Saracen’s Head Hotel

by Steve Richardson

As I read about the build-up to the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, I remembered seeing a plaque on a wall in the High Street. It commemorates the Saracen’s Head Hotel, “a favourite watering hole for thousands of RAF and allied airmen and women who served on Lincolnshire airfields in World War II”.

During the War, pubs played an important role in maintaining the morale of the civilian population and military personnel. Demand for beer was very high and, even though it was never rationed, there were shortages and reports of landlords holding back supplies for regulars.

The original Saracen’s Head dated back to the Middle Ages. In Tudor times, it was a rambling, timber-framed building and, at the start of the 19th century, a new facade was added. Behind the compact frontage on the High Street were stores, yards and stables. Part of the rear of the building and another entrance were on Saltergate, but the hotel site stretched behind other High Street buildings, down to a related pub, the Saracens Head Tap, on Waterside North.

Until the arrival of the railways, the Saracen’s Head was a main stop for coaches to and from London, Peterborough, Hull, Manchester, Leeds and York.

For many years, the hotel was the headquarters of the local Tory party. On the opposite side of the street was the Whig party stronghold at another inn, The Reindeer (long ago demolished to make way for a bank). On election nights, this area could often become the scene of drunken riots.

Around 1850, the American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, stayed at the Saracens Head and recorded his impressions. “It received us hospitably, and looked comfortable enough, though like the hotels of most old English towns, it has a musty fragrance of antiquity.”

In December 1924, the old coaching inn was transformed into a “Hotel de Luxe” by new owner Mr H. H. Leven. The improvements were said to have cost between £15,000 and £20,000, a huge sum for the day. His intention was to give Lincoln “a hotel worthy of the city”.

In 1946, the Saracen’s Head Hotel is listed as being owned by Lincoln Hotels Ltd. Perhaps it had not been the pre-war success Mr Leven intended. The financial depression of the early 1930s, and then the disruption of the war years would have been very difficult.

It finally closed in 1959. Part of the building is now occupied by Waterstone’s, and if you study old images of the Saracen’s Head Hotel, it is remarkable how little has changed on the upper exterior of the building. Even the old balcony railing seems to have survived pretty much intact.

And what about the beer? Mild accounted for 70% of all beer sold until well after WW2. It was the cheapest draught beer available, the drink of the public bar and the working man. Delivered to the pub “bright”, it was intended for rapid sale within 2 or 3 days. Well-hopped, pale ales (bitter) had been around since the 1840s, and were the staple of the saloon bar. Such beer required cellar conditioning, and was more expensive. Bitter was associated with a wealthier class of drinker, and remained a minority drink until the 1950s. Bottled beers were commonly sold in all pubs at this time, whether drunk alone, or mixed

The premium beer style was “Burton”, a strong, dark, sweet ale, like a modern winter warmer. It’s said that “Gone for a burton”, the poignant euphemism used by aircrew to refer to fallen comrades, implied that they had just stepped out for a beer.

Read about Dambusters pubs in the new edition of the Lincoln CAMRA magazine, ImpAle.