The Vigo Inn
An ever-present entry for most of CAMRA’s lifetime, this roadside pub closed its doors for the last time on 31 October 2014. Despite widespread local opposition, Tonbridge & Malling BC subsequently granted planning permission for conversion to residential accommodation, thereby consigning over 500 years as a welcoming and idiosyncratic hostelry to the history books.
Allegedly there has been a pub on this site since 1471, and parts of the existing buildings are said to date from that time. First known as the “Upper Drovers,” it was given its present name by a sailor returning from the 1702 Battle of Vigo Bay when England & Holland fought Spain in the War of the Spanish Succession. The sailor used his share of the treasure, captured during the English victory to purchase the inn.
The Battle of Vigo Bay was a naval engagement fought on 23 October 1702 during the opening years of the War of the Spanish Succession. The engagement followed an Anglo-Dutch attempt to capture the Spanish port of Cádiz in September in an effort to secure a naval base in the Iberian Peninsula. From this station, the Allies had hoped to conduct operations in the western Mediterranean Sea, particularly against the French at Toulon. The amphibious assault, however, had proved a disaster, but as Admiral George Rooke retreated home in early October, he received news that the Spanish treasure fleet from America, laden with silver and merchandise, had entered Vigo Bay in northern Spain. Philips van Almonde convinced Rooke to attack the treasure ships, despite the lateness of the year and the fact that the vessels were protected by French ships-of-the-line.
The engagement was an overwhelming naval success for the Allies: the entire French escort fleet, under the command of Château-Renault, together with the Spanish galleons and transports under Manuel de Velasco, had either been captured or destroyed. Yet because most of the treasure had been offloaded before the attack, capturing the bulk of the silver cargo had eluded Rooke. Nevertheless, the victory was a welcome boost to Allied morale and had helped persuade the Portuguese King, Peter II, to abandon his earlier treaty with the French, and join the Grand Alliance.
Despite most of the treasure having been unloaded before the battle, the British fleet still made a good haul. The Master of the Mint, Isaac Newton, stated in June 1703 that the total metal handed in to him by that date was 4504 lb 2 oz of silver (just over 2,000 kg), and 7 lb 8 oz and 13 cwt of gold (about 3.4 kg), estimated at a value of £14,000.
The property now known as the Vigo Inn was built in 1471 or thereabouts and for a century or two, was a posting house on the road to Gravesend. The back door was as wide as to allow wet horse cloths and rugs to be brought into the kitchen and dried round one of the three chimney corners. Such an inn as the Vigo and in such a location, was resultantly subject to all the excursions and alarums of that period, and it is not strange to hear that when the roof was being reconstructed in the 1930s, that a small chamber or hide-out was found between the inner and outer walls of the tap chimney. Whether this was, as the romantics have it, a smugglers cache, or as stated by the realists, a place where a good citizen could hide from the press gangs operating from Chatham and Gravesend, we know not. It may certainly, given its long history, been used for many purposes both legal and illegal.
There was an old toll gate across the road that has long since been demolished, but it is commemorated in a footpath that by-passed it, known locally as ‘Savepenny Lane’ since it is said to have been used by drovers to avoid toll payment.
The Vigo is a ‘hall’-type inn, as is common in very old houses; the bar is more or less in front of the door, while the taproom and other bars run out from it, thus enabling the landlord to keep a roving eye on the needs of all classes of patron simultaneously.
In 1930 the pub was taken over by the Ashwell family. During the Second World War Mr. & Mrs. Ashwell were host to many of the servicemen from both the Wrotham pre-officer cadet training camp (on the site of the present Vigo Village), and air force personnel from the Battle of Britain West Malling Air Station (now Kings Hill).
After the death of her husband Vernon in 1970, Mrs Lillian Ashwell ran the pub for many years herself. She was a formidable but very popular local character. She became the first lady president of a rugby club in England, when in 1968 some pub regulars formed Vigo RFC, whose first matches were held in the field at the back of the pub. Although long since moved to their own ground at Swanswood Field, the memory of Lillian Ashwell is still held in high regard at the rugby club.
Another game played at the pub is that of Dadlums. This is an old English game of table skittles, and the 1966 Watney Book of Pub Games lists the Vigo Inn as one of the few venues where the game was played. The pub boasted one of the last remaining Dadlums tables in the country, thought to be over 150 years old.
At the time of her death in 1982 aged 81, Lillian Ashwell had been working behind the bar for 52 years and was possibly the oldest working landlady in the UK. The Vigo Inn passed to Mrs Ashwell’s son & daughter in law, Peter & Peta. A few changes were made including an interior refurbishment, but the essential character of the place was not altered. It even became one of the first No Smoking pubs in Kent, before the Government’s UK wide ban was introduced.
