The Black Bear or Ye Olde Black Bear is at the northern end of the town on the junction with the High Street, Bredon Road and the Mythe road to the River Avon. It is thought that the building was once a toll-house for travellers using St John’s Bridge. The Black Bear, reputedly built in 1308, is a strong contender for the title of Gloucestershire’s oldest inn. However, radio-carbon dating of the interior wooden beams at the Porch House (Grapevine Hotel) in Stow on the World has indicated that they could date to 987 AD. It is generally considered that Ye Olde Black Bear has traded as a pub continuously for a longer period. The bulk of the timber framing at the Black Bear dates from the 16th century, although a great deal of the exterior is of late 19th and early 20th century.
Although no written records have been found to verify the fact, it has often been suggested that William Shakespeare performed at Ye Olde Black Bear. Tewkesbury does get a mention in one of his plays, and the Bard most likely travelled through the town with a troupe of travelling players – possibly on the way to Gloucester from Stratford on Avon. It seems incredulous to think that if William Shakespeare did perform at the inn, it was then a new building. Just maybe he was invited to put on a play when it first came into existence in 1308.
The lounge bar was one of the inns stables built in 1442 when the charge for stabling was a penny a day for three horses. One room was used as a field hospital during the battle for Tewkesbury in 1481.
The Tewkesbury Brewery are listed as the owners of the Black Bear in 1891. According to the licensing records it was ‘tied for beer only’. In 1891 the annual rateable value of the alehouse was set at £32.0s.0d. The Tewkesbury Brewery Co. Ltd. (of the Original Brewery in Quay Street) were taken over by Arnold Perrett & Co. Ltd. of Wickwar in 1896. The Tewkesbury Brewery Company had been registered just six years previously in 1890, when they acquired Joseph Jupp of the Abbey Brewery in the town and carried on their brewing operations in the Original Brewery previously owned by James Wilkes Wilson.
In the intervening twelve years from 1891 until the next licensing records in 1903 the annual rateable value of Ye Old Black Bear had more than doubled from £32.0s.0d. to £72.0s.0d., a quite significant rise of forty pounds. Thomas Collins rebuilt the ground floor facing onto the High Street between 1890 and 1899 which explains the discrepancy.
It was in the pub garden that the business of Bayliss & Merrell was located. Bayliss & Merrell were, according to an advert, ‘importers and dealers of foreign wines and spirits.’ They were established in 1750 and were offered for auction on 27th April 1921. The sale included two public houses – the Nottingham Arms in the High Street (still trading pre Covid-19 2020) and the Seven Stars in Upton on Severn. It is even possible that Bayliss & Merrell brewed beer in their premises behind the Black Bear. The garden of Ye Olde Black Bear was also once occupied by stabling and outhouses of which the Gaze Diary is known to have been sited.
After the Wickwar Brewery of Arnold, Perrett & Co. Ltd. were acquired by the Cheltenham Original Brewery in 1924 the Old Black Bear had a long term association with the Cheltenham Brewery, becoming tied to Cheltenham & Hereford Breweries, West Country Breweries and Whitbread Flowers. A West Country Ales ‘Best in the West’ colourful ceramic plaque of the late 1950’s / early 1960’s is still in situ.
The sign of the Bear, shackled by a chain to a tree, is thought to be the crest of the Beauchamp family, Lords of the Manor of Tewkesbury, and was adopted for the inn by one of the family members.
A booklet called ‘Gloucestershire Inns’ published in 1924 has the following description: ‘Tewkesbury, although much smaller than Gloucester, is a close rival in the matter of ancient and historic inns. By far the oldest of these is the picturesque Black Bear, which has had a continuous existence since 1422. abutting a main street, close by the town end of St John’s Bridge, for generations it afforded entertainment to an unending stream of pilgrims and traders, though the landlord now is obliged to speed the majority of his parting guests at closing time. The building’s exterior half-timber work is pleasing, but the heavy oak beams in the interior are much more so. The inn’s sign, in which a black bear, standing upright and with a chain around his neck, is conspicuous, evidently was painted by an artist of no mean ability.’
A 19th century leather ceiling was added during the 19th century by an Italian craftsman who was working on the abbey.
The Black Bear was sold in September 1991. It was one of the pubs in the Whitbread estate to be sold under the ruling of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Although scheduled to be sold at public auction it was sold by private treaty beforehand.
Devenish Pub Co owned the Old Black Bear in the early 1990’s. Devenish, once a regional brewer with breweries in Weymouth and Redruth, were in turn taken over by Greenalls in 1993 (another pub company based in Warrington that had previously traded as Greenall Whitley & Co, a regional brewery)
‘Real Ale in Gloucestershire’, a 1996 booklet compiled for the Gloucestershire Branch of CAMRA described the Old Black Bear as a ‘rambling building with pleasant terrace overlooking River Avon’. At the time the three cask beers on offer were Tetley Walker Bitter, Greenalls Cask Bitter and Wadworth 6X.
