“Probably Cambridge’s most celebrated ale house, a hearty little building with wall settles and panelled walls,” enthused Roger Protz in 1989, “that was saved from dereliction in the late 1970s”. This refers to the slum clearances in the area that led to the building of the nearby Grafton Centre. On 22nd October 1964 the pub was purchased from Greene King and Sons Ltd by Cambridge City Council as part of the slum clearance area. The adjoining cottages were demolished but the house was leased back to Greene King to trade as a pub until required for demolition. It was eventually closed at the end of 1975, but was thankfully reprieved when it was decided the pub could be retained after all. It was repurchased by Greene King in June 1977 and was renovated for reopening on 16th February 1978.
The renovation involved painstakingly reassembling the original interior, now listed as an important historic interior:
Practically all the fittings – bar counter, bar back, dado panelling with fixed seating attached and the fireplaces are 1970s direct replacements for the original ones, including those in the snug but some original material survives including the set of handpumps which date back to the 1940s, but not in their original position. The layout changes include the removal of a wall that created the off sales alongside the snug – go outside and you can see the door has been blocked up – however, the two original swing seats still remain attached to the partition to the snug. Other changes include the amalgamation of the small right hand bar, which is served via a hatch, with the private sitting room behind which doubles the size of the room; and the creation of an opening between the two bars – the entrance to the right hand bar is no longer used. However, the outside toilets remain, albeit there is now a covered walkway between the pub and them.
This must have been a fairly faithful reproduction of the original pub, as it still appears remarkably similar to a description of the pub just before it was gutted in 1975, which described it as “a very small pub with exceptional character; the lounge interestingly hung with theatrical personalities who were wont to patronise this house while playing at the New Theatre, the small public bar is bright and warm and centres around a coal fire, the snug bar is almost dolls house scale”. It went straight into the 1979 Good Beer Guide, which described it as excellently renovated, retaining the original atmosphere and snug. It served Greene King XX Mild, Abbot and IPA, which it still does – perhaps the only pub in Cambridge that still has the mild on permanent; a wonderful drink when it’s kept this well.
The Free Press has subsequently featured in more Good Beer Guides than every other Cambridge pub apart from the Dewdrop/Cambridge Blue, and has been variously described as “hearty, friendly and busy”, and an “unspoilt backstreet gem” with “exceptional food”, all still accurate, although the “sun-trapped patio garden where the rabbits roam” no longer contains the “furry beasties”! The walls feature various framed newspapers, typesetting trays customers are encouraged to fill with their own curios, while in the main bar hangs the bow of the Cambridge boat destroyed by hitting a barge at the start of the 1984 Boat Race. The framed printing memorabilia is there because the pub’s name is supposedly a tongue-in-cheek reference to a temperance newspaper:
The title is facetious. It was first licensed in 1834 when a home brewer, Sarah Horne (sic), turned her cottage into a commercial outlet for her brews. Just as she was setting up business, the local temperance movement launched a paper called the Free Press to rail against the iniquities of the demon drink. It folded after just one issue. (Protz, 1989)
Now I’m not one to spoil a good story, but I’m not convinced of its accuracy; the newspaper most likely to be the one in question, the Cambridge Free Press and Moral and Social Reformer, was first published in February 1880, whereas the beerhouse was already named the Free Press by at least 1861. Other sources suggest part of the building was a printing press which circulated a free Cambridge newspaper that unfortunately lasted one issue. I can’t find any 19th century Cambridge newspaper that only lasted one issue, but it seems to have become a pub around 1846, under John Horn who died that year when he was about 45 years old (see comments below – the 1847 Kelly Directory names him, but he had died the previous year, presumably between being recorded and the directory being published). Baptism records for his children apparently record John as a printer, so it’s possible the pub was named to commemorate his association with printing (there was a newspaper named the ‘Cambridge Advertiser and Free Press’ that ran from around 1839 to 1850, so perhaps there was a connection).
The building dates from around 1825, but seems to have first become a pub under John Horn, briefly, succeeded by his widow Sarah Horn. Sarah was born in 1793 in Charlbury, Oxfordshire. She had two sons and one daughter with John Horn between 1828 and 1839; one of those sons, Henry John Horn, returned to take on the Free Press by the late 1860s, Sarah moving a few doors along to 15 Prospect Row (since demolished). Sarah Horn died in Cambridge on 7 August 1877 having lived to the ripe old age of 84. Her son Henry died just a few years later in 1881; like his father before him, he was just 45 years old.
At this point the pub’s long connection with the Horn family ended. However, that was not the last time the pub enjoyed long associations with families, there having been just four regimes in the past 90 years. For nearly 48 years, between 1926 and 1973, the licensee was Mr Geoffrey Nichols. He was succeeded by his daughter Miss Brenda M. Nichols, who was licensee until her retirement at the end of 1975. Miss Nichols reopened the pub in 1978 by pulling the first pint. The licensees then were Chris & Debbie Lloyd, who stayed for over twenty years. The license then passed to Donna and Martin Thornton, and a couple of years later was handed on to their daughter Jenna and husband Craig, who still hold the reins. They’ve since brought many innovations to the pub – occasional beer festivals, pop-up food carts, lined pint glasses for a while; Craig is currently keen to bring in a new range of drinking vessels:
But none of the above really captures what this pub is all about; despite serving excellent homemade food (the Scotch Eggs are legendary; the recipe features in the Cambridgeshire Cook Book which is on sale at the bar), it is still very much a traditional backstreet pub, with welcoming locals, a convivial atmosphere and an emphasis on conversation, aided by up to 6 well-kept ales and up to two well-kept fires.
“How do you make mulled cider then?”
“Throw a load of muck in and boil it up”
“What’s that beer like?”
“It’s like somebody dropped a Werther’s Original in your pint”
“It’s all Babylon”
But if you’re put off by the thought of banter at the bar, don’t be – this is the kind of considerate place where a scantily clad pump clip is given more appropriate clothing by the thoughtful bar staff.
It also passes the Cambridge pub equivalent of the Waiter Rule – the Disco Kenny Rule. If one’s true character can be gleaned from how one treats waiters, then Cambridge pubs can be judged by how well they treat local legend Disco Kenny. At the Free Press he is welcomed and spoken to like the gentleman he is.
Simply, one of my favourite pubs anywhere.
Bruning, T (2009) Cambridgeshire’s Best Pubs
Evans, J., Gillies, A., Hanson, N., Protz, R. CAMRA Good Beer Guides
Protz, R. (1989), The Best Pubs in East Anglia
Petty, M. Looking Back