The Royal Oak
The Royal Oak has been a centre of village life in Hail Weston for more than 200 years – and probably far longer as its original timber structure dates back to the 17th century.
It served as a place for the Lord of Hail Weston to collect rents, as a location for auctions and even housed inquests (because who doesn’t like a drink whilst listening to discussions of sudden or unexplained deaths).
We can trace publicans back to the start of the 19th Century when John and Frances Gilbert ran the Royal Oak. In 1841 a widowed Frances was listed as ‘publican’ in the census and three years later, on her death, that role passed to Thomas Page her son-in-law – a man who obviously knew how to marry well.
After Thomas and his wife Frances (original names weren’t a big part of 19th Century life) came Henry Betts. Henry had been publican of The Dial in Little Paxton from 1849 but in the late 1850s he came to Hail Weston with wife Mary and their sons Frederick and, surprise, surprise, Henry to run the pub as well as farming 30 acres of land.
Henry ran the Royal Oak until his death in 1891 – often doing so with a certain ‘forcefulness’. He was bought up before the courts more than once. In 1880 he was fined 16s for assaulting a customer – Mr John Sollowy when he ‘seized him by the ears and kicked him out of his house in a most violent manner’.
Two years earlier he had been charged with another assault – this time on an 11-year-old boy who had been throwing stones into his meadow. He beat the boy so badly with a bridle that the child was cut and bleeding for which Mr Betts was fined 23s 6d.
Ironically, it was this boy – George Alfred King – who grew up to become the next landlord of the Royal Oak along with his wife Martha Jane.
Tragically, George died in 1905 aged just 38 leaving Martha a widow with four children – Olive, Hilda, Daisy and George. Martha carried on as landlady of the pub on her own to support her family.
From three to none
Despite a population of less than 300, Hail Weston had three local drinking establishments from the 1850s until the end of that century. As well as the Royal Oak Public House, the village had at least two beer houses – The Crown (which upgraded to Public House status in the 20th Century) and The Snug Corner. Hail Weston even boasted its own Malthouse which meant The Royal Oak had a source of ale close to home.
However, by the 1920s just The Crown and The Royal Oak had survived and although the village population nearly doubled in the 1980s, Hail Weston also lost The Crown at the start of this century when it closed for business in 2001.
The Royal Oak’s original freehold had been bought by Bedford-based brewer, Charles Wells, probably back in the 19th Century when such businesses wanted to ensure regular orders for their product from the tenants they put in. Fast forward to November 2011 and Charles Wells Brewery decided to sell a number of its tied pubs including The Royal Oak, and so this historic public house – and the last one in Hail Weston – closed for business on New Years Day 2012.
Sadly, the new owner did not intend to run the building as a pub and it was soon advertised with ‘development potential’ and marketed as a ‘cottage’ and ‘former public house’
The fight back begins
To prevent this the local community rallied together at an extraordinary Parish meeting and soon formed the Hail Weston Community Pub Society. The group received strong backing from local councillor Jonathan Gray and MP Jonathan Djanogly. In addition the group worked closely with the Parish Council who provided unwavering support for the campaign.
It worked and in January 2013, the Royal Oak became Huntingdonshire’s first registered ‘community asset’ and an Article 4 on the building effectively stopped it being sold as anything but a working pub.
There followed a share offer to villagers with 150 locals signing up to be co-owners. Offers were made by the group to buy the pub but unfortunately these were rejected.
During this time interest was kept alive by the HWCPS through regular ‘Makeshift Royal Oak’ nights at the local Village Hall. These involved cask ales, good wine and great food which helped bring the community together and reminded everyone why a full time pub was so important to the village.
A pub reborn
With plenty of community support but insufficient funds to make another offer, a group of villagers decided to pool their own resources in a final attempt to buy the pub which had now been closed for five long years. They formed the Hail Weston Pub Company Ltd and their offer was accepted in January 2017.
There followed three and a half months of very hard work. Incredibly over 100 individuals and companies pitched in – giving their time for free or helping with donations to the cause – and there were volunteers aged from seven to 70 doing all sorts of tasks.
These efforts paid off when The Royal Oak reopened as an independent village pub on May 19th 2017.
We are delighted to say that the The Royal Oak is again back at the heart of the community which fought so hard to save it. Cheers!