The Three Cups, Harwich


The Three Cups, The Harwich Society Journal, No.109, 1997, by Winifred Cooper


The Three Cups is the most famous of many old Harwich Inns, having been continuously licenced for nearly four hundred years. Very few inns in Essex, or indeed in England, can claim this distinction. It was built in Tudor Times, a stone’s throw from the old church of St Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, children, dowerless maidens and bankers. In many coastal towns where the church is dedicated to this saint there will almost certainly be found a Three Cups inn nearby, the sign for both being similar. One explanation given is that the three golden purses tied at the neck, which is one of the symbols of St Nicholas, were inverted to appear like three golden goblets and gave the name to the inn.

There are many references to the Three Cups in the archives at the Guildhall. For centuries it played a leading part in the colourful history of the town. It afforded shelter, food and rest to man and beast; council meetings, Sessions of the Peace, balls and assemblies were held there; plots were hatched behinds its locked doors; many contracts were sealed in the traditional way over a glass of wine, and it was the centre of the parliamentary battles which took place in the last century.  Captain Christopher Jones, Master of the Mayflower, whose name will be for ever connected with the New World, was a capital burgess of the borough and attended many meetings at the inn. Was he there, I wonder, in those dark days of superstition when they condemned poor Mary Hart to death? In the archives at the Guildhall is the following entry:

“They keep a Session of the Peace at Anthony Seward’s Mansion-House, commonly called the 3 Cupps, troubled with witchcraft. They condemn one Mary Hart for it to be hanged, whom the jury found guilty Oct. 2 1607.”

In 1678 when Samuel Pepys visited his friend and fellow MP Sir Anthony Deane, the famous Harwich shipbuilder, he would have been received at the Guildhall by members of the Council, after which all would adjourn to the Three Cups opposite to partake in refreshment. At the time the proprietor, Samuel Newton, was a burgess of the borough and had been mayor in 1677, following Sir Anthony Deane who was Mayor the previos year. During his year of office wine seems to have flowed freely and he appears to have been both guest and host in his own house, for which the Council seems to have paid.The Council needed little excuse to celebrate an occasion. When a man was made a freeman (if he was not an apprentice it often cost him £25 plus 3/6 for a fire bucket) they all crossed the road to the inn to celebrate, and the following is typical of many entries in the chamberlain’s accounts: 

“1683. Dec. 1st. Pd. To Mr. Brown for wine had att the Three Cups when Mr. Whitmore was chose a Freeman £1.15.0.”

In 1769-70 when the Guildhall was being rebuilt the Council met at the Three Cups a most convenient and sensible arrangement for all concerned. The accession of the house of Hanover to the throne of England and the use of Harwich as their port of entry and departure brought trade to the town and business boomed. Travellers, including Defoe, complained bitterly of overcharging in the inns, and several victuallers were presented before the bench for selling beer by small measure and for selling strong beer against the assize, the Three Cups being one of them.In December 1728 when HRH Frederick, Prince of Wales, arrived on the Despatch to set foot on English soil, the Mayor and Corporation entertained him at the Three Cups to drink to his health, the charge of £6/15/- appearing in the Chamberlain’s Accounts.

On June 10, 1765 the Mayor, Griffiths Davis, and Corporation waited upon the Duke of York at the Three Cups, where they presented him with a loyal address written in most eloquent terms, and were received graciously by His Royal Highness who allowed them to kiss his hand. The same day the Duke boarded his yacht which which was waiting for him in the harbour but unfortunately the wind proved to be contrary and he went by water to Mr Rigby’s at Mistley. The following day he returned to Harwich and as the wind was fair he sailed to Holland. All this royal coming and going was very good for business, and Harwich seems to have been at the height of its prosperity, which stimulated a desire for modernisation of the old stud and plaster houses. In common with many other buildings the Three Cups was re-fronted in the current fashionable ‘Georgian’ style. Either the overhanging upper story was shaved off or, what is more likely, the lower part was extended (thereby stealing some of the street) and the top surmounted by a parapet.

But towards the end of the eighteenth century the effects of the French revolution and the Wars with Napoleon were being felt in England. Refugees were landing at Harwich and we are told that many were befriended by the landlord of the Three Cups. Smuggling was carried on on a large scale, the capacious cellars of the town being full of contraband, but in October 1799 a grimmer cargo arrived in the form of transports carrying the wounded, who were dumped in the streets, and temporary hospitals were fitted up in the Three Cups, the White Hart and Mill House. In the same year the Sea Fencibles were formed with fifty members, guaranteed safe from the dreaded and ruthless Press Gang. By 1801 the number had been reduced to forty-one, and on 8th August Admiral Lord Nelson came to re-organise them. His ship, Medusa was anchored for two days in the rolling grounds, and he inspected by cutter. There is a legend that he stayed at the Three Cups with his paramour, Lady Hamilton but on this occasion his despatches show that he did not land, though the volunteers were lined up and ready to draw his coach. The Medusa Channel is so named because his ship was navigated through it by Mr Spence.

