Royal Oak - The Nicholas Years, Part 1
See Part 2 HERE
Alfred John Nicholas married Gladys Oliver in 1925. They spent their honeymoon in a cottage belonging to Alf’s brother Alb in East Brent. Ten years later, after various jobs in London, including a spell as a messenger in Temple Bar, Alf and Gladys moved to Stoke St Gregory with their two children, Doreen and John (Doreen was later to marry Morris Garland from Curload Farm). In the meantime Alb had moved, via the Ship Aground in Bridgwater, to be landlord of the Phelips Arms in Montacute, then owned by Hambridge Brewery. It was he who put in a good word for Alf, the Oak also being a Hambridge pub.
Alf had some knowledge of signwriting from his London days, but he developed his self taught skills and produced pictorial pub signs for Hambridge Brewery, and also for private clients. One of his first jobs was to put the sign above the front door - A J Nicholas, Licensed To Sell Beer, Ale, Cider & Tobacco. Later he made the first hanging sign for the pub, the metalwork being done by the local Blacksmith, Mr Duke. It hung on the opposite corner of the building from the present sign, but the bracket is original.
As war approached in 1939, life in Stoke continued at its normal pace, although the Nicholas’ kept in touch with their families in London, so knew some of what was going on. These photos, taken in the orchard of the pub (now the car park and part of Church Close) was taken in May 1939, during the annual skittles week. Bert Chedzoy is skittling and Tommy Lee is standing with Doreen Nicholas. John & Bobby Woodland are sticking up, and Bridget the Pony is taking no notice. On the bench are Gladys Nicholas and Sid Wyatt. They all are on the second photo (apart from Bridget), looking over what is now the bus shelter towards Stoke House.
Peter was born in 1942, so he can’t tell us anything about the war years, but the Oak was obviously a hive of activity. Alf was made a sergeant in the Home Guard - nothing, of course, to do with the fact that he kept the Royal Oak. At that time, along with the Kings Head, Athelney, and the George (later called the Black Smock), Stathe, the Royal Oak was not licensed to sell wines and spirits. Only the Rose & Crown, Woodhill, the Railway Hotel (later The Pigeons), and the Athelney Inn, had a full license. When the American GIs were in the village this was a distinct disadvantage considering their liking for whisky, but Alf refused to keep a bottle ‘under the counter’. The hours were 10 am - 2.30 pm, and 6 pm - 10.30 pm, but they may not always have been kept, especially after Home Guard exercises . . . The pictures below show Grandpa Oliver and Uncle Bill arriving in Stoke for a stay; Alf serving Uncle Bill; and Bill & Albert Beck home on leave, with Tommy Lee and Bill David.
Peter Nicholas was born at the Royal Oak in 1942. This is a picture of him being held by Tommy Lee at the bottom of the original steps to what was then the skittle alley above the wagon shed. There was also a door form the upstairs of the house, but this was the main way in and out. To the right of the picture are the men's toilets. The usual comment when someone left the bar to use them was 'Let's see if it's raining.' The floor plans at the time are also shown below.
And then the War was over. Below is a gathering outside the Oak to celebrate VJ Day in 1945.
Royal Oak - The Nicholas Years, Part 2
BACK to Part 1
When the war ended, Alf Nicholas was a founder member and chair of the ‘Welcome Home Fund’ (This was later amalgamated with the ‘Victory Fund’, which led to the purchase and preparation of the Playing Fields). Mr Sharp of Dunfield House was treasurer and between them and the local branch of the British Legion they bought a billiard table that was installed in the Royal Oak. The only room big enough would have been what is now the Function Room, but was then still the skittle alley and 'Club Room'.
Alf also reared geese for the Christmas market. These photos show them in the orchard (now the car park) looking across to Stoke House, and a newspaper clipping referencing Alf's other occupation as signwriter to Hambridge Brewery.
