Romance, as we have already seen, was enacted in many ways in the Inns of long ago. Love & hatred, comedy & tragedy, and all the varied moods by which human beings are swayed, have had their part beneath the roofs of the older Hostelries; as how could they fail to do in those times when the inn was so essential and intimate a part of the National life? The romantic incidents in which old Inns have their part are in 2 great divisions: that of old Folklore, and the other of real Life. To the realm of Folk-tales belongs the story told of an Ancient Hostelry that stood on the Site of the “Ostrich,” Colnbrook.
The decayed Coaching Town of Colnbrook, in Middlesex, 17-miles from Hyde Park Corner, on the Great Road to Bath, is little changed from the time when the Coaches ceased running through it, many years ago. Still do the old red-Brick houses on either side of the narrow, causeway-like Street wear their 17th, their 18th, or their early 19thC Look unchanged, and the solid, stolid red-faced “George” Inn yet seems to be awaiting the arrival of the Mail, or of some smart Post-Chaise nearing London or setting out on the Second Stage of the 105¾-miles to Bath. History of Colnbrook & Poyle
Colnbrook is perhaps the best illustration of a Coaching Town ruined by Railways & By-passes that it is possible to discover, and certainly the nearest to London. How great its fall since those prosperous days of 1549, when it was Incorporated as a Market-Town! Its Charter was renewed in 1632, and, judging from the many houses in its narrow Street built about 1700-1750, the prosperity of the place survived unimpaired for certainly considerably over another Century. It is now merely a Village, but, as a result of its former Highway importance, still a place of Inns. There are at least 10 even now surviving; and it is quite safe to assume that any important-looking old House, now in private occupation, facing the long thoroughfare, was once a Hostelry.
The Coaching Inn “George,” already mentioned, although re-Fronted at some period of the 18thC, is Older within, and an old Gable overlooking the Stable Yard even has a 16thC Barge-board surviving. Of rather more human interest is the decorative & spiky Iron-work fixed on the Ground-floor Window-sills of the Frontage, which clearly shows that the Architect of the Building, when he drew out his Design, had forgotten the Loungers of Colnbrook, and, in placing his Sills at the height above the ground of the average Chair, had unwittingly provided the locals with Seats in the most advantageous position. Hence the afterthought of the decorative but penetrative Ironwork.
King John’s Palace & The White Hart, Colnbrook
But the oldest and most interesting building in Colnbrook is the “Ostrich” Inn, whose long, Gabled Timber-&-plaster Front, now partly divided up into Shops & Tenements, is clearly of Elizabethan date. It is picturesque, rambling, Shabby outside, and Shabby & Darkling within, and the most satisfactory part of it is without doubt the little Courtyard through the Archway, where, turning round on the Cobble-stones, you get a picturesque and a sunny view of steep Roofs, Dormer Windows, Dovecot, and white-washed walls covered with grape-vines.
The present “Ostrich” is the successor of a much more Ancient Inn. There have been, in fact, several Inns on this Site. The 1st appears to have been a Guest-house, or Hospice—“quoddam hospitium in viâ Londoniæ apud Colebroc” – Founded by one Miles Crispin, and given, in 1106, in Trust to the Abbey of Abingdon, for the Good of Travellers in this world and the Salvation of his Soul in the next. It would seem to be from this circumstance that the Inn obtained its name, for it was early known as the “Ospridge,” a kind of orthographic half-way House between the former “Hospice” and the present “Ostrich.”
If we may believe the old Chroniclers’ Statements – and there is no reason why we should not – the House became in after years a place of resort for Guests going to and from Windsor Castle; and here the Ambassadors Robed themselves before being conducted the last few miles, and so into the Royal Presence. Froissart chronicles 4-Ambassadors to Edward III Dining with the King: “So they dyned in the Kynge’s Chamber, and after they departed, lay the same night at Colbrook.”
How it happened that the Inn kept its Customers after the dreadful Murders traditionally said to have been committed here by wholesale in the reign of Henry I, certainly not 50-yrs after the Hospice was given to Abingdon Abbey, there is no explaining. The Ancient Pamphlets that narrate the Sweeny Todd-like particulars do not enlighten us on that head.
