The Eagle claims to be one of Cambridge’s oldest inns; Greene King dates it back to the 14th century. Jonathan Weiner’s Long for This World says a tavern stood here in the year 1353, “with beer for three gallons a penny”. Earlier still there may have been a pilgrim’s hostel on the site. A chalkboard inside the pub reads ‘serving Cambridge since 1525’. This may refer to the date the land was bequeathed to Corpus Christi.
The Eagle stands on an area of Saxon occupation from c. 8th century, opposite the oldest building in Cambridgeshire, the late Saxon stone church tower of St Bene’t’s church which dates from around 1025.
26th March 1566
What is certain is that records from Corpus Christi College record the lease, on 26 March 1566, of a “new build, called the Egle and the chyld” for 40 years at an annual rent of £3 6s 8d (around this time, a good Brewer’s wages were perhaps £6 – £10 a year). By 1658, the lease names it the ‘Eagle and Child’. The building’s first floor balustraded gallery dates from around 1800 but is thought to be based on a much older original feature. It has been suggested that Shakespeare performed his plays from those original galleries.
In the 17th century the Eagle and Child was a coaching inn (nicknamed The Bird and Baby). It included a Post House, the destination of the Night Post Coach that left the Golden Cross in Charing Cross, London every afternoon at 5:30 and travelled “through the dangerous glades of Epping Forest, the old advertisement especially mentions it to be ‘guarded'” (Charles Harper – The Great Fenland Highway) before hopefully arriving unscathed at the Eagle at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Examples of some coaches that set out from the Eagle:
1808 – The Royal Mail Coach to Charing Cross departed every night at 9pm and a coach returned every evening at 6pm. Mail coaches to Fakenham and Wisbech also set out from here several times a week.
1821 – The Cambridge and Ely Coach from London every evening at 6pm, arriving at the Eagle in ten hours.
1824 – The Times Coach to London, departing daily 6am with a coach returning 9pm. Also, The Oxford Coach, departing three mornings a week and returning the evenings of the alternate days
1838 – The Eagle Coach left for Birmingham via Northampton three mornings a week at 7:30am. The Times Coach to the George and Blue Boar Holborn, London, 6am every morning except Sunday, returning at 3pm. The Norfolk Regulator from Holt to the White Horse, Fetter Lane. The Oxford, taking 10 hours to reach its destination. The Wisbech Defiance and The Fakenham Hero also called at the Eagle on the way to London.
However, the arrival of the railway to Cambridge in 1845 quickly led to its decline as a coaching inn (the last stagecoach leaving Cambridge in 1849). Later, it is listed as the Eagle Tavern in 1881 and shown as the Eagle Hotel on a town plan of 1888.
The Rutland Club
In 1782 John Mortlock, an MP and 13 times Mayor of Cambridge, chose the Eagle as his political base and the dinner gatherings in the Eagle were known as the Rutland Club. Till well past the middle of the 19th century, the Eagle was still used as the headquarters for Cambridge Tories (Gray – Cambridge Revisited).
The Eagle was frequented by staff from the Cavendish Laboratory, located on nearby Free School Lane for a 100 years from 1874 – 1974. These patrons included Francis Crick and James Watson.
On 28th February 1953, Crick and Watson walked into the Eagle and announced “we have discovered the secret of life”, referring of course to their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. A plaque in the pub claimed that throughout their partnership, they dined together at the Eagle six days a week!
Aside from the announcement of the discovery of DNA, the Eagle is perhaps best known for its RAF bar. The ceiling is covered in the graffiti of British and American WWII pilots who burned their names and squadron numbers there using cigarette lighters, candles and lipstick. These were hidden by decades of smoke and grime until former RAF technician James Chainey painstakingly restored and recorded the inscriptions. These include a naked woman drawn in lipstick, apparently the outline of the pub landlady! The story of these inscriptions is brought wonderfully to life in Dave O’Malley’s Lunch at the Eagle and Malcolm Osborn’s A Famous Ceiling (PDF) contains an image of Chainey’s plan.
This grade II listed building is located at 7 Benet Street. Numbers 6 to 9 Benet Street have all at some time been incorporated into the inn. For some time during the 20th century, it was a much smaller pub than the present layout, with only two bars, the RAF bar to the north and the older bar in the galleried west building. The entrance to the pub then was from the yard. The pub actually closed in 1988 for nearly 4 years. It was refurbished and extended to the buildings fronting Benet Street, reincorporating number 8 into the inn, including the early 18th century oak-panelled room to the right of the front entrance and the extension of the main bar area to the left. Historic wall paintings and other features were uncovered during the restoration. It was officially reopened in 1992 by the master of Corpus Christi College, owners of the building. In 1993 the David Urwin award for Best restoration, extension or alteration of an existing building was awarded to Nick Cannell, Greene King & Co. Architects, and John Wisbey, Ison Wisbey Associates for the restoration.
Attached to the wall of numbers 6 and 9 Benet Street, both at one time part of the Eagle, are two of the few remaining examples of the 1950s Richardson Candle streetlight. Designed by Albert Richardson as an elegant reaction to the modern ‘monstrosities’, the streetlights were unique to Cambridge and only 56 wall mounted candles were ever produced, along with a further 64 column mounted. There is a detailed article on the Richardson Candles by Simon Cornwell
The sign of the Eagle and Child
The Eagle and Child emblem came from the crest of the Stanley family, Earls of Derby (Cambridge also has an Earl of Derby pub just over a mile away from the Eagle, likely named after the 15th Earl, Edward Stanley, who was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge). The Eagle and Child on the crest was adopted from the crest of the Lathoms and refers to the legend of Sir Thomas Lathom who is said to have discovered a child under an Eagles Eyrie whilst walking in the woods with his wife. Having only one child, daughter Isabel, Thomas was anxious to have a male heir, and when a maid conceived his illegitimate son, he concocted the unlikely story to ensure he became his male heir. On his deathbed however, he had a change of heart and the estate passed to his daughter Isabel, who married into the Stanley family, hence their adoption of the crest.
Ghosts and buried treasure
As with many old Cambridge buildings, the Eagle has a number of ghosts associated with it. On a recent Cambridge Ghost Tour we were told that a fire raged through the upstairs bedrooms a few hundred years ago and a young child, unable to open the window, was trapped inside and burnt to death. Ever since, the window has been kept open, and on occasions when it has been closed, it has brought bad luck, or has mysteriously opened itself. It’s even claimed that it is now written into the lease that the window must always remain open. Every time I pass, I step into the courtyard and, whatever the weather, I do always find the window open!
There are variations of this story and there are other tales of ghostly apparitions. However, the most intriguing find comes from what purports to be a coroner’s form from an inquest held at the Eagle in 1826. It states that the previous year, two labourers discovered a haul of treasure hidden underneath an ancient house in Benet Street. The treasure included nearly 200 pieces of gold and over 3,500 pieces of silver. They were seized by the coroner for the Crown and I suppose it’s unlikely that the labourers ever saw their treasure again.
‘Hurry to the Eagle Inn’
To end on a poetic note, here is an extract from a poem mentioning this pub, written in 1823 by Winthrop Mackworth Praed who was at Trinity College:
To hurry to the Eagle Inn,
And there to fret, and there to fume
In a great passion and small room?
Perhaps it was! I only know
I sat me down at five or so
And dined upon a charming plan
Clean cloth, stewed eels, and Mary Anne
I am egregiously witty
And Mary Anne is rather pretty
And so we grew immensely merry
And drank the Doctors’ health in sherry!