What is the oldest pub in Leek? There are a number of candidates including the Green Dragon, the Roebuck and the Wilkes Head. It is often thought that the Green Dragon has the record for the oldest pub in the town with evidence that the Green Dragon as the Swan was called prior to the 18th century having a landlord running the pub at the end of the 17th century. However the esteemed local historian John Band showed me a document that shows the existence of another “Swan” at least 100 years before the pub locals called the “White Swan” until its name change to the “Green Dragon” last summer.
John Band, a collector of 17th century pamphlets and letters concerning the Moorlands during the Civil War, let me have a letter that complained about the behaviour of two early law officers in the town who in 1638 spent too much time in the “Swanne” and not enough time maintaining law and order in Leek. Their drunken condition had in fact led to a near riot in the town
“Andrew Simpson and Henry Whitticars seldom have kepte true watch but when they should have been watchinge in the streets have been drinkinge in the Alehouse, and burgulary hath byn committed in the towne and parties have escaped by reason of the neglecte of the watche. Francis Hulme a boy about sixteen beeinge sent on some business about eight of the o’clock by the mother of the said Francis unto the Swanne and the said Francis meetinge with the watchmen, beinge as it seems drunke, laid hands on Francis as hee was goein on his business and drawing him in and giving hem a Flagon of Ale which he refusing and goein about his business, the said Watchmen gave him opprobrious words and blowes.
Thomas Hulme his father came to his aid of Francis and a mass brawl broke out in the street and the watchmen “did dangerously wounde and stryke him”. Mr Ashenhurst the magistrate became involved and the pair were bound over to keep the peace. The Hulme family feared retribution from Whitticars and Simpson and the writer of the letter requested that the two disgraced watchmen be relieved of their duties.
What sort of place was a 17th century tavern? I was reading the excellent notes from a CD “ Bawdy Ballads of Old England” which paints a contemporary picture of the clientele offering a “ ripe selection of bawdy songs, filthy ballads and scurvy rhymes bellowed out in ale blown voices in detestable boldness , the lubbers roar, the people run, the Devil laughs, God lowers and good men weep”. It is not surprising that the Hulme family did not want their innocent boy enticed into such premises
But where was the Swan? Malcolm and his partner Alison make a convincing case that their pub “ Wilkes Head”(its present name was acquired in the 1780s-)was during some point in its history was called “ The Swan” and during the early 17th century would have stood on the edge of a vastly extended market square. The present market square is its size because of building encroachment during the 18th and 19th century.
Intriguingly the site of the “Wilkes” could be pushed back even earlier as documents also suggest an even earlier name of the “Phoenix” a name for a medieval tavern named after the disastrous fire that burned down Leek in 1297