The Llandoger Trow History

A Memory of Bristol

Bristol's historic King Street. The Llandoger Trow inn on right of photograph.King Street is a 17th-century street in the historic city centre of Bristol. The street lies just south of the old town wall and was laid out in 1650 in order to develop the Town Marsh, the area then lying between the south or Marsh Wall and the Avon. The north side was developed first and the south side in 1663, when the street was named after Charles II.

The Llandoger Trow - It is rumoured that Daniel Defoe had met Alexander Selkirk in the Llandoger on whom he based his book Robinson Crusoe. The Llandoger is also supposed to be the model for The Admiral Benbow pub in the book 'Treasure Island', Blackbeard who also came from Bristol may even have drank at The Llandoger. However none of this can be proven. Although the pub now has 3 cellars there may have been more than this with a network of underground tunnels, the remains of one was found in 1962 when the pub was refurbed but sadly destroyed and steel piling had to be sunk 43ft down into the marsh to hold it up. During that refurbishment, 7 original fireplaces were also uncovered.
There are also documents in the pub about a previous landlady who blacked out the 'busty ladies adorning the pubs ceilings' who she felt took the attention of her customers away from herself. The ghost of a boy that is heard on the stairs is believed to be that of Pierre, a young boy with a limp who lived and died at the pub. Also 2 men have also been seen on the pubs cctv, one sat in the lounge area of the bar, the other in the Jacobean room. Thinking that they were customers in the pub after hours staff set off to ask them to leave, on entering the room they discovered that whoever was there had disappeared.

King Street is without doubt the most interesting street in Bristol, a veritable museum of architectural subjects of varying dates and styles spanning three hundred years. The creation of a suburb in the Marsh area began when King Street was started in 1663 against the South side of the city wall as merchants moved out of the old crowded timbered city to enjoy the more spacious houses near the waterfront. Millard's map of 1673 clearly shows the rest of the Marsh at this time as an open space for recreation and sheep pasture before Queen Square was built.

Many of the original buildings in this street were erected between 1650-1665 and were of timber construction. There was a group of five framed houses of four storeys and a basement which were built in 1664 to meet the requirements of prosperous merchants and three of these, Nos 3, 4 and 5 survived the 1940 blitz. No 5 has been the Llandoger Trow for at least two centuries, and when Berni's took over the inn in 1962 they bought the remaining two houses to make an imposing restaurant on the quayside. These three houses then are now all part of the Llandoger Trow. The half-timbered work is interesting and characteristic of the buildings of the Tudor and Stuart period with overhanging eaves, splendid studded twelve-panelled doors and projecting gables. No 5 still retains its ironwork for supporting a lamp which was necessary in the days before street lighting. The frontage of each house has been slightly altered over the years; No 4 had a shop front and so the ground floor windows are not uniform. Some of the casements were also remodelled in the eighteenth century with inset sashes but the whole impression of this range of houses is of a seventeenth century half-timbered facade.

The name is unique among inns and has a historical significance. A Trow was a flat-bottomed boat which traded from the Welsh Back up the Wye Valley on a regular service carrying a variety of goods for use in Bristol or for shipment elsewhere. The nearby taverns were used as headquarters by Trow owners and when a Captain Hawkins retired from the service he took this dockside inn and called it the Llandogo. The name was variously spelt as Llandogo, Llandoger, Landoger but by 1775 it was listed as Llandoger Trow. In 1775 Sketchley names the occupants of the whole rank as No 1, Gabbitas and Co, gunmakers; No 2, Luke Fieldhouse, joiner and victualler (The Goat); No 3, James Ranton, Captain of the Champion; No 4, Franks and Clark, wholesale grocers; No 5, John Jones, victualler, Llandoger Trow. The name obviously caused some confusion in earlier centuries. In 1788 we have a notice of the auction of a house in Back Street to be held, 'at the sign of the Llandoger Boat'. The 1810 list of Alehouse licences refers to it as Landoger Trow, and by 1909 it has become the Landoger Tavern.

We have no record of the earliest owners of the inn though we do have a record that the houses were built in 1664. But during its career, the inn has been owned by a variety of people including a gunsmith, a tobacconist and a maltster.

In the Georgian bar there is a cartoon which lists some of the inn's activities as a smugglers' haunt with secret passages and Press Gangs thrown in. These are the legends which cling to all old inns but the opening words of the cartoon are the most important, 'This is where the old House speaks for itself,' so let's see what the old house can teil us.

In 1962 the Berni empire bought the three remaining houses and they kept the original bar in No 5 but from the other two houses they have fashioned three bars and two restaurants. Alex Waugh, the designer, had first to give the inn a complete interior framework of steel, sinking piles to a depth of forty-three feet. He said at the time, 'if we hadn't, in effect, taken it apart and shored it up at the seams, it would have disappeared from sheer neglect before long. It's a miracle the floors didn't cave in years ago.' The old floorboards didn't cave in but he retained the dip of eight inches between the centre and the ends of the upstairs rooms and this adds to the excitement of the old inn.

The original pub is No 5 and this is now known as the Smugglers' Bar. Here are the old clock, fireplace and blackened ceiling which pre-war drinkers knew. There are some attractive ceilings in other rooms but here the black paint, supposedly put on to cover the nude ladies artistically depicted on the ceiling, has been retained.
The ceiling has some nice modelled enrichments and one can only marvel at the odd shape of any painting which could have been there. Still, the ceiling is kept black and the story cannot be denied.