In August 1998 owners Greenalls, a pub company (and ex brewery) based in Warrington, applied to Tewkesbury Borough Council for permission to extend the pub into the adjoining former rugby function room and bar as part of a £360,000 facelift. The owners also applied to change the name to ‘Ye Famous Olde Black Bear’ This was met by opposition from the town council who claimed that the extra wording was ‘superfluous, unnecessary, and out of keeping with the historic character of the building’. The chairman of Tewkesbury Civic Society said: “The reason I do not want it is because it is an historic building and the word ‘famous’ tends to relate to people like Madonna or Gary Glitter. Ye Olde Black Bear Inn is a lovely title as it is.” Permission to change the name was refused, as was the placement of 12 advertisements on the timber framed building.
The refurbished Ye Olde Black Bear reopened on March 10th 1999.
Greenalls were acquired by Scottish & Newcastle in 1999. S&N put up for sale 1,450 of their managed pubs in August 2003 in a £2.3 billion deal which included the Old Black Bear in the package. Scottish & Newcastle’s retail business were then acquired by the Spirit Group, an affiliate group of Punch Taverns. Spirit Group announced a £600,000 refurbishment project for the Old Black Bear in August 2005. The building had suffered with a leaky roof which needed between £50,000 and £60,000 to repair and the revamp also included new furniture, carpets, curtains and the installation of lighting. The front room was also set to be renovated and the beer garden landscaped.
When the planning application was submitted to Tewkesbury Borough Council a request was made to extend the opening hours until 2 am on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 1 am during the rest of the week. Despite 47 objections from residents, who expressed concerns about noise and anti-social behaviour, the extended hours were granted on the provision that there was no use of the outdoor area after 11 pm and a ban was put in place on drink discounts and promotions after 6 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Old Black Bear football team had a successful season in 2009/2010. The Gloucestershire Echo reported: ‘Not content with settling for promotion from the Evesham Sunday League fourth division, the all-conquering side added two cups and a national six-a-side tournament to their burgeoning trophy cabinet. The team also went through the entire 2009/10 season unbeaten in 90 minutes, with defeat only tasted after extra time and penalty kicks. They marched to the Division Four title in the Evesham Sunday League, winning all 17 of their games, scoring 117 goals. They followed that up with a 3-2 victory over Hop Pole Rovers in the Cheltenham Sunday Mirror final. And, still not content, local rivals Alderton were swept away 8-3 as the men from the Black Bear lifted the Evesham Charity Cup.’
In 2011 Ye Olde Black Bear was part of the Original Pub Company chain. An ‘eating out’ review in the Gloucestershire Echo commented that ‘the place does what it has probably done best for many years; provide excellent quality no-nonsense meals at reasonable prices, along with a wide range of drinks.’
In January 2015, the shareholders of Spirit Group accepted a takeover offer from Greene King of Bury St. Edmunds. The takeover was completed in June 2015 and the Old Black Bear became integrated into the rapidly expanding portfolio of Greene King pubs. The freehold of Ye Olde Black Bear was put on the market in July 2016 with an asking price of £450,000 plus VAT. A spokesman for the specialist licensing property agent acting on behalf of Greene King said: “Ye Olde Black Bear is a stunning historical property with considerable scope for experienced operators to further develop wet and dry sales.”
Graham and Luke Haynes purchased the pub early in 2017. Fully aware of the long history of Ye Olde Black Bear and having the passion to restore the building thoroughly and conduct the alterations in sympathy with its heritage dating back to 1308, a year was spent consulting local historians, town planners and architects before detailed plans were eventually submitted to Tewkesbury Borough Council in May 2018. When the Old Black Bear closed pending the extensive renovation work the Gloucestershire Echo expressed their concerns that the closure might be permanent as they were unable to contact the new owners. As a precautionary measure the Tewkesbury branch of the Campaign for Real Ale registered the pub as an Asset of Community Value with Tewkesbury Council. However, extensive renovation works are still proceeding. No date has been declared on its eventual re-opening, the Covid-19 pandemic obviously frustrating the rate of progress.
The Old Black Bear is reputedly haunted, and several apparitions have been seen. Perhaps the most documented ghost is that of the little old lady dressed in black, who used to sit in a corner of the old snug bar. Customers have been known to order a drink for the little old lady, only to find that she had mysteriously disappeared. A cleaner at the Black Bear in the early 1990’s said that she was aware of someone, or something, following her. When she was hugged by an invisible presence, she hurriedly left her job. Poltergeist activity has also affected the Old Black Bear. A set of old horseshoes that used to hang on the wall in the old restaurant allegedly was seen to fly off the wall, ending up several yards across the room without any apparent logical explanation. The recent refurbishment has gutted the interior of the pub. It will be interesting if the alleged hauntings resume when the works are finally completed.
