Take the Tour
We realise that a tour of Historic Harwich could be many different things to many different people so we've tried to make the tour flexible to enable you to concentrate on what you want to get out of it.
So – if you find yourself in Harwich with a couple of hours to kill or you're on a mission to find out why the Pilgrim Fathers were guided to America by a Harwich man you're in the right place!
We're not going to take you on a strict route so we've divided up the old town into five colour-coded zones (Red, Green, Blue, Yellow and Purple) with a description of the history of each zone and a guide to the pubs and other places that might interest you.
You can click on the pub markers on the map below to get to each pub page as you navigate about or read a potted history of each zone. If you want a quick guide on places to eat and drink see our What's Open and What's On page.
Red Zone - A Castle, the Continent, Beer, Baths and the Mayflower
Pubs in this Zone:
The Red Zone is in the far northern corner of the town and was once one of the busiest parts. You can still find reference in the street names to the castle that once stood on what is now Navyard Wharf but it has long since been claimed by the sea.
The Navyard itself was once where Royal Naval ships were built and it is now a private dock. If you stand near the Navyard you can see Harwich Lifeboat Station which replaced a smaller station on the Ha'penny Pier with the lifeboat being moored in the "The Pound", the moorings immediately adjacent the quay and the pier, now occupied by LV18 - a restored lightship.
In fact this whole area is Victorian as prior to 1850 the whole area was just a collection of private quays running down to the water and affording those prepared to pay the rent the ability to access the water to load and unload cargo. This was once the site of the original Harwich Brewery which brewed beer to supply the ships that called in to take on victuals and later for pubs and townfolk. The brewery was taken over by the Cobbolds in the 1730s and was the forerunner of the Cliff Quay Brewery at Ipswich which later became Tolly Cobbold.
Thomas Cobbold who founded the Cobbold brewing empire at Harwich was not only a skilled maltster and brewer but an astute businessman who greatly expanded the brewing operation, bought many pubs to sell his beer but also founded sea water baths next to the brewery. It was all the rage in the latter half of the 18th Century to "take the waters".
Eventually in 1853 the magnificent new Victorian public quay transformed the area and passengers wishing to travel to the continent could now take the railway directly along the quay to disembark right outside the new Great Eastern Hotel and Continental Pier where the new paddle steamers had replaced the old Packet Boats as the way to travel across to Holland. The Continental Pier was partially destroyed by fire in 1910 but you can still go out on the Ha'penny Pier today (you no longer have to pay a halfpenny to do so) and enjoy views of the estuaries of the rivers Stour and the Orwell.
The former Great Eastern Hotel has been converted to flats and next door you can see the Pier Hotel, built by John Brice in 1862 on the site of the original Harwich Brewery.
In this area of town we can find the Angel pub which is now part of the Pier Hotel, the Globe, the Half Moon, now a Thai restaurant, the Swan and the Alma, once a wealthy merchant's house and a pub since 1859.
Pausing up King's Head Street opposite the Alma you might be interested to look at the house once owned by Christopher Jones Master of the Mayflower - the boat that took the Pilgrim Fathers to America. Christopher Jones was not only a Harwich man but plied his trade for many years across the North Sea before he moved to Rotherhithe and on into the history books.
Green Zone – Church Street, Nelson, Napoleon and the Co-op
Pubs in this Zone:
Entering the Green Zone we’re into what was once the main thoroughfare in the old town.
Certainly by the time the early photographers arrived we see a bustling streets bedecked with shop awnings and shopkeepers peddling their wares of many sorts. It was also once known as High Street until that vagary gave way to be replaced by the name of the obvious landmark, Church Street, after St. Nicholas’ Church at the road’s southern end.
Today many shops have been converted to houses but the street contains three open pubs, Sam’s Wine Bar and the Stingray (in this Zone) and beyond the church the Hannover (in our Yellow Zone) in the part of the street that was once called Hannover Square.
Just as Harwich has maintained its medieval street layout, often called a grid iron pattern, it also has many ancient buildings which have been “modernised” over the years with new frontages and features. As you walk down you should spot that Church Street has some good examples of this kind of continuous development.
Coming to the Stingray public house we should tell the story of the first pub owned by the co-operative movement. The local co-op took over the London Tavern in 1881 which, although there must have been quite a few raised eyebrows at the time, quickly became very popular. Unfortunately the pub was completely destroyed by fire in 1922 but was rebuilt across the road as the Wheatsheaf and became a thriving establishment once again, complete with Wedgewood beer pump handles and dividend stamps dispensed with the beer. Although it was eventually sold by the co-op the Wheatsheaf became the Stingray and is still open as a pub today.
Further down the road we come to the Guildhall which was formerly an ancient hostelry but now is home to Harwich Town Council. Its rudimentary gaol once housed Napoleonic Prisoners of War some of whom left their mark carved into the cells walls. Every May during the ancient mayor-making ceremony the new mayor throws “kitchels” (sweet bread rolls) to the waiting children from the first floor window.
Opposite the Guildhall we find the old Three Cups public house – latterly converted into a dwelling. The building has a rich history including 66 years in the ownership of the Bull family who did much to build the pub’s reputation. When John Attwood attempted to bribe the local electorate in his attempt to become MP in 1841 it was at the Bull’s popular public house that he did a lot of his entertaining. The pub also traded for many years on the claim that Lord Nelson spent the night there on a visit to Harwich and although the log of his ship of the time, the Medusa, would appear to contradict that claim, the mystery persists.
