28 June 2023
The Old Crown in Digbeth
claims it is the oldest
pub in Birmingham
After visiting Holy Trinity Church in Bordesley last week, as I walked back into the centre of Birmingham, I dropped into the Old Crown in Digbeth, which claims to be the oldest pub in Birmingham and Birmingham’s oldest secular building.
I visited the Old Crown on the recommendation of the Lichfield local historian and blogger Katie Cardigan of Lichfield Discovered, and was eager to explore the claims that this is the oldest pub in Birmingham.
These claims may not stand up to critical historical scrutiny, but the building at No 188 High Street, Deritend, at the corner with Heath Mill Lane, has existed since 1368, and the Old Crown is one of a few remaining examples of Birmingham’s mediaeval past.
The Old Crown was probably built between 1450 and 1500, with some evidence dating to 1492, although most of the building dates from the early 16th century. It may have been built originally as the Guildhall and School of Saint John, Deritend, an area of the manor of Birmingham within the parish of Aston.
The mediaeval guild maintained the priest of Saint John’s Chapel, Deritend, as its chaplain, paying his stipend of £5 a year, and it supported a grammar school with its own schoolmaster. The guild owned other buildings in Warwickshire, including the guildhall in Henley in Arden.
The original building had a central hall, 12 metres (40 ft) long and 20 ft (6 metres (20 ft) wide, with a number of arched cellars below. The first floor is jettied and overhangs the front.
The well in the courtyard at the rear was 8 metres (26 ft) deep, surrounded by large stones. The well is thought to have been sunk over 1,000 years ago. It was excavated and deepened to produce a total depth of 12 metres (38 ft), and the new section of the well was lined with square bricks.
The building was described in 1538 as a ‘mansion house of tymber’. The guild survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1545, but it was suppressed along with its chantry under Edward VI in 1547. All the guild’s properties were sold in 1549, apart for the chapel itself.
It is said Queen Elizabeth I stopped by at this building in 1575 on her way back from Kenilworth Castle.
The building was bought in 1589 by John Dyckson, alias Bayleys, who bought a number of properties and lands in Deritend and Bordesley in the 1580s. It was described as a tenement and garden, running alongside Heath Mill Lane, and remained in the Baylis and Dixon family for the next century.
However, the earliest documentary evidence of the building being used as an inn only dates from 1626.
During the English Civil War, the Old Crown was the last standing building in irmingham to hold out against Prince Rupert and his royalist army.
The Battle of Camp Hill, or the Battle of Birmingham, took place on Easter Monday, 3 April 1643, around Camp Hill. In the skirmish, a company of Parliamentarians from the Lichfield garrison with the support of local men, totalling about 300 men, attempted to stop 1,400 Royalists commanded by Prince Rupert passing through Birmingham.
The Parliamentarians put up a stout resistance and the Royalists were shot at from houses as the small Parliamentary force was driven out and back towards Lichfield. The Royalists torched the houses they said the shooting was coming from, and after the battle they spent the remainder of the day pillaging the town. They torched many more houses as they continued their retaliation the next day.
Prince Rupert left Birmingham on Tuesday 4 April and marched to Walsall; he reached Cannock on Wednesday. On Saturday 8 April, he marched on to Lichfield and laid siege to the city.
The Royalists’ conduct in Camp Hill later provided the Parliamentarians with a propaganda weapon. The Old Crown claims it was one of the few buildings in the area left standing after the battle.
The building was ‘called by the sign of the Crowne’ from 1666. It was converted into two houses in 1684 and then converted into three houses in 1693. It remained three houses until the 19th century.
Joshua Toulmin Smith (1816-1869), a political theorist, lawyer and local historian of Birmingham, saved the Old Crown from demolition in 1851 when Birmingham City Corporation proposed demolishing the building to ‘improve the street.’
The corporation proposed demolishing the building again in 1856 and 1862, but Smith saved it each time.
Smith cleaned the well in 1863 and added an iron gate to the top of it to preserve it while keeping it accessible.
A local pub company owned by the Brennan family bought the Old Crown in 1991. When Pat Brennan and his son Peter were repairing and clearing out the old sheds behind the property in 1994, they found the old well, which had been closed off for more than 100 years. It is now restored and can be seen at the rear entrance of the pub. The Brennan family invested £2 million in restoring the Old Crown, and it reopened in May 1998.
The Old Crown is a Grade II* listed building and it retains its ‘black and white’ timber frame appearance. The owners point out that it has seen off Civil War soldiers, Victorian town planners, German bombs and ‘a few centuries worth of drunk Brummies.’ Having stood those tests of time, it remains at the heart of Digbeth, Birmingham’s thriving creative quarter. The neighbouring landmarks include the former Bird's Custard Factory.
The Old Crown jokes that ‘every room has a tale to tell and it is said that the Old Crown is haunted by not one but two ghosts. Although, these sightings most often occur late at night after a few drinks!’ I had something to eat and soaked in the atmosphere on a late summer afternoon before heading back to New Street station.