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Photographs courtesy of CN Museum of Local History

End of the road for historic inn

Reprinted from the Chipping Norton News.

The closure of the White Hart marks the end of a long story. Inns like the White Hart will have existed around Chipping Nortons market place ever since the lord of the manor, William Fitzalan, laid it out in the early 13th century. No one knows exactly when the White Hart was established but its name derives from the badge of Richard II who reigned from 1377 to 1399. For a brief period the manor of Chipping Norton was held by the king before being given to a new lord. Perhaps this is when the White Hart got its name.

Like other buildings in the market place it has been altered and rebuilt several times. Recent archaeological investigation suggests that there was some activity on the site as early as the 12th century but little is known about it. The oldest part of the present building is part of an open gallery running up one side of the yard which seems to date from the 16th century. Most of the rest was extensively rebuilt in the 18th century. (If you look up at the lead rainwater heads above the balcony you will see the date.) The front facing High Street was restored in the 1930s preserving the 18th century style except for closing the original archway leading through to the rear yard, and there have been extensive internal alterations in the later 20th century.

The plan of the White Hart is typical of many inns of the 17th and 18th centuries with the main public rooms and bedrooms at the front and an archway leading through to a courtyard surrounded by service rooms with smaller bedrooms and the open gallery above. In private houses at this time members of a family passed through each bedroom to reach the next, but in a hotel more privacy was needed and this was provided by an external gallery with doors to each bedroom. The remains of a timber-framed gallery at the White Hart is an important survival.

Even more interesting than the architecture is the human history of the building (- or even its inhuman history: there have been several reports of ghosts haunting the bedrooms). Members of the Chipping Norton Historical Research Group and students in a class studying Chipping Norton in the 17th century have discovered several inventories describing the furniture and equipment of this inn during the 17th century. (See FEATURE ARTICLE) Among many other items they list a number of four-post beds with curtains. One magnificent example of these survived until the closure but has since been sent to a London saleroom. In 1633 among the metal items ranging from brass pans and cooking pots to candlesticks were one dozen pewter chamber pots(perhaps the equivalent of en suite facilities today). They also list the contents of the cellars: seven hogsheads & a halfe fule of beare together with sacke, brandy, French wine and sherry. There are interesting names to the bedrooms - The Queens Arms Chamber, the Great Chamber, the Gatehouse Chamber, the Worcester Chamber and the Hereford Chamber etc.

Henry Cornish, founder of the almshouses and long-serving member of the Corporation, owned the White Hart in the early 17th century (though he did not run it). When he died in 1646 he left money to provide an annual civic dinner known as the Bailiffs Feast to be held there. In the 18th century the Corporation often chose to hold meetings there. Their official residence was the Guildhall but they preferred to meet in several of the towns inns, especially the White Hart, making the excuse that the Guildhall was dilapidated. At one such meeting in 1728 William Wilcox was granted the freedom to trade within the borough on payment of the usual fees and 10 shillings to treat the chamber, with a note in the margin of the minute book which says snuff and gin. In 1745 it was the scene of the notorious election riot when Whig supporters attacked it while the Tories were holding a dinner there, setting fire to the inn sign in an attempt to burn down the gate across the archway.

The White Hart has been part of Chipping Nortons history for a very long time. Sadly it has been neglected in recent years and is now to be converted from a hotel to shops and residential units. However, it can be argued that while the town sorely needs accommodation for visitors, permanent residents to patronise the shops and be part of the local community are even more valuable, and the tasteful conversion of the building is to include the restoration of the original archway so that its appearance may actually be improved by the change. Perhaps its not the end of the road, just a change of direction.

David Eddershaw