In 1830 Anthony Major was the occupying landlord of the Suffolk Arms in Commercial Road, which is now known as Suffolk Road. He may have been the first landlord as the earliest recorded date of the Suffolk Arms is in 1824. In both the 1891 and 1903 licensing documents the Suffolk Arms was owned ‘by the Trustees of John Major’. The family relationship of Anthony and John is presumably father and son, but the reference to John Major inevitably conjures up an image of a Conservative Prime Minister!
The Suffolk Arms was licensed as an ale house. The annual rateable value was £38.5s.0d. in 1891 inexplicitly decreasing by four pounds and five shillings to £34.0s.0d. in 1903. In 1903 the Nailsworth Brewery Company had secured the lease from the trustees. Cheltenham Original Brewery acquired the lease (and possibly ownership) of the Suffolk Arms just five years later in 1908 following the amalgamation with the Nailsworth Brewery. The association with the Cheltenham Brewery continued throughout change of ownership from Cheltenham Original Brewery, Cheltenham & Hereford, West Country Breweries and ultimately to Whitbread Flowers. A reminder of the brewery heritage is a ‘West Country Ales – 1760 – Best in the West’ ceramic plaque that is still in situ on the front of the pub.
The Campaign for Real Ale described the Suffolk Arms in 1996 in ‘Real Ale in Gloucestershire’ as a ‘friendly, comfortable single-bar local on outer ring road popular with lunch-time office workers. At the time of their research there were four real ales on offer – Whitbread Flowers Original, Boddington’s Bitter, Draught Bass and Wickwar Brand Oak Bitter.
The Suffolk Arms had built up a reputation for its range of Thai dishes to suit all tastes in the 2000’s. An ‘eating out’ review in the Gloucestershire Echo in May 2006 commented that the Suffolk Arms was an ‘old-style beer and skittles pub’ that stood ‘head and shoulders above the competition’ because of the food. The reviewer concluded that ‘it was a great meal in a great pub with a buzzing atmosphere – partly due to the skittles teams fighting it out in the back room.’
In 2011 the Gloucestershire Echo launched a campaign to ‘Save Our Pubs’ with their manifesto promising to fight moves to transform valued community pubs into housing, supporting communities to run their pubs, campaigning for a relaxation of the pub tie between landlords and large pub companies and encouraging more people to support their local pub to protect them for future generations. The Suffolk Arms signed up to ‘Save Our Pubs’ and on Good Friday 2011 landlord Alan Meadon hosted a pamper evening to raise funds for Cheltenham Animal Centre. He told the ‘Echo, “We had about 100 people through the doors which was great. There were stalls for reflexology, massage and cakes.” He added, “It is good to get people in because once they come in and see it, they might be tempted to come back. We are surviving but we have to put a lot of hours into making it work.”
The Gloucestershire Echo continued to support local businesses in their 2014 initiative called ‘Know Cheltenham’. It lamented that only a handful of old-fashioned pubs survived in the town, ‘the places where you can get a clear pint of real ale, a pickled egg and maybe a game of skittles.’ Alan Meaden of the Suffolk Arms said, “We get so many people who come to us and tell us we are one of the last proper pubs in the town. It’s just a place where people from any walk of life can come in and socialise over a drink. We never get any rowdiness or anything like that and we don’t do cheap drinks offers like some other places do. It’s just the kind of place where everyone gets along, whatever background they are from.”
The Suffolk Arms is owned by the Ei Group, previously known as Enterprise Inns. In March 2016 the existing lease on the property expired, but rather than offer it for sale Ei Group decided to take the opportunity to close it for a full refurbishment. Their vision was to reopen it as a Bermondsey Pub, part of their Managed Operations Portfolio. They proclaimed that the pub would reopen as soon as possible with an exciting new food menu offering fresh pizzas, salads and sharing platters of British and Continental charcuterie and cheese. Alan and his wife Rita had notice to leave the Suffolk Arms, and resigning to the fact Alan said: “There’s no way to fight this. It’s in the lease, if they’re going to run it or sell it they can take it over. The big companies like this, you can’t beat it.”
An application was submitted to Cheltenham Borough Council in April 2017 for removal of the skittle alley and conservatory to the back of the building to create space for a paved courtyard. There were also plans for ventilation for a special pizza oven and changes to the exterior including new lighting. Concerned residents feared that intrusive bright lighting could be an issue and that the removal of the conservatory to create an outside drinking area had the potential to increase noise levels. The plans were given the green light and the new look Suffolk Arms reopened on Thursday 17th August 2017.
To begin with the reviews were positive. One customer commented on Trip Advisor in August 2019 that the new look Suffolk Arms was a ‘Fantastic pub, friendly staff and great atmosphere, food is amazing and pizza well what can I say “The BEST in Cheltenham. well done to Neil and the team.’ However one review on Trip Advisor in February 2020 was far from enthusiastic: ‘Looks like the owners want to run this place into the ground and sell it off to builders! Another new Landlord! The place has gone to the dogs, this was a quality establishment. You need good staff and management to make a place like this work, but I guess the owners just want to cash it in’
Just before the enforced lock down of pubs and the entire hospitality sector in March 2020, due to the potential spread of Covid-19, the Suffolk Arms Facebook Page posted this message: ‘Tonight is the last night to party so let’s make it a good one and go out with a bang, come on down to the Suffolk arms for just that.’
The lease of the Suffolk Arms is up for sale again with Ei Partnerships (as of time of writing in August 2020). The details state: ‘Fully refurbished only a few years ago, the Suffolk Arms is located in the very popular “Suffolks” area of the Montpellier district of Cheltenham. Established in 1824, originally as a Coach-House, the pub has long been a popular meeting place for the locals and visitors to the area. The internal trading area is open plan with upmarket décor. Upon entering the pub you are welcomed by the central bar servery and main bar area. To the right of the bar is an area described as “the canteen” which comprises an open commercial kitchen and furniture to seat approximately 50 covers. This is an excellent opportunity for either an experienced publican or energetic entrepreneur; the development of a great food menu, drinks choice and a great service will be key to making the Suffolk Arms a success.’
Despite the changes in fortunes of the Suffolk Arms it is reassuring that throughout its history of it being a pub it has always kept the same identity.
Landlords at the Suffolk Arms include:
1830 Anthony Major (Suffolk Arms, Commercial Road)
1840,1842 Thomas John King, jnr. (emigrated to Australia in 1855)
1856 J. Weeden
1858 John Enson
1859 William Ensor
1878,1885 George Clarke
1891 William Dighton Simmonds
1902 Edward Paine
1903 Charles Henry Greenall
1906 Herbert John Harris
1919 Ernest Charles Cresswell
1926,1939 Edward Simpson (an erroneous record in 1927 of Edward Limpson)
1999 – 2017 Alan and Rita Meaden
2017 Neil Ingram (manager)