Is there hope yet for the Lamb & Flag?

Major campaign likely if owner St John’s College calls time on a leading real ale pub

This week’s news that one of Oxford’s favourite real ale hostelries could remain closed permanently has come as a devastating blow not only to CAMRA, but to everyone who respects character pubs and the history and traditions of our university city.

Owner St John’s college confirmed on Thursday that the subsidiary company running the Lamb & Flag would be wound up at the end of January, in news published by the Oxford Mail in conjunction with Oxford CAMRA. The mainly wet-led pub, which used to serve food only at lunchtime, has been closed for several weeks as it did not re-open during the second lockdown from early December, when only pubs serving food were allowed to trade. Manager Martin Siggery, Andy and the other remaining staff have been made redundant.

St John’s has faced a barrage of online criticism over the closure, especially its statement that, as a charity, it cannot support loss-making ventures not part of its core activities. The upper floors are already used for student accommodation, leading to fears that the pub could be put to some kind of alternative use. CAMRA has vowed to fight any change of use application to the city council, and the pub enjoys a degree of protection as a Grade II listed building.

The future looks bleak at present, but St John’s has not closed the door on it re-opening as a pub and we are aware that expressions of interest from experienced pub people are about to be made. It is understood that the pub’s annual turnover was in excess of £550,000 before 2020, but much would depend on the leasing cost and, of course, trading conditions when pubs are allowed to re-open. The pub is a free house, which the college has managed directly since 1997, preceded by various breweries. Profits made by the pub have been used to support graduate scholarships.

In a statement, St John’s deputy bursar Steve Elston said: “The Lamb & Flag, like many other businesses in the hospitality industry, has been hard hit by the pandemic. Despite the best efforts of the staff and looking at every option to keep it open, the trading figures of the last 12 months have meant that the pub is not currently financially viable. Also the college as a charity is not allowed to financially support a loss-making business that is not part of its core charitable objectives. Therefore, the directors of the Lamb & Flag (Oxford) Ltd have regrettably been obliged to close the pub.

“We know that it holds an important place in Oxford’s history. The college would like to thank the staff of the Lamb & Flag (Oxford) Limited for their best endeavours in such challenging circumstances. The pub will remain in the college’s ownership and the focus now is to work to look beyond the present situation and ensure the pub’s long-term future is secured.”

Closure of the Lamb & Flag is a grievous loss for CAMRA as it has featured in the Good Beer Guide every year without fail since 2001, with consistently high beer scores, and has been named City Pub of the Year on several occasions. Up to six real ales could usually be found here, including a house bitter from Palmers in Dorset, Theakston’s Old Peculier and rotating local beers. It was also one of the few pubs where you could always find real cider. The pub’s clientele was a mix of locals, students, academics and real ale lovers who would make it first stop on a visit to Oxford.

Any efforts by CAMRA to save it as a pub are likely to be joined by students. Emmet O’Leary, president of St John’s Junior Common Room (JCR), said: “The Lamb & Flag is a much-loved part of student life at St John’s. Many of us looked forward to returning for a drink after the pandemic, so we are naturally disappointed at the news of its closure. The JCR has a constructive relationship with the college and we look forward to contributing to conversations about the future of the pub.”

Local historians could also get involved, as a pub has stood on this site in St Giles since 1613 while there was another hostelry with the same name on the south side of the college since 1566. The lamb and flag form a symbol of St John, the Knights Templar and others, with a Biblical reference in John 1.29 reading: “Behold the lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world”. Pubs with this name – and there are 16 listed on the Whatpub database – were often the starting point for pilgrimages.

It is thought that the present building dates from 1695, the oldest part being at the rear. Writers have frequented the pub, including Tolkien (with C.S. Lewis, better known for his associations with the Eagle and Child pub, across the road) and Graham Greene. It features in Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure.

A 1950s (?) view of Lamb and Flag Passage [Oxford Mail archive]

Closure of the Lamb & Flag would leave St Giles, at least temporarily, without a functioning pub as the Eagle and Child is expected to shut for around two years for a major revamp, when it will re-open under the management of Young’s.

Whether St John’s will prove a sympathetic owner remains to be seen, but for now many CAMRA members are outraged. Rob Walters, writing on Facebook, said: “Unbelievable. Whilst pubs all over the country are hanging in there by the skin of their teeth, the richest college in Oxford makes the staff of the Lamb & Flag redundant and closes its doors for good. And that excuse about being a charity — poppycock. As if the Charities Commission is going to be chasing St John’s at this time of Covid-based economic disaster. This pub is more than an Oxford treasure, it is a national treasure. Any move to close this unique pub must be implacably resisted.”