Note: Regular references to the Swan occur in most historical records and literature, old and new, concerning Alresford. It is clear that it always was, and still is, of prime importance for the meetings and activities of the citizens of this town and district. As well as looking after the needs of the travellers, distinguished and ordinary people who, for hundreds of years have used its facilities.
It is possible that the most comprehensive and up to date information concerning the Swan was researched during the 1970’s by the late Dr. Isabel Sanderson. She incorporated all her findings in a series of ten books which she called Dwellings in Alresford. These are obtainable from the Studio Bookshop in Broad Street. Research dealing specially with the Swan is to be found in Book 3 pages 10 – 19 (main article), and other references appear in Book 1 pages 16 – 17, Book 4 page 25, Book 8 page 3 and Book 10 pages 4 and 43. Dr Sanderson produced her own detailed and accurate sketches and two of them appear with the notes which follow.
The Bailiff and Burgesses
These were appointed and then elected or re-elected annually, in the first place by Robert Horne, Bishop of Winchester, who in his Charter of 1573, set up the Borough of New Alresford. The Bailiff and Burgesses administered all the affairs of the town from looking after the poor to cleaning the streets until they ceased to exist under the provisions of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1882. They used the Swan as their headquarters and usually held their annual dinner there – the only luxury they permitted themselves (they received no salary or expenses).
The first indication that there was a hostelry on the site now occupied by the Swan is shown in the Survey of Houses in Alresford made in 1552. The site was owned by a John Okeley and almost certainly used as an Inn, together with a court, garden and barn behind. In 1642 Thomas Street, the first of three Streets to own the place paid four pence each year to the Bailiff and Burgesses to hang out his sign on a post in the road outside (soon to become Sheepcote Street, the Sheep Street and now West Street) advertising the Inn.
From that period on the Hampshire Records Office has an almost continuous account of the names of the lessees and landlords and landladies, the rates paid and the uses made of the building up to the present day.
(undercroft = crypt) This is of considerable antiquity although its exact date of construction is unknown. It would have been in use as a storehouse of great value to the Swan as a lodging house, Inn and finally hotel, especially when the Swan Tap, the brewhouse and the stables were built above it and around the Swan Yard. It also seems to have been used as a temporary detention room for those convicted of offences or awaiting judgement by the Magistrates or Jurymen sitting in the Assembly Room. Those convicted would be held in the Undercroft until the Town Constable could arrange for them to be removed to goal or a higher court. Similarly, Napoleonic Prisoners of War, generally officers who had broken the conditions of the parole, and were awaiting removal from Alresford, were held there. The cellar was, and is, warm, dry and quite comfortable for short sojournes. It was, in no sense, a dungeon or a cell.
The Assembly Rooms
The most influential families in the district used the Swan where there was a large pleasant room on the first floor, known as the Assembly Room, now converted into bedrooms. It was also used extensively for meetings and for social occasions. The Swan was associated for a long time with the Annual Sheep Fair, last held in 1972. After the fair a dinner for gentlemen, farmers and dealers was arranged in the Assembly Room and the Cups distributed to the winners. Public meetings were held there – a very important one to encourage the building of a railway through the town was held in 1845. This was opposed by the then Lord Ashburton and Alresford had to wait another twenty years for its railway.
The Civil War Period
During the time when the Street family ran the Swan, and, after the battle of Cheriton on the 26th March 1644, Oliver Cromwell seems to have stayed there on numerous occasions. He was very friendly with a Colonel Richard Norton of the Manor House, Old Alresford, who had, because of his local knowledge of tracks and byways greatly assisted Parliament in winning the battle against the Royalties. Cromwell had many friends and supporters locally and he distributed his favours to them as a reward. Arthur Lipscombe for example was appointed collector of rents from the several Manors and Estates around Alresford and Mr Hancock, then an important tradesman in the town, was directly encouraged by Cromwell to use the undercroft as a warehouse, paying rent to the landlord for its use. As a result of Cromwell’s patronage the town prospered and with it the Swan, which was used as a venue for trade agreements and long discussions about the exchange of local products, such as wool, tanning, embroidery and food with that of the Cotswolds. For example, from that area bacon, cheese and staples would be sent.
After the opening of the Winchester to Alton Turnpike in 1753 (now the A31) and the general improvements in road surfaces the Swan began to cater for coach travellers and was undoubtedly the most important coaching inn in town. Landlord William Collyer built extensive stables at the rear of the property and coaches drove straight through the then entrance from West Street, through what is now the Restaurant Area, into the yard. The coach from Southampton arrived at 8am, for breakfast and a change of horses, whilst the coach from London arrived at about 2pm, for the change of horses and light refreshments. A period of fifteen minutes was allowed for the stop and gave the passengers time to hurriedly eat and drink in the main room (situated in the area of where the main bar now is) whilst the servants and ostlers used the Swan Tap off the yard.
The mail coaches arrived and departed twice daily to and from London, Winchester and Southampton. On the approach from London, the coach would be heralded by the blast of the horn when passing Bram Dean Wey, now Sun Lane down Ram Alley, now East Street, and into the Swan entrance. The mail would be hastily sorted in the yard. Departure, hastened by another blast of the horn from the post boy, who sat on the top of the coach, to warn the keeper of the turnpike gate in the Avenue to open up and let the mail coach through without toll.
The Coming of the Railway
The railway spelt the demise of the coaching trade but this did not affect the Swan as its back gate was adjacent to the new railway station anyway. Travellers on the trains used the Swan for food and accommodation overnight, as there would be at first little means of reaching or leaving their homes outside Alresford. The Bailiff and Burgesses purchased No. 11 West Street, owned by corn merchants H & G Smith, demolished it and built Station Road, although it lost some land and out houses in the process, it gained a substantial flint wall to flank its property.
Alresford has a record of serious fires, which were to destroy large parts of the town. The Royalists set fire to the buildings before retreating to Old Basing after the Cheriton Fight, this was largely extinguished by the pursuing Parliamentarians. The Swan, affected by all the fires, also had a serious fire in the stables in the year 1792 when eight horses suffocated.
In the twentieth century Alresford is no longer the small self-sufficient market town, surrounded by common fields on the high ground and marshy land near the river. The opening of the Mid-Hants Railway in 1865 brought far-reaching changes, including the disappearance of stage coaches and these changes have accelerated since the end of World War II. The popularity of the motor car has enabled many people to live in the town and to work elsewhere.
The Swan Hotel has expanded and adapted to all of the changes. It is still the foremost hostelry and meeting place in the now larger Alresford, and copes nobly with its’ bigger and wider spread of clientele.
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