New era for St Leonards pub which inspired the poet Keats and was once a smugglers haunt

A St Leonards pub immortalised in a nursery rhyme and with a long association with smugglers has new owners.

The Bo Peep pub at Grosvenor Crescent, St Leonards has been in the same hands for many years, but has now been taken over by two couples – Cassie Newman and Nick Nesbit, Gemma and Pete Crabtree, who intend to keep the popular local pub as it is. Nick and Pete are both former regulars of the pub.

Whilst there was a Bo Peep inn constructed in 1548, this was situated to the west of the public house currently bearing the name. The current establishment dates from 1847 when the licensee of the original tavern was compensated for the loss of his public house when it was demolished to make way for a railway station behind Bexhill Road.

Hastings has a long history of smuggling and the Bo Peep area of St Leonards was once a popular place to land contraband. The popular nursery rhyme ‘Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep’ is said to be a metaphor, Bo Peep were revenue men and the sheep the smugglers who gave them the slip. The sheep were the barrels of contraband, often thrown overboard by smugglers, but would come bobbing home on the tide to be recovered.

The inn sign of the pub, first unveiled in 1977, has two sides – one a shepherdess from the nursery rhyme, the other depicting a smuggler rowing barrels ashore, while customs revenue officer lay in wait.

David Russell, in his excellent history of Hastings and St Leonards pubs, notes that the Bo Peep is linked with the coming of the railways to Hastings. Formerly the New England Bank it has had four name changes and has been rebuilt at least twice. It was apparently shown on a map of 1746, and by 1777 it was leased to William Clarke.

Two years later the lease was held by Thomas Hovenden a well known Hastings publican and brewer, for ‘1½ acres of waste ground with a cottage called New England Bank or Bo-peep’. Hovenden had been brewing locally for at least 30 years, most recently at the Swan and then the Roebuck in High Street.

After the French Revolution troops were positioned along the coast in anticipation of an invasion by Napoleon. Hovenden, described as a ‘common brewer’ was not only lessee of the pub but also owner of Bo Peep barracks where 200 soldiers were garrisoned creating a huge demand for his beer.

It seems the New England Bank was rebuilt in about 1780 when it included ‘a kitchen, 2 parlours, 4 bed chambers and 1 garret and stables’. The landlord was then Thomas Everard.

The Sussex Weekly Advertiser reported in 1788 that the Excise Officer at Bo Peep, ‘assisted by members of the 11th regiment of Light Dragoons, seized 48 casks of brandy and Dutch genever gin, loaded on fourhorses’ from local smugglers. Because of the intense smuggling activity the pub was sold again in 1794 and again by auction in 1803.

The Hastings Guide, published in 1797 by James Barry, described the Bo Peep as ‘a public house by the roadside, where company may have an excellent dish of tea and good cream al fresco’. The pub is mentioned again in 1815 as ‘a wretched public house by the roadside’, although this didn’t deter the poet John Keats and the beautiful Isabella Jones from staying there when he visited the south coast in 1817. Keats portrayed Isabella Jones, ‘the lady from Hastings’, in his poem Endymion, a poetic romance depicting a nymph rising naked from the Fishponds, a local beauty spot. The poem is famous for its first line: A thing of beauty is a joy forever. The river Asten which then ran along the course of Grosvenor Gardens also inspired him.

Charles Harper, the smugglers historian recorded that: ‘A determined struggle took place on the evening of January 3rd 1828 at Bo-Peep, then a desolate spot midway between Hastings and Bexhill. It was marked by an evil looking inn to which were attached still more evil looking Pleasure Gardens’.

‘On this occasion a lugger came in view offshore and landed a heavy cargo of tubs on the beach. No fewer than 300 rustic labourers, assembled to guard the landing of the tubs and their loading into carts, and onto horses backs and men’s shoulders. Although challenged there were no fatalities.’

By all accounts riotous times were had in the old pub. A musician who played there in the 1840s observed that the ‘dancing created abnormal vibration. The visible contraction of the old walls was such as to threaten a general collapse!’

When the railway arrived along the coast from Brighton in 1846, the original pub was demolished to make way for West Marina station. The landlord was compensated by the South Eastern Railway Company and in 1847 he built a new pub, just east of the new station. It was first called the Railway Terminus Inn and supplied beer to railway passengers waiting for the coach into Hastings. The name reverted back to Bo Peep when the tunnel was dug through the cliffs behind, and the railway line continued into St Leonards. In 1972 when the site of the New England Bank was excavated and developed, old wine bottles, a silver fork and a mineral bottle dated 1808 were found.

In the mid-Victorian era the Bo Peep was a popular venue. Apart from political meetings, balls, quadrilles and parties were held here on a regular basis. It was a meeting place for the St Leonards Vestry, who discussed parish matters and elected the local rate collector.

As a ‘railway pub’, coroner’s inquests into accidents on the line took place here. A moment of tragedy came in 1877, with the death of a guard on a train travelling through Bo Peep tunnel. He must have been looking out of the window when a train passing in the opposite direction struck him dead. Nobody saw anything as the tunnel was full of steam. There was a second accident a few years later, when a body and severed head were found on the line by a signalman, who took them to the stables at the rear of the pub.

The new owners say the Bo Peep is a family pub where children are welcome, and is dogs are welcome in the public bar. The pub will be showing live sports events as well as holding bingo and quiz nights and introducing some more live music. They say that a pub should be at the heart of a community and they want to keep the Bo Peep that way.

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