The undiluted horror of the whole thing is exceedingly revolting, and one would rather not give a further lease of life to it, but that in an account of Old Inns their unpleasing story must needs be set forth, in Company with their lighter Legends. Moreover, the late 16thC romance of Thomas of Reading, in which the Story occurs, is by way of being a Classic. It was written, probably in 1598, by one Thomas Delaney, and is a lengthy narrative of a wealthy clothier of that name, otherwise Thomas Cole. Characterised variously as “a fabulous & childish history,” and as “a mixture of historical fact & fictitious narrative,” it was, at any rate, a highly successful Publication, for by 1632 it had reached its 6th Edition, and eventually was circulated, broadcast, as a Penny Chap-book.
According to this “pleasant & famous historie,” there was once upon a time, in the days of Henry I, one Thomas Cole, a wealthy Clothier of Reading, who was used frequently to Travel on his Business between that Town & London. Commonly he journeyed in Company with 2 intimate Clothier friends, Gray of Gloucester & William of Worcester. He himself was a Worshipful man, of honesty & great wealth, and was usually known as Thomas of Reading. The 3 would usually Dine at the “Ostrich” on the way to London, and on the return sleep there. We are asked to believe that this Businessman, Thomas Cole, on such occasions gave the money he carried into the care of the Landlady overnight, and that by this misplaced confidence he was marked down for destruction. Jarman, the Innkeeper, and his wife had long been engaged in what is rather delicately styled the “systematic removal” of Wealthy Guests, and had devised an ingenious Murder-trap in the Principal Bedroom, by which the Bed, firmly secured to a Trap-door, was in the dead of night, when the House resounded to the intended Victim’s snoring, plunged suddenly into a huge Copper filled with Boiling Water, placed in the Room below. He was then “Polished Off,” as Sweeny Todd himself would say, and should it happen that other Guests of the night before asked after the missing one, they would be told that he had taken Horse early & gone away. The Victim’s Horse would be taken to a distance & disguised, his Clothes destroyed, his Body thrown into the Colne, or into the Thames at Wraysbury, and his money added to the Fortune that Mine Host and his wife were thus rapidly acquiring.
As Thomas Cole had business in London more frequently than his friends, it naturally followed that he sometimes went alone. On the 1st such occasion he was, according to the Author of this “pleasant History,” appointed to be the Fat Pig that should be killed: For it is to be understood that when they plotted the Murder of any man, this was always their term, the man to his wife, and the woman to her husband: ‘Wife, there is now a Fat Pig to be had if you want one.’ Whereupon she would answer thus: ‘I pray you put him in the Hogstie till tomorrow.’ He was accordingly given the Room – the Condemned Cell, so to speak – above the Copper, and by next morning would doubtless have been floating inanimate down the Thames, had not his friend Gray unexpectedly joined him in the evening. On another occasion his hour was nearly come, when Colnbrook was aroused at night by people riding Post-haste from London with news that all Chepe was ablaze; and he must needs be up and away without sleeping, for he had interests there. The Innkeeper was wrathy at these mischances; “but,” said he, in a phrase even yet heard, “the third time will pay for all.” Yet again the threatened Clothier came riding alone, but in the night he was roused by the Innkeeper himself to help quiet a riotous dispute that had arisen in the House over Dice.
On another occasion he fell ill while staying at the “Ostrich,” or the “Crane,” as some accounts name the House, and had to be nursed; but the 5th time was fatal. Omens pursued him on that occasion, and many another would have turned back. His Horse stumbled & broke a leg, and he had to find another, and when he had done so and had resumed his journey, he was so sleepy he could scarce sit in the Saddle. Then, as he drew near Colnbrook, his nose began to bleed. The happenings of the day depressed him when at last he had come to the Inn. He could take nothing, and the Innkeeper and his wife remarked upon it. “Jesu, Master Cole,” quoth they, “what ails ye to-night? Never before did we see you thus sad. Will it please you to have a quart of burnt sack?” “Willingly,” he rejoined; but presently lapsed into his former mood. “I have but one child in the world,” said he, “and that is my daughter, and half that I have is hers and the other half my wife’s. But shall I be good to nobody but them? In conscience, my Wealth is too much for a Couple to possess, and what is our Religion without Charity? And to whom is Charity more to be shown than to decayed Householders? Tom Dove, through his love of jollity and good-fellowship, hath lost his all. Good my Oast, lend me a pen & inke, for straightway I will write a letter vnto the poore man, and something I will give him. God knows how long I shall live.” “Why, Master Cole,” said the Innkeeper, when shown what the Clothier had written, “’tis no Letter, but a Will you have written.”
