What next for the Eagle and Child?

Viewings were held this week as St John’s seeks a landlord to take it on

Having won widespread acclaim for choosing a community funded group to run the Lamb & Flag when it re-opens shortly – see accompanying post – owner St John’s College is now concentrating on an even more pressing problem, the Eagle and Child. Situated directly opposite the Lamb & Flag on the western side of St Giles, this is another very historic pub owned by the college which has been closed since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

It was not really a casualty of the pandemic as it had always been planned to close for a major refurbishment, but negotiations with Young’s pub company foundered and the pandemic made it more difficult to find a taker. The Eagle and Child, or “Bird and Baby” in university parlance, had been run as a Nicholson’s pub by M&B for many years, but the price St John’s is seeking may put off the kind of large pub company that could have afforded it in better times. Another stumbling block could be the condition of the building, described as very poor by staff working there prior to closure.

Display about the Inklings in the original back bar. Photo: Phil Gammon

The Eagle and Child matters not only because it is a beloved pub, but because it has achieved global fame because of the writers who used to meet there regularly. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were the leaders of a group known as the Inklings, who also patronised the Lamb & Flag. The community group that will run the latter is called the Inklings, although the writers are more closely associated with the Eagle and Child which has a commemorative display inside. That much is well enough known, but did you know that Tolkien finally had to give way to a darts board? Read on…..

But to return to the present day, plans have been approved to create between six and eight boutique hotel rooms above the pub and what used to be the Green Café next door, with the ground floor of the former café acting as hotel reception. The conservatory at the back of the Grade II listed pub would be demolished and the ground floor extended, with new kitchen and refurbished cellar. A letting notice put out by estate agent Savills Licensed Leisure makes clear that the new landlord will be responsible for the works and for fitting out the building, with an annual rent “in excess of £165,000” exclusive being stipulated. Whoever takes it on will need deep pockets, leading to speculation that it might be a wealthy individual or even perhaps a community-backed group. It could prove a wise investment as people interested in these writers come to Oxford from all over the world, with the Tolkien Society always visiting the Eagle and Child in its annual reunion weekend.

Win Reading outside the pub in the 1960s, courtesy of the Oxford Mail archive. She won the camera in a competition for Ind Coope landlords/landladies.

The condition of the building will be revealed by surveys, but former staff have described rotten wood, rat infestations, insanitary living conditions and a cellar needing a total revamp. One claimed it had become very run-down and neglected over many years, and that it would need a very costly renovation.

So, what caused the writers of such cherished texts as The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia to get asked to leave their favourite pub, where they met regularly in the post-war years? A grand old lady called Win Reading, who I had the pleasure of meeting in 2016, had been a landlady in Oxford since the early 1950s, moving to the Eagle and Child, then an Ind Coope house, in 1959. “Tolkien and Lewis used to come into the back room of the pub and they would shut the door, as they didn’t want anyone else in there,” Win told Issue 95 of Oxford Drinker magazine. “But they didn’t drink very much, so one day we said to them politely that we needed that room for a darts board. Basically, we threw them out!”

It was then, probably in 1962, that the Inklings moved to the Lamb & Flag, and we look forward to seeing some history up on the walls when it re-opens, hopefully by Christmas. Win carried on running the Eagle and Child until 1986, and after she left it was enlarged considerably while retaining the character of the old part of the building. The Tolkien Society weighed in prior to the revamp, cautioning against turning it into “an anonymous watering hole” with a Tolkien Room or an Inklings Lounge. In my book Oxford Pubs I include further background on the pub, with such ephemera as a previous landlady, Florence Blagrove, keeping rabbits there! An inn was first recorded here in 1650, gaining its present name in 1684, the eagle and child being from the crest of the Earls of Derby.

It may not re-open for a couple of years yet, but we can rely on St John’s to cherish the pub’s history as it has done with the Lamb & Flag. But what of the Mitre on the High Street, another closed historic pub, owned by Lincoln College? That’s another story.

The long, narrow layout of the pub and cramped bar. Photo: Phil Gammon