank did not get off so lightly in 1848 - he had to pay in full.

Birmingham : Advertisement for the Swan Inn on Floodgate Street in Digbeth [1848]

This is one of many advertisements that appeared for the Swan Inn during the late 1840s. The high turnover of tenants demonstrates that it was tough to make a living, even with the rent set at the pitiful amount of £15.

Thomas and Maria Allen were running the Swan Inn by 1850. This couple, who may have arrived here from Garrison Lane, managed to negotiate a rent of £20.0s.0d. and paid rates of £1.10s.0d. for the retail beer house, brewhouse and premises. The name of the house was changed during their time running the tavern and by the late 1850s it had become known as the White Swan.

When Thomas Allen passed on in December 1858 his wife Maria took over the licence of the White Swan. In the 1861 census she was recorded as a 67 year-old retail brewer from Rowley Regis in Staffordshire. We therefore know that she was a brewster producing the homebrewed ales sold at the White Swan.

Maria Allen's 28 year-old Birmingham-born son Harry brought in additional income by working as an electro-plate finisher in one of the local factories. Maria Allen employed Clara Jones as a general servant. Hailing from Stourbridge in Worcestershire, she was born in 1842.

Maria Allen applied for a full licence in August 1861. Her solicitor, John Powell, stated at the licensing meeting that the "home had three spare bedrooms and a club room, with accommodation for forty or fifty persons, was rented at £20, and rated at £15." The application was opposed by John Suckling, solicitor representing the Dawes family of the neighbouring Spring Gardens, alluding to the "very low sum at which the house was rated, and the small accommodation it offered." The application was deferred but ultimately refused.

When Maria Allen died in 1864, 39 year-old son Joseph took over at the White Swan. The pub's street number had changed to 92 by the time the census enumerator came knocking the door in 1871. Retail brewer Joseph Allen lived at the White Swan with his wife Eliza Jane who was two years younger. She and all the children were born in Birmingham. Jane, 21, was not listed as having an occupation but probably worked in the pub. Thomas, 18, and William, 16, were employed as Scale Beam Fitters in a local factory. Two other children were listed as scholars - Charles, 8, and Joseph, 5. The occupations of the Matthews family who lived next door are indicative of the work people were engaged in around Floodgate Street and Little Ann Street - Mangler, Bullet Maker, Tray Polisher, Bricklayer and Seamstress. Digbeth was seemingly making just about anything and everything.

Henry Truman took over the leasehold of the White Swan in 1875. He was born in Birmingham in 1835. Born one year later, his wife Ann hailed from Tadcaster in Yorkshire. They had a 12 year-old daughter called Eleanor. In 1878 they celebrated the birth of Elsie. By now the annual rent of the White Swan had risen to £36.0s.0d. and in 1881 Henry Truman paid his rates of £3.10s.0d.

The Truman family are possibly a key reason why the White Swan survived when other public-houses were closed. They did much to improve the place and enhance its reputation within the local community. In 1883 Henry Truman commissioned a local architect to draw up a plan for some alterations. Unfortunately, although a record for the plan exists, the actual drawing has been lost. William Jenkins, an architect and surveyor based at 34 Bennett's Hill, drew up the plan on September 4th 1883. Six years earlier he had worked on the redesign of the nearby Waggon and Horses in Adderley Street. The plan possibly consisted of the chunky wooden fascia added to the ground floor - a popular addition during the period.

Henry and Ann Truman's key act for maintaining the White Swan was to secure a full licence for the house in September 1887, though this came at the expense of another tavern. The couple sought the services of Benbow Hebbert to represent them at the licensing sessions. He told the Bench that he was seeking the removal of the licence of the King's Arms on Moore's Row, a tavern he described as "a miserable hole" and moved to the White Swan. It was one of several applications that day. The magistrates adjourned and, on their return to the court, the Mayor announced that would grant the applicaton of Henry and Ann Truman. This would prove to be a precious protective measure during the early years of the 20th century when the authorities closed down many of the old beer houses. Henry and Ann Truman were quite canny with their application for they raised a petition for the upgrade which was signed by 500 people. The application was opposed by Dr. Crabbe of the nearby Medical Mission.

Henry and Ann Truman, with the ability to serve liquors and spirits, could now host dinners at the White Swan. Several clubs and societies held events hosted by the Truman family who made full use of the club room.

