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The Black Horse Leighton Buzzard

The Black Horse about 1900
The Black Horse about 1900

The Black Horse Public House: 21 North Street, Leighton Buzzard

The Manor of Leighton Buzzard alias Grovebury was the principal landowner in the town before the 19th century. Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a full run of court rolls from 1393 to 1727 [KK619-715] and another full run from 1704 to 1867 [X288/1-23]. The service also has court rolls for other manor to own land in the town, the Prebendal Manor, from 1448 to 1459, 1588 to 1591, 1611 to 1622, 1627 and 1631 [KK792-798]. Detailed study of these would be bound to produce quite full histories for most licensed premises in the town. Unfortunately such study would take a very long time. Thus the histories of licensed premises in these web pages are quite summary and not necessarily the full story.

Maureen Brown, June Masters and Tom Lawson wrote a book called The Old Pubs of Leighton Buzzard and Linslade which was published by Leighton Linslade Local History Research Group in 1994. In producing the book they used sources at Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service, Buckinghamshire Record Office, Northamptonshire Record Office as well as a number of published sources. The authors state that the first mention of the Black Horse was in 1784 when James Dell, a butcher and victualler, took out fire insurance with Sun Fire Insurance Office. The original is in the Guildhall Library [reference 11936/319] and reads:

James Dell at the Black Horse at Leighton ... butcher and victualler on his own dwelling house and offices adjoining situate as aforesaid £100;
Household good stherein only £100;
Utensils and stock: £60;
Slaughterhouse, barn, stable and Hogstye with lofts over all adjoining near: £100;
Brewhouse only in the yard, brick and tiled: £30;
Fastening Pen, House, Tap House adjoining each other in the yard near, Board and Tiled: £10;
[Total] £400.

All thatched except otherwise mentioned.
£1 Christmas 1784 Cooper, L. duty 6/-
J. H. langton J. Grove W. Burrell

The Black Horse would be run along with a butcher's business for at least the next eighty years. The authors also state that the name came from an earlier Black Horse in Lake Street owned by the same family, again, without references. The countywide licensing register of 1876 states that it was not then known when the public house was first licensed. Interestingly in Maureen Brown's notes, kindly lent to Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service, she refers to an earlier Black Horse in Leck End (Lake Street).

The Black Horse was listed by the former Department of Environment in 1973 and is described as a 17th century building, much altered in the 18th century. The building is constructed from red brick with a weather-boarded side gable (old photographs show this as timber-framed with a brick infill). The back of the property retains exposed timber work. As can be seen from the photograph above, the public house remains thatched.

The first mention of the Black Horse in records held by Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service is in the Northampton Mercury of 19th January 1793 when the licensee, James Dell, subscribed to a resolution of Leighton Buzzard publicans banning "seditious and disaffected persons" from their houses. This presumably was in reaction to the events across the Channel in France (four days previously King Louis XVI had been sentenced to death and two days later he went to the guillotine).

The Black Horse was a copyhold premises forming a part of the Manor of Leighton Buzzard alias Grovebury and in 1817 John Stevens, of Nightingale Lane, Limehouse [Middlesex] was admitted as tenant following the surrender of James Clark of Leighton Buzzard, innholder and William Claridge of Leighton Buzzard, carrier, in 1816. They were the trustees of the will of James Dell, deceased, who had mortgaged the Black Horse to Ampthill brewer John Morris in 1813; Stevens paid this mortgage off. The Black Horse was described as being formerly occupied by John Stevens, then John Dell, then James Dell, then Robert Stevens [RY1177]. Four cottages had "lately been erected" by Robert Stevens on the site of the barn and stables of the Black Horse. Given that John Stevens also paid £125 to Robert it suggests that Robert had bought part of the site from James Dell and that John Stevens bought the property of both, reuniting the two in one ownership.

