Like a bull in a...pub - a history of St Ives' drinking dens

WE have all heard the popular saying Like a bull in a china shop but a book charting the history of St Ives pubs reveals a startling story of a bull s rampage through a popular town tavern. The Royal Oak, which is still open for business in Crown Stree

WE have all heard the popular saying "Like a bull in a china shop" but a book charting the history of St Ives' pubs reveals a startling story of a bull's rampage through a popular town tavern.

The Royal Oak, which is still open for business in Crown Street, was the unfortunate inn at the centre of the story, told by Norris Museum-curator Bob Burn-Murdoch in his recently-revised book, The Pubs of St Ives.

His research uncovered many gems, but he admits the story of The Royal Oak bull takes some beating.

He said: "It's hard to have a favourite but the bull story has got to be one of the best."

His book recounts a newspaper article published in January 1801, which reported: "The following extraordinary incident occurred at St Ives on Monday... A bullock walked into the passage of The Royal Oak public house in that town, and the staircase door being open, it went up stairs into the dining room, and ran with such violence against the front window (which was a sash) as to drive the whole of the window-frame into the street, where the animal fell also (the height of more than 10 feet), but received no material injury, although so much terrified that it ran with great precipitancy down to the bridge, and being stopped there, it leaped over the side thereof into the river, when it was carried down the current so rapidly, from a very high flood, that it has never since been heard of."

Another story involves the Bridge Chapel, once home to a notorious old-time tavern.

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Herbert Norris, founder of the Norris Museum, wrote about the pub in a pamphlet he published in 1889.

He said: "The public house on the Bridge was a notoriously bad one, and was popularly called by a name we shall not repeat. Pigs were kept in the cellar. During a drunken brawl on a Fair day, a man was thrown over the balcony into the river and almost drowned."

Also published in 1889 was a pamphlet written by Albert Swift. Mr Swift estimated at the time that "half a century ago there were nearly if not quite a hundred public-houses in St Ives." However, research carried out by Mr Burn-Murdoch suggests this figure is exaggerated and puts the figure closer to 70 - still a significant number for a town with a population then of 3,500 people.

Today, with closer to 18,000 resident, the town has 17 pubs, some new and some still trading under names that are hundreds of years old, such as The Royal Oak - which claims to have been operating on the site in one form or another since 1506.

Mr Burn-Murdoch said: "The pubs of St Ives are such an important part of the town's history. So many of the old houses and shops used to be pubs, or were built on the site of old pubs.

"The sheer number of pubs that were in such a small town is amazing. They were serving the enormous number of people coming into the town on a Monday for the market."

He continued: "Pubs are very much a part of the St Ives tradition and one that continues today, now in the 21st century. They are a part of our living history. It is always nice when a town, or any sort of community, keeps in touch with its roots.

"St Ives is different to the bigger towns, like Huntingdon or St Neots, and I think it is the pubs that make it different."

INFORMATION: The Norris Museum' exhibition to celebrate The Pubs of St Ives will run from December 1 to January 31. For more information, call 01480 497314.

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