Ansell's - The Better Beer

Ann Truman stayed on at the pub after her husband's death in December 1896. However, within two years she sold up to Ansell's Brewery Ltd. The company installed Thomas Smith as manager but he moved on after a short spell in charge. The 1901 census records 47 year-old Birmingham-born Richard Broadhead as a public-house manager. When the son of a grocer married Emma Connerley at St. Bartholomew's Church at Edgbaston in June 1885 he was an artist by profession.

Richard and Emma's three sons all brought additional income into the household. 23 year-old James worked as a japanner whilst Edgar, 18, and Richard, 14, were both employed as tin-plate workers. The Broadhead's also had a 7 year-old daughter. Elsie who, like all her brothers, was born in Birmingham. Richard Broadhead did two stints as licensee of the White Swan and would manage the house throughout the First World War.

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The White Swan struggled through the 'Fives and Twos' coal strike in 1912 which affected the local factories that depended on fuel. Just along the road the Birmingham Medical Mission initiated an Infant's Health Society during this period.

A 1924 entry in the Ansell's property register shows that the brewery took a 99-year lease on the White Swan on September 29th 1902 at the modest annual ground rent of £25.0s.0d. This included Nos.38 and 39 Little Ann Street. The company agreed to expend a sum of £300 on renovations to the property and paid a premium of £600. They soon recouped the money - the 1901 ratebook for St. Martin's shows that Richard Broadhead's annual rent was £80.0s.0d. A bit of a mark-up for the brewery! Richard Broadhead also paid his rates of £7.18s.8d. in full.

When Charles Batham arrived in 1924 Ansell's drew up an underlease on the White Swan with an annual rental of £50. The decrease from the days of Richard Broadhead suggests another difficult trading period. A 1936 entry in the Ansell's property register shows an agreement with the Trustees of the Glover's Charity whereby the Trustees granted the company a licence to carry out specified alterations to the White Swan providing they paid a £100 contribution to the Trustees' funds.

Charles Batham kept the White Swan with his wife Elizabeth. Born in the Black Country town of Lye, the sheet metal worker married Elizabeth Robinson in 1905. He would later return to heavy work in the metal industry. He died on Halloween in 1948.

Birmingham : White Swan on the corner of Floodgate Street and Little Ann Street in Digbeth [c.1935]

This brings us to this photograph which was taken around 1935-6 when Harry and Lily Ashfield kept the pub. That is probably Lily Ashfield stood in the doorway of the private accommodation. Her husband had worked as an engraver in the jewellery trade. During the late 1920s the couple kept the St. Matthias' Tavern on Great Russell Street for Mitchell's and Butler's. By the outbreak of the Second World War he and his wife Lily lived in 2 Court, close to the Black Horse on Park Lane at Aston. The couple remained in this location until Harry's death in January 1961.

Birmingham : Former Offices of W. J. Wild Limited on Floodgate Street

Although Harry and Lily Ashfield lived at the White Swan in 1933, the photograph was definitely taken between 1935 and 1936 as on the left-hand side of the image one can just see the new brickwork of the offices erected for W. J. Wild Ltd. The attractive building, typical of the inter-war period, has been restored in recent times. Dated 1935, the offices fronted a large metal stamping works. The vacancies notice dates from 1942 and it would appear that labour was in short supply. The firm were contractors to the Admiralty and Ministry of Aviation.

Ansell's Beer Bottle Labels

During the Second World War the White Swan was kept by Charles and Mary Henson. They handed over to John Pugh. In the year of the Queen's Coronation the pub was run by Charles and Gladys MacLean, a couple who had married during the Second World War. I suspect that the White Swan suffered from bomb damage during the war which resulted in the top floor being removed. A map plotting bomb sites does show two incendiary bombs landing close to the corner and one high explosive bomb very close to the White Swan.

Birmingham : The White Swan on Floodgate Street in Digbeth [c.1970s]

In more recent years the White Swan was kept by Anne Greensall. She went on to become a tenant at the Queen's Arms on MacDonald Street. The licence of The White Swan, which was then trading as Birmingham's Own, was transferred to Helen Lindsay on April 14th 1994. She and her husband Frank previously kept the Gough Arms at Holloway Head. And before that they had run the Sacks of Potatoes at Gosta Green, The Minerva Arms at Handsworth, The Brighton Arms on Coventry Road, The Chelmsley in Sheldon, and The New Hop Pole in West Bromwich. Even during a spell out of running pubs, Ann worked at The Westward Hoe in Broad Street, a pub that later traded as O'Neill's.

