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The Lancer Public House Leighton Buzzard

The Unicorn Hotel about 1907
The Unicorn Hotel about 1930 [Z50/72/10]

The Lancer Public House: 10 Lake Street, Leighton Buzzard [formerly the Unicorn, then Shades]

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 [KK792-1798]. 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 quote an agreement of 1638 [CRT130Lei3] when a payment was to be made "att or in the nowe dwellinge howse of George Elliott scittuate and beinge in Layton Bussarde aforesaide called or knoen by the name or Signe of the Unicorne".

This early 17th century date is interesting: the Unicorn was listed by the former Department of Environment in 1954 as Grade II, of special interest. The department's architect considered that the property was mainly late 17th century with additions and alterations, however, this was only an estimate and so does not necessarily mean that the 1638 building was demolished and rebuilt later. The property is constructed of red brick, which now has a stucco front and a Welsh slated roof at the front, with red tiles at the back. It has a semi-basement and three upper storeys.

In 1706 the copyhold Unicorn was surrendered by John Marshe to the uses of his will, which said that after his death it should be sold [X288/1]. The next year Marshe's executors duly sold the place to Peter Dayrell [KK952 and X288/1]. Dayrell kept the Unicorn until 1720 when he sold it to Arthur Mathews and Letitia, his wife [X288/3]. Seven years later Mathews purchased four roods in Grovebury Field which lay next to land belonging to the Unicorn [NC295]. Also in 1727 Matthews, of Tavistock Street, Saint Paul's, Covent Garden [Middlesex], insured the Unicorn with Sun Insurance Office. In notes kindly lent to Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service, Maureen Brown noted the policy, held by the Guildhall Library [11936/25], as follows:

The Unicorn Inn in the occupation of William Purcell innholder, viz. The dwelling house and Brewhouse all brick and Tyled £300;
A range of stables on the right side of the yard with lofts over then thatched £150;
A range of stables with lofts on the left side of the yard £120;
The gate house and a stable in it and privy £18;
The Wheat Barn adjoining £35;
The Bean Hovel adjoining £12;
The Barley Barn £45;
The Wheat House £20.

Mathews died in 1746 and devised it in his will to John Salusbury, along with the Boot and the Maidenhead, the latter being Salusbury's residence, who immediately surrendered it to the use of his own will [X288/5]. Salusbury was noted as paying £2/9/- annual quitrent to the Manor of Leighton Buzzard alias Grovebury in registers of 1749 [KK783] and 1755 [KK784].

In 1960 Bedfordshire Historical Records Society published a volume, its fortieth, dedicated to diaries. County Archivist Joyce Godber edited and published John Salusbury's diary written between the years 1757 and 1759. Salusbury mentions the Unicorn often in his diary, as he owned it. On 19th September 1757: "In the afternoon Captain Hutton, Messrs Snabin and Ashwell met me at the Unicorn, where we quaffed punch and rumbo till nine of the clock. I spent five shillings and they one shilling apiece". Salusbury belonged to a club called the Civil Society which met at various venues by nomination of the members. Salusbury always nominated the Unicorn and they met there on 29th September 1757, 20th April 1758, and 1st March and 7th June and 20th September 1759. They also met there on 3rd November 1757, 25th May 1758, 3rd August and 28th September 1758, 14th June and 12th and 19th August and 13th September 1759 at another member's nomination.

On 15th February 1758: "Mr. Ward again dined with me and in the afternoon we went to the Unicorn, where Captain Hutton, his friend Jarrett, Messrs. Ashwell and Baskerfield met us and we spent the evening there, over a bowl of punch". On 2nd August "Met Captain Hutton, Messrs. Ward, Ashwell and Stone at the Unicorn, where Mrs. Langdale paid me her Ladyday's rent". On 13th September, Salusbury noted: "Began ceiling the Unicorn gateway". On 17th February 1759 "Captain Hutton dined with me and then we went to the Unicorn, where Mrs. Langdale paid me her Michaelmas rent and I paid the Captain 37 shillings for oats and hay". On 19th May he "paid William Hare a bill of twelve shillings and sixpence and Paxy five shillings for a well rope for the Unicorn". On 14th June he "called on Mrs. Langdale in the morning and she gave me her Lady Day rent; she likewise paid me the £2/4/1 which Mr. Clarke paid for her wine licence and I paid her five shillings and two pence which I owed for a club on the 29th March last". On 26th June "Saunders drew me in five hundred bricks, six bushels of lime and a load of land for the arch in the Unicorn pightle". A. Room began constructing the arch the next day.