Blue Zone - Trinity House, Customs and Great Tides
Pubs in this Zone:
The northern end of West Street is today dominated by the new Trinity House building and indeed Trinity House have operated from this part of town for over two hundred years.
Trinity House came into being in 1514 by Royal Charter granted by Henry VIII essentially to regulate pilots and encourage good practice by those in command of maritime affairs. Later acts allowed them to maintain seamarks and warnings to aid navigation and having originally been one of six operation centres around the country the new Harwich headquarters now looks after all such activity around the coast of the British Isles. The corporation's two big vessels THV Patricia and THV Galatea are often to be seen moored at Trinity Quay at the end of West Street.
Next to the modern Trinity House building we find the Old Customs House, a Listed Building dating from the 19th Century and possibly earlier. Being the Collector of Customs in Harwich was certainly a position of power but also a tough job - smuggling was certainly rife in the town, particularly on the Packets Boats which ran regularly to and from the Continent. The Collector of Customs at Harwich complained bitterly in the mid-18th century about the quantity of lace and needlework brought in by ladies of the court which was apparently "enough to supply all the milliners shops in and around London".
West Street was also a popular street with sailors looking for a drink and had more than its fair share of pubs and there were at least 7 establishments along its length in the days of sail.
In recent years the 2013 tidal surge brought back memories of the terrible North Sea flood of 1953 when 8 people lost their lives. The modern sea defences just kept the flood waters at bay in 2013 but in olden days Harwich was frequently overwhelmed by great tides which flowed right up West Street.
Yellow Zone – The Church, Lighthouses, and the Road to London
Pubs in this Zone:
Yellow Zone is the southerly end of the old town where, in the old days, the main town gate stood on the road out across the countryside to Dovercourt and beyond.
This is the part of the town where the church has always stood with the impressive St. Nicholas’ Church we see today being consecrated in 1822. The impressive new build, replacing the derelict older church, was made possible with high tech Victorian materials such as coade stone, a type of artificial stone used for the pinnacles and buttresses, and cast iron, used for the window frames and internal columns. There has been a church on the site since the 12th Century and the old building bore witness to many interesting events and people including the master of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones, who was twice married there.
Aside from the Church the other main landmark in the town is the High Lighthouse which was built in 1818 to replace the earlier one built above the old town gate. The High Lighthouse is paired up with the Low Lighthouse as “leading lights” meaning that they are lined up, one over the other, from seaward to indicate a safe course into the harbour. The current High Lighthouse was originally owned by General Rebow who made a handsome incoming levying a duty of 1d per ton of cargo entering the harbour. He also rather astutely sold the lighthouses to Trinity House in 1836 for £31,730 just in time for the channel to alter, rendering the structures redundant by 1863.
The main road out of the old town today isn’t quite as it was in olden times. You can still find the start of the Old London Road today which went closer to the seaward side of the promontory and headed across the marshes on through the farms at Dovercourt and Ramsey and on to the Capital. Harwich may have had plenty of pubs but there were a good number on the road in too, the Three Tuns was one such hostelry being just outside the town and immortalised by a sketch in Sir James Thornhill’s diary in 1711.
Purple Zone - The Workhouse, Exploding Film, Yachts and the North West Passage
Pubs in this Zone:
The eastern side of town is closest to the sea and where it once afforded views of sailing ships at anchor, it is today dominated by views of the massive container port of Felixstowe across the water.
Next to the churchyard we find the vicarage but it hasn't always been that way because in 1669 the site was occupied by the workhouse, a building where the poor of the town could go if they were no longer able to support themselves. The workhouse was in use until 1840 when a union of north-east Essex parishes built a large, new workhouse at Tendring and the old Harwich building became surplus to requirements. It was purchased by John Bull, the well-know landlord of the nearby Three Cups, and converted into a brewery and beer shop. Interestingly the "workhouse brewery" was being built at a time when the redevelopment of the Quay meant that the original Harwich Brewery was going to be cut off from the water and the land it occupied was more valuable to speculators than for brewing beer. Interestingly the new brewery changed hands several times and ended up being controlled by the Cobbold family who had been running the original brewery on the Quay as well as their larger one in Ipswich. In 1876 however the brewery was bought by the Church and demolished to make way for the vicarage we see today.
Just around the corner from the vicarage is another historic building - the Electric Palace Cinema. It was built at a time when cinema was in its infancy and the combination of the chemical constituents of the film stock and the extremely hot projection lamps produced some terrible explosions and fires resulting in loss of life. The solution was the Cinematography Act of 1909 which introduced strict rules about the design of new cinemas and so the Electric Palace Cinema, built in 1911 by Charles Thurston, was one of the first of the new breed. Today, thanks to the work of a dedicated Trust which restored and reopened it in 1981, the Palace still shows films and entertains locals and enthusiasts from far and wide.
Heading to the far eastern end of town we pass the New Bell public house on our way to the water and the location of the old Royal Harwich Yacht club. The club moved up the river to Woolverstone after WWII but during its heyday at the end of the 19th Century the Harwich Regattas were the opening event for each season's Big Yacht Class attracting the finest racing yachts of the time including the Royal Yacht Britannia owned by the then Prince of Wales, later to become Edward VII.
The Royal Harwich witnessed another notable event in 1852 when it became the departure point for an expedition to the Arctic led by Commander Edward Belcher. Belcher's mission was supposed to be simple, he was searching for a previous expedition led by Sir John Franklin which had gone missing whilst searching for the North West Passage - the mythical seaway over the top of North America and into the Pacific. Belcher's mission didn't find Franklin and Belcher went through a court martial on his return having lost two of his own ships to the ice.