11 June 2010

Staying at ‘The George’ in Lichfield

The George Hotel, Lichfield ... began as a coaching inn hundreds of years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Having spent a few days at the USPG conference in Swanwick in Derbyshire, I am back in Lichfield this evening, and staying for the weekend at the George Hotel in Bird Street, which is one of the oldest hotels in the cathedral city.

The main entrance is on Bird Street, close to the building where the Lichfield Mercury was produced when I freelanced for it in the early 1970s. A side entrance on Market Street leads into a delightful courtyard, and from my room and others on thus side of the hotel there are views across to Lichfield Cathedral, where I attended the Choral Eucharist this evening for Saint Barnabas’ Day.

Lichfield Cathedral reflected in the waters of Minster Pool this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

The George is first mentioned in 1704, but it stands on the site of a much older coaching in. George Farquhar, who wrote his play The Recruiting Officer when he was staying at the George in 1707, was stationed in Lichfield at the time as an army recruiting officer. His best known play, The Beaux’ Stratagem, has a scene based on life in the George in Lichfield at that time.

In the play, the George becomes Boniface’s Inn, and the character of Boniface is based on John Harrison, who was the landlord of the George Inn. The play includes the line: “I have heard your town of Lichfield is most famed for ale; I think I’ll taste that.”

As an 18th century coaching inn, the George had a central archway through which the coaches passed to reach the inn-yard beyond, and it was rebuilt in its present shape later in the mid-18th century. The building would have been galleried, and Snape’s map of 1781 shows it as a compact square of buildings around a courtyard, with the entrance on Bird Street.

At that time, the George was an important coaching house with stabling for 54 horses, and more at a site in Saint John Street, opposite Saint John’s Hospital – the site is now the Tempest car salesroom. In an age before office suites and office blocks, businessmen used the coaching inns as meeting places, coroners held inquests in them and official bodies such as turnpike trusts met in them for assemblies – even the George had its own Assembly Room. The coaching inns were busy in the evenings as social venues, and there was a stream of coaches and private carriages coming and going, 24 hours a day.

Thomas Webb, who was the proprietor of the George from 1800 to 1820, was one of the largest horse-keepers in the Midlands. He supplied horses for the coaches and post-chaises running from the George and for many other hostelries in the city. He started his career as a footman with a local family, but went on to bring the George to the peak of its importance.

He was a Whig and went on to become Mayor of Lichfield. Understandably, therefore, the George was also a centre for political activity in Lichfield at that time. The balcony over the archway was used at election times for candidates to address people gathered in the street below. The George was always associated with the Whigs, while the Swan further along Bird Street was staunchly Tory. The two inns were the headquarters for their respective parties at election times and the post-boys always wore jackets of the appropriate colour: blue for the Swan and buff for the George.

The commercial and political rivalry was expressed forcibly, blows were frequently exchanged, and during the 1826 election all the front windows of The George were smashed in.

When the railway system was established in 1838, travel by stage coach disappeared and The George was rebuilt and reinvented as an “hotel,” catering for visitors who wished to stay for more than a day or two.

The central archway would have been blocked in soon after the coaches stopped running and now forms the main entrance to the hotel. In the 19th century, the hotel’s sign depicted Saint George and the Dragon. Despite changes over the years, the name has been retained.

The restored Garrick Room in the George today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

In January 1865, a Masonic Lodge, calling itself Saint John’s Lodge of Lichfield, was founded in the George and met on a monthly basis in what is now called The Garrick Room, for 100 years. Under private ownership, the manager was always invited to join the lodge, but when the hotel taken over by a group, the masons were told to leave and re-established themselves at the Tamworth Masonic Rooms.

Ten years ago, The George was bought by Michael Webb, a great-great-grandson of Thomas Webb. In recent years, The George has been restored to its former glory – all the existing bedrooms have been completely refurbished and nine new bedrooms have been added, making a total of 45.

The delightful Regency Garrick Room, once home to Lichfield’s masons for over a century, is now used for meetings, receptions and banquets, and is being used for a wedding reception this evening.

Across the street from the George is the King’s Head, the oldest pub in Lichfield, dating back to 1408. It may have acquired its present name in 1650 after the execution of Charles I a year earlier in 1649, but today its sign displays the face of King Edward VII. When he was staying at the George in 1704, George Farquhar must have been familiar with the King’s Head too for a regiment of foot was raised there in 1705.

But with live music in the King’s Head on a Friday night, I might just skip around the corner into Sandford Street and on to the Queen’s Head in Queen Street for a quiet drink.

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