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The White Hart, Brentwood

The White Hart in the centre of Brentwood’s High Street is the town's most historic pub.
Richard II emblem
The White Hart is an ancient coaching inn which dates back to at least 1480. Richard II is known to have passed through Brentwood in 1392 and it is likely that he stayed at this inn, and since Richard’s crest was the White Hart, it seems probable that this is how the inn was given its name. During Richard’s reign, Parliament passed an act requiring all sellers of ale to put up a pictorial sign so that ale-conners (the trading standards officers of their day) could recognise the establishment - and test the quality of the product.

The pub consists of a cobble-stoned courtyard surrounded by timber-framed buildings where horses were stabled.

White Hart yard 1880
Above the stables are first floor galleries dating from the 15th century, which have given the building the status of a Grade II* listed building, which means it is of national importance architecturally.

The White Hart was the principal inn in the town for the coaches passing through to and from London. The White Hart ran its own regular coach to London, stopping over at the Blue Boar, Whitechapel, and a daily coach to Bury St. Edmunds. The White Hart’s coaches were manned by postillions wearing a distinctive red uniform – it was common in those times for the uniform of the post-boys to represent the Inn from which they came. Other coaches stopped there as well, for example in 1764 a coach would stop at the White Hart Inn mid way through its bone rattling 10 hour journey from London to Ipswich so that people could have a break and something to eat, and stretch their legs.


White Hart yard circa 1891


The fact that the White Hart was such a significant feature of the road system often worked to the benefit of the townspeople in unexpected ways. Traders travelling from the coast to London to sell their goods would sometimes find the roads impassable in bad weather. They would push on to Brentwood, in the knowledge that a bed and hot food would be waiting for them at the Inn; but if the bad weather continued they would sometimes have to accept that they were not going to get all the way to London, and instead sell their wares in the town. Perishable goods, such as fish, were sometimes sold off for a fraction of their usual price.

Other services provided from the White Hart included 'post-horses' (changes of horses) charged at 4.5d a mile for one horse, 1 shilling for a pair and 1 shilling and 9d for four horses (according to the ‘Universal Directory’ of 1793); and post-chaises could be hired at 9d a mile. By the 1820s the road networks were improving and the average speed expected of a 4-horse coach would be 10 miles an hour, including time for stoppages and changing horses.

In 1826 the White Hart Inn consisted of: 14 bedrooms over the bars downstairs, and stalls for 26 horses, a post-house stable for 12 horses, a loose box for hunters, coach houses with room for three carriages, and corn granaries and piggeries. By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837, running a coaching inn was a substantial and profitable enterprise. The roads were getting busier; as the quality of the roads improved people had more confidence in their ability to arrive at their destination in a reasonable time, and so travel for both trade and pleasure was on the increase. The nearby Shenfield tollgate recorded 176 coaches and carriages, 24 post horses and 13 saddle horses passing through in a single day, and by John Larkin’s time (1850-1926) at least 40 coaches a day stopped at the White Hart.

Coaches of this time did not just transport travellers and mail, they were used to transport all manner of wares: fish, game, poultry; machinery, military equipment, linen; with heavy goods taken in stagewagons - huge things driven by 6 or 8 horses, or even 10 or 12 horses in snowy conditions.

At this time, the White Hart was a tied house controlled by the Ongar brewer George Williams. As well as serving the needs of travellers, the White Hart was a popular meeting place for local toffs - a gentleman’s club is recorded as meeting there in 1713. Justices of the Peace held their sittings there in preference to the old Assizes building. After a gas company was founded in 1834, the first ever gas lights to be lit in Brentwood were lighted at a celebratory dinner in the White Hart. In 1854, after the laying of the first stone of the Essex Lunatic Asylum the local civic dignitaries retired to the White Hart for a meal.

However, things were not always this civilised. In the 1874 General Election, the Tory Party used the White Hart as their election headquarters. Elections were held over a period of 16 days, with free beer provided throughout by both political parties - and the entire town enjoyed a state of drunkenness for the whole of the 16 days. One drunken afternoon the Liberals hired a German brass band (which happened to be in town) to march down the High Street playing loud music. The Tories were incensed by this and charged out of the White Hart gateway and attacked them with fists and sticks. The Liberal supporters piled in and a bloody punch up ensued with many lying drunk or unconscious till next morning. The brass band were so terrified that they ran off, and legged it all the way to Romford! Superintendent Bridges had to close all the pubs in town, and the Riot Act was read. As night fell, the pubs were allowed to re-open at 10.00pm. During the debacle, nearly every pane of glass in the White Hart was smashed.

White Hart c1906
The Victorians changed the appearance of the White Hart, according to Larkin. While preserving the original timber medieval buildings behind, the Georgian 2-storey red-brick building was given a 3rd timber storey, and the entire front cemented. An outstanding - literally - feature of the White Hart was the 3 dimensional carving of a white hart, with gold collar and chain, and gold horns (matching the gold letters of White Hart on the front of the building) lying on a timber baulk.


White Hart c1910
In a photo circa 1910, this sculpture is missing and has been replaced by a sign saying "Garage - All Repairs", to cater for the small but growing number of cars. By the 1920s the front left of the hotel carried the sign White Hart Garage which was also known as Clarkes. The White Hart Hotel itself carried an RAC- approved sign, signalling the logical transition from coach to car.


White Hart 1990s

Later, a sculpture of a white hart (with the animal standing) was restored on the front of the building, although the pub itself was marketed as "TJs" to attract a younger trendy crowd. The traditional gold lettering saying "White Hart" was retained.