History You Can Trust vs. Disinformation.
I have been researching the histories of public-houses for a few decades, a period in which there has been dramatic changes in the way the public read and digest information. Moreover, technological advances have enabled many to post information in ways that old codgers could not have imagined back in the day. This can be very positive in many respects, particularly with first-hand accounts or memories posted on forums, blogs and social media. However, one has to tread very carefully as there is so much disinformation out there. Such a term may be a tadge harsh as I doubt if the amateur historian deliberately intends to mislead their readership. However, the vast array of platforms now means that factual errors are increasingly being compounded and perpetuated. Needless to say this is rather distressing to those who, like myself, make every effort to present history that can be trusted.
In compiling historical notes on public-houses I quite often come across certain details that simply cannot be verified, either through lost documents or the lack of a primary source. Sometimes I will add my own theory but always state where there is some conjecture on my part. What I will not do, however, is state something as fact unless I am sure of it. I have been known to go to extreme lengths to get to the bottom of things. For example, when researching the Anchor Inn at Digbeth, I went to the bank that was mortgagee to the publican in order to examine the deeds of the property. These had to be held at the bank for security on the funding so the only way to view them was to spread them out on a desk in the manager's office. I have also tracked down former publicans and interviewed them to gain an insight into the premises in days of old. I have spent countless hours in court records offices to compile accurate details of licence transfers. I have visited brewery offices to look at documents pertaining to houses within their estate. I have acquired historical documents when they have become available, not to mention spending considerable sums on original photographs. I could go on, but the end result is WYSIWYG, but with an enormous amount of effort to provide accurate information.
Amid the many thousands of words I have typed up there is the possibility that something does not quite add up. However, I have got to the point of tearing my hair out at some of the rubbish I read these days. I guess the worst crimes are committed on Facebook pages created for specific places. There are plenty of ridiculous posts that are completely inaccurate. But it is not just online where a right load of tosh is written. Some local history books are compiled by individuals too lazy to actually get their fingers grubby with historical documents. So without further ado, here are some of the errors I have recently encountered. And, yes, I have named names. They have the right to reply and hopefully they will. What is certain, with the advance of technology and media platforms, I have had enough. The alternative is to let it all slide. But what is the point of writing history for future generations if it is wrong?
Where possible I source information from tithe maps and tithe agreement documents to determine early land ownership on which public-houses were built, and to determine any additional land ownership adjoining the plot.
It is getting increasingly problematic to find original indentures but I try to plod on through the electronic age to source the original documents pertaining to public-houses. Accordingly, if I state that a certain person was the first owner of a building it is because I have dug out a primary source such as an indenture and found the name within.
When typing up a list of sequential licensees for a public-house it is because I have been to the court records offices or archives to source the original clerk's register. I have been to places like Birmingham Magistrate's Court, Matlock Archives, Stafford County Court, Worcester Archives and the old archives at Coseley to name a few. So, apart from a possible misreading of the clerk's handwriting, these lists are completely accurate.
I note that some Edwardian rate books are appearing on genealogy sites which is great. However, I have done what they call a deep dive into really old rate books dating back to the early 19th century. These are excellent for determining if a licensee is an owner-publican or a tenant, along with details of rateable values.
One of my favourite sources of information are original building plans. So, if you find me describing a building in some detail it is almost certainly because I had the plan in front of me or I have taken photographs of the original held in the archives. I do not make fanciful or imagined remarks on the interior of a pub as I am describing exactly how the place was when constructed.
It can be tricky attempting to apply a date to a photograph that has no supplementary information. However, because I buy - yes physically pay money - for the images used on the site, with a few that I have obtained a licence to use, I can often zoom in to read information to accurately date an image. So, if I state a photograph was taken in a certain year, or between certain dates, it is because I can see something in the image that provides such information.
This is scanned from Page 140 of "Central Birmingham Pubs" by Joseph McKenna, a book published by Tempus in 2006. Have a read. Does it sound reasonable? Technically, the premises was located on the corner of New Inkleys, later Station Street, but I will let that one go. Joseph McKenna wrote that "It opened in about 1838, Isaac Moore being its first licensee." This is incorrect. Richard Davies was the man responsible for obtaining a licence for No.14 Suffolk Street when he took over the property from Benjamin Mayo in 1832. Rate books for Suffolk Street indicate that the property was a beer house in 1834. Joseph McKenna worked on Floor 6 of Birmingham Central Library. He only had to walk up the spiral staircase to the old archives to retrieve that rate book which was on open shelving. He stated that "the pub was bought by William Jones," whereas this man leased a string of houses in Birmingham and re-branded them all with the Criterion name. But the worst error has to be when he wrote: "until its closure in 1925." The King's Arms actually closed for trading on September 29th, 1962. So, only 37 years out! He is also incorrect in his statements regarding the opening and closure of the Wheatsheaf Inn.
