According to English Heritage, The Swan in the High Street in Thornbury has mid 17th Century origins and was remodelled and extended in the late 18th Century. Certainly we have found records in Stafford Record Office that confirm that the inn appears in a court roll of 1633 showing tax was payable by “John Thorne for the Swan in Thornbury lately built new.” Click here to read about its early history. Although to the modern reader this would appear to mean that The Swan was built in 1633, it is equally likely to indicate simply that it was extensively modernised at that time.
Today The Swan has a very striking presence. It is especially noticeable for its large porch and big white columns that go far out onto the pavement. On top of the porch is the famous swan. The present swan is a simple modern version, made of fibre glass and placed there in 1988. The original bird is shown in this photograph on the left and in more detail below on the right. As can be seen from these photographs it had a gold collar round its neck with a chain hanging from it and it is is seated on a bed of “rushes”. When the original wooden swan crumbled and needed to be replaced, the then owners sought advice about the design for its replacement from Slimbridge Wildfowl Trust. The Trust naturally provided a realistic design for the bird but did not appreciate the historical significance of the emblem.
According to CAMRA ‘The Swan’ is the fourth most common name for a pub in Great Britain but in this case the emblem of the swan may have some local significance. Meg Wise of Thornbury Museum has done some research into the name of this pub and she believes that its name and its original emblem with the gold collar and chain are references to the House of Lancaster, specifically to the de Bohun family. The de Bohun family claimed to trace their family history back to the legendary Swan Knight (the hero of Lohengrin). The family’s emblem of a swan was a reference to this legend and it was adopted by Henry IV after his marriage to the wealthy heiress Mary de Bohun. By 1374 Mary de Bohn’s equally wealthy sister and co-heiress, Eleanor de Bohun had married Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Earl of Buckingham. Their daughter Anne of Gloucester married three times. Her second husband was Edmund Stafford, 5th Earl of Stafford. Their eldest son was Humphrey Stafford, first Duke of Buckingham. The Stafford family as Earls of Stafford and Dukes of Buckingham were also Lords of the Manor of Thornbury. The Swan was adopted as one of the emblems of the Stafford family because of their link with the de Bohuns. As the Lords of the Manor of Thornbury owned this inn it might be no coincidence that it adopted the sign of The Swan.
The parapet of The Swan (as can be seen from the photograph on the left above) is also eye catching as it is adorned with two large pineapples, one on either end. These might give an indication of the social aspirations of the business in the eighteenth century as at that time the pineapple represented not only hospitality but wealth and social status.
We haven’t seen the deeds of this property. We are fortunate however that the Lords of the Manor of Thornbury owned The Swan up to 1834 and therefore this part of the inn’s history is recorded in the Manor Court Rolls. From the record of 1633 previously mentioned, The Swan was regularly referred to by name in the early records of Thornbury properties. In some sources it was the only inn specifically mentioned. This means that it has been an important landmark in Thornbury since the early 1600’s and is probably the longest continuously running inn in the town. Its pre-eminence may possibly be explained by the fact that it was owned by the Lord of the Manor and was located close to the Market Place. However these cannot be the only factors in The Swan’s success. The Lord of the Manor also owned the White Hart on The Plain and this is hardly mentioned in any of the earlier records. There were also other pubs equally close to the Market Place. Its success may also stem from the generous provision of stabling and other public rooms which allowed it to be used for a wide variety of functions.
The Manor Accounts also provide some information about the appearance of the building at various times. For example we know that in 1739 some or all of its roof was thatched. The Accounts for April 22nd 1740 show that 18s 6d was spent on thatching work at The Swan. We also know that in 1795 there was a list of maintenance work done on The Swan such as buying a sweeping brush to clean the house at The Swan, paying for the woman to do the sweeping, paying a man for pitching the grate, paying Thomas Lippiat £1. 5s for unspecified work there and most interestingly paying “Dyer and Collett” for the sign plate and painting The Swan. We do not know the reason for this flurry of work. It is possible that the property was being prepared for a new tenant. It could even be an indication that the frontage of The Swan was altered around this time. It seems likely that The Swan was once built around a open court. It is possible that the end of the court nearest the High Street was closed off when a new front was added to the building in the late eighteenth century. The open area within the pub was still visible on the 1840 Tithe Map. A small section of this map is shown on the right hand side. Please click on it to see a slightly larger version. This space was later incorporated into the building and is now fully enclosed with a glass roof. However it is possible that it was once possible for a coach or someone on horseback to enter this courtyard area from the High Street. The present doorway and porch appear to make this impossible. We believe that these additions and indeed the whole frontage of the property were added some time in the late eighteenth century. The property continued to be accessible via St Mary Street into the rear of the premises by horses, coaches and other vehicles. The entrance from St Mary Street remains to this day.
Another feature of the pub seems to show that it was easily accessed on horseback. George Ford’s book called “Thornbury Pubs” describes the ‘Georgian bow-shaped window in what was the courtyard, with a high level window within a window” and he explains that it “allowed drinks to be passed to horse riders without them dismounting”.
The back of the pub also has some unusual features. There are three plaster panels set into the rear walls, showing a rampant horse or unicorn, a lion and unicorn with crowned thistle and rose above, and another animal which could be a lion. We have a small photograph here on the left which shows one of the panels. We cannot give an explanation of what they represent. It was once thought they were fire plaques but such plaques were affixed to the wall when the owners of a building paid the fire insurance but they are not usually etched into the fabric of the building. Meg Wise believes that they might have been carved into the plasterwork when The Swan took on an official role such as when an upper room acted as the Excise Office for Thornbury. However we have no evidence for this theory at the moment. Certainly if this room was used as the Excise Office it was probably more often accessed through the rear of the building rather than through the pub area and so it might make sense for the rear of the building to have such a mark.
In the absence of detailed records we cannot say what The Swan was like up to the end of the 18th Century. However the nineteenth century newspapers contain lots of evidence to show the The Swan in its heyday provided the Town with a wide variety of functions. We have records showing that during this period it was coaching inn, posting house and excise office. It was the meeting place for the Corporation, for organisers of charitable trusts, for the County and Manorial Courts and for the meetings of the Court Leet. It offered accommodation for those wishing to stay overnight, and meals and other refreshments. It was also the centre of social life in Thornbury, catering mainly for the more respectable people of the town with regular dances, concerts and property auctions held there. It was also the meeting place of the Ancient Order of Oddfellows.
The first of these breweries was the Anglo-Bavarian Brewery which was forced to change its name in 1914 (as a result of the War and the public hostility to anything possibly associated with Germany) to become the Anglo Brewery. Then in 1921 the Swan was acquired by W. J. Rogers, a Bristol brewery who were taken over by Simonds Brewery in 1938. They became part of the Courage, Simonds and Barclays company in 1960, shortened to Courages in 1970. Since that time the inn has been owned by ‘pubcos’, initially by Inntrepreneur Estates and is now owned by another pubco known as Enterprise Inns. Read about the different Breweries
While the pub was owned by a series of breweries, it was run by its Landlords and landladies, some of whom became very well-known figures in Thornbury. Click here to read the landlords and landladies since 1899
In the early 21st Century the pub went into decline, faced with stiff competition and a fall in the number of people going out for a drink. There were a number of very short term licensees who tried to make a go of it. It was closed for a few years as the pub was put up for sale by Enterprise Inns. With no chance of a likely buyer it was assumed that the pub was gone for ever. Then in 2011 it was restored to its former glory and opened by Sandra Davies. See The Swan’s own website