The mid-18th century Spread Eagle public house at 82 High Street was well situated in Watford Market Place.

With two large bay windows facing the cattle, the market traders or the shoppers, depending on the era and day of the week you lifted your pint of Taylor Walker’s ale or stout.

The Spread Eagle was a popular meeting place for drinkers and members of local clubs. It hosted special displays of military-led backsword stick play, sword mastery and fencing.

Within a few paces there were another three pubs: the King’s Head at 86, just two doors away; the One Bell at 90; and the Rose & Crown at 74, on the corner of Market Street. In 1851, David Emm appears to have been the publican, followed the same year by William Coulson.

Watford Observer: Cattle in the Market Place. Spread Eagle to the right of J. Mortimer, butcher, 1904. Image: Loosley & Co.Cattle in the Market Place. Spread Eagle to the right of J. Mortimer, butcher, 1904. Image: Loosley & Co.

In 1853, the Corn Exchange and the 100-foot-long, centuries-old Market House with its large stores of wheat, oats and barley were completely destroyed by fire.

The windows of the Spread Eagle close by were destroyed and the shutters burnt, whilst the King’s Head suffered severe damage.

Given that there were 70 or so public and beer houses administered by the Watford Local Board in Watford a century-and-a-half ago, drunkenness was a disturbing social issue, resulting in misery and poverty.

The Watford and Bushey Temperance Society, formed in 1869, addressed the ‘great national curse’ as it was popularly tagged. Its president was the respected Watford grocer and philanthropist Henry Kingham who, in the early days of the temperance movement, led almost singlehandedly the only Band of Hope in Watford.

A national petition to close public houses on Sundays was signed by many well-known local temperance members, including Bushey artist Hubert von Herkomer and the Earl of Essex’s son, the Hon. Reginald Algernon Capel, JP. There were nearly 600,000 signatures by the time the document was presented to Parliament.

Watford Observer: Market Day. Spread Eagle is the white-faced building. Peark's Stores have taken over from Mortimer's, 1935.Market Day. Spread Eagle is the white-faced building. Peark's Stores have taken over from Mortimer's, 1935.

The Temperance Society endorsed the Blue Ribbon movement, which required a promise of abstinence and the wearing of a blue ribbon, marking the wearer as an abstainer from alcohol.

When George Turner became publican in 1871, the Spread Eagle was situated between a butcher’s and a baker’s shop. Seven years later, the following Temperance tract appeared on the sign above the entrance: ‘Strong drink preys on man and spreads its dark wings over many a happy household’: a specific reference to the dark eagle wings depicted.

The spread eagle sign, though Roman in origin and subsequently used by several countries including Austria and Germany, was also popular with English nobility.

George Turner had managed to strike a balance with the temperance movement between continuing to serve alcohol and pre-warning those who entered or passed by to drink in moderation. I wonder whether Mr Cossham’s Watford Temperance Hotel & (alcohol-free) Tavern across the road at 87 had any bearing on the appearance of the tract?

A number of publicans later, William George Gubbins (known as George) was an experienced licensed victualler when he arrived in Watford. Born in Northamptonshire in 1870, he had been publican of The Bridge Hotel in Leighton Buzzard from the early 1900s. Ten years later, he was publican of the Crown Inn in Berkhamsted.

Assisted by his wife Martha, George was publican of the Spread Eagle from 1933 until 1937 when he retired to what is now Grade II listed 51 High Street, Berkhamsted, where he died in 1938.

The pair of small 1930’s glass tumblers were specially etched for George Gubbins: ‘W G Gubbins, Spread Eagle, Watford’ and were likely used for spirits. They were discovered at Camden Market many years ago and given to me by the late Watfordian Lawrie Horniblow.

Watford Observer: Pair of publican George Gubbins' etched Spread Eagle glass tumblers, 1930s.Pair of publican George Gubbins' etched Spread Eagle glass tumblers, 1930s.

I understand that in the early months of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, the then-200-year-old Spread Eagle building was provisionally listed.

Yet it was subsequently demolished, along with the buildings on either side.

The public house was one of a seemingly endless number of historic or architecturally appealing buildings over the years to become lost to all but the ever-more weighty history books. Compare the characterful early 20th century view and, when you’re next in Market Place, look at the characterless structures that replaced them.

At least we don’t have cattle running amok in the town centre any more but, as far as today’s view goes, it’s hardly an improvement. In my humble opinion, it’s quite the opposite. What do you think?

Lesley Dunlop is the daughter of the late Ted Parrish, a well-known local historian and documentary filmmaker. He wrote 96 nostalgic articles for the ‘Evening Post-Echo’ in 1982-83 which have since been published in ‘Echoes of Old Watford, Bushey & Oxhey’, available at and Bushey Museum. Lesley is currently working on ‘Two Lives, Two World Wars’, a companion volume that explores her father’s and grandfather’s lives and war experiences, in which Watford, Bushey and Oxhey’s history will take to the stage once again.