A swift pint in Mary’s front room, or, the Brickmaker’s Arms in 1839

The Brickmaker’s Arms on Station Road in Balsall Common, close to Berkswell Station, has been a very popular local pub for more than 150 years. It hasn’t always had the olde-worlde brick-and-beam look it has today – that was the result of a refurbishment in 1916, which removed the plaster casing visible in the left-hand picture below and added the large porch that is still the main entrance today. As one local newspaper remarked,

Visitors to Berkswell may speculate as to what has happened to the Brickmaker’s Arms Inn. They may remember seeing from the station a whitened building, standing halfway up the hill, with large lettering announcing that certain ales, etc., were the best. There is now an ancient, half-timbered inn in its stead. (Coventry Standard, 8 Sep. 1916: 8).

Another newspaper provided further context:

Two sides, as long as the oldest inhabitants remember, were hidden under plaster, and it was while steps were recently being taken to repair this coat that the discovery was made underneath of old oak beams and the narrow bricks which go back at least a century… The inn appears to have been a private residence 40 or 50 years back, and while so occupied had the plaster concealment (Coventry Herald, 8 Sep. 1916: 5)

The left-hand photograph below shows the pub before the renovation. The signage reveals it was taken between 1901 and 1905, when Birmingham-born Fletcher Beioley was landlord. Beioley was a painter and decorator by trade, and the smaller sign on the right of the pub’s facade shows he continued this business from the pub during his four years in charge.

The Coventry Herald was correct; the Brickmaker’s Arms had indeed been a private residence, for many years. At the time of the 1839 Tithe Apportionment and for a long time before that, it was the home of the Watson family. On the night of the 1841 census, the house – presumably looking very similar to the older photograph above, albeit without the signage – was occupied by William Watson, a farmer aged 75 and his sister, Mary Lancaster, aged 60. William and Mary were the youngest surviving children of yeoman farmer Henry Watson and his wife Mary Satchwell. They had inherited the house in 1835 from their older brother John Watson, who had inherited it from their father when he died in 1827 at the venerable age of 94. He in turn had inherited it from his father, also Henry Watson, when he died in 1766.

The Watson brothers were lifelong bachelors who looked out for their little sister. Mary had married an agricultural labourer called Abraham Lancaster in 1801, but the marriage seems not to have been a success. The 1841 and 1851 censuses show the couple living apart, Mary with brother William and Abraham about five miles away in Knowle. Mary had money of her own after 1827, when she inherited £50 from her father (he left Abraham the derisory sum of one shilling). From 1835, she owned half the family estate, as her brother John was very clear in his will that the half-share going to Mary was ‘for her sole and separate use independent of her husband’ and ‘not subject or liable to the debts, forfeitures, intermeddling or engagements of her said husband in any manner whatsoever.’ William too, on his death in 1853 left everything to Mary and very explicitly excluded Abraham.

The building that is now the Brickmaker’s Arms was for more than a century home to the Watson family. What is now the pub’s front room, in the oldest part of the building, was most likely a family living space. It has a large cast-iron fireplace and a built-in china cupboard with a glass door to display the china (see below). Visiting the pub for the first time since learning about the Watsons was strangely moving. I’ve no idea how long the cupboard has been there, but it felt like a tangible connection to the Watsons’ everyday family life. It is easy to imagine Mary, and her mother and grandmother before her, reaching in to get their china out for afternoon tea, or spending a quiet Sunday afternoon taking it out to dust and placing it carefully back in again.

William and Mary left their family home in 1846 when William retired. Obviously looking to downsize, they auctioned off all their farming equipment and part of their household furniture, including

two very useful IN-CALF COWS, part of a rick of Prime Old HAY … Carts, Tackle, Tools, Bags, sweet Iron-bound Casks… Four-post and other Bedsteads and Hangings, Feather Beds, Clock in Oak Case, Oak Chest of Drawers and Tables, SINGLE-BARREL GUN, 50-gallon Copper, and a general assortment of Dairy and Culinary Requisites (Coventry Standard, 18 Sep. 1846: 1).

Having thus downsized, they moved to a new property in Balsall, where the 1851 census finds them aged 89 and 77 respectively, William now giving his occupation as ‘retired farmer.’ William died in March 1853, leaving Mary their shared home – a copyhold estate in Balsall. Mary survived her brother by four years, dying at Balsall in October 1857 at the age of 83.

The Watson family now rest in two graves in a shady corner of Berkswell churchyard. Mary has a gravestone to herself which describes her as ‘Mary Lancaster, only daughter of Henry Watson’ – no mention for Abraham, who predeceased her by two years and is buried at Knowle. Mary’s parents and three older brothers share a stone behind her. It is touching to see that even in death the Watson boys have their sister’s back.

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