The horrible history of the Ostrich Inn

Ostrich Inn, Colnbrook

An old friend, Alan Murdie, has written an interesting  essay which discusses, among several gory stories, the supposedly spook-infested Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire – where ‘a past landlord named Jarman is supposed to have murdered up to 60 guests on the premises, in either the 16th or 18th century’. The pub’s unusual name rang a bell, and after a short hunt I turned up a story about the same place that I clipped from the Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1989:

In the shadow of one of London’s ghastliest locations, one of England’s oldest pubs is on the market – together with a ghastly history.

The Ostrich Inn, a Grade II listed freehouse near Heathrow Airport, is said to date back to 1106 and was the scene of 60 grisly murders committed by 12th century landlord John Jarman and his wife.

After inviting wealthy travellers to sleep on a specially-made hinged bed, Jarman would say to his wife, “There is now a fat pig to be had if you want one.” She would answer: “I pray you put him in the hogsty till tomorrow.” The victim would then fall through a trapdoor into a vat of boiling water.

Present owner Derek Lamont, who has never boiled a guest in 25 years at the Ostrich, is retiring. The Business Sales Group, which is handling bids, expects historical interest to push the price over the £1 million mark.

So – a new, much earlier date, no ghost, a detailed method of execution… and a compelling commercial reason for promoting the Jarman tale. Everything seems to tie in to Murdie’s observation that there are two separate traditions here, a murder tale and a spook story, and that “the haunted status of The Ostrich is comparatively recent.” But is there anything more to the legend of the Ostrich Inn than this?

More digging reveals more details. The Victoria County History of Buckinghamshire (vol.3, 1925) pp.246-9, notes that the Ostrich probably dates only to about 1500. There are at least four competing explanations for the pub’s unusual name: that it is a corruption of an inn called Oyster Ridge (Forster Zincke, Some Materials for the History of Wherstead (1887) p.99), that it comes from the French pieds poudreux, meaning dusty-footed (Seabrook & Seabrook, Miniature Coloured Cottages (1996) p.85), that it was originally called the Eastridge Inn (the County History of Buckinghamshire again), and that the place was originally known as the Hospice Inn (Henry Parr Maskell, Old Country Inns of England (1911) p.37). The latter seems most likely, since it ties in with the notion, reported by Jacqueline Simpson and Jennifer Westwood in their estimable reference The Lore of the Land (2005) pp.38-9, that one Miles Crispin gifted the ‘hospice at Colebroc’ to Abingdon Abbey in 1106 and that this hospice occupied the spot where the inn now stands. That explains the notion that the inn dates back to the 12th century as well.

As for the murderous John Jarman and his hinged bed, that story can be traced back not to any factual source, but to one of Britain’s earliest novels, Thomas of Reading, a turn-of-the-seventeenth-century bestseller by Thomas Deloney, a Norfolk silk-weaver, originally published in 1602. The eleventh chapter of Deloney’s work tells how the novel’s hero, Thomas Cole – a wealthy clothier who lives in Reading – puts up for the night at the pub (then known, the author says, as The Crane), where the host is named ‘Iarman’ and where he is given the best room in the house – over the kitchen, with a bed that proves, oddly enough, to be nailed to the floor.

‘Moreouer,’ the tale continues,

that part of the chamber whereupon this bed and bedsteede stoode, was made in such sort that by the pulling out of two yron pinnes below in the kitchin, it was to be let downe… in the manner of a trap doore; moreouer in the kitchin, directly vnder the place where this should fall: was a mighty great cauldron, wherein they vsed to seethe their liquor…

Cole, inevitably, meets the horrible fate Jarman intends for him. But the clothier’s horse, meanwhile, escapes from the inn’s stable, and when it is recaptured and led back to The Crane the murder is discovered. Jarman’s wife is arrested, and the innkeeper is captured soon thereafter hiding in Windsor Forest. He confesses to the murder of 60 people and is hanged.

That would seem to be that – a fictional origin for an unlikely tale – but Westwood and Simpson beg to differ. “The circumstatiality of Deloney’s story,” they suggest, “and his own working habits, make it unlikely he made it up. As a travelling artisan, going from town to town, and county to county, he probably picked up local tradition and gossip on the way.”

If that is so, then it is possible that the original version of the story is the one told by Gordon Willoughby Gyll, the noted nineteenth century traveller, whose History of the Parish of Wraysbury (1829) p.271 notes the following piece of local folklore, which seems to have originated as a tale to explain the curious division of land between the neighbouring parishes of Horton in Buckinghamshire and Datchet, Berks:

Tradition, sometimes the channel of truth although disguised and garbled, avers that at one time, temp. Edward I [1272-1307 – MD], there were 13 bodies of murdered persons taken from this identical inn to be hurled in the Thames, one of which corpses slipped off the cart on a strip of land called Welly, now on the Horton side of the Fleet Ditch, which divides the parishes. Horton refused to bury the body, and Datchet buried it, and hence they claim a piece of land, and now receive rates for it. As the conveyancers, paid by the superintendents of the Ostrich Inn, were counting the corpses, they found only 12, and a Wraysbury fisherman, who had been laying eel-wheels, said, if you are so disconcerted about the loss, throw in one of yourselves, and that will complete the number. The conveyancers, dismayed, shot some arrows at the fisherman, and one pierced and lodged in his boat, and in a brief space he walked with the arrow, using it as a stick, to Colnbrook. A little boy at the Ostrich claimed the arrow as belonging to his father, and this was the proximate cause of the discovery of the assassinations, and the dissolution of the fell gang.

It remains only to note that that Deloney’s story of the Ostrich’s trapdoor leading a murder victim to his horrible fate – very well-known in its day – could have inspired the penny dreadful writers who equipped Fleet Street’s homicidal Sweeney Todd with a very similar contrivance… and to observe that the County History of Buckinghamshire supplies, without apparently realising it, one possible explanation as to how this strange bit of local folklore originated. For the Ostrich Inn, the History’s author explains, once lay on one of the main coach roads out of London, and, as late as 1925, visitors to the pub could view

in a room on the first floor … the remains of a curious arrangement whereby a flap could be let down from the window to enable passengers to enter the room directly from the top of a coach.

[Afterword:] A detailed history of the Ostrich Inn, by one G. Daniel, titled The Ostrich Inn, Colnbrook, Bucks: Its Place in History, apparently appeared in 1969, but there is no copy in the British Library and I have not been able to lay my hands on one elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “The horrible history of the Ostrich Inn

  1. On the pub name there is no reason why the inn could not have always been The Ostrich, as the word is recorded by OED from well before 1500, although inns only started using signboards from the late sixteenth century.
    Deloney’s story sounds like a version of the many stories of muderous hosts, but pre-dates the era of public coaches so the flap must be a coincidence, unless it was a feature used for a different purpose.

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