The colourful past lives of Talbot House
Winchester residents of a certain vintage may well remember the halcyon days of the Talbot Hotel – a busy, much-loved High Street pub for almost a century until 1975. The pub has been long gone but memories of nights in the bar and its legendary jukebox live on. In 2022, the Talbot came second in the Hampshire Chronicle’s poll of lost Hampshire pubs that readers miss the most.
The Talbot began life as the Star Inn – an 18th century coaching inn catering to visitors travelling by horse-drawn coach and, later, by train. In the early 1880s, then-owners the Chesil Brewery commissioned a building to replace the original Georgian one. In 1885, the old Star Inn was demolished, and a replacement constructed at the cost of £2,844 – some £500,000 in today’s money.
Standing four stories tall, the new inn loomed larger than its predecessor. It carried many of the trademarks of high Victorian style – steeply raked slate roofs and high, gabled dormers, along with flint and brick walls and double-decker corner bay windows that, over time, became a distinctive part of the streetscape of the High Street.
The architect behind the design was one of the city’s most prominent figures: Thomas Stopher. In addition to being an architect and surveyor, Stopher was an alderman and twice Mayor of Winchester. He designed West Downs School on Romsey Road, the former Dolphin Inn on the High Street, the De Lunn Buildings in Jewry Street, and the former Winchester High School for Girls’ (now flats) on North Walls. He waived his architect’s fee to design an extension to the Guildhall for a new School of Art and Reading Room.
At the time of its grand reopening, the rebuilt Star Inn was one of the most comfortable hotels in Winchester – albeit eclipsed in size and luxury by the George Hotel on Jewry Street. A listing in the Chronicle in January 1886 described the new Star Inn as featuring a bar, a “bar parlour”, a 26-foot sitting room and eight good bedrooms laid out over three upper floors, with “capital cellarage” for storage of wine and beer.
In 1929, now under the ownership of Strongs of Romsey, the hotel’s name was changed from the Star Inn to the Talbot, and other updates made. A telephone was installed – with signage outside inviting customers to come in and make calls – and a small car park was added to the rear. By the 1950s, bed and breakfast rates at the Talbot had edged up to 12 shillings and sixpence, and both the hotel and bar were doing well.
The late 1950s and the 1960s saw many Georgian and Victorian buildings in Winchester demolished to make way for road widening schemes and newer, larger buildings. The George, long the reigning queen of the city’s hotels, was torn down to make room for more traffic on Jewry Street. A brand-new hotel – the Wessex – was built near the cathedral, sporting a modernist style and a standard of luxury and service previously unknown in Winchester.
But the Talbot survived, thanks largely to the growing popularity of its downstairs bar. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the bar at the Talbot, with its cheap beer, loud music and relaxed approach to cannabis, had become a magnet for the city’s youth – a status memorialised with a reference in the Robyn Hithcock’s song, “Winchester”.
Local resident Chris Barham is among those who remembers the Talbot of the early seventies: “It was run by retired Captain Tom East – a great Winchester character – and his wife Bettina. The bar was a popular spot at lunchtime with office workers and reporters covering the nearby courts. In the evenings and at weekends it was always packed, the air thick with smoke. Tom used to display works by local artists in the lounge bar. One was by James Isherwood and featured a topless Dusty Springfield. The singer got to hear of it and objected, prompting newspaper headlines. Tom pinned a duster across the offending area and the painting became known as Dusty with the duster.”
Another former regular, Patrick Cosgrove recalls the social role the Talbot played as a melting pot for the city’s youngsters: “Different factions rubbed along amicably: middle class grammar school kids, Peter Symonds boys, and girls from the County High School, as well as the mod kids from the Romsey Road with their scooters. It was a place to meet other youngsters whose paths you might never otherwise cross. Friendships were made at the Talbot that have lasted 50 years.”
The end came quickly. In 1974, Captain Tom died and, not long afterwards, a police raid uncovered drugs on the premises. Final orders came in 1975, when the pub's license came to an end and the brewery put the building up for sale. It was bought by local businessman and chartered surveyor Maurice Beale, who oversaw its conversion to offices. Now renamed Talbot House, it served as the head office of Beales estate agents throughout the 1980s. The ground floor has been occupied by estate agents ever since – currently housing the residential sales office of Belgarum.
The upper floors, which once housed the hotel’s guest rooms and landlord’s flat, are today divided into 12 self-contained offices leased to local, independent businesses. Current tenants include architects, landscape designers, lighting specialists, and several counsellors and therapists.