Conditions were so bad in the Navy at that time that the sailors were not allowed ashore in case they deserted, and the soldiers had it to themselves, swaggering around the town, indulging in horse-play in the inns, and slashing the pictures in the Three Cups. Many years later, in 1863, the Rev Richard Cutler described the oil paintings which he saw let into the panels over the fire-places at the inn and thought them to be of Flemish origin. They were all scriptural subjects, only one of which was still perfect – ‘The Magi, worshipping the child Jesus whom they found sitting in the lap of his Virgin Mother.’ Old Mrs Bull, whose family kept the Three Cups for nigh on a hundred years, mentioned another which she remembered as a child. It was of Abraham offering up the ram caught in the thicket, “but,” she added, “the young officers, roistering blades, pushed their swords through the canvas of most of them, which in consequence became useless and unsightly, and were removed.”

Incidentally, this picture has recently come to light again hanging on a wall in Harwich and has been identified as an exact copy of Caravaggio’s ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and, what is more interesting, an expert has stated that it was painted some time between 1600 and 1610, that is, during Caravaggio’s lifetime or immediately after his death, probably by one of his followers. How did these obviously valuable pictures come to rest at the Three Cups? Were they the spoils of war or had they been accepted by the landlord of the inn in settlement of an unpaid bill?

During the rumbustious elections of the middle of the mid-19th century the Three Cups served as a headquarters for the parliamentary candidates, because “there was no other place where gentleman could stay.” Those with votes to sell offered themselves to the highest bidder and a steady stream of people went for payment to an upper room at the inn, where a pile of golden sovereigns glinted temptingly on the table. A good deal of treating went on in the bars and although business was good for the Three Cups, the proprietor, Mr Bull, at the Official Inquiry into the bribery and corruption of one of the elections, showed his disapproval of the whole business by referring to ‘he vagabond voters.’

For over three hundred years the Three Cups remained in private hands and was run as a Free House, but in July 1896 it was bought from Mr. John Osborne by Bullard and Sons Ltd, the Norwich brewers. Unfortunately, once an inn gets into the hands of the brewers, all of the old documents are hidden away in the vaults of solicitors, or even destroyed, and there is little that the brewers can tell of an inn’s history. It is so with the Three Cups and one has to search deep into local records for the scantiest information. The visitors book dates back only to 1908.

At one time the Three Cups covered quite a large area of ground and was probably constructed of old ship’s timbers, heavily pargeted on the outside with swags of flowers and fruits as was the custom in Essex, but so much alteration has taken place over the centuries that it bears no resemblance to the original building. The ceilings were richly plastered, the walls panelled, and the staircase was beautifully carved, and doubtless it was tastefully furnished to please and attract the wealthy and illustrious people who stayed there.

But the brewers took over the Three Cups at a time when the railway company had moved up river to Parkeston Quay and was running its own cross-channel steamers and hotels. Another period of doldrums set in for Harwich but the First World War again brought brisk business to the inns whose brew warmed the hearts and bodies of the weary sailors. Between the wars many changes took place. The expansion of Dovercourt as a holiday resort, which had started in the mid-1850’s had the effect of drawing the population to the western end of the borough and the trade followed it there. The Three Cups found itself unable to compete economically with the hotels and boarding-houses of the new suburb, and between the wars the brewers decided to reduce its size. Part of the wing at the rear of the inn, including the reputed Nelson Room, was demolished. The relics disappeared and the very fine ceiling and magnificent oak door, both mentioned in old guide books, were removed by the late Mr Ernest Bullard, and great collector of antiques, and installed in a little cottage adjoining the Swan Hotelat Horning on the Norfolk Broads in what he called the Nelson Room, and are still there.

The Second World War brought the trade back to Harwich inns but this was followed by a slump even greater than before. Deterioration in the fabric of the building was extensive and in the 1950s quite drastic alterations were carried out. The remains of the west wing of the Three Cups overlooking the churchyard, including the archway over the lane, and was pulled down at the same time the whole of the top storey of the front was removed. The extensive stabling at the rear was demolished to provide parking space. It was a decapitated, truncated remnant that remained.

Now the Three Cups is again in the news as it changes from a public house to a private residence. The neglect of decades will be expensive to repair. We wish the new owners well and look forward to seeing the restoration of this historic building.

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