For the opening of the Fox & Grapes, Lewis Townsend – Head of Marketing at Castle Rock – has turned amateur historian, digging deep into the Nottinghamshire Archives for information on the pub’s chequered past. When I meet him at the bar, he’s armed with blueprints, news cuttings and records, going all the way back to the pub’s very beginnings.
“The first mention of the deed that acknowledged the pub as owning the site was by a J Smith in 1830,” Lewis says. “Although I did find an earlier mention of a burglary here in a newspaper from 1828. So it’s quite difficult to pinpoint the pub’s opening.
“It used to be called The Fox, then it was the Fox Pub and Vaults, and Southwell Road used to be called Old Glasshouse Street, which made my job researching the pub a bit harder. The pub held a Market and Fairs licence, which meant that it could open at 5am for market traders as well as general customers. My research suggests that it was a working-class boozer, and would have stayed that way until after it became Peggers, and even up to now. In 1839, the Working Men’s Association used to meet here.”
Now operated by Nottingham’s Castle Rock Brewery, the pub also has history with the former “Big Two” of Nottingham beer: Shipstone’s and Home Ales. Lewis explains: “This used to be a Carrington Brewery pub in the 1800s, then Shippos took it over when they bought Carrington Brewery in 1898. Carrington Brewery was established in 1832, and it was apparently famous in Nottingham for its excellent porter. Carrington continued to trade on a small scale until 1906, but then everything stopped and Shipstone’s owned this building from then onwards. I need to do some more digging as I can’t be sure when Home Ales acquired it, but at some point in the mid-to-late twentieth century, it became a Home Ales pub.”
I ask if Lewis has uncovered any stories of the pub in its heyday, and he replies that he’s actually found quite a history of debauchery at the Fox & Grapes. He has a stack of newspaper reports from “petty sessions” – now the magistrates’ courts – referring to various minor offences discussed in court, such as men found drunk and disorderly, and maybe fined a quid or so, which add colour to the pub’s history.
“This one is quite funny, until you realise that somebody died,” Lewis begins intriguingly, recounting a report of a customer, John Bingham, showing another drinker, Philip Shaw, who was also “in liqour”, a fateful trick that resulted in a dislocated neck and death for Mr Shaw. “He’s basically given him a piggyback and then thrown him over the top of his head. This strikes me as the sort of stuff that occasionally happened here; probably just general 1800s debauchery.”
There was more wholesome fun to be had at the pub, too: “They used to hold regular gooseberry competitions, where everyone grows their own gooseberries and gets judged and ranked and rated. It’s quite odd,” Lewis adds. “It was clearly the central hub of Sneinton Market back in the day, and one thing I’ve noticed is lots of people said the market was a big melting pot of different people; there was that sense of everyone coming together.”
Talk turns to the more grisly subject of the “Pretty Windows” murder, the still unsolved case of publican George Wilson’s violent demise outside his pub on the night of 8 September 1963. Locals gave the pub the unofficial title The Pretty Windows due to the pub’s ornate fenestration.
“We were really keen not to sensationalise the murder in any way, but we always wanted to acknowledge it,” says Lewis. “We’re still in the process of trying to acquire the newspaper article so we can frame it. There were a couple of things I dug up; two days after the murder, the Birmingham City Mail reported that George Wilson’s dog Blackie may have bitten the attacker, so they sent out a call for people to look out for anyone who had been bitten by a dog. Also, apparently there was a guy wearing a pale suit who was seen lurking around and knocking on the doors of the pub at around 11.30pm, so there was a call for people to identify him as well.
“Like anything, there are all sorts of rumours as to who did it, with one being that it was a competitor. But I think if you did just want to get somebody out of the game, you probably wouldn’t stab him thirteen times; there was clearly a huge sense of malice behind it. It’s really quite sketchy in terms of getting information about it though. We know that a man was questioned about a month afterwards, and he was considered to be a big suspect, but then he was released. The cold case was opened about four years ago and apparently the response was great,” Lewis adds.
Despite the chilling crime, evidence suggests that business carried on as normal at the pub after the murder. “It became Peggers in the late eighties or early nineties,” Lewis continues. “The wholesale market here started in 1850-ish, but it relocated to Meadow Lane in the late 1990s, and that was widely seen as the nail in the coffin for Peggers, as that was the thing that brought a lot of footfall to the pub. It finally shut in 2004. A lot of these units were empty for ages, and now it’s like the trendiest place to be in Nottingham.”
That brings us forward to the present day incarnation of the Fox & Grapes, which opened again after more than a decade in September 2017 under Castle Rock. It’s the Nottingham brewery’s 23rd venture, and they’ve tried to maintain the traditional aspect of the pub while also modernising it, says Fox & Grapes manager Danny Semak: “We’ve kept everything as original as possible, but just brought it forward into the 21st century. The layout’s pretty much the same. We try to stay in-keeping with the whole Castle Rock ethos of making somewhere welcoming, with good beer.”
“We have a big range of spirits and drinks: eight real ales, five craft lines, and a fridge full of craft and Belgian beers. Food-wise, it's a bit of a cupboard of a kitchen, but we have a pizza oven and jacket potato oven, and they seem to be going down very well. It’s good, simple, honest food,” Danny adds.
“The back bar setup is all from when it was Peggers, the bar’s pretty much the same, it’s just been shortened a bit,” Danny explains. “Layout-wise we haven’t done a lot – new tables and chairs, a lick of paint here and there – we’ve just brought it up to date more than anything. It’s a pub at the end of the day, and pubs are timeless things. They’re really good at one thing and that’s bringing people together for a drink and being that social hub."
Unfortunately, no relics were unearthed when doing up the pub… “A couple of old fag packets and bottles in the cellar, but that’s about it really.”
As well as being fed and watered, punters can expect entertainment in the form of live music nights, something which was a mainstay of Peggers, with many Nottingham bands cutting their teenage rock teeth in the sticky-floored bar. “We just did our first event as an extension of the Hockey Hustle, which was kind of surreal,” Danny says. “When the first band went on, I looked up and thought ‘This is the first band that have played in Peggers in thirteen years, this is a landmark!’ People really enjoyed it, so we’re going to keep doing it on a semi-regular basis.”
The pub opening ties in with the wider regeneration of Sneinton Market and the Creative Quarter, and Danny is keen to be a part of the growing community there. Handily, the new LeftLion office is slap bang next door, too. Danny says: “The whole area’s gone through regeneration, all the units are filled now and there’s talk of some of the warehouses being revamped as well, so it’s going to continue to grow. The first time I came and parked here, I was gobsmacked at how nice it is now. It’s that kind of place that’s got a real buzz about it, and it’s an exciting thing to be a part of.”
And customers have been responding well to the new pub on the block since its opening. “The reception has been really good, we’ve had very positive feedback,” Danny says. “It’s been a real mix of people, which I was hoping for. There have been people who knew the pub as Peggers; people who knew it as the Fox & Grapes and can remember things like the George Wilson incident happening; ex-police officers telling me stories about how they used to come down after their night shift at 5am and sink a few beers; people on their way to work in the morning, who would sink three or four pints and then go and drive a cab or a bus all day.”
Clearly different times, then, and with many pubs still closing down by the day, it’s refreshing that the Fox & Grapes is bucking the trend and bringing back such a historic cornerstone of the community.
Fox & Grapes, 21 Southwell Road, Nottingham, NG1 1DL. 0115 841 8970
Castle Rock website