This is scanned from Page 81 of "Blackheath : A Second Selection" by Anthony H. Page, a book issued by Sutton Publishing Limited in 2002. I met the author in the local archives some years ago. He seems like a nice chap and has produced a lot of history books on Blackheath and Rowley Regis. However, I have no idea how he came up with the caption for this photograph. He wrote : "With construction completed, the new Britannia Inn is pictured at its opening on 8 December 1930." This is incorrect. But here we have a classic example of this factually incorrect statement being compounded. The following is a screenshot taken from the Facebook Group "I Remember Blackheath & Rowley Regis," the image being posted by Mike Fenton who, I believe, is a moderator of the group.
Like thousands of individuals using social media, he had posted a photograph which infringes all the rules of copyright. In terms of text did he check the information that he clearly read in the book by Anthony H. Page? No, he simply compounds the error by spreading it across a social media platform. For his caption he wrote : "The Britannia, pictured at its opening in 1930 ..... it was demolished in the late 1920s and re-built." When I took this screenshot he had 50 likes for his post. On May 22nd, 2021, he posted the same image with another caption claiming the pub opened in 1930. This time his post got 174 likes. So, that is a fair number of people who now think the pub was opened in 1930. And on it goes. The truth is that the brewery did not buy the land on which the pub was built until October 18th, 1937. The premises were opened on December 7th, 1939. The clerks at M&B were meticulous with their record-keeping and I found this information within a ledger held at the old Coors Museum at Burton-on-Trent. I took the trouble to travel to the former home of brewing to find this information. Sure, the original caption is only nine years out but if we do not bother to record things properly we may as well pack up and let everyone make things up. While we are at it let's say that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1824. After all, it is only nine years out.
This screenshot shows a post by me on the "Halesowen Remembered" Facebook group. I had tidied up my page for the Loyal Lodge at Furnace Hill, a piece of research I had conducted in 2019. In this post I asked if anybody had dug back to the early 18th century and could help identify the person[s] on the stone tablet on the frontage of the pub. I had tried the parish registers but had drawn a blank.
In response to my question, Steve James posted the above reply. Here he states that "GIM stands for Grand Institute of Masons, since the building was originally used as a Freemasons' Lodge." Note that he does not write "it could be .... " but asserts that "G. I. M. stands for ..." as if this is a fact. What is a fact that he has no basis for this argument. No evidence whatsoever. Indeed, the term Grand Institute of Masons is seemingly not used by United Grand Lodge of England - I have searched for its use to no avail. As I say on my page for this pub, generally, the upper initial represents a surname, with the two lower letters being the initials of a husband and wife occupying the property. The date usually represents the construction date of the building but can also be the marriage date of the couple or a year in which they moved into the property. If luck prevails, the names can often be found in the parish register. Unfortunately, I did not drop lucky in the parish register. Of course, the early occupants of the house could have attended another church or, indeed, worshipped at a non-conformist chapel so the parish register is not guaranteed to reveal their identity. Whilst it is true that Freemasons met in this building, probably after it had become a licensed house, no evidence has emerged to show that this was the original function of the building. What is certain is that the first lodge to be formed in the Worcestershire Masonic Province was at Stourbridge NOT Halesowen. The inaugural meeting was held in 1733 at the Talbot Hotel. It is very unlikely that a second meeting house would have come into use just three years after this date. And yet, without any evidence, Steve James states it as fact. The fact is that this is not a fact.
