Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman

There’s an establishment in England that the locals will tell you is the only place serving beer from which you will exit feeling more sober than when you walked in.

Or, at least, there was.

For decades, the Crooked House has been famous for its structural anomalies. But last week, it became the focus of a classic whodunnit.

The Crooked House was first built in 1765 as a perfectly normal red-brick farmhouse, but converted into a pub in 1830. It was called the Glynne Arms, until its name was changed to The Siden House, meaning “crooked” in the Black Country dialect.

The name changed because the building changed, and that happened because of its location. The area of the Midlands in which you’ll find The Crooked House is called the Black Country because it was one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution.

The name came from a 30-foot coal seam close to the surface and the soot and pollution from the coalworks, brickworks, glassworks, ironworks and more.

In the nineteenth century, coal was inadvertently mined from underneath the building, causing subsidence that in turn damaged the foundations and caused the whole building to tilt by an anxiety-inducing 15 degrees.

Thanks to support buttresses that were put in fairly quickly, and more that were added in the 1940s to save it from demolition, The Crooked House survived what would have convinced most buildings to give up and collapse.

In 1957, the owners spent £10,000 to make it safe again after its structural issues led to it again being declared unsafe – and they finally decided it was time to install electricity. Then, in 1986, after a fire damaged the upstairs and roof, it was given a £360,000 facelift.

Over this long and wobbly history, The Crooked House became a local fixture and a tourist destination because of the dizzy feelings it provokes in visitors.

This is a natural reaction to the slanted walls and oddly angled fittings, and to the fact that an optical illusion makes it appear that a marble will roll up the slope of a table. It’s known as “Britain’s Wonkiest Pub” (wonky basically meaning “not straight”) and is beloved by its regular patrons.

Or it was, until it was reduced to a pile of rubble on August 5.

The Crooked House was sold last month to a private developer. All that was known about the couple who now owned it was that the husband is or was a director of the company that owns a clay quarry next door.

Fans of The Crooked House had no idea whether they planned to keep it as it was, renovate it or just shut up shop forever. There was suspicion, however, that the new owners had no intention of keeping the doors open – they allegedly bought another pub a couple of years ago and applied for planning permission to convert it into dwellings.

A social media post from the pub said shortly after the sale that it had been sold “to a private buyer for alternative use” but did not specify what that use was, how they knew or – as far as I can tell – even who made the post.

Two weeks later, 30 firefighters responded to a blaze at the pub in the late hours of the evening. Nobody was hurt, but the building was essentially gutted.

As is usual in such circumstances, police and fire investigators got to work on establishing what had caused it to ignite. Suspicions were immediately aroused.

According to former MP Lord Ian Austin, the lane to the pub was blocked during the fire, which impeded firefighters from getting close enough – photographs show that mounds of earth were indeed blocking the access roads.

Two days later, a mechanical digger turned up at the site and reduced the whole thing to rubble. This was done without permission – the investigation was still ongoing.

It then transpired that the digger was hired and delivered before the fire even happened. Dodgy, no?

The council said that its officers had neither agreed to a complete demolition nor thought that it would be necessary. Reports then began to come in that certain items had been removed from the pub before the fire, such as a nineteenth-century grandfather clock.

Further news reports suggested that the new owner is also linked to a huge fire at a landfill site that saw 400 tons of waste set alight with no obvious explanation.

To the surprise of nobody, police announced they would be treating the case as arson.

But what was to become of the pub? It’s just a pile of bricks now, surely nothing can be done?

Apparently that’s not the case. The local mayor soon began urging people not to take mementoes from the ruins to maximize the chances that the pub could one day be rebuilt, and Heritage England said it was “considering all possible avenues” to do just that.

It’s a heartbreaking case, and I will be watching with bated breath to see whether those new owners are as nefarious as they seem, but there’s a silver lining in the meantime. The incident has triggered lawmakers to realize there aren’t enough protections in place for historic pubs and buildings – the law does not currently require new owners to maintain their original function.

When Parliament reconvenes in September, the MP for the Crooked House’s constituency has pledged to pursue the matter. One day, there might actually exist a “Crooked House Law”, which would be worthwhile just for the name.

Meanwhile, a group campaigning for the pub to be rebuilt has emerged with the name “#RiseFromTheAshes” after the MP said that’s what The Crooked House will do – but not quickly. This will be a “marathon, not a sprint,” he said.

The mayor has pledged that he will see the pub rebuilt “brick by brick” and said the arsonists have messed with the wrong community. It’s not a statement I’d like to disagree with, so I’m hopeful for its future. Anyone brave enough to drink a pint in a place that is actively trying to make you fall over is a person I’d want on my side in a fight for justice.