The Rose and Crown Hotel has towered over the Fens for nearly 600 years.
The land tax records confirm that there was a hostelry at this location in 1435 and the original cellars from that building form part of the extensive cellars under the building today.
At this time the Fens were a series of islands amongst the boggy land and Ely and Wisbech were two such islands. The Fens were of economic and strategic importance and the loss of King John’s treasure in the Wash near Wisbech in the 13th century is legendary. The wealth of the Fenland industries built the enormous Cathedral at Ely. Wildfowling, peat digging and rush collecting were the basis of substantial employment and provided luxury goods and luxury meat to the Royal Household.
The port of Wisbech sent goods to London and beyond.
A medieval castle was built at Wisbech and it became one of the three assize towns in Cambridgeshire, along with Cambridge with its University and Peterborough with its Cathedral. Twice a year the King’s Court would ride into town with Judges, Barristers, soldiers and horsemen together with wives, children and many others to administer Justice. This was often summary and brutal.
Prisoners were brought in by boat and held till trial, and this may explain the origin of the underground passages which became a feature of the town.
The departure of the Court was celebrated in the Market Place with a feast.
Later on the Bishops of Ely assumed responsibility for the maintenance of law and order and also for Justice.
The Court still comes to Wisbech and the Hotel hosts the annual ‘Rising of the Court’ luncheon, which has replaced the Market Place feast. The Judge and Barristers together with the High Sheriff and the Lord Lieutenant attend in full uniform and with ceremonial swords.
The earliest recorded name for the Hostelry was the Swan, 1461.
An old sign, with the representation of a horn and pheasant is preserved on the Elizabethan gable end to the rear of the Courtyard and the cellars are reputed to have paranormal activity.
During the 17th century stable blocks were built forwards and back from the Hostelry, and travellers had a room above their horse. These rooms were accessed via an open balcony and this is still clearly visible. As Wisbech became a wealthy Georgian Port the Hotel grew and was remodelled to provide function and dining rooms as well as bars. The Georgian façade was added in about 1765. In the Regency period there was a Sailors’ Bar and a Soldiers’ Bar and a Scottish Bar and it was clearly felt desirable to keep these patrons separate! The hotel was again remodelled in the mid 19th century providing more Smoke Rooms and Bars. There is a magnificent black slate fireplace in the Rose Restaurant, fashioned in the High Victorian Gothic style which dates from this period.
When in use as a Coaching Inn the Rose and Crown was a very busy place.
In 1792 Mail Coaches left for London daily at 4pm and travelled via Cambridge to the Golden Cross Inn, West Strand, Charing Cross. The fare was £1.5s.0d, for travel inside or if you were brave enough to weather the elements and bandits 12/6d! Mail coaches from Kings Lynn, Spalding and Boston departed every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Letters and parcels were sent this way for many years and in 1828 three coach companies were using the Rose and Crown; ‘The Hero’, whose coaches terminated at the White Bear, Piccadilly, London, and ‘The Norwich and Stamford Original’ and ‘The Hope Sociable’. These companies respectively ran daily services to Norwich, Stamford and to Boston.
In 1816 Charles Laughton, was proprietor of the Hotel. On 28th October 1822 there was a seven-day sale of the contents of the whole Hotel. Six coaches and post coaches were sold and twenty-nine horses, Donny, Puddle, Spanker and Joey being amongst them. The catalogue lists each room individually but the Paradise Chamber is rather a mystery!
In 1845 Mrs Ann Goddard, ‘a most spirited lady’ became owner. She was renowned for her feasts and banquets and also because she ran an omnibus from the new railway stations ‘to all parts of the town’ with a fare of 6d. The vehicle, including the harness, was made by the local firm of Turners.
For three centuries all civic events of importance have been held at the Rose and Crown.
The first railway to Wisbech was completed in 1847 and on 30th April the Board of the Eastern Counties Railway, having inspected the line, were ‘entertained to a most lavish luncheon at the Rose and Crown Hotel’.
On 11th April 1856 the Hotel hosted the official dinner in honour of the laying of the first stone of a new bridge across the River Nene, the Marquis of Huntly chairing the event.
The new Iron Bridge was opened on 3rd November 1857 and the new owner of the Rose and Crown Hotel, a Mr W Tidnam, provided a Dinner for the dignitaries ‘served up in the best style and in every respect highly creditable, the fare including Roast Swan and Swan giblet soup, of very good flavour befitting a civic banquet, but considerably like goose’.
The Tidnams owned the Hotel until 1932 and imported Port, Sherries and wine up the River Nene. These were matured in the cellars under the Hotel and also in cellars under Bridge Street. These enormous underground chambers were built more than 200 years ago in what had been the cut supplying water to the moat of the medieval castle.
The Tidnams distributed their Ports, Sherries and wines from Wisbech all over Britain and their whiskey brand, Tidnams Tipple, was remembered in the name of the Hotel’s main town bar, Tidnams Tipple Inn, now named ‘Back in Time’.
Wisbech is a town of great age and a fascinating history.
Following the Battle of Hastings 1066 when William the Conquerer defeated the
Anglo-Saxon King Harold the Anglo-Saxons tried repeatedly to defeat the invading Normans. The last great stronghold of the Anglo-Saxons was the Isle of Ely and the Normans suffered substantial losses of horses and armour in the treacherous Fens in a campaign that lasted five years. The Saxons came close to victory.
William relied upon supplies brought in by sea from Normandy and Wisbech, the gateway Port between the Wash and the Fens, was of enormous strategic importance both during and after his campaigns. His first Castle was built in 1071 of timber and earth, but this was rapidly replaced and by 1087 Wisbech had a massive stone built Norman Keep. This was subsequently extended to enclose about 4 acres – an enormous structure.
The Norman Kings were always worried about rebellion in the Fens and eventually Wisbech became a fortified Town completely surrounded by water. Subsequent English Kings shared this concern and the Isle of Ely was given partial autonomy under the Bishop of Ely supported by the Knights Templar in return for good behaviour.
The ‘Liberty of Ely’ was a unique situation in Britain and survived for many centuries, only interrupted in times of great turbulence, most notably the Commonwealth under Cromwell, and following the Civil War.
During Medieval times Wisbech prospered as a port and shipbuilding was an important industry. The best oak was used for ships and this timber was then salvaged for building when the boats were dismantled. Examples of ships timbers can be found in some of the beams at the Rose and Crown Hotel.
The Castle Dungeons were extended by a series of passages and became an important prison for religious and political prisoners. Some of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were held there. Recently a long forgotten passageway has been discovered right under the Rose and Crown Hotel. We believe there are others passageways under the Hotel still to be found.
Four hundred years ago Wisbech was one of the largest Ports in the Country but then the Duke of Bedford, employed Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, a Dutch Civil Engineer, to carry out drainage works on the Fens. By constructing massive artificial drains and watercourses water was diverted and the River Great Ouse was created making Kings Lynn a Port. The Wellstream, an ancient watercourse, ceased flowing and Wisbech was in danger of silting up. Diversion and dredging of the River Nene restored Wisbech as a prosperous Georgian Port.
Wealthy Merchants built their Houses along North Brink, described by Pevsner as the finest Georgian Street in England and Wisbech became a Georgian Town, with much of the town’s earlier architecture destroyed (eg the Castle) or hidden behind Georgian fascades. The Rose and Crown Hotel is the best example of the progress of the Town with examples of Tudor, Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian Architecture.