Here is another so-called 'fact' by the same Steve James in his history of the Waggon and Horses at Halesowen. He submitted this in article for the Black Country Bugle who simply took images from Facebook to accompany his text. What has happened to publishing standards these days? The article appeared on Page 6 of their newspaper published on Wednesday November 22nd, 2023. He announced to the online world via his Facebook page that his article had been published. After reading the article I posted on his Facebook page with the question "I see that you state it was "acquired by M&B" in 1903. Where did you come up with that year?" He did not reply to my post. Of course, I suspect I know where he came up with that year - the late Tony Hitchmough had published the same information in his coverage of the Waggon and Horses. It is totally incorrect and, by copying the previously issued notes rather than do some real research, he has compounded the error. M&B did NOT buy this pub in 1903. The reason I know this is because I took a photograph of the ORIGINAL brewery ledger which states the exact date of purchase and the price paid by the brewery. Steve James did respond on this issue and wrote to me, stating "this is stated in Tony Hitchmough's database which is generally very reliable." Well, "generally very reliable" is not good enough. Unlike, Steve James, I did not simply copy the information published by another writer, I went to the ORIGINAL source.
I am disappointed that Tony Hitchmough stated 1903 in his research. He was quite diligent and spent many an hour in the archives at Smethwick. However, he also wrote that the Halesowen pub was originally known as the Cart and Horses. I have searched far and wide for a reference to this inn sign and have not found any evidence for the claim. In copying Tony Hitchmough's notes, Steve James also claimed that the house was called the Cart and Horses. This nugget almost certainly originated from a history of the pub by the late John Richards. I visited John at his house and also drank with him at his local, the Park Tavern at Kingswinford. He was good company and an excellent raconteur. He made a few bob by producing history panels for publicans. One has to smile when reading the frames that have survived in some of the pubs he covered. They all feature stock phrases to fill up the spaces where he needed to augment the rather scant research he undertook. He did put in some work but was known to make things up. His list of licensees could never be trusted. I quizzed him on this several times but he was like a skilled politician in managing to avoid answering my questions. Still, I did enjoy drinking with him.
Another clanger appears in Tony Hitchmough's published notes for the Waggon and Horses. He included this newspaper extract in his notes, and included Silas Whitehouse in his list of licensees. True, Silas Whitehouse did run a Waggon and Horses ... but not this one. He was licensee of the Waggon and Horses on Long Lane not Stourbridge Road.
Let's have a look at the publication of another librarian of Birmingham Central Library. It would seem that Joseph McKenna was not the only member of staff to have a senior moment. Keith Turner was not on a fact-finding mission when he included this in his book. The above image is scanned from Page 49 of his "Birmingham Pubs," a book issued by Tempus Publishing Limited in 1999. Keith Turner's caption states that the photograph was taken in 1964 and that, at the time, Sylvester Patrick Byrne was the licensee. Well, it is true that Sylvester Byrne once managed this house. The licence was transferred to him on November 19th, 1953. He was succeeded by Leonard Court on May 20th, 1954. So, the information is a decade out. However, this detail is not the major crime of this entry. The caption states that The Dolphin was in Hospital Street. The pub was actually on the other side of the city on Irving Street.
When Keith Turner and Joseph McKenna were putting together their books they should have consulted Stephen Penker rather than taking the piss out of him. Almost on a daily basis the cranky old Hungarian bloke used to catch the bus from King's Heath to spend a day in the library, carefully recording the details of all the pubs in Birmingham. With his false teeth falling out when he joked, he would boast to me that his notes, files and folders were the Rolls Royce of research. His photograph collection was unsurpassed, the greatest pictorial record of Birmingham in one personal archive. He even travelled to the British Museum to create etchings of Birmingham tavern checks. He jotted all his research in pencil and would write it up at home in the evening. Next day he would be back again. He undertook this mission for two decades before he shuffled off this mortal coil. I urged the library staff to save his work but they failed to act upon my advice and his priceless archive slipped through their fingers. The Hungarian set the benchmark and I have tried to carry his torch but he was one of a kind.
I no longer visit the archives at Birmingham. The place is only open on Saturdays once a month. They spent all that money on a new library and now there is nothing in the piggy bank to staff it properly and make the material available to the public. I must mention Peter Drake who retired before the library was moved. He was a truly marvellous librarian who would go the extra mile, and then some. Patrick Baird was another accommodating librarian.
Want another from Joseph McKenna? Where do I start? This one is classic. It is an extract from Page 119 of his second book on Central Birmingham Pubs, again published in 2006. Here, the librarian and known imbiber in some of Birmingham's pubs tells the reader that the Vine Inn opened in 1853 and closed in 1974. I can imagine the regulars rolling around in laughter when they read this one. The pub was still trading at the time of publication, some thirty two years later. Indeed, the corner pub was still going two decades after the book was published. I mean, really, he could have walked to the site of this place in his lunch hour just to check it out.