The Unicorn Hotel about 1930
The Unicorn Hotel about 1930 [Z1306/72]

On 7th July Salusbury noted "in the evening Captain Hutton, Messrs. Stone, Pyke, Loddington, Firth, Ashwell and I met at the Unicorn and had a regale of wine and punch. We stayed till past twelve and spent two shillings apiece, except the two last, who went away earlier and spent but one shilling apiece. Among other conversation, the great Nash of Bath was mentioned, which brought on the following bets: Captain Hutton and Pyke laid Loddington and 1 a six shilling bowl of punch that he was now living, we having asserted he had been some time dead and Stone laid Loddington the same wager of a bottle of wine, which in the course of the debate they doubled and I went halves with Loddington in the last bottle". This was, presumably Richard Nash, known as Beau Nash, a dandy and leader of fashion who was Master of ceremonies in Bath from 1704 until his death which, unfortunately for Salusbury and Loddington, was not until 1762. On 13th September, at a Civil Society meeting at the public house, Salusbury noted, probably with some satisfaction, "The ale good". The final mention of the Unicorn concerns the consequences on the debate concerning Beau Nash's continued existence: "Captain Hutton, Messrs. Ashwell, Ward, Pyke, Loddington, Stone, Wheeler and self met at the Unicorn. Mr. Loddington paid six shillings and I four shillings, being what we lost on the wager about Nash of Bath's death and the rest paid one shilling apiece. We quaffed punch and wine till half past ten and then broke up".

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a formulary and notebook kept by 18th century attorney Benjamin Pyne which contains a list of twelve licensed properties in the town in 1761. Each inn also has a name beside it which appears to be the name of the licensee - the Unicorn is linked with the name of John Backhouse.

John Salusbury was still paying his quitrent in 1772 [KK785]; he died in 1787. The following year Captain Arthur Clarke of Falmouth [Cornwall], to whom he had devised most of his real estate, was admitted and duly surrendered it to the use of his will [X288/9]. In the Northampton Mercury of 19th January 1793 licensee of the Unicorn, Robert Keen, 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).

In 1840 William Claridge was admitted to the Unicorn and to a cottage which had formerly been part of the inn and the farmyard and stables behind the inn and divided from it by a gateway. It is not stated in the document why as it is simply a recital leading on to the admission of his death and subsequent admission of his son William Claridge in 1846 [NC378] but it is known that Claridge senior bought land from Arthur Clarke and so presumably he bought the Unicorn, too.

The Unicorn was a popular site for auction sales in the middle of the 19th century. In the countywide Return of Licensed Premises of 1876 the owner was stated to be Charles Claridge of Leighton Buzzard, as it was in 1891, by which time he had moved to Heath and Reach, by that date he leased the property to Leighton Buzzard brewers Ashdown & Brother who leased the brewery belonging to the Proctor family on the site of Waterborne Walk leading from the High Street to what is now West Street but was then part of Friday Street. By 1897 the Unicorn was in the hands of a James Stevens, also the licensee, who mortgaged it in that year [RY966]. By 1936 the Unicorn was a tied house of Luton brewer J. W. Green [WB/Green6/4/1] and in 1943 an ARP Warden's post was established in the Unicorn yard [WW2/AR/C/2/221].

In 1952 Page Woodcock wrote in Volume III of the Bedfordshire Magazine (page 235): "The inn's earliest records are from 1638, so the area manager, Captain Turner, informed us. As one gazes out on to a stableyard that still has the ostler's bell and a three-stepped mounting block, it is not difficult to furnish it in imagination with the accoutrements of coaching. We saw a 'priest's hole', a passageway that winds from one storey to another. We descended the 300 year-old teak staircase [demolished and removed in 1993] to the saloon where hang prints of bear-baiting and cock-fighting at 'Charley's Theatre, Westminster' and a painting of 'Our Leading Jockeys of the Day' signed by F. Archer, C. Wood, Fred Webb, George Fordham, J. Watts and John Osborne. On a thick carpet that hides time-worn boards, beer-barrel tables and oak settles stand against dark panelling. From the Resident's Lounge, with its pewter, Staffordshire china and Toby jugs, we went down to the cellars.

These are blocked-up archways, a staircase that leads to a blank wall, a filled-in well, an old iron-barred window, and so many niches, corners, and early brickwork, that one can well believe with Mr. McCann that there was a much older house here before the Unicorn was built".

In 1965 the old Unicorn Hotel became a nightclub, retaining the Unicorn name. It closed on 31st May 1970 but re-opened in January the following year. Permission for a single storey rear extension was granted in 1980.  It had, by then, developed a reputation for violence in the street outside and closed in the 1992, the windows being boarded up. Then, in 1993, new ownership reopened the building as a nightclub called Shades; the outbuildings were demolished and a two storey extension erected in their place. A lot of interior demolition also occurred, including the removal of the old staircase. From April 2008 the building was again converted, this time back to a public house called the Lancer, as a tribute to Leighton Buzzard forklift truck manufacturers Lancer Boss, based in Grovebury Road (where the Unicorn had had land in the 18th century).

