Every now and again one encounters a story that is widely known, uniformly told, of recent but quite unknown origin and exceedingly dubious. Amongst the less plausible in this class is the legend of Crocker’s Folly, a description that sounds as though it is fresh from a book of fairy tales.
I must explain that Crocker’s Folly was not really designed with children in mind (though even they might spot the flaw in the story). It was the name given to a long-standing public house in Aberdeen Place, London. The legend goes that it was built by a publican called Frank Crocker, around 1898, in the mistaken belief that the Great Central Railway was about to build its grand London terminus virtually next door, and that this would supply him with a vast trade. Alas (the story always includes an expression like this), the Marylebone terminus was built over half a mile away, leaving the pub a financial disaster and causing him to commit suicide by jumping out of an upper window. Naturally, his ghost continues to haunt the premises – obviously.
It is hard to know where to start with this, beyond saying that the only correct facts in here are the name Frank Crocker and that he was briefly publican of this establishment. He was, at least for a while, also proprietor of the Volunteer Hotel at 77 Kilburn High Road and directories list him at both establishments in both 1898 and 1902. There is no reason to suppose he was particularly unbusinesslike or reckless. He was born at Newton Abbott in 1863 and married Agnes Cooper in Dalston in 1893, suggesting even then he was familiar with London geography.
The pub in Aberdeen Place was called The Crown and nobody disputes the present appearance of the building dates to about 1898-9. however it was not a new pub, a pub of that name had been there for many years at number 23; the earliest reference I have found is dated 1835. The end-of-century reconstruction was taken in hand by architect Charles. H. Worley of Welbeck Street and included enlarging the premises so as to include the building next door at number 24. At that time Crocker was described as the ‘owner’, rather than mere licencee or publican. Crocker was certainly in residence by August 1897 as he applied for a music and dancing licence for The Crown, but William Smith was the still ‘landlord’ in May 1896, which perhaps fixes Crocker’s arrival within a year (the drawings for the reconstruction are dated October 1897, which is another clue).
Pub aficionados describe the opulent interior of this establishment and particularly note the entrance: “The main entrance leads to what was called the ‘grand saloon’, one of the most impressive pub rooms in London, complete with marble counter top and a magnificent marble fireplace. On the left the restaurant was originally a two-table billiard room…” (which lasted until 1974). Nevertheless I think the word ‘reconstructed’ might be more helpful than ‘new’. The room to the right was for many years split up into several bars but the partitions have long gone. When reconstructed, there was a concert room on the first floor and the hotel restaurant was on the second; if my reading of one pub book is correct the concert room was for some years reserved as a masonic temple. By no stretch of the imagination could the interior be regarded as inexpensive, and though it is by no means the only example of design over-exuberance it must be very near the top of that range. My question is why would anyone spend so much money in this back street and ever expect to see it again?
Let us examine the railway terminus myth, which won’t take long. It is apparent that only one credible scheme for a route to the Great Central’s new terminus was considered, and that is the one identifiable today. This was already widely known from November 1891 when the railway submitted its bill for the line. It envisaged a line virtually all in tunnel from Finchley Road (Metropolitan) station to just north of the Regents Canal, near where it ran parallel to Wellington Road, from where the line would widen out before entering Marylebone station. The nearest point to Aberdeen Place was 650 yards, but that was for the main railway line at a point where no station was ever planned. The nearest exit from Marylebone to the pub was 930 yards by crow, and rather further via the streets. The Act was passed in 1893 and caused massive disruption at the Marylebone Road end where several streets and squares were entirely swept away. Work was well in hand by 1896 and it is very difficult to belief that Crocker can have overlooked this. Marylebone station opened in March 1899 at about the same time the work on the pub was also well in hand, if not just completed. The Marylebone station, as is well known, had its own hotel right next door – a vast place which, whilst privately run, was on railway land and had an under-cover link offered by the awning across the approach road (which is still there).