“’Tis true,” said Cole, “and I have but written that which God put into my mind.” Then, folding & sealing it, he desired his Host to despatch it, and was not satisfied until he himself had Hired the Carrier. Then he fell a-weeping, and so went to Bed, to the accompaniment of many other dolorous signs & portents. The scritch-owle cried piteously, and anon after the night-rauen sate croaking hard by the window. ‘Jesu have mercy vpon me,’ quoth he, ‘what an ill-favoured cry doe yonder carrion birds make;’ and thereupon he laid him down in his Bed, from whence he “neuer rose againe.” The Innkeeper also was shaken by these ominous things, and would have spared his Guest; but his wife was of other mettle. “What,” said she, “faint you now?” – and showed him the Gold that had been given into her care. In the end they served the unfortunate Cole as they had many another, and threw his Body into the little River that runs near by: hence, according to the old Accounts, the name of the place, originally Cole-in-brook!
This last ridiculous, infantile touch is sufficien to discredit the whole story, and when we learn that, according to one account 13 and by the Testimony of another no fewer than 60-Travellers had been, in like manner, “removed,” we are inclined to believe the whole thing the invention of some anonymous, bloody-minded Pamphleteer, and care little whether the Innkeeper and his Wife were Hanged (as we are told) or retired with a Fortune & founded a Family. At any rate, one cannot understand the persistent attempt to connect the so-called “Blue Room” of the present House with the fatal Bedroom. If there is any truth at all in the story of Master Cole, his tragical ending was accomplished in a house demolished 800-yrs ago; for we have it, in the words of the Writer of Thomas of Reading, that “the King (Henry I) commanded the house should be quite consumed with Fire and that no man should ever build vpon that cursed ground.”
In the same manner, the recent attempts to connect Turpin with the “Ostrich” will not bear the least investigation.
This ghastly story claimed, with such extraordinary zeal, by the “Ostrich” is by no means the only one of its kind, for many an old tale of horror has for its central feature the wicked Innkeeper who robbed & murdered his guests. The most famous, and most revolting, Legend is that included in the career of St Nicholas of Myra, which serves to show that this Licensed-Victualling depravity was International. The true story of St Nicholas is not miraculous, and is simply earnest of his good & pitiful nature. He entreated & secured from Eustathius, Governor of Myra, the pardon of 3 men imprisoned in a Tower and condemned to die, and is often represented with a Tower at the side of him and 3 Mannikins rising out of it. In the course of time the Tower became a Tub, and the little men were changed into children, and those changes in their turn gave rise to a wholly fictitious story that fairly outranges all the other incredible marvels of the Dark Ages. According to this Tale, an Innkeeper, running short of Bacon, seized 3 little boys, cut them up, and pickled them in a salting-tub. St Nicholas, hearing that they had gone to the Inn and had disappeared there, had his Saintly suspicions aroused. He asked for the pickle-Tub, addressed it in some form of words that unfortunately have not been preserved to us, and straightway the fragments sorted themselves out, and pieced themselves together, and the children went off to play.
A curious feature of the old Frontage of the “Ostrich” was the Doorway made in Coaching Times in the Upper Storey for the convenience of Passengers, who were in this manner enabled to step directly into the House from the Roofs of the Coaches. There are those who remembered this contrivance; but the space has long been filled in, and the sole Vestige of it is an unobtrusive wooden Sill resting on the Timbering beneath the Swinging Sign.
Romance, very dark & gory, clothes the memory of the “Blue Boar” at Leicester, a House unfortunately pulled down in March of 1836. According to tradition, Richard III, coming to Leicester and finding the Castle already dilapidated, stayed at the Inn before the Battle of Bosworth, and slept in the huge oaken 4-poster Bed which remained in the House until the date of its Demolition. It was not only a Bed, but also a Treasure-chest, for in the time of one Clark, who kept the House in the later years of Queen Elizabeth I and the earlier part of the Reign of James I, a great Store of Gold Coin was discovered in the framework of it. Mrs Clark, making up the Bed hastily, shook it with more than usual vigour, when, to her surprise, a Gold Coin dropped out. Examination led to the discovery that the Bedstead had a false bottom and that the space between was one vast Cash-box. Clark did not at the time disclose the find, and so became “mysteriously” Rich. In the course of a few years he was gathered to his fathers, and his Widow kept on the House, but was murdered in 1613 for the sake of her Gold by a Maidservant, who, together with no fewer than 7-male accomplices, was duly Hanged for the Crime.