The Amazing History of Two Worcester Streets
The English Civil Wars left their permanent marks all across Mercia and the wider country, but the city of Worcester had perhaps more involvement in events than any other town. It would take a dozen separate posts to cover everything interesting that happened here during the 1640s but it's safe to assume that most people have heard of the Battle of Worcester. Going straight to the closing stages of the conflict when the Parliamentarians under Cromwell himself burst through the city gate at Sidbury, one historic Worcester Street saw more action than anywhere else.
Friar Street has existed on the city plan since the medieval age, with its neighbour New Street being built not long afterwards in the Tudor era. Both streets still boast dozens of old timber-framed buildings in remarkable condition, drawing tourists to their charms from all over the world. Hannah Snell was a remarkable woman, the only lady confirmed to have posed as a man to enter British military service. She was born in a linen shop along Friar Street in 1723 which still stands today. She became pregnant by a Dutch sailor and the child died soon after. Angry at his abandonment, Hannah took a suit from her brother and, adopting his name of James Gray, set off to find the errant Dutchman. After learning at Portsmouth that he had been executed for mutiny, Hannah enlisted in the army as a man but deserted after being lashed for insubordination. You may wonder how on earth she maintained her pretence while stripped to the waist, and accounts do vary. Hannah then entered the Royal Navy as a Marine and went on to serve several tours of duty, including in India where she fought and was wounded at the Battle of Pondicherry. After this she returned to Portsmouth where, in a dockside inn, she revealed her true identity to her shipmates amid deafening drunken roars. For her bravery she was awarded a Royal Chelsea Pension and on her death was buried in the cemetery for the old soldiers of the Chelsea Hospital. She has a substantial exhibition at the Naval Museum at Portsmouth but little mention is made of her in Worcester.
Across the street from Hannah Snell's old house is a fine Tudor building now operating as Classic Cuts hair salon. It was here that the late legendary British TV medium Derek Acorah filmed a segment for his “Ghost Towns” series. Apparently possessed by the spirit of a puritan man who had betrayed a sect of witches, Acorah flung himself to the floor in agony, screaming that he had been blinded! To be fair to the late ghost hunter (now hunted?) it had been a long night, as he had just exorcised another old building in Friar Street of a satanic priest and freed the Royal Worcester Porcelain factory from the clutches of a dark ghost haunting it's lift shaft.
Moving further along into New Street, we arrive at The Pheasant, one of Worcester's oldest inns. Cock fights were unfortunately one of the most popular pastimes in England for over two centuries and this establishment was the city's leading venue for the “sport”, with a large pit at the rear of the building next to the city wall. Stones from this pit are still visible today, and it was said that stabling was available for over 40 horses with room for the many coaches that some of them pulled in too. The rear of The Pheasant is still set aside for sports but thankfully today this involves Sky Sports on a large screen!
Moving to the pub next door, we come to the end of the street and the reason why I started this piece with the Civil War. It was at the magnificent corner house owned by Sir Rowland Berkeley that Charles II (not king yet!) made his headquarters. After bringing a large Scots army down through Britain he expected to be welcomed with open arms but to cut a long story short – it was not to be. Making his stand at Worcester, the Scotsmen rebuilt the city walls and manned their guns. The details of the battle will be covered in another post, but after a terrible and chaotic close quarter battle around Sidbury gate, the Roundheads burst in. Friar Street was a straight line from the gate down to Charles's headquarters.
To cover the escape and to allow loyal cavalrymen time to gather and prepare a charge, a brave young boy pulled his cart across the width of the road, blocking the Parliament men's advance and giving Charles precious moments to run. His name was Moore and he was trapped in the city away from his home at Elmley Castle. For his bravery, at the Restoration of the Monarchy Charles granted the now adult lad farmland which remained in his family for several generations. Charles ran back into Berkeley's corner house and hid behind furniture while his loyal Earl of Cleveland mustered his men and horses for the very last cavalry charge of the war. This final, desperate charge of the cavaliers with sabres drawn allowed the way to be kept clear to nearby St Martin's Gate and, cowled in a dark cloak, Charles emerged from the house, crept to the gate and escaped while Cleveland's men fell.
It is amazing that so many of the old houses still stand along this street, considering the amount of cannon shot, battering rams and burning torches that almost destroyed it, so please do come and visit Worcester if you are able. Other notable buildings are the Cardinal's Hat pub, the oldest in Worcester and reputedly the most haunted, also the amazing Greyfriars which was once one of Worcester's jails. There is a lot more to say about the King Charles House pub which I'll go into in another post but for now enjoy an ale or two and marvel at these history soaked monuments of the Faithful City.
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Sir Rowland Berkeley's old house, headquarters of Charles . This was all one big house in the 1640s
The Classic Cuts building, scene of one of Derek Acorah's finest performances
The Pheasant Inn
The Cardinal's Hat, oldest pub in Worcester and reputedly the most haunted
Entrance to The Pheasant, showing the original cobbles and woodwork
The King Charles House
Statue commemorating the escape of Charles II
From this house King Charles II escaped his enemies after the Battle of Worcester September 3 1651