The following list of licensees has been compiled from various sources, including Post Office registers and Census returns.
JEAL, Jeremiah (born 1771 – died 1854)
In the 1841 Census the Victualler of the Vigo Inn is listed as Jeremiah Jeal aged 70 years. It is probable that he had been the landlord of the pub for many years before that but no record of this has yet been found. Also living there were his daughter Ann aged 25, her husband Stephen Manley (a wheelwright and their two young daughters Elizabeth and Frances (who would go on to run the pub herself).
Ten years later in 1851 Jeremiah was still the Victualler but was also recorded as a farmer of 63 acres with 3 labourers. His daughter, Ann and husband Stephen were still resident but now had 5 children including a 5 year old John Manley who would become landlord when he grew up.
This was, however, a time of change at the Vigo with three deaths in three years (Jeremiah aged 83 in 1854, Ann aged 41 in 1855 and Stephen aged 46 in 1856)
MANLEY, Frances (born 1837 – died before 1891)
The 1861 Census shows a 23 year old Frances listed as head of Household and Victualler. She had a 20 year old sister (Mary) and two school age sisters living with her. Also listed are a 54 year old Ostler, William Boakes and a lodger .John Manley was by now 15 and was an Apprentice to a carpenter in Peckham, London. Frances was either innkeeper or Assistant innkeeper of the Vigo until her marriage aged 48 in 1886. There is no record of her in the 1891 Census so she may have died shortly after she was married.
MANLEY, John (born 1846 – died 1925)
By 1871 John was 25 years old and had completed his Apprenticeship. He lived at the Vigo from 1871 (or before) until some time after 1901 He was recorded in the 1871 Census as ‘Carpenter and Innkeeper’ and his sisters, Frances and Eliza are listed as Assistant Innkeepers.William Boakes is still the Ostler.
In 1881 john had been married to Sarah for 6 years and had 3 young children. He records himself as a carpenter employing 6 men so business must have been booming. His older sister, Frances is the Innkeeper and the Ostler is now 62 year old Solomon Crowhurst.
By 1891 John is still Carpenter and Innkeeper but Frances is no longer on the scene. John has his wife and 6 children living there. His sister Eliza was also there as a Barmaid but had been widowed and had a 7 year old son Marmaduke Romans. His wife’s mother , Harriet Judges 80 was also resident. The Ostler/Groom was now 27 year old George Needham.
The 1901 Census still shows John as Carpenter and innkeeper with his sister, Eliza Romans, as Barmaid. His wife and 4 children are resident. By 1911 John and Sarah were 65 and 66 and had moved to Corner Farm in Fairseat. He died aged 79 in 1925 and Sarah died aged 89 in 1934.
LIVERSAGE, Robert William (born 1869) + (age 42 in 1911)
The 1911 Census shows 42 year old Robert Liversage as Licenced Victualler with his wife Flora also 42. It had been a career change for Robert for 10 years previously he had been a Commercial Clerk. His wife’s unmarried sister, Isabel Lewis (44) is listed as ‘Assisting in Business’.
LEWIS, George Charles
It is not known, although it seems probable, that George Lewis was related to Isabel above. He is listed in a Trade Directory published in 1913 and being the Landlord of the Vigo Inn. By 1918 he was a ‘Beer Retailer’ but was no longer living at the Vigo.
The record is not crystal clear but Walter Atkins seems to have become the Landlord in 1922.
ASHWELL, Vernon Stuart (1892 – 1991)
In 1930 the pub was taken over by the Ashwell family. During the Second World War Mr & Mrs Ashwell were host to many of the servicemen from both the Wrotham pre-officer cadet training camp (on the site of the present Vigo Village), and air force personnel from the Battle of Britain West Malling Air Station (now Kings Hill).
ASHWELL, Lillian 1972 – 1982 (her death) (aged 81 in 1982)
After the death of her husband Vernon in 1970, Mrs Lillian Ashwell ran the pub until she herself died in 1982 People remember her as a formidable but very popular local character. She became the first lady president of a rugby club in England, when in 1968 some pub regulars formed Vigo RFC, whose first matches were held in the field at the back of the pub. Although long since moved to their own ground at Swanswood Field, the memory of Lillian Ashwell is still held in high regard at the club. At the time of her own death in 1982 aged 81, Lillian Ashwell had been working behind the bar for 52 years and was possibly the oldest working landlady in the UK.
