The Chequers

The chequered history of Orwell's sole surving public house

By Sue Miller

The Chequers appears in the Victuallers Register of 1815

The Chequers’ early history is  far from clear. Our sole surviving pub first appears as a licensed premises in the Cambridgeshire Quarter Sessions Victuallers’ Register of 1815 when the licensee was William Swan.

Photo:Extract from the surveyor's notebook

Extract from the surveyor's notebook

Four years later Cockett & Nash, surveyors of Royston acting for Messrs Phillips, brewers, submitted a bill to William Swan for ‘Bricklayer’s work at Public House, Orwell’; the rooms and building materials described in this bill suggest this was The Chequers and that it was being extensively renovated.  An old chimney was being taken down and new hearths were being constructed in the parlour and living room. (These may well be the two fireplaces that still feature in The Chequers.) Brick floors were being laid, slates were bought for the roof and the cellar floor was dug out and levelled.  In 1821 Cockett & Nash’s notebooks show that more building work was being done, either by or for William Swan, at the ‘new public house, Orwell.’

A major rebuild in 1821

A possible interpretation of these records is that in 1815 William Swan’s Chequers was an old building, in need of some renovation.  In 1819 some improvements were made and in 1821 a major rebuild took place, hence the reference in the surveyor’s notes to ‘the new Public House.’ 

(Cockett & Nash’s notebooks can be viewed at Cambs. Record Office. Ask for documents 296/B11 and 296/318X.)

The Swann family held the licence at The Chequers continuously until at least 1916, as tenants of Phillips Brewery, but Kelly’s Directory for 1922 shows that Charles Haines had by then taken over as publican. He continued until 1937 and was followed by Fred Sharman  (1937 - 1945) and Fred ‘Pinky’ Waldock, (1945 - 1982), tenants of Phillips Brewers and latterly of Flowers Brewery. In Pinky’s time the Public Bar was accommodated in the room to the right of the front door, while the Saloon Bar to the left was kept locked, except for Christmas time  and for the weekly visit of the local doctor who used it as his surgery.

Photo:Landlord Fred Waldock in the cellar

Landlord Fred Waldock in the cellar

Photo:Harry Prime in the bar, with the dregs can

Harry Prime in the bar, with the dregs can

A place of relaxation  for the men of Orwell

Like most rural public houses The Chequers was until the late 1970s, principally a place of relaxation for the men of the village, serving beer but no food, although in 1910 the landlady, Mrs William Swann, had laid on ‘an excellent repast’ to celebrate the marriage of H.G. Peters and Miss Ethel Marr.

 In 1983 the pub’s character was changed forever with the arrival of the Kimsey family who, having bought the pub from the brewery, gutted the building.  Gone was the parlour to the left of the front door, where the doctor had held his surgeries, and gone was the tap room on the right where, for nearly two hundred years beer and darts had been the main attractions.  An open plan public bar, with a small stage in one corner, took their place, and ‘bar meals’ were served on tables topped with obsolete British and foreign coins, donated by Orwell residents and set in transparent resin.

For much of the next thirty years The Chequers remained a free house, but there were seven changes of licensee between 1983 and 2013. All found it difficult to make a good living here, either as owner/occupiers or tenants of a ‘tied house.’  Orwell couple Lee and Michelle Norton took on with high hopes in 2003 as managers for Punch Taverns.  In 2005 they transformed The Chequers, remodelling and refurnishing the bar and adding a restaurant extension, but while the rent and other overheads increased, trade did not. The Nortons were succeeded by Peter Osborn in September 2009, but he too found the pub unprofitable and left shortly before Punch Taverns put it on the market in 2012.  A village take-over was considered, but proved unviable.  Orwell resident Nigel Belbin saved the day by buying The Chequers and offering realistic terms to prospective tenants. His first choice failed to meet expectations, but with Cordon Bleu chef David Cheng, licensee, in the kitchen, and his wife Tina and friends Rebecca and Christian guaranteeing a warm welcome in the bar and restaurant, the pub’s future looks more secure. 

Photo:The Bar in 1950      -       and in March 2014

The Bar in 1950 - and in March 2014

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'The Chequers' page

Perhaps all the publicans that succeeded ‘Pinky’ Waldock had forgotten, or were unaware, that pulling pints could only ever be a part time occupation and that to make a living one had to have another trade. The Swanns had been bricklayers or builders, the Merrys at the White Hart had been carpenters, and other landlords had been smallholders or lorry drivers, relying on their wives to keep the pubs open during the working day. The solution is to build up a reputation for really good food, well presented, and this David Cheng and his team are hoping to do.

Photo:Terry Cook & wife Pat, landlords from 1990 to 1998

Terry Cook & wife Pat, landlords from 1990 to 1998

Photo:Lee & Michelle Norton at their reopening in 2005

Lee & Michelle Norton at their reopening in 2005

Photo:Peter Osborn and Cindy, with chef Stewart

Peter Osborn and Cindy, with chef Stewart

 

Click on any of the photos here to see them full size

 

 

 

 

 

This page was added by Sue Miller on 04/03/2014.

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