The George, Stamford and the Great North Road

The George at Stamford vies with the Angel at Grantham as the country’s oldest surviving coaching inn. It boasts a prominent position next to the Great North Road and its distinctive wooden arch across the road has been an iconic feature for 200 years.

Even in Saxon times a bridge had replaced the “stony ford” (hence Stanford then Stamford) placing the site of the George on an important north-south route, immediately south of the River Welland. In 1170 a bridge over the Trent at Newark further consolidated the town’s position, encouraging travellers to York, Newcastle and Edinburgh to take the Stamford route (rather than via Nottingham).

In the 12th century there were three religious houses located to the south of the bridge. The Hospital of St Giles, referenced in 1189, cared for lepers. Second, the House of St Sepulchre, established by the Knights Hospitallers: guests, pilgrims and knights of this military/religious order were provided with accommodation and hospitality as they travelled the country – perhaps preparing to visit the Holy Land. And third, the Hospital of St John the Baptist and Thomas the Martyr founded towards the end of the reign of Henry II (approx. 1180s): its purpose was the provision of beer, meat and lodgings for poor strangers as they passed by, and for support of the local poor. The precise locations of these houses is not known but they were described as a group within a charter of 1227 confirming their control by the abbey of Peterborough.

In the following centuries the religious and charitable functions of these institutions languished but the site prospered in catering for travellers along the Great North Road. The proprietor of the George in the late 15th century was John Dickens, three times Alderman of Stamford. His daughter married David Cissell. In turn, his son Richard was the father of William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley. Richard gained control of a large estate south of the river and of course his son benefited hugely from the subsequent dissolution of church properties. The main block of The George inn was rebuilt by Lord Burghley in 1597.

As the post and coaching traffic developed from the mid-17th century the George was well placed, halfway between London and York. Initially the journey to London would have taken 2 days but after turnpike road improvements it was just nine hours away from the capital. A peak of 40 coaches passed through Stamford daily.

It is estimated that 75% of the local population became directly or indirectly involved in the coaching and carrying trade. In 1796 a survey recorded 31 Stamford inns – and that was not including the 5 south of the river. The best analogy for the commercial impact is the subsequent travel hub associated with a major railway station or airport. The George’s “departure lounges” on either side of the carriageway through the inn to the yard behind still provide a flavour of this – The York and The London Rooms.

In the 1840s a man named Milton was challenged to ride the ninety miles from Piccadilly in London to the George in less than five hours. He won the bet with 35 minutes to spare using 13 horses.

The coaching trade waned in the 19th century but The George lived on, and was again well placed when motor vehicles arrived in the 1900s.

The George, Stamford - Re-enactment

Re-enactment of an 1840 mail coach departing from the George, Stamford (this coach can be seen at the Stockwood Discovery Centre in Luton)

About the George, Stamford

The current buildings which comprise the George are a confused mixture of elements which have evolved over more than 800 years. They are usefully and succinctly described in the Historic England listing:

Front elevation of mid C18. Dated 1728 on rain-water-head). 3 storeys in ashlar, Moulded stone cornice and panelled parapet, centre containing cartouche with arms of Earl of Exeter. Stone plinth, probably earlier, 5 windows in moulded stone surrounds with triple keystones. Central round-headed arch with triple keystone over modern door C19 wood sign extending across the road, Remains of C17 buildings on North and to rear. Court to rear is mid C13. 3 storeys, 2 canted bay. The building stands on the site of 1 originally belonging to the Knights Hospitallers, and is a large and rambling mixture of many dates. The North elevation contains remains of 2 gables and several mullioned windows. Interior:- has been much altered, 1 C18 stone chimney-piece. Remains of a mediaeval hall, probably C14, including the chamfered fireplace arch and part of the screens are to be found in the gentlemen’s lavatory. Includes rear premises, former stables, mainly garaging. Early C19. 2 storey in brick.

It is a tribute to the innkeepers over the centuries that despite this mixed heritage the hotel today, and especially its courtyard, exude coherence, comfort, and character. It is claimed that remains of the ancient hospital, partly destroyed by a Lancastrian army in 1461 during the Wars of the Roses, can be seen in the crypt under what is now the Champagne bar. Trefoil motifs are visible on a gable end and over two medieval gateways in the garden. Also in the garden is a gnarled old mulberry bush dating from the reign of James I – or possibly earlier.

During the coaching era The George was the pre-eminent Stamford inn and boasted extensive facilities. There was stabling for 86 horses, it had its own brew house and farm, and even a separate tap for working class drinkers.

The George’s association with the Great North Road and its proximity to the powerful Burghley estate have brought famous visitors over the centuries.

  • King Charles I stayed the night in March 1641, when travelling to Grantham, and again in August 1645 en route from Newark to Huntingdon.
  • William III stayed in 1696 and the king of Denmark in 1768.
  • The Duke of Cumberland (son of George II) stayed in 1746 on his way back from victory at Culloden.
  • Sir Walter Scott was a frequent visitor describing Stamford as “the finest stone town in England”.

As well as hosting north and south bound travellers, the George has been popular with sports enthusiasts over the centuries. Attractions included the Stamford races first held in 1619, and at a new racecourse near Easton on the Hill from 1717 to 1873. In the 18th century there was cock fighting at the George: the 40 foot diameter stone built cock pit is claimed to have held 500 people. Since 1961 it has been the 3 day eventing Burghley Horse Trials held each September which have tested the capacity of the George and other Stamford hotels.

Writing in 1906 Charles Harper captures the changing character of the George at Stamford:

In 1776 the Reverend Thomas Twining wrote of the “distracting bustle of the ‘George,’ which exceeded anything I ever saw or heard.” All that has long since given place to the gravity and sobriety already described, and the great central entrance for the coaches has for many years past been covered over and converted into halls and reception-rooms; but there may yet be seen an ivied courtyard and ancient staircase.

Even as I write, a great change is coming upon the fortunes of the “George.” The motorists who, with the neighbouring huntsmen, have during these last few years been its chief support, have now wholly taken it over. That is to say, the Road Club, establishing club quarters along the Great North Road, as nearly as may be fifty miles apart, has procured a long lease of the house from the Marquis of Exeter, and has remodelled the interior and furnished it with billiard-rooms up-to-date, a library of road literature, and other essentials of the automobile tourist. While especially devoted to these interests, the “George” will still welcome the huntsman fresh from the fallows, and hopes to interest him in the scent of the petrol as much as in that of the fox.

The George, Stamford - Cock Fighting

The Stamford Mercury, 14th February 1734

The George - Stamford Coaches

Stamford Mercury – Friday 23 November 1821