ASHWELL, Peter (son of Vernon and Lillian and ex BOAC pilot)
The Vigo Inn passed to Mrs Ashwell’s son & daughter in law, Peter & Peta. A few changes were made including an interior refurbishment, but the essential character of the place was not altered.
The following section includes historical recollections of the Vigo Inn from local residents.
Joyce Lindsey lived in Stansted from 1921 to 1937 and recalls:
”While we were in Fairseat we sometimes went on as far as the Wrotham to Gravesend Road to the Vigo pub held by uncle Stephen’s parents. His father was a master carpenter and did a lot of work for Joe and Frank Hills the builders for whom uncle Stephen worked, and by a strange quirk of fate, a pile of the ancient ‘day’ books have come into my possession and some dated 1879 (these are going into the Maidstone museum unless anyone else is interested). They show such ridiculous prices for jobs done and not all jobs being carpentry.
Granny Manley, my cousin’s granny not mine, ran the pub while Grandfather worked away out in the back in his shop. I used to go and play amongst the long curls of wood when he had been planing tree trunks and turning them into planks. How laborious it all sounds now but of course so much change, as in medicine, has been for the good of mankind.”
Editor’s note: The gentleman with the white beard is most likely John Manley, 1846 – 1925, and if so, the woman is not his mother as she died in 1855 when John was 9 years old. The woman is more likely to be his wife Sarah (nee Judges) 1844 – 1934. Also, John had no younger brothers – but he did have 4 sons born between 1880 and 1888. If John is 64 years old in the photo his wife would be 66 and his oldest son, Stephen, would be 30, and his second-oldest son, Charles, would have been 28.
The following is an extract of a transcript of recorded interviews with Mrs. K G ‘Grisell’ Pasteur undertaken by Adrien Sturgeon in 1994 covering her recollections of 60 years in Fairseat.
ADRIEN Oh yes, indeed. Now, Vernon is the son of Lilian and is an ex-BOAC pilot.
GRISELL Yes, Vernon is Lilian’s son. Vernon hasn’t got a son, as far as I know.
ADRIEN I remember Lillian as a widow. Her husband used to…
GRISELL Her husband was the licensee (of the Vigo Inn) – I never knew him.
ADRIEN What was his name? Do you remember?
GRISELL He was Vernon too, I think. … I never knew him. Lillian was the licensee when I came here.
ADRIEN In case for later generations who listen to this, when we use the word Vigo we don’t mean Vigo Village, we mean The Vigo Inn – the public house on the Gravesend Road on the corner of the hill going down to Trottiscliffe.
GRISELL We mean the Vigo Inn that was named after the Battle of Vigo Bay (I think it was in the Peninsula War) and used to be called the Upper Drovers. A sailor came back from the navy with his bounty in his pocket and I suppose he had a very cheery drink with his mates in the Upper Drovers and said “I’d like to build a new inn and we’ll call it The Vigo”.
ADRIEN I gather that one – the Pilgrim House – at the bottom [on the left of the hill just before the sharp right turn towards Trottiscliffe] was called ‘The Lower Drovers’.
GRISELL Yes, that was called The Lower Drovers – I don’t think he had anything to with that. Of course, they came through here on their way to Romney Marsh, droving sheep along the road. I lived in Sussex in the same sort of area as we are here, only further south, Heathfield, and I can remember every year about the end of April, beginning of May, there would be pattering feet at 6 o’clock in the morning – and baaing sheep and lambs – and they were all being driven along to Romney Marsh. It was quite a sight actually. Seeing all these sheep being hustled along the roads by these sheepdogs.
ADRIEN Of course, that was one reason for some not-quite-correctly-named dew ponds, which still exist along this road – such as the one at the top of Stansted Hill and, possibly, the one in the village here.
The pub closed in 2009, and many locals thought the time had finally been called for this historic local landmark. The venue was subsequently re-launched in early 2011 as an entertainment pub with a range of live bands, together with open mic evenings and acoustic nights. Unfortunately, many local residents became unhappy with the level of music coming from the venue which held a number of live events and between 2010 and 2014 more than 50 complaints were made to the council who served an abatement notice in 2013. The Vigo Inn closed permanently on 31 October 2014 when Tonbridge and Malling Council granted permission for the property to become a residential dwelling. By early 2018 the property had been converted into 2 properties: Vigo House (nearest to Vigo Hill); and Vigo Cottage (furthest from Vigo Hill).
The following video features the Hartley Morris Men performing at the Vigo Inn in 2013.
Note: Further information on the history of the Stansted Morris Men can be found under the ‘Groups‘ page of the website.
Video footage courtesy of Andrew Blockley.