Sunday, 30 September 2012

BLOG #90 – CROCKER’S FOLLY (CROWN), ST. JOHN’S WOOD, LONDON NW8





I wonder if the good people of Glocca Morra ever wonder how things are over here?

The first CAMRA North London Beer Guide (1985?) describes the St John’s Wood district of north London as once part of the Great Middlesex Forest. The land was eventually acquired by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem in mediaeval times (1323). It later became part of the Royal Hunting Grounds of Marylebone Park under Henry VIII
 
 
 
At the heart of the district today is the Marylebone Cricket Club – Lord’s. The surrounding area is largely residential – with a mixture of smart houses and expensive apartment blocks and more modest dwellings that belie the reputation of NW8 as a metropolitan Frinton-on-Sea. 

This variety extends to its pubs. The Clifton  was a former hunting lodge 200 years before obtaining a drinks licence, and later hotel status, by King Edward VII. This was to enable him to visit his mistress Lily Langtry at the hotel; as royalty were then prohibited from pubs. It’s a cracking watering-hole to visit during the lunch break at Lord’s. Around the Church St, Maida Vale area of St John’s Wood, the pubs are more bohemian and basic, excepting the Crown (Crocker’s Folly).

The Abbey Road Studios, established in 1931, are also located within postal code NW8.

You should never let a good story get in the way of the truth.

Crocker's Folly… This once grand old pub is now boarded up sadly – from March 2004. It is showing signs of decay, with windows broken and weeds growing out of the plasterwork. It is falling into decline and disrepair.



It is listed for sale at £4.25m, and it would be a shame to lose what was once such an historic pub. It has a wonderful story attached to it, as best described in Ted Bruning's excellent book, Historic Pubs of London (2000) :-






"Here is true folly: folly preserved forever in mahogany and marble, folly on a princely scale, folly so tragic that London has been laughing about it for over a century. Originally The Crown Hotel, this grand pub was built in the 1890s in an unassuming Maida Vale side street by a Kilburn publican named Frank Crocker. And what a palace Frank built!

It had - still has - two bars: a public bar of no more than ordinary magnificence, and a grand saloon with marble bar-top and pilasters, marble stringing, marble archways, even a great marble fireplace; with a magnificent Jacobean-style coffered ceiling of the most intricate plasterwork; and acres of gleaming woodwork.

It is mad - the demented dream of an architect who has overdosed on a mixture of hallucinogens and mason's catalogues. The former billiard-room, now a carvery, is scarcely less ornate: but perhaps the bust of Caracalla is a sly demonstration that the pub's designers were quite conscious of the excess to which their client was pushing them: Caracalla was a Roman emperor known for his architectural excesses and his complete insanity.

The whole thing was the biggest gamble in the history of pubs: the railway was approaching from the north, heading straight as an arrow for Maida Vale. Surely, reasoned Crocker, it would stop right where he was building his palatial pub; and the Crown Hotel would become the Railway Hotel, and a goldmine.

Alas for Crocker! The line turned left a few degrees at St John's Wood, to terminate not at his doorway, but about a mile away, where Marylebone Station now stands. The Crown Hotel was a palace in the middle of nowhere; the grandest folly in London.

 

Crocker, naturally, went bust and then killed himself by jumping out of an upstairs window.

For years the pub mouldered (sic) on as an absurdly grand local; photographs from 1967 show it much as it was built, even down to a few surviving sticks of the original custom made furniture. Only the gas fittings had been changed, and the tawdry little lights with which they had been replaced speak volumes.

In 1983 the Crown was bought by north eastern brewer Vaux, which formally adopted its nickname of Crocker’s Folly and then sold it to Regent Inns*, which now runs at a big, bustling profit. They say Crocker's ghost appears each evening at cashing up time, his dead eyes bulging with spectral envy."
 
 
The pub-cum-hotel was built in 1898/99 by C H Worley for Crocker – and no expense was spared with its construction. Worley's remit was brief, funds were limitless and his elaborate creative designs were paid for and implemented. It is said that 50 types of marble were used inside the building. As I recall it in the mid-80s it still had its superb fittings and a grand entrance and saloon with a sumptuous marble fireplace together with a long white marble-topped mahogany counter to the right – as described by Bruning. Just as impressive was the ornate ceiling in this room – and it was one of three (not two as mentioned) connected bars at this time. The public bar was pretty impressive in its own right, and accommodated bar billiards and darts. The spacious room to the left of the main room was originally a two-table billiard hall and later served as a restaurant (the grub on offer was nothing outstanding though). You could buy beer in the saloon and public bar in quart pots. I saw Dana Gillespie perform in the pub one Sunday night. She was brilliant.

In fact the CAMRA North London Beer Guide stated that Sunderland-based brewer Vaux acquired the Crown in 1984 and undertook a refurbishment programme that brought out all the opulent and luxurious splendour of the Victorian building. The Grade II*-listed venue is included in The CAMRA National Inventory (2003) of pub interiors with outstanding historic interest.  

In reality the truth is a much less dramatic than any story of hotel building in anticipation of the railways and subsequent financial windfall. Frank Crocker died in his bed of natural causes at the age of 41 in 1904 and at the time was a respected member of the community. The suicide tale was thought to be invented by the new owner who had an over active imagination and was probably trying to make a name for the bar (in 1985?). The rail route to north west London had already been excavated and known several years (1894) before Crocker's construction of the Crown in 1899.


*Regent Inns was the parent company of Walkabout, Jongleurs/Bar Risa and Old Orleans pub chains. It went into administration in October 2009.




 


Crocker's Folly (Crown)
St John's Wood,
LONDON,
NW8 8JR

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.