Artist and pub enthusiast Timothea Armour joined us at The Farmer’s Arms as an Artist-in-Residence on our ‘Give Some: Get Some’ residency programme. Delving into local archives and the community’s memories Timothea spent her time with us unpicking some of the multi-layered history of what some say is the oldest pub in Cumbria…
The Farmer’s Arms is sort of like an archive. Different documents from its different lives will tell you who was here and what they were doing. Some black and white photographs of The Stable Bar, easily recognisable in the (50s?), seem to suggest that things haven’t changed much for a while. The barcoded Star Pubs & Bars labels on the kitchen equipment are a reminder that it really has.
In the Archive Centre in Barrow, the pub is present as a legal entity as well as a collection of land and buildings. There, it appears first in 1839, densely handwritten into being on a massive bit of parchment, with four wax seals and no pictures. To save you having to unfold the thing, someone’s written on the outside of the folded document; ‘Conveyance of a Beer House, Gardens and Premises at Lane Head near Spark Bridge in the manor of Egton cum Newlands, County Lancaster’.
The name Farmers’ Arms doesn’t appear until the very late 1800s – on the 1886 Register of Licenses (a leather bound volume, landscape with fields going across each spread, reminiscent of a B&B guestbook), it’s just a beer house at Lane Head, with a license held by Margaret Wilson. Sometime in the 1890s, it joins nine other licensed premises in the division of Lonsdale North with the name Farmers’ Arms. There aren’t any convictions against licensing laws listed against her name or any other Wilson family members who appear in the registers over the years, unlike some of her peers who’re up to things like ‘permitting drunkenness on the premises’, ‘adulterating gin’ and ‘harbouring a police officer whilst on duty’.
Reading through the long list of pubs is a meditation on place and convention. It’s repetitive, mostly unsurprising – if you were given the list without context, you’d probably know it was a list of pub names – with moments of local specificity. Horse and Jockey, The Ship Inn, Machell’s Arms, Anglers’ Arms, Britannia Inn, Royal Oak, Red Lion, Harrison’s Arms, Black Lion, Bee Hive, Wellington Hotel. It might seem odd that the name The Farmer’s Arms was picked when there were already (at least) eight others in the surrounding area. But maybe it’s not so much a name to distinguish it from its neighbours as a descriptive label; it’s a pub on what had historically been a farm and it’s surrounded by farming communities. Someone I was speaking to in the pub the evening after visiting the archive suggested that the number of Farmers’ Arms might be accounted for by the need for places for drovers to stop off enroute to and from markets and that the name could have been an indication that the inn was suitable for that cliental. Local convention must count for something too as there’s actually a concentration of pubs called The Farmer’s Arms in the Lake district, compared to the rest of the UK (although there are other concentrations of Farmers’ Arms along the Welsh border.) Some of the other popular names on the list are ones that make the top ten nationwide – the Rose and Crown, Red Lion and Royal Oak.
In 1934, the surname of the licensee changes for the first time in nearly a hundred years, from Wilson to Carruthers. Not being an expert in the history of planning law, I wasn’t able to deduce if the documents relating to their tenure at the pub were because it was around this time that planning departments were formed or if it’s because they were the ones who transformed the place from a beer house on a farm to a leisure venue and a destination in its own right. The latter matches up with accounts from local residents whose history is in the area. Included in the documents are plans for the traditional spinning gallery that I’d heard about from Wendy across the road, whose father was one of the labourers who built it. Described on the planning application in 1936 as an ‘old world gallery’, it mimics a traditional feature of Lakes farm architecture, a kind of porch on the first floor of a building, apparently convincingly enough that Wendy’s friend, a keen art historian, thought it was original. The plans are hand drawn, cloth backed and kept in brown paper envelopes. The designation ‘old world’, written on the form that’s stapled to them, suggests that the Carruthers knew that in the 1930s, post World War I, they were appealing to a sense of rural tradition that was searched for by holidaymakers from cities. In 1938, they bought the neighbouring three fields for £480. The next planning document, for some extensions to the ground floor of the pub, is from 1939 and appears to be the first time the public areas of the building had a ladies toilet. That was the order of priorities for the Carruthers brothers, who were frame makers and antiquarians.
The last document I found is a black and white photograph of the outside of the pub, taken from the junction in the road it sits at. The archive has it dated to c.1950. This would have been around the time that Scottish and Newcastle Breweries acquired the pub. It’s taken on a wet day – the grey stone looks dark and there are puddles on the road. The damp-looking gable end faces the camera, not giving away much about what kinds of work and leisure were going on inside.
*All images courtesy of Cumbria Archive Centre (Barrow) – BDHJ/357/11/15, BSRDNL/3/1584, BTMAGNL/3*