Arlesey: Bricks, Beer and Bedlam

Despite the homogenisation and ongoing obliteration of our high streets, much of Britain wears its history well. Look up and you can see buildings from different eras, often dated. Look down and the paths, tracks and water courses define where you are. The dents, hollows and bings of a landscape act as a guidebook to the past.

I started thinking about Arlesey in this context, when examining its appearances in the Good Beer Guide. Four of its six entries have closed, a ratio typical of a post-industrial setting.

Though a semi-rural town of 5,500 people, Arlesey is indeed post-industrial, once prospering on the clay from which Arlesey White bricks were made.

Bedfordshire was the home of the brick industry, knocking out Whites, Luton Greys and Reds in their tens of millions. Arlesey had five brickworks that dominated the skyscape.

The blue and green lagoons that formed in the old clay pits became the leisure centres of their day. Swimming was popular and fishing too, leading to the invention of the Arlesey Bomb weight for catching perch.

This abandoned steam power excavator served as a diving board.

Like many industries, it was the coming of the railway – in 1850 – that stimulated growth. The first brickworks opened in 1852, to be followed by four more. Where there was work there was thirst. The Brickground Hotel; Old Oak; True Briton; Three Tuns; Steam Engine; Crown; Rose and Crown; City Arms; Prince of Wales; and Stag all opened between 1850 and 1868.

By then there was at least 16 pubs in the town, a pretty good pub crawl, particularly if you favoured the local brewer, Charles Wells.

Arlesey was booming. A Working Men’s Club built in 1880 contained a reading room, a lecture hall with seating for 300 and a billiards room. Another source of employment was the Three Counties asylum, the second to open in England. By the end of the century it had 1,116 patients and 256 staff. It had its own tramway and was serviced by the new Three Counties station.

Remarkably the asylum had its own brewery and in 1906 Mr Prime, the brewer, was found dead in vat three, requiring 400 gallons of beer to be drained. A case of the beer containing plenty of body, presumably.

The asylum had its own cinema but the town itself had to wait until 1920, when the Victory Cinema opened. That closed in 1962 and the last of the brickworks went in 1992. The Stag and the City Arms fell in the 1920’s recession. The Lamb, which had its own mortuary, shut in 1964.

The closure of the brickworks and associated industry was not kind to Arlesey. The Crown closed in 1985; the Rose and Crown and the Star in 1994; and the Prince of Wales – which had a miniature railway in the garden -in 1995. The one-time asylum, latterly Fairfield Hospital, shut its doors in 1999.

Today Whatpub tells us three pubs remain in the town. The White Horse is the oldest, dating from the C17th and a pub in its current form since 1805. The Old Oak, also a Greene King house, has survived since 1859. While the frequent Good Guide entry, the Vicars Inn, formerly the Steam Engine, is a 1901 rebuild by Wells, now a free house.

That much of Arlesey’s social history is well documented is due in no small part to Arcangelo Lombari, whose blog is packed with great photos, some of which I have plundered with grateful thanks.

https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/arcangelolombari.wordpress.com

10 thoughts on “Arlesey: Bricks, Beer and Bedlam

  1. Wonderful post. I hope I can do as much justice to Kilwinning at some point.

    Like Stephen Pie (Coxy) who commented on Twitter, we lived down the road in LGC and Hitchin (no acronym) and Arlesey was always a real oddity, a bit like Houghton Regis across the M1.

    Mrs RM actually helped close Fairfield in the mid-90s and never mentioned the brewery. I worked at a number of asylums which came remarkably well equipped with gyms and snooker halls.

    The 3 I ticked were the Vicars, quirky True Briton and wonderful Three Tuns, where we were once treated to a folk circle and some of the last Morrells when my father-in-law visited and got drunk.

    The Arlesey team of the mid-90s was quite a force in the UCL and the League; I saw one of their Vase runs in ’94, the year of Peppard’s disqualification and just before Dave Kitson started his career. Whatever happened to him ?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I recall the Vase win but had completely forgotten Dave Kitson played for them. I have only been to the Vicars, so good ticking. Those institutions were really self-contained in virtually all aspects. There’s lots of stories about the place online, including treatment of shell shock and ghostly goings on. Was involved in a few closures here. Hartwood was the big one in Lanarkshire. The sports facilities were so good Rangers once played Patrick Thistle in a friendly there. The pictures are down to the guy I put the link to at the end.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Remember the Red Cow. Bedfordshire is a modest county in many ways but has its merits. Quite a few duff entries too though amongst a hefty 316 in total. In the 1982 edition there were 90 in Beds (124 in Berks; 109 in Bucks; and 116 in Cambs).

      Like

  2. With regards to the top photo, that brings back memories, even for me! l lived over there from roughly 1960-64. I was only a nipper but I remember going to the coast (Kent) for day trips once in a while with my parents and a bunch of other folks (football club thingy maybe?). They’d rent a double-decker bus for the trip. We’d stop at a pub on the way back, definitely for drinks, not sure about food. Of course the bus wold have to pull over on the way back for those that needed to relieve themselves. Women to the left, gents to the right, and woe be the woman (or man) who didn’t go far enough not to be seen for the upper deck! (LOL)

    “Look down and the paths, tracks and water courses define where you are. The dents, hollows and bings of a landscape act as a guidebook to the past.”

    Too true. I swear some of the roads meander back and forth because they follow how the cows used to get down to the river for a drink back in the old days. 😉

    “I started thinking about Arlesey in this context, when examining its appearances in the Good Beer Guide. ”

    I will not make any references concerning the map.

    “Arlesey is indeed post-industrial, once prospering on the clay from which Arlesey White bricks were made.”

    Well, no wonder. I mean, really… white bricks! (gasp!)

    “Swimming was popular and fishing too, leading to the invention of the Arlesey Bomb weight for catching perch.”

    I like the fellow on the left, wearing what appears to be swim trunks along with shoes and socks.

    “Where there was work there was thirst.”

    Sigh. And these days it’s more about taste testing then quenching a good thirst with a pint!

    “By the end of the century it had 1,116 patients and 256 staff. ”

    And now they’re part of the populace that roam the streets homeless. 😉

    “A case of the beer containing plenty of body, presumably.”

    (slow golf clap) Well done sir!

    “The Lamb, which had its own mortuary, shut in 1964.”

    That’s a bit unnerving. Did it serve its own food? 😉

    “The White Horse is the oldest, dating from the C17th a”

    Blimey. Over here we were still what was called New France. About the only industry was fur trading I believe. 🙂

    “That much of Arlesey’s social history is well documented is due in no small part to Arcangelo Lombari,”

    Always nice to see a bit of history preserved, in whatever form.

    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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