Birmingham : Horan's Tavern on the corner of Floodgate Street and Little Ann Street in Digbeth [2001]

Birmingham : Inn Sign of Horan's Tavern at Digbeth [2001]

Helen Lindsay decided to incorporate her maiden name into the pub's name and changed it to Horan's Tavern. The motto of the Horan clan's coat-of-arms is "I wish you health and happiness, I wish you gold in store, I wish you heaven after death, what could I wish you more." The Horan name and clan is a descendent of Heremon of southwest Ulster. According to some historians, the chariot driver for Saint Patrick was a chariot chieftain named Odhar, descended of the Red Branch of the ruling clan of Ulster. It is from Odhar that all Horan's are descended. The modern day Horan's are centred in what is now County Mayo, in the province of Connaught. Ann however was born in Co.Galway whilst her partner Frank hailed from Co.Monaghan.

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I took the next two photographs inside the pub during 2001. Unfortunately, the camera was a rather dodgy early digital affair so the quality of the images is not great. Still, better than nothing I guess.

Birmingham : Bar of Horan's Tavern on Floodgate Street in Digbeth [2001]

Birmingham : Lounge of Horan's Tavern on Floodgate Street in Digbeth [2001]

In the 21st century the former White Swan has changed ownership and names on several occasions. If fact, I completely lost track of the name changes, different paint jobs and, indeed, the role of the building. Bizarrely, in 2009 it was trading under the sign of another local pub, the Floodgates Tavern. It later became The Eagle and the last time I was in the locality it was trading as The Ruin.

Birmingham : The Floodgate Tavern on Floodgate Street in Digbeth [2009]

Birmingham : The Ruin on Floodgate Street in Digbeth [2018]

Licensees of the Swan Inn & White Swan

1835 - 1837 Mary Cooper
1837 - John Smallwood
1838 - 1842 Richard Grimmett
1842 - John Davies
1848 - William Deebank
1849 - Edward Roberts
1850 - 1858 Thomas Allen
1858 - 1864 Maria Allen
1864 - Joseph Allen
1875 - 1897 Henry Truman
1897 - 1898 Ann Truman
1899 - Thomas Henry Smith
1901 - 1902 Richard Broadhead
1902 - 1903 Charles Dale
1903 - 1904 Albert Lees
1904 - 1909 Joseph Gannon
1909 - 1920 Richard Broadhead
1920 - 1924 John Hayes
1924 - 1928 Charles George Batham
1928 - 1932 Walter Jeffreys
1932 - 1933 Frederick Charles Thorpe
1933 - 1936 Harry Alexander Ashfield
1936 - 1941 Charles Francis Henson
1941 - 1946 Mary Kathleen Henson
1946 - 1948 Charles Francis Henson
1936 - 1941 Charles Francis Henson
1948 - 1953 John Thomas Pugh
1953 - 1955 Archibald McGregor MacLean
1955 - 1958 Pauline Margaret Hodgson
1958 - 1960 Peter Thomas Troman
1960 - 1961 Walter Herbert Higgins
1961 - 1962 Michael Geraghty
1962 - 1963 Fred Hall
1963 - 1968 Ida Mary Benton
1968 - 1969 Alfred Lucas Bill
1969 - 1969 Dorothy Bill
1969 - 1970 Joseph James Merrins
1970 - 1972 James Whitehouse
1972 - 1972 Malcolm Alfred Bradley
1972 - 1976 Douglas J. Whittington
1976 - 1978 Anna Marie Jennings
1978 - 1988 Catherine Carey-Hall
1988 - 1989 Isabel Ann Barrett
1989 - 1990 Keith Adrian Woodward
1990 - 1990 Alan James Lloyd
1990 - 1991 Maureen Ann Elcock
1991 - 1992 Sandra Price
1992 - 1993 Anne Bernadette Greensall
1993 - 1994 Bernice Ann Walker
1994 - Helen Ann Lindsay
Note : this is not a complete list of licensees for this pub.

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