The Black Horse was evidently a rough pub at the beginning of the 19th century. In the Quarter Sessions records for 1821 is an examination of William  Smith, junior of Leighton Buzzard, butcher - he was going down the North End of Leighton Buzzard by the Black Horse and saw Thomas Franklin the Constable "coming out backwards". John Brandom of Leighton Buzzard, labourer struck the constable "bang full in the face" and the blows knocked the constable down on his back with Brandom falling on top of him. Then Sarah Adams of Leighton Buzzard "single woman, got on top of the Constable and jolted his head against the ground". Benjamin Brandom of Leighton Buzzard, labourer, was present and, although he did not strike the constable, appeared to be helping his brother. A lot of other people were present. Constable Franklin then said: "For God's sake Smith lay hold of her" meaning Sarah Adams "or I shall be murdered". Smith pulled Adams away from the constable who then took Benjamin Brandom into custody; John Brandom ran away and was still at large. "The Constable appeared very much hurt and his face was all over blood" [QSR1821/343].

The Black Horse in June 2008
The Black Horse in June 2008

Things were evidently no better six years later. At another Quarter Sessions hearing Constable John Kempster stated that he had been asked by Thomas Turnham, the landlord, "to do his duty" and remove one Dennis and his wife Judith Gahager from the pub, along with John Quin. The three of them were described as "very noisy and troublesome" Judith Gahager struck the unfortunate constable on his head with a soldering iron, Quin did likewise and ran away. They were eventually apprehended and thrown into the parish cage for the night. A witness, Sergeant Major John Whitehead of the Bedfordshire Yeomanry additionally noted that the wound given the constable by Gahager "fetched blood immediately" [QSR1827/343]. It is interesting that in both these accounts women were involved and seemed every bit as violent as their men.

John Stevens later moved to Cublington in Buckinghamshire where he made his will in 1824 in which he left the Black Horse to his brother Robert and nephew John in trust to be sold. He died in 1831 but the Black Horse was not sold until 1845 when John Birdsey of Leighton Buzzard, dealer in earthenware bought it for £780 [RY1208]. At the time a Charles Birdsey, presumably a relative, was the licensee.  Four years later John Birdsey was dead and another John Birdsey, his son [RY1221], sold the Black Horse to the licensee, George Charles Birdsey, dealer in cows, who may have been his brother, for £800 [RY1217], although George Charles almost immediately mortgaged it back to John for £300 [RY1222].

It looks as if George Charles Birdsey then sold the Black Horse but agreed to lend some of the purchase money as a mortgage as in 1858 Samuel Northwood of Maulden, carpenter, undertook to be admitted to the Black Horse at the Manor Court, only to surrender it back, conditionally, to George Charles as security for a loan of £600 [RY1230].

The Black Horse was put up for sale by auction in 1864 [BML10/42/7] along with three cottages, a large yard and outbuildings "in a populous part of the Town, with every convenience for carrying on an extensive and lucrative trade of a Wholesale Brewer, and offers a sound and remunerative investment". The lot was described as: "Eligibly situate In the centre of the fast improving Town of Leighton Buzzard, with a frontage of 30 feet to the North Street and to Black Horse Lane [also known as Back Lane, now West Street] of 96 feet, containing on the basement, commodious and dry Cellarage; on the ground floor is an excellent Market Room, Tap Room, and Bar Parlour, and four good Bed Rooms over; adjoining is a compact and roomy Brewhouse, fitted with every convenience, and well adapted for carrying on a Wholesale Trade; in the rear and approached from Black Horse Lane, is a large yard, with the following convenient and extensive Buildings: an excellent Slaughter House, with Fasting House adjoining, with Loft over; Stabling, brick-built and Tiled, with Loft over, Cart Shed, and good dry Skittle Ground; contiguous thereto are four cottages, one of which has been converted into a Slaughter House, situate fronting the Black Horse Lane, with two Rooms below and two above, in the respective occupations of Jesse Thompson, William Smith and James Humble". Esther Channer was then the licensee at a "low rent" of £40 per annum. The public house was purchased by Alfred Gurney of Slapton [Buckinghamshire] for £750. The Gurney family leased the Black Horse first to Roberts & Wilson of Ivinghoe and then to Benskins Watford Brewery.

