In 1773 the following advertisement appeared in a newspaper of the time:
Thomas Lawrence most humbly begs leave to inform the Nobility, Gentry & others that he is now removed from the White Lion & American Coffee House, Bristol to the Black Bear Inn, Devizes, where he humbly entreats a continuance of their countenance & support assuring them that no endeavours of his shall be wanting to accommodate & oblige them in a manner most becoming.
The words of a Proprietor in 1773 apply equally as well today.
A prominent hostelry since 1559
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The Bear Hotel, Devizes, has been well known as one of the most prominent hostelries of The West Country over the past three centuries & more. Local annals record the grant of a licence to landlord John Sawter, in 1559, but we are also told that the "Bear" sign was 'set up anew' & it is to be presumed that as a hostelry it existed long before that. The present sign depicts the Bear with a bunch of grapes, but that of 1599 seemed to represent the "Bear & Ragged Staff" which is still the historic crest of the Earls of Warwick. At that time the sign stood in the Market Place some distance from the front of the Inn, on a slab supported by two pillars. There it remained until the year 1801 when Viscount Sidmouth erected the present notable Market Cross.
In Watley's era the Bear Club was formed
In the early days the Bear was flanked by the "Bear Assembly Rooms" on the site now occupied by the Corn Exchange. This Assembly Room, used for Civic & public functions had a balconied front, & it was from here that the newly elected Members of Parliament would address their constituents. The extensive back premises were marked on a map of 1654 as "The Queen's Stables," across this yard at the back was the original outer earthwork dividing the ancient Castle from the town. In addition to the stabling was parkland known as the Bear Gardens or Grounds which were rented by the landlord of the time, J. Taylor, until 1664. This land was eventually acquired by the owners of the Castle. Little exists in the records until the tenancy passed into the hands of John Watley, who was esteemed the most eminent publican in the West of England, although it is known that he became bankrupt in 1754. He remained as landlord until Thomas Lawrence succeeded him in 1773. It was in landlord Watley's era that the Bear Club was formed.
1848, 95th anniversary of the Bear Club
In the 1750's when no-one travelled for pleasure, or had any of our present day amusements to distract them, there was little enough to occupy the leisure time of the local business men. Consequently they used to gather in the evenings in the Bear. We can picture them sitting around a roaring fire, dressed in drab breeches & long tailed coats, white neck-cloths, buckled shoes & complete with wigs, discussing the day's happenings & conversing on politics. They would frown with displeasure if a member of their group were absent, & this prompted the system of inflicting fines upon the absentee. By 1757 they had acquired sufficient funds to promote a charity for the education & apprenticing of the poorer young of the borough - one advertisement offers a scholarship of £6 per annum at the 'Technical School.' September 7th, 1848 saw the Bear Club holding it's 95th anniversary, with a business meeting at 4 o'clock followed by a sumptuous feast, including turtle & venison. Col. Escourt was present at these proceedings.
Sir Thomas Lawrence
Thomas Lawrence came to the Bear from a hostelry at Bristol, where he had not been too successful, but during his stay the Bear achieved a new popularity. We read of travellers who went out of their way to make the acquaintance of Thomas & his "delightful family" - especially his accomplished young son, a bright eyed five year old who would stand on a dining room table & recite long passages from Milton, Collins & other poets. On the occasions when Garrick visited the Inn he always made a point of hearing the boy recite, as did Mrs. Siddons. So proud was the landlord of his son's talents that he is reputed to have greeted his guests with the words 'A recitation or your portrait, sir?' Lawrence certainly had the interests of the traveller at heart when he made provision for guiding them over the lonely Salisbury Plain. He had twelve foot posts erected at half mile intervals, with the large Roman D cut in each side with the mileage to Devizes & an S for Salisbury. This was done entirely at his own expense & no doubt during the snowy winters he was blessed by many a traveller. Young Thomas later became Sir Thomas Lawrence and became a famous portrait artist and president of the Royal Academy in London.
Avoiding the highwaymen
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When Lawrence left in 1781 The Bear was taken over by the Halcombe family; this was at the time when coaching was at its height. Bath had become the fashionable rendezvous for the elite & highwaymen were not slow to realise the fact that good pickings were to be had from these wealthy travellers as they journeyed from London, hence the old coaching route over the lonely Downs to Chippenham via Beckhampton, Heddington to Sandy Lane was abandoned in favour of a new route through Devizes, & the Bear became a hive of activity, with as many as thirty coaches a day stopping here.
A lodging forJudge Jeffreys
The Bear has many historical associations. As the headquarters of Col. Kirke it was a rallying place for the Monmouth adherents at the time of the Battle of Sedgemoor, & the lodging place of the notorious Judge Jeffreys. In fact it was the official lodging place for many years for the visiting Assize Judges. We are reminded of this by the "Judge's Cupboard" in the arched vaults of the wine cellar. Set in the wall it was a cupboard with white-washed doors, padlocked & complete with red seal. When the Assizes were held the Judge would be accompanied by his own wine butler, who would bring the Judge's own wine & this cupboard would be reserved for his use.
King George III and other famous patrons
The impressive list of famous patrons who made the Bear their stopping place include King George III, accompanied by Queen Charlotte, who stopped there en-route for Longleat, where the King was to recuperate from his illness. On this occasion the Mayor & Burgesses of the Borough prepared an Address of Welcome to be delivered to Their Majesties by the Recorder, but he was so overwhelmed by the honour that, in his nervousness, he lost all power of speech. The Royal coach was about to depart when the day was saved by General Crosby, who grabbed the written Address from the hands of the Recorder & hastily read it. The Chamberlain's accounts for the 16th September, 1789 reveal that the expense incurred by the council at the Bear that day amounted to £10.19.0d. Other Royal visitors include the Archduke & Archduchess of Austria who passed through on the day of the presentation of the Coventry dole, & they were duly made recipients of this bequest.
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Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, together with Edward of Saxe-Coburg & Prince Arthur of Connaught were also guests in 1893 when they came to the town for the Review of the Wiltshire Yeomanry. The Bear must have been the Mecca of social life for the military personnel of the town. As far back as 1758, a reference to the book of Orders for the Wilts Militia state "Lieutenants & other Acting Officers are instructed to dine alternately at the Bear & the White Swan at one shilling a head" each gent calling for his own wine.
In 1817, Queen Charlotte puts on record the fact that she had an "elegant repast" at the Bear & that the landlord put at her disposal "10 pairs of horses as fine as any were put to harness".
The history of the ancient hostelry can be best summed up by the apt quotation, from a well satisfied guest.