The restorers uncovered seven fireplaces which had been boarded up and plastered over and one of these makes an attractive corner of the Georgian bar in No 4 house. This house must have been improved by its owner in the eighteenth century for there are some fine original Georgian pine panelling, Delft tiles and plaster work to be admired. It was originally two rooms used as a study and sitting room and the ceilings are probably the most ornate and elegant domestic ceilings in Bristol. They were created by craftsmen over two hundred years ago when the house was 'modernised' and they are similar to those at the Hatchet Inn.

The original 17th-century oak stairs connecting all the floors now leads up to the restaurants. The staircase is interesting in that it is contained within a small area and the stairs, though cramped with a steep ascent, are eased by the construction of three flights to each floor. The balusters, newels and handrails are all as original and in excellent condition. It is a beautiful staircase making good use of the small space. The latest floods on December 13th 1981 brought seven foot of water into the pub cellar and almost two foot into the Lounge.

On the first floor is the Old Vic bar which commemorates the inn's long association with the Theatre Royal opposite. The Theatre was built in 1766 and is the oldest playhouse in the country that has continued in use as such. It was built to cater for the needs of the new, sophisticated merchant class and the visitors to the Hotwell spa and it was deliberately erected outside the city walls, safe from the laws relating to 'rogues and vagabonds.'

In 1778 George III granted a Royal licence and gave the theatre the right to display the Royal Coat of Arms as it still does. Playbills from 1806 decorate the walls of the inn and there are interesting pictures of such actors as Henry Irving, the Terry Family and Sir Max Beerbohm Tree. There is also a fair sprinkling of the more recent players at the old theatre.

The Llandoger also has associations with the sea and seafarers which go back many centuries. In 1757 for example, a Bristol paper advertised for recruits for, 'The Tyger, a privateer, for a four month cruise. All officers, seamen, landsmen and others that are willing to enter on board the said privateer, let them repair to the Sign of the Landogar Thow in King Street, where they will meet with proper encouragement'. King Street itself was the home of many seamen.

In 1775 at No 36 opposite the inn lived Captain Webb of the Nevis Planter and at No 39, Robert Watts, Surgeon of a Guinea ship.

There is no doubt that ships' captains of all sorts would have used the Llandoger as their local. The most famous Bristol privateer of all time, Captain Woodes Rogers, lived round the corner at No 19 Queen Square where in 1702 we read that he had acquired a lease, 'to build a substantial mansion house' in the new square. It was Woodes Rogers who made for the island of Juan Fernandez to escape a storm.
There he was surprised to find a man dressed in goatskins who had been marooned for four years. This man, Alexander Selkirk, was brought to Bristol where he remained for some years. Woodes Rogers himself became rich and rented the Bahama Islands, appointing himself their Governor. The Bahamas were at that time a nest of pirates and included another infamous Bristolian, Captain 'Blackbeard' Teach, among its two thousand villains.

Daniel Defoe came to Bristol in 1713 and the regulars at the Llandoger would like you to believe that it was here that he met Selkirk and got the inspiration for his Robinson Crusoe. This is most unlikely for Defoe came to this city to avoid his creditors and stayed at the Star Inn in Cock and Bottle Lane, Castle Street only emerging on a Sunday when he could not be arrested for debt.

His earliest biographer says that he met Selkirk at Mrs Damaris Davies's house in St James Square but anyway by the time he wrote the story in 1719 it was already a well-known one. The Selkirk connection with the Llandoger seems to be a mid-20th-century 'discovery'.

There are some other interesting inns in King Street which have more modest stories to tell. The Naval Volunteer dates from the seventeenth century and was the house in which John Elbridge who founded the Bristol Royal Infirmary in 1737 once lived. The house was not licensed as an inn until 1912, but it is interesting, with the old rooms opened up to give one a real feeling of what it was like to live in such a house in the 18th century.

The Old Duke opposite the Llandoger was known as the Duke's Head in 1793 but it is now firmly associated with the music scene since 1973 when it acquired its unusual sign depicting Duke Ellington's Head. A pedestrian precinct has been created at this end of King Street and one can sit out on a summer evening, listening to jazz emanating from the Old Duke while admiring the timbered frontage of the Llandoger as it leans towards the waterfront.

Apart from the Theatre Royal the street contains other important buildings. The Coopers Hall built by William Halfpenny in 1743 was incorporated in the new Theatre complex in 1972 and fits in very well. The old Library at the end of the street was designed by James Paty in 1740 and was used by many writers and poets including Coleridge and Southey.

Next door is an early example of Bristol's philanthropy, the Merchant Seamen's Almshouses, while at the other end of the street opposite the Llandoger is a second example, the St Nicholas Almshouse, the first building to be erected on the reclaimed marsh in 1652.

The Llandoger Trow is an architectural gem in a visually exciting street of so many historical associations. It stands near the waterfront with which it has had so many links and is indeed a part of Bristol's heritage.

The days of the old privateers and pirates however have gone forever.

A memory shared by Paul Townsend , on Dec 28th, 2009.

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