The Swan on Rose Island

The Thames path between Oxford and Abingdon attracts plenty of walkers as well as boaters, and if you pass along the stretch at Kennington, 2½ miles from the city centre (accessible by a footbridge over the railway behind the Tandem pub) you might have noticed a very handsome large house on the opposite bank.

I had seen this hundreds of times without knowing about its history, until Oxford Drinker reader Kim Langton got in touch. Kim has a keen interest in history and comes from a family that ran pubs for generations, and it turns out that her great grandfather Thomas Howkins was licensee from 1908-16 when it was a pub called the Swan.

According to An Encyclopaedia of Oxford Pubs, Inns and Taverns by Derek Honey (Oakwood Press, 1998), it was acquired by Morrells in 1889 which employed a ferryman to row people across from Kennington – although in 1895, the Thames froze so deep that you could walk across! The pub and today’s private house stand on an island, and although there’s a footbridge on the Sandford side now, there wasn’t in those days. This was variously known as Rose Island or Kennington Island.

View of the house from the Kennington bank

It was quite some pub too, according to an old article in the Oxford Mail written under the pseudonym Anthony Wood (a 17th century Oxford diarist): “In summer Kennington Island was a regular fairyland with candlelit lanterns dotted around the garden, courting couples in every arbour and the strains of a band providing music for the dances they ran behind the house.”

It hired out boats too, but there was a down side especially in winter when the island saw few visitors and was prone to floods, as it is now. Kim’s great grandfather turned down the chance to buy the pub from Morrells for £500

The Swan when it was a Morrells pub

and moved instead to the brewery’s pub on Abingdon Road called the Berkshire House (it was in Berkshire then), recently re-opened as the Hubble and Home (see Pub News).

In 1919 Morrells leased the building as an up-market hotel for anglers and artists, but in 1928 it was sold as a private house. With Kim I was lucky enough to visit, although please note that this is private property and not open to the public.

It has been in the family of Prue Reynolds (nee Hesketh) since 1953, who has lived there since 1996 with husband Colin, a retired headmaster. They take great pride in the property and have records indicating that an inn stood on this site in the 16th century, with Morlands buying the island in 1883 before selling it to Morrells six years later. There is a pub connection in the Reynolds family too as son Tom jointly runs the Library pub on Cowley Road. Rose Island has a connection with the 1865 novel Alice in Wonderland, and an anomaly until fairly recent times was that this side of the river was in Oxfordshire while Kennington was in Berkshire, meaning pubs on either side had different closing times.

Prue and Colin Reynolds with Kim Langton (centre)

Kim’s great grandmother Phyllis Howkins ran the Berkshire until 1942, but the family connection didn’t end there and in fact goes back much further.

“My grandparents had the Seven Stars in Lake Street and my great grandparents had the Berkshire House and also the Marlborough Arms,” she says. “We have heard through the family that their parents (name of Taylor) ran a pub near Folly Bridge circa 1878 called the Dolphin & Anchor (closed in 1955), almost next door to the Head of the River.

Kim’s mother Jackie Howkins (left) with Mum Betty at the Seven Stars, Lake Street

“My great grandmother’s younger sister died in a fire at the pub. Apparently the two girls were at home with measles, some coal fell from the fire and when one of them went to throw it back in the hearth, her nightgown caught alight and she died.

“It would be great if something similar to the blue plaque scheme could be introduced for all these old public houses that are no longer with us. I had absolutely no idea that there had ever been a pub called the Dolphin & Anchor in Oxford, as when I passed by where it stood there’s such a boring looking building now.”

  • We welcome reminiscences about historic pubs that are either long closed or still with us. See Contact details and get in touch.