From ‘Tewkesbury Pubs’ by B.R. Linnell (1972, second edition 1996)
Said to date from the 14th century and to be the oldest pub in Gloucestershire. It probably is. It is built on the ideal site for one, at the entrance to the town of two road routes and close to the river. Most of the timber frame is of early date but it should be noted that the High Street front of on the ground floor is the work of Thomas Collins c.1890. Part of the house, lately the lounge but now given over to the restaurant (1995) was until 1945 part of Gaze’s Dairy. A curious thing happened in the bar c.1990. Over the counter were three triple gas brackets, looked upon as decorative but obviously dating from conversion in 1945. One night in winter there was a power failure and candles were pressed into service. some optimist suggested using the gas. A pull on the chain and a match and Lo, there was light.
The bar gives into what is now the garden which is lawn set at a lower level than the floor of the restaurant, itself much lower than the rest of the house. Before the alterations of 1945 this level of the lawn was the floor of the dairy and, before that, of the Distillery. At times of high flood these cellars flooded and required frequent cleaning, During one such operation in the 1930’s one of the stone flooring slabs was found to be a trap which gave access to a lower cellar, off, which was a tunnel leading to the north. A fall of earth precluded any further investigation at that time, since when no exploration has taken place. The roof of this cellar is the present day lawn.
There were extensive alterations to the interior in 1993/94. The well-worn public bar was taken out and a new one installed in the area of the old stockroom. The leather ceiling, embossed with green and gilt fishes and astrology signs, was preserved intact. The wealth of sporting prints and caricatures are reproductions but a close examination of the ceiling beams will reveal some interesting items, Steps and passageways abound.
Until 1805 the ‘Bear’ was Borough property. In that year it was sold to Thomas Witherington – the deed of sale is in the Town Museum. For about 25 years from 1880 the house acquired a reputation for bad luck. One tenant was killed in a road accident, several went bankrupt and one widow wed too hastily a suitor who knew a good thing when he saw it. One bankrupt pinned his hopes of solvency on the sale of two family heirlooms, the scarf and telescope of Admiral Nelson. He was sadly disappointed. One third of the tenants since 1905 have been women.
The sign of the Bear and Ragged Staff is of recent origin. At the start of the 20th century the sign was a large hanging board depicting a chained bear. Until 1939 the present bear was “fed” hot-cross buns every Easter. Between the wars Bed & Breakfast here cost 6/6d nightly, a fair sum.
Landlords at Ye Olde Black Bear include:
1774-1817 William Hodges
1817-1820 Susannah Hodges (widow)
1820-1835 Samuel Estopp Turner
1835 Susannah Tandy
1840 Tom Scott
1841-1856 Joseph Pugh
1858 Henry Groves
1860-1862 George Blizard
1867 George Hathaway
1868 Richard Hathaway
1869 Robert Dudfield
1871 James Pearce
1872 W.T. Barlow
1876 Mrs Sophia Hodnotte
1876-1879 Charles Mather (bankrupt)
1879-1889 Hardy Lumb
1889-1897 Major Smith Homer (killed in road accident)
1897-1898 Mrs Agnes Homer (widow)
1898-1901 Agnes Lewis (was Agnes Homer – bankrupt)
1901-1902 Ernest Baldwin
1902-1904 Wilfred Ellis Barlow (bankrupt)
1904-1905 Frederick Smith
1905-1907 Mary Ann Ford
1907-1916 Ernest Cornish
1916-1921 John A. Simms
1921 Mrs Lucy Simms
1921-1922 Edward Oakley
1922-1923 Albert E. Sherwood
1923-1930 Robert Owen Millward
1930-1932 James Thomson
1932-1935 Frank Broomhall
1935-1936 William Lambert
1936-1940 Harry Beck
1940-1945 William Ray
1946-1963 Cyril Drew
1963-1964 Mrs M.E. Drew
1964-1979 Norman Drew
1979-1982 Joseph Kidd
1982-1983 C. Goode
1986-1987 David Webb
1987-1988 Tim Webb
1988-1989 Richard Tarran (Manager)
1991-1994 Jean Paul
1999,2000 Jean Claude and Helen Bourgeois (managers)
2000 Bill & Linds Niddrie
2003-2004 Chris and Lynn Furber
2004,2005 Paul Wallis
2011 Julie Begley (Pub Manager)