Until the mid 17th century St Ebbes St was known as Little Bailey, and the first records of this pub being licensed premises are in 1624, when Mr Hall was in one tenement on the corner of Little Bailey and Pennyfarthing Lane. This was probably ‘The Horse and Chair’, and because it later joined in with the Blenheim, has been often confused with it. However records show that they were two separate pubs for some time. In 1842 the landlord of the horse and chair was John Brain, while the tenant of the Royal Blenheim was Valentine Adams. The two pubs were demolished in 1878, and the present building erected in 1889, taking the name Royal Blenheim after a stage coach of the same name. The date is inscribed into the wall.
The following are the results of the research conducted by
Dr M.D. Birch BM.BCh.MA(Oxon).MRCP(UK).FRCA
A History of the Royal Blenheim
The origin of the Royal Blenheim dates back to the 17th Century but the picture is complicated by the fact that the original Royal Blenheim was a coaching inn situated on the other side of St Ebbe’s, while this site has always been a tavern as far into the past as one can reliably trace.
At the time of the earliest record, the street of St Ebbe’s was known as Little Bailey (pronounced “Liddle Bailey” in the local accent), which ran alongside the western portion of the ancient city wall down to Little Gate, roughly situated where Littlegate House and the LA Fitness gym now stand. One Mr Hall was registered in 1624 as the licensee of a tenement on what would now be the corner of St Ebbe’s and Pembroke Street. This establishment, the Horse and Chair, stood on the ground that this pub now occupies, with the coaching inn immediately abutting it and St Ebbe’s Church diagonally opposite.
St Ebbe’s Church itself, named after the obscure Anglo-Saxon princess St Æbbe of Coldingham (ca. 615 – 683), was locally believed to have a haunted crypt in the 19th Century. This apparently unlucky site was frequently used as an explanation for why businesses opposite it seem to change quite regularly, including the Harry Ramsden’s which only lasted eighteen months in the 1990s (see Rob Walter’s “Haunted Oxford”)
Pembroke Street throughout most of this time was called Pennyfarthing Street, with the current Pennyfarthing Place remaining a testament to this. This name is thought to have arisen around 1735 when the Cornish emigrant Christopher Angock renamed the Horse and Chair the “Penn An Vargh Wynn” (“The White Horse’s Head”), with Pennyfarthing being a typical English corruption of this. Angock profited from his openness and close relation to the Welsh scholars of Jesus College and it was a stipulation of his will that the property should only pass to those of Welsh or Cornish descent.
Like many Oxford buildings of such ancient foundations, the cellar of the Royal Blenheim is rumoured to be connected by tunnels to other buildings in the vicinity. One such tunnel was found to run underneath the swimming pool of the modern LA Fitness building by the late archaeologist Sir Oliver McLaughlin, whose portrait still stands behind the bar to the present day.
In keeping with Angock’s will, we find that in 1842 the landlord of the Penn An Vargh Wynn was John Brain, father of Samuel Arthur Brain, the Cardiff Brewer. Brain returned the pub to its former name, the Horse and Chair. On the same plot of land by this time the coaching inn next door has become the Royal Blenheim, run by Valentine Adams, formerly a smith from St Ives.
Both of these buildings were demolished in 1878 and a single replacement, the current incarnation of the Royal Blenheim, was opened by Queen Victoria in 1889 as part of the ongoing celebration of her Golden Jubilee two years earlier. During her stay she judged the famous annual Oxfordshire Village Idiot award giving the prize to a brewer from Stanford-In-The-Vale.
During the First World War, the Blenheim was used as a recruiting office for the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry’s 6th Battalion under Lt. Col. Hughson, while it is noted as the only building in Oxford that was bombed during World War Two when a German pilot mistook the Radcliffe Camera for St Paul’s Cathedral.
The pub was visited in 1972 by Chuck Norris while he was filming “Way of the Dragon”. He is best remembered in this pub for creating the space where the dartboard and fire exit currently are by roundhouse kicking through five feet of stone and brickwork just so that he could leave the pub quickly without paying his bar tab.
Contrary to popular belief, the Royal Blenheim does indeed have a large beer garden. This can be accessed through the back of the disabled toilet at the stroke of midnight, except during the first full moon after the Winter Solstice, when it leads transdimensionally to a magical land flowing with beer and pork scratchings.