The Royal Oak was one the many local pubs to join the newly formed Sedgemoor Skittles League in 1946. Their first annual ‘Celebration Supper’ took place on the 7th June 1947 was reported in the press:
“A company of nearly 350, including members, their women folk and guests, sat down to a meal, served by the staff of the British Restaurant, the function being the ' largest of its kind in the hall since pre-war days. Among the skittlers present was the veteran of the league. Mr. Henry Hutchings. captain of the Angel team from North Curry, who will 74 in July. The Mayor. Lieut.- Colonel R. Chamberlin. 0.8. E., presided. supported Mr. F. Denman (chairman), Mr. E. Storey (hon. treasurer) Mr. W. E. Brashier (hon. treasurer), Rev. A. LI. Morgan (Othery). and representatives of the Bridgwater and Bridgwater and District Leagues. Mr. W. Creedy (hon. secretary of Bridgwater and District Skittles League) said they in Bridgwater had been impressed bv the distances travelled by teams of the Sedgmoor League in that bleak and floodaffected area during the coldest winter of recent years. He went on to say that skittles had reached a new era in that part of the country and was Quickly becoming the most prominent and popular of all winter evening sports.The championship cup was presented by the Mayor to Mr. W. Tucker captain of the London Hotel team, Othery, the runners-up cup to Mr. F. Denman, White Hart, North Curry, and a huge wooden spoon to Mr. Hubbard, Royal Oak Stoke St. Gregory."
The wooden spoon went on the skittle team trip to Lynmouth
The Royal Oak did not escape the attention of the police, although the local constable was known to partake of a glass or two of cider at Joseph Patten's (Wilments Farm). It was only when the sergeant from North Curry was about that the PC had to work by the book, as the following extract from the Taunton Courier shows:
"STOKE ST. GREGORY CASES DISMISSED the second case, Alfred John Nicholas (47), licensee of the Royal Oak Inn, Stoke St. Gregory, was summoned for supplying liquour after hours to Harry Willey (61), gardener, of Well Town, Curry Rivel, Mrs. Florence Robinson. Townsend Cottage. Curry Rivel, Wilfred Loveridge (40), willow worker of Redhill, Curry Rivel, and Mrs. Lilian Dare Townsend Curry Rivel. Willey, Mrs. Robinson, Loveridge and Mrs. Dare were summoned consumers. All the defendants were represented Mr. C. B Pardoe and pleaded not guilty. Mr. Willmott said at 10.45 p.m. P S. Barratt and P.C. Westcott saw a man leaving the Royal Oak Inn. The lights were on in the bar and a game was progress. The officers went to the back of the inn and saw three or four people in the bar with drinks. Pointing to Loveridge. the licensee said, "I have known this chap for number of years and naturally I am pleased see him." Asked about the others. Nicholas said they were friends of Loveridge. There was a 10s note on the counter. Nicholas said it was to pay for the beer, but he had refused to accept it. Mr. Willmott said the Licensing Act did not allow a landlord to treat ordinary customers as bona fide guests. Only Loveridge was a friend of the licensee. P.S. Barratt said Loveridge made no reply. Willey said "I did not know it was so late.'' Mrs. Robinson explained that it was "just a visit," and Mrs. Dare said, "I understood we could stay here until 10.30 p.m." P.C. Arnold. Curry Rivel, said Willey asked if he could make a statement. He said he did not realise the house closed at 10 p.m. and he could not remember the landlord calling "time." The last drink he paid for was 10 p.m., and another he had 10.15 p.m. was paid for by the licensee. Nicholas told the magistrates he had known Loveridge since he took the inn, in 1935, but had not seen him for about nine years until that night. At closing time he turned the other customers out but asked Loveridge to stay. Nicholas added that Mrs. Robinson, who was talking to his wife near the fire, wanted to pay for drinks, but her 10s was left on the counter. In reply to Mr Willmott he said the three friends of Loveridge were not his friends. Willey and Mrs. Dare both stated that they did not pay for any drinks after 10 p.m. Loveridge said before the war he was captain of the skittles team at the inn and a relative used to be the licensee. Mr. Pardoe submitted that an Englishman's home was still his castle, and licensee, who wished to entertain his friends had no other place which to do so. He was entertaining a friend whom he had not seen for some years, and was bound to entertain the other three. It was perfect example of ordinary English hospitality. The Chairman, Mr. A. C. Mole, announced that the magistrates were not unanimous, but by a majority they had decided that Nicholas was entertaining the others in bona fide manner. All the summonses would therefore, be dismissed."
These two photos were taken in 1947, with a five year old Pete Nicholas. One is with Chang the dog and the other with his father Alf.
The Nicholas family left the Royal Oak in 1950. The following announcement appeared in the Taunton Courier on 21st October:
"STOKE ST. GREGORY The Licence of the Royal Oak Inn was transferred by Taunton county magistrates on Saturday from Alfred John Nicholas to William Henry Champion"
Bill Champion is the man in the suit and tie.