 The Lancer in June 2008
The Lancer in June 2008


  • X288/1: surrender: 1706;
  • KK952 and X288/1: admission: 1707;
  • X288/1: land of the Unicorn noted as an abuttal to surrendered land: 1711;
  • X288/3: surrender: 1720;
  • NC295: purchase of land next to land of the Unicorn: 1727;
  • X288/5: death of Arthur Matthews: 1746;
  • X288/5: admission: 1746;
  • KK783: Manor of Leighton Buzzard quit rental: 1749;
  • BO72-73: conveyance of land formerly of the Unicorn in Grovebury Field: 1759;
  • KK784: Manor of Leighton Buzzard quit rental: 1749;
  • X171/206: landlord named: 1761;
  • KK785: Manor of Leighton Buzzard quit rental: 1772;
  • Northampton Mercury: resolution of Leighton Buzzard publicans banning "seditious and disaffected persons" from their houses: 19 Jan 1793;
  • CLP13: Register of alehouse licences: 1822-1828;
  • BO1524: Inclosure Commissioners' meeting at Unicorn: 1843;
  • BO1658: Inclosure Commissioners' expenses at Unicorn: 1845;
  • BO1529-1535: Inclosure Commissioners' meeting at Unicorn: 1845-1846;
  • NC378: death of William Claridge: 1846;
  • BO543: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1851;
  • 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;
  • BML10/30/1: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1861;
  • NC381: 1861;
  • BML10/42/9: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1864;
  • BML10/30/2 auction sale held at Unicorn: 1865;
  • BML10/42/12-13: auction sales held at Unicorn: 1865;
  • BML10/44/14-16: auction sales held at Unicorn: 1866;
  • BML10/42/19-20: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1866;
  • BML10/42/22-23: auction sales held at Unicorn: 1867;
  • BML10/42/26-27: auction sales held at Unicorn: 1868;
  • RY377: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1868;
  • BML10/42/30: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1868;
  • BML10/42/29: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1869;
  • BML10/42/32: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1869;
  • BML10/42/35-36: auction sales held at Unicorn: 1871;
  • BML10/42/49-50: auction sales held at Unicorn: 1877;
  • BML10/42/287: auction sale held at Unicorn: 1897;
  • RY966: Unicorn mortgaged by James Stevens: 1897;
  • HN1/20-1-3: position shown on annotated Ordnance Survey maps compiled for licensing purposes: early 20th century;
  • RY969: transfer of mortgage on Unicorn: 1901;
  • Z50/72/10: photograph: c.1907;
  • PSLB4/2: Register of Alehouse Licences - Leighton Buzzard Petty Sessional Division: 1922-1948;
  • WB/Green6/4/1: J.W.Green Limited trade analysis ledger: 1936-1947;
  • WW2/AR/C/2/221: ARP Wardens' post in Unicorn Hotel yard: 1943;  

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:

1638: George Elliott;
1706: Edward Osmond;
1720: William Pursell;
1746: William Langdale;
1757: Mrs. Langdale;
1761: John Backhouse;
1788: Robert Keen;
1822: George Claridge;
1830: Daniel Claridge;
1847: Charles Claridge;
1861: William Claridge;
1883: Charles Claridge;
1885: James Gibson;
1887: Bentley Richard Verchild;
1887: Thomas Gregory;
1888: James Stevens;
1918: Kate Stevens;
1924: Herbert Downs;
1926: Herbert Pemberton;
1927: Herbert John Waller;
1929: Frederick John Clark;
1936: Paul Moffatt Mayne;
1936: Ethel Josephine Moffatt Mayne;
1936: George Charles Leach;
1937: Harold Meade Moore;
1938: Gerald Aldis;
1945: Lilian Florence Reid;
1948: Stanley William Skilton;
1951: Albert William McCann;
1953: Reginald Lancelot Ducksbury;
1956: Robert George Hollings;
1957: Frederick Oswald Holland;
1967: Audrey Dorothea Richardson and Norman Appleton;
1969: Audrey Dorothea Richardson and Thomas Michael Creighton;
Public house closed 31 May 1970 

Re-opened 13th January 1971
1971: Kenneth Swayne;
1975: Stanley Berry;
1978: Kenneth Swayne;
1980: Kenneth Swayne and Christopher John Hayhoe;
1981: Stanley Berry;
1984: Stanley Berry and Samuel Desmond Adams;
1986: Alan James Costick;
1989: Samuel Desmond Adams.
Public house closed 1992