From The Archives: A story of our relationship with pubs

Royal Oak licensee Martha King but the exact date is unknown.

This photograph shows licensee Martha Jane King (nee Gilbert) and it was taken some time between the 1914 and 1945. - Credit: REUBEN MILNE

The Royal Oak has been at the centre of village life in Hail Weston for more than 200 years and acts as a fascinating study in the changing nature of the local pub in British life.

In the early days, it certainly wasn’t just about leisure. As the name suggests, public houses were a place for communities to gather and in the early 19th Century, The Royal Oak served as a place for the Lord of Hail Weston to collect rents, a location for auctions and it even housed inquests.

The Royal Oak in Hail Weston

This photograph shows the Royal Oak in Hail Weston, but the date is unknown. - Credit: REUBEN MILNE

Perhaps surprisingly, there are also links to the nation's health and wellbeing. Although The Royal Oak was originally the only public house in the village, the Beer Act of 1830 allowed people to sell this 'healthy' and 'nutritious' drink from their own homes for a small licence fee.

As a result 'beer-houses' sprang up all over the country including The Brown, Snug Corner and The Crown in Hail Weston - indeed demand was so high the village even had its own malthouse to supply ale.

Hail Weston showing the Royal Oak

This old street image of Hail Weston shows Snug Corner and the Royal Oak. - Credit: REUBEN MILNE

The publican was a hugely influential person in local life and the Census records list publicans of The Royal Oak from the early part of the 19th Century.

Whilst often a role kept in the family, it certainly wasn’t exclusively father to son. In 1905 George King, the landlord of The Royal Oak, died aged only 38 leaving his widow, Martha to continue alone as landlady of the pub to support their family.

Despite a population of less than 300, Hail Weston boasted three pubs from the 1850s. But as cultural tastes shifted throughout the 20th Century, they closed one by one until the last, The Royal Oak, was sold by Charles Wells brewery and closed for business on New Year's Day 2012.

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However, knowing the importance of the pub as a centre of local life, villagers began a year-long campaign which led in January 2013, to the Royal Oak becoming Huntingdonshire’s first registered ‘community asset', effectively stopping it being sold as anything but a working pub. These efforts paid off when The Royal Oak reopened as an independent village local on May 19, 2017.

The Royal Oak Pub in Hail Weston in 2021.

The Royal Oak Pub in Hail Weston in 2021. - Credit: REUBEN MILNE

The recent pandemic has seen its role change once again as volunteers delivered freshly cooked take-away meals to villagers but its continued presence hopefully means that when this is all over, pubs like The Royal Oak can once again bring communities together.