In Volume III of the Bedfordshire Magazine, page 230, Page Woodcock described the interior of the Black Lion in 1952: "An unspoiled fireplace with good pewter and two attractive oil paintings, one depicting the Black Horse in leafy sunshine, the other the Old Wharf by 'nephew Garner' gave us something to admire. Tom thought the two swordfish fins rather incongruous, and this led to tales of our landlord's travels in the Far East. He was one of the fortunates to escape on the every-man-for-himself evacuation of Singapore - a black horse was always a sign of liberty".

At some point the Black Horse was purchased by Benskins, who were themselves taken over by Ind Coope in 1967. The Black Horse closed 1979 and it was planned to reopen as a steak house then in September of that year Ind Coope decided to sell it. The Black Horse was bought by David Maslen and reopened early in 1981. The barn adjoining the pub caught fire in 1984 and was rebuilt in 1986. In 1996 planning permission for new door to West Street and courtyard elevation alterations was given.

 The Black Horse June 2008
The Black Horse June 2008


  • Northampton Mercury: resolution of Leighton Buzzard publicans banning "seditious and disaffected persons" from their houses: 19 Jan 1793;
  • RY1177: admission of John Stevens: 1817;
  • QSR1821/343: assault on a police officer by Black Horse patron: 1821;
  • CLP13: Register of alehouse licences: 1822-1828;
  • QSR1827/343: assault on a police officer by Black Horse patron: 1827;
  • RY1191: admission of Robert Stevens: 1832;
  • RY1208: conveyance of the Black Horse: 1845;
  • RY1217: admission of George Charles Birdsey: 1849;
  • RY1222: mortgage of the Black Horse: 1849;
  • RY1230: mortgage of the Black Horse: 1858;
  • RY1231: admission of Samuel Northwood: 1858
  • PSLB4/1: Register of Alehouse Licences - Leighton Buzzard Petty Sessional Division: c.1860s-1949;
  • PSLB4/3: Register of Alehouse Licences - Leighton Buzzard Petty Sessional Division: c.1860s-1956
  • BML10/42/7: sale particulars of Black Horse: 1864;
  • HN1/20-1-3: position shown on annotated Ordnance Survey maps compiled for licensing purposes: early 20th century;
  • P91/28/48: indicated as being at 21 North Street in notes compiled on Leighton Buzzard public houses: early 20th century;
  • PSLB4/2: Register of Alehouse Licences - Leighton Buzzard Petty Sessional Division: 1922-1948;
  • Bedfordshire Magazine Volume III page 230: photograph: 1952;
  • Z1105/1: Liquor License Traders Survey form: 1963;
  • FSD/PH5/42/1-5: photographs of fire damage: 1980s;
  • Z1309/1/12: drawing of Black Horse: 1991

List of Licensees: note that this is not a complete list; entries in italics refer to licensees where either beginning or end, or both, dates are not known:

before 1784: John Stevens;
1750: John Dell;
1783: James Dell;
1816: Robert Stevens;
1821: Thomas Turnham;
1828: Thomas Irons;
1839: Charles Birdsey;
1849: George Charles Birdsey;
1858: Thomas Warner;
1861: Joseph Channer;
1864: Mrs. Esther Channer;
1869: William Clements (a butcher);
1871: Ann Clements
1876: Charles Ellingworth;
1877: Thomas Forth;
1881: William Evans;
1883: William Pratt;
1893: Ardley John Humphreys [convicted of selling beer during prohibited hours on 27th April 1897; fined £5 and 7/6 costs];
1900: Edwin John Gunning;
1900: George Butcher;
1910: Jane Butcher;
1929: William James Down;
1938: Leonard William Saroni;
1939: Edward Albert Sheldon;
1944: Charles James Hills;
1945: Charles Edward Smith;
1953: Frederick Albert Halliday;
1955: Edwin Frederick Burroughs;
1965: Ivy Snowball;
1967: William Andrew Dowdeswell;
1970: Graham Norman Seldon;
1978: James Bott;
1979: Paul Herbert Rutter;
1980: David John Maslen