It is true the 1891 bill allowed for a branch that took the railway slightly closer to the pub, but this was for the goods depot built to the west of Lisson Grove (north of Church Street), but at no point was this obscure site ever intended for passengers, and even so it was a good 300 yards by crow, and more by street, and even if its purpose had been misunderstood the pub would hardly have been a convenient or direct offering. In 1891 the ambitious Great Central Railway railway was called the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway and shared a chairman with London’s Metropolitan Railway with which discussions took place about using Baker Street as the main line terminal. I mention this only to indicate that this impractical alternative was even further away from The Crown than Marylebone, so our answer doesn’t lie there either. (The new railway name came into use in 1897.)
It is, in short, very difficult to place any credibility on any of this legend. Needless to say Crocker did not hurl himself from the window – he died of natural causes on 24 October 1904 (though he did die on the premises).
The hotel, or, more popularly, the pub, was not a tremendous success given its outlay, though was no doubt a handy watering hole for the staff at the power station built nearly opposite. In 1983 The Crown was bought by north eastern brewer Vaux, who (I believe in 1984) renamed it Crocker’s Folly, no doubt to generate some interest in what from the outside might be thought an uninteresting pub in an uninteresting road and unlikely to have had much passing trade. At this time it seems the building and its contents were in need of some care and attention but it was being described by regulars as friendly and informal and catered particularly for locals, boosted by some trade from owners of canal boats and somewhere known to those visiting Lords. Significantly it appeared in the Good Beer Guide between 1988 and 1991, but not thereafter. So far as I can tell it was sold on in 1993 to the Pubco, Regent Inns, which in all fairness must be given credit for the money they spend restoring the magnificent interior and probably assisting with some heavy marketing, no doubt based on this improbable tale. Whether the myth of Frank Crocker’s ineptness finds its roots during the 1983 or 1993 changes I cannot say, but the tale seems unlikely to have been earlier.
Regent Inns, it emerged, suffered a number of serious, ongoing financial difficulties and themselves went into administration around 2009. Whether their mounting difficulties played a direct part in the folly’s demise is hard to gauge. At some point Regent sold on what by all accounts had been a success to what was described as ‘an absentee owner’ who may have had little interest in running pubs. In any event a makeover, even a heavy makeover, was evidently not the solution to falling trade at a this vast emporium and it finally closed in 2004 and lay derelict for many years. Those who knew the place in the ‘nineties suggest that poor on-site management after a change of landlord contributed to falling custom (and the wrong sort of custom); descriptions are given of lavatories constantly awash, poor and limited beer selection, eccentric times for serving food (and of indifferent quality), surly, uninterested staff presiding over empty tables that a decade earlier would have been full. Music had been introduced (this fad probably to benefit the staff more than to add atmosphere which should have been provided by patrons). Possible concerns by the police are hinted at. A change of manager in 2003 began to make a major difference but it was apparently too late. Whether closure was inevitable is still debated.
It was sufficiently unrepresentative an example of the average boozer to attract the attention of English Heritage (no doubt via the local authority as I’m sure EH would not themselves know of ‘boozers’) and the building became Grade II* listed and therefore had to be kept. Finding someone prepared to take it on does not seem to have been easy as it remained closed for a decade. Having obtained planning permission in 2011 for conversion of the upper floors to residential, the ground floor area reopened on 25 October 2014, for all practical purposes as a restaurant, operated by the Maroush Group and having a Lebanese flavour. Obviously it is better the building be used than become the haunt of pigeons, vagrants and woodworm. The palace-like opulence perhaps better suits a restaurant in this well-healed area. Do you feel a ‘but’ coming on? If so, shall disappoint!
I am fascinated by how the story of Crocker’s Folly has taken hold and would be interested if anyone has anything to add about how it really came about, or can add anything more about the history of the building and its lengthy demise as a pub. There is a bar (I believe this is the corner door) available for those not wanting to eat (and which seems to present itself as a cocktail bar). As the ghost is more likely to be enjoying the spirits than eating perhaps I should drop in and see if the apparition can add anything?
Note – There is a website for anyone interested in the place now: http://www.crockersfolly.com/food-wine/