The Flying Duck beerhouse, Aspley Heath – Some Family Memories, by Peter Boon

Today, the only public house on Aspley Heath is the Royal Oak, situated at the bottom of Church Road. But in late Victorian times and the early years of the 20th century, walkers through the woods might quench their thirst at another establishment at the top of the hill: the Flying Duck, the property now known as the Old Heath House in Heath Lane. My grandparents, Harry and Dorcas Seabrook, were the house’s last licensees. The licence was surrendered in 1918, although they continued to live at the property until the mid-1950s, my parents staying on there for a little longer.

Dorcas Yarrow married my grandfather, Harry Seabrook, in 1898, and a few years later the couple moved up to the Heath to become landlords of The Flying Duck. This was his second marriage. His first marriage was to Eliza Elizabeth Gilbert at Wootton (near Kempston) in 1888, but she died in 1897 leaving him a widower with two children. According to my researches, he was then living in Wood Street. When he married Dorcas he moved to no.1 Chapel Street (next to Methodist church) and stayed there until 1903 when he moved to the top of the Heath. There would be five children born from the second marriage, though one died as an infant in 1904.

I’m told that the beerhouse was something of a family centre for generations of visiting Seabrooks and their in-laws! Incidentally I was brought up in this old house but Heath Lane never had a name as such in those days – the 1940s and 50s.

The first thing that must be said about the Flying Duck is that it wasn’t a public house in the way we understand the term today. Its status as a beer house, probably granted in the late 1860s, did not allow it to sell wines and spirits. Initially, it had a succession of short-lived tenants, but in 1880 the Ambrose family moved in and remained until 1903, when my grandparents took over.

The property had various owners, but in 1917 it was bought by the Duke of Bedford from the Ampthill brewer, Morris & Co.

The family story goes – and it might be a bit fanciful – that on one rainy day, while he was on walkabout in the woods, the Duke of Bedford took shelter in the house. He wasn’t keen on the idea of having a beer house in his woods, so set about having the licence revoked. The archive records indicate this was in 1917 but my family have told me it was 1918, the year my mother was born. Arthur Parkers account, plus the BLARS summary of licensees, both show that the Duke bought the house in 1917. My grandparents rented it from the Duke from that time onwards. It was later sold privately in 1958.

The sign for the beer house is the white pole near the centre of this postcard, from about 1906. This view looks northwards along Heath Lane

The house was generally known as the Flying Duck, although sometimes it was referred to as the Heath Hotel – no doubt with tongue in cheek! From time to time lodgers were taken in but the main trade was serving beer and providing teas. The customers included not only local people but also visitors to the nearby sanatoriums and day trippers from as far afield as Bletchley and Bedford – such was the popularity of the Heath. My late aunt, Bessie Hill, could remember helping her mother prepare food and wash up empty tankards after the drinkers had left. A few of these old glasses and pewter tankards have passed down to members of my family.

Harry Seabrook, at the organ at St Michael’s. [Image courtesy of Evelyn Wright/Seabrook descendants]

I am sure the members of the Canadian Forest Corps, based locally during the First World War, would have used the beer house too. My grandparents befriended one of these men; he not only married a local girl but also became godfather to my mother.

The house was still very much a family home, from which my grandfather ran his painting and decorating business, as well as fulfilling the roles of bandmaster and, for more than half a century, organist at St Michael’s.

As late as the 1950s, one of the rooms was still called the tap room, and as a further legacy from the past, the outhouses included a stable and a coach house. The property was served by mains electricity and water, although its lavatories were of the chemical and earth type. The long back garden, with its pigsty, sheds and a well, ran down to the grounds of the old Knoll School, and one could look across the valley to the ridge that contains the Danesborough earthworks. It was a delightful place in which to grow up.

Peter Boon, Woburn Sands, February, 2011


To Peter’s family memories, I can add the following facts:


Bedfordshire Archives and Records Service has a list of known Licensees from the Woburn Licensing book [BLARS PSW3/1], to which I have added some others found in newspaper reports:

????-1870 William Gooding
1870-1871 John Giles
1871-1871 George Carter
1871-1872 James Parrott
????-1874 Joseph Northwood
1874-???? George Boyes
??1876 ?? William Hammond (beginning or end date unknown)
1876-1877 Frederick Tompkins
1877-1878 Daniel Hammond
1878-1879 James King
1879-1880 Allfrey & Lovell (brewers of Newport Pagnell)
1880-1903 Noah Ambrose
1903-1917 Harry Seabrook
1917      Closed

George Square, Aspley Heath, where Harry Seabrook was born, was also known as Leighton Hollow, long since demolished


Unfortunately the old deeds of the property were lost when the Duke of Bedford’s premises in Holborn were bombed in the London blitz, so there is no trace of its early life, but from other sources, we have pieced together this timeline:

1861 – Census – no reference to the house. The late local historian Arthur Parker believed that Hammond was the original squatter who enclosed the land and built the cottage in the late 1860’s.

1870 – An unnamed beerhouse on Aspley Heath had its’ license transferred from William Gooding to John Giles.

1871 – Census – this identifies the house, calling it the Flying Duck, but records that it was unoccupied. In July, The Luton Times recorded that the licence of The Duck beerhouse, Aspley Heath, was transferred to James Parrott.  The Beds Times were more descriptive, adding that the former licensee, George Carter, “had gone to America and had taken the licence with him.”!

1872 – In February, the Northampton Mercury reported that Thomas Ayres, bricklayer, was charged by James Parrott, landlord of the Duck beerhouse, of threatening to kill him. Witnesses were brought forward who proved the case. Ayres was ordered to find sureties to keep peace, to the amount of £10 himself and £10 each from two others.

1874 – The Northampton Mercury of February 28th records that the licence of an Aspley Heath beerhouse transfered from Joseph Northwood to George Boyes.

1876 – Register of Ale Houses. David Hammond is listed as owner and occupier of The Heath Cock.

1879 – Bucks Herald of 6th September: “ASPLEY HEATH. TO BE LET, with immediate Possession, THE HEATH INN, with about TWO ACRES of LAND. Apply to Messrs. ALLFREY and LOVELL, Newport Pagnell.”

1880 – Bucks Herald of 15th May: “To Be Let – THE ASPLEY HEATH INN, with large Garden. For Particulars, apply to Messrs. ALLFREY and LOVELL, Newport Pagnell Brewery.”

1881 – Census – Aspley Heath – No beerhouse name is given, but it lists Noah (George) Ambrose, 32, with the occupation “Chelsea Pensioner”. He was born in Clothall, Hertford. His wife is listed as Agnes Ambrose, 33, from Chesham, but the name Ann is used in all other records. Martha Prun, Agnes’ widowed mother, aged 72, was also in the house. She was a former lacemaker who was also from Chesham. From Noