The Strange History of an Ostrich

The Ostrich as it is today
The Ostrich as it is today

Few buildings have such a rich and shocking history as the Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook. Both King John and Queen Elizabeth are said to have stayed there; as are Dick Turpin and Samuel Pepys – though not all at the same time! There have been multiple murders as well as ghosts. And, of course, there is a stuffed ostrich called Esmerelda.

The Ostrich Inn is (possibly) the third oldest inn in England and was founded over 900 years ago, in (or probably before) 1106 when Milo Crispin donated “the hospice of Colebroc” to Abingdon Abbey. We know a hospice was just a rest house for travellers, invariably owned and run by a religious order, and we also know that the innkeeper was a Saxon named Aegelward. Milo stipulated that the inn should be held in trust “for the good travellers in this world and the salvation of their souls in the next”.

The name Ostrich may be a simple corruption of the word hospice, though one Middle Ages source calls it “The Crane” – but, as that is also a large bird with a long bill and long legs, the two names may simply have become confused. However, ostriches were known about at the time due to two separate references to them in the Bible.

The old gallery at the rear
The old gallery at the rear

The present structure is a re-building from sometime around 1500 and the outside, would probably still be recognisable to its builders, although at the time there were two shops at the front and a gallery along the outside at the back. By comparison to the then recent times of the Wars of the Roses, this period was one of relative prosperity, when many inns and buildings were re-built. I mention this as a sneaky way to link to the unexpected fact that the term “Wars of the Roses” is actually a modern name and only came into general use because of the novel “Anne of Geierstein” by Sir Walter Scott!

If you walk along what remains of this (now-internal) back gallery, the last room you come to is used as a large storeroom that it is said to have a particularly grisly past. It also comes equipped with its very own ghost. A book published between 1596 and 1600 by Thomas Deloney carried the story of the Ostrich’s enterprising landlord Mr Jarman.

Jarman saw a risk-free method of boosting his income by robbing rich travellers. Before the days of banks people would often carry large sums of money with them as they travelled. In the “Blue Room,” one of the Inn’s best bedrooms, he built a trapdoor under the bed….. but let us allow the landlord the pleasure of telling his own tale:

Ttipping bed in the Ostrich
Tipping bed in the ostrich

“This man should then be laid in the chamber right over the kitchen, which was a fair chamber, and better set out than any other in the house: the best of bedstead therein, though it was little and low, yet was most cunningly carved, and faire, to the eys, the feet whereof were fast-naild to the chamber floore, in such sort, that it could not in any wise fall, the bed that lay therein was fast sowed to the sides of the bedstead: Moreover that part of the chamber whereupon this bed and bedstead stood, was made in such sort, that by pulling out of two Iron pinnes below in the kitchen, it was to be let downe and taken up by a draw bridge, or in manner of a trap doore: moreover in the kitchen, directly under the place where this should fall, was a mighty great caldron, wherin they used to seethe their liquor when they went to brewing. Now, the maen appointed for the slaughter, were laid into this bed, and in the dead time of night, when they were sound a sleepe, by plucking out the foresaid yron pinnes, downe would the man fall out of his bed into the boyling caldron, and all the cloaths that were upon him: where being suddenly scalded and drowned, he was never able to cry or speake one word.

An early image of the Ostrich
An early image of the Ostrich

“Then they had a little ladder ever standing ready in the kitchen, by the which they presently mounted into the sid chamber, and there closely take away the mans apparell, as also his money, in his male or capcase: and then lifting up the said falling floore which hung by hinges, they made it fast as before”.“ The dead body would they take presently out of the caldron and throw it downe the river, which ran neere unto their house, wherby they scaped all danger.

The Ostrich as it was
An early image of the Ostrich

When Jarmen was eventually caught due to his failure to rid himself of Thomas of Reading’s (or possibly a wealthy clothier called, Olde Cole’s) horse, he boasted that he had murdered sixty people! Perhaps, knowing that he was doomed, Jarman may have increased the number of victims in order to gain lasting notoriety. If so, he certainly achieved his object, and gave the Ostrich a story that has made its name known throughout the world. It probably forms the origin of the Victorian penny dreadful tale “Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

Sarah, the Ostrich’s friendly deputy manager, showed us all around and she explained that when this room above the kitchen was renovated they found …. But you will have to wait until the end to know just what!

Less gruesome, but still very unusual, are the curious remains of an arrangement in the function room at the front of the first floor of the building. It housed a novel flap that could be let down from the window to let passengers travelling on the roof of stage-coaches enter the inn without the inconvenience of climbing down first! There is also a great deal of interesting seventeenth-century panelling and a staircase of the same date.

The Ostrich was probably founded because of Windsor Castle. In the Middle Ages travelling was a long, dirty and tedious business and ambassadors and other important people visiting Windsor are said to have used Colnbrook as their final stop on their journey. They would change into their official robes at the Ostrich, then cross the Thames on the Datchet ferry before travelling on to the castle to meet the King.

In those days road travel was so arduous that when, in 1558, Queen Elizabeth I was travelling from Woodstock to London, and passed through Colnbrook, the road was so bad that the wheel of her coach came off, forcing her to spend the night there, quite possibly at the Ostrich itself.

On 17th June 1668 Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary how he came through “Colebrooke.” Apparently he had been in a bad mood and wrote “Somewhat out of humour all day, reflection on my wife’s neglect of things, and impertinent humour got by this liberty of being from me, which she is never to be trusted with; for she is a fool.” He went on to say “I find my wife hath something in her gizzard, that only waits an opportunity of being provoked to bring up; but I will not, for my content sake, give it”.

It is possible that Pepys received some of the change from his bill in the form of a “Token.” As there was a shortage of small change at the time, shopkeepers and innkeepers minted their own money or tokens. One issued in 1657 by Samuel Mills, for the use at the Ostrich shows an ostrich holding a horseshoe in its beak – it can still found in Bucks County Council’s archive.

During the early years of the century that followed Pepys’ visit, Colnbrook was linked to many of the highwaymen who frequented the area due to the rich pickings from people travelling along the Bath road.

Esmerelda the Colnbrook ostrich
Esmerelda the Colnbrook ostrich

The most famous was Dick Turpin, who is said to have had an association with the Ostrich (and almost every other pub in South-East England!) and, according to legend hid at the inn. Stories tell of him escaping from trouble by jumping out of the window, or alternately fleeing through a secret tunnel under the inn. As recently as 1925 the inn still had one of “his” pistols on display.

But to return to Jarman’s ingenious contraption for tipping unwary travellers into a boiling caldron – “when the room above the kitchen was renovated they found …. nothing.” Despite earlier reports of finding it, it simply wasn’t there. But it still makes a good story!

 by Gerry Palmer

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