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The Crooked Billet at Stoke Row, Henley-on-Thames

The Crooked Billet at Stoke Row, Henley-on-Thames

Ghosts and Highwaymen at The Crooked Billet, Stoke Row

9 September 2022

The Crooked Billet pub in Stoke Row is said to be haunted by the foul-mouthed ghost of a previous landlord, whose visitations are accompanied by the distinctive sound of beer barrels being rolled across the floors, and also a fair amount of swearing!

A hideout for Dick Turpin?

This haunting is described at the excellent ghostpubs.com, which also mentions that, like the George Hotel in nearby Wallingford, the pub was claimed to be favourite haunt of the infamous 18th-century highwayman Dick Turpin.

While there are many pubs in England that make similar claims, it is easy to see why the Crooked Billet might make a suitable spot for a highwayman like Dick Turpin to lie low, given its location tucked away from prying eyes down a narrow country lane on the edge of woodland.

A map showing the Crooked Billet, circa 1897

A map showing the Crooked Billet pub, circa 1897.

Why the 'Crooked Billet'?

The Crooked Billet is a curious but not-uncommon name shared with various inns and taverns, both in the UK and as far away as the United States.

At various times in English history displaying a sign outside a pub was actually required by law. This was the case in 1393 when King Richard II decreed that all pubs display a sign so that official ale tasters (or ale-conners, as they were then known) could easily identify them. Their job was to check the quality of all ale sold to ensure it met acceptable consumption standards.

Many poor landlords were reluctant to pay for an actual sign, so to get around this legal requirement they would simply hang a bent stick or branch outside their premises in place of a sign. This is why, even today, pubs called 'The Crooked Billet' frequently have pub signs depicting a bent branch or stick.

Four Crooked Billet pub signs

Four examples of other pubs called 'The Crooked Billet', each sign featuring a bend stick, branch or log. Credit: All photos via geograph.org.uk.

Of course, in medieval times the low rates of literacy meant that written signs outside businesses were of little use anyway. Having some object displayed outside your business was a far more common way to let passers-by know what products and services you were offering.

A classic example of this is the red and white striped pole that can still be seen outside many barbershops today.

The use of a bent stick or branch to signify a pub, inn or tavern caught on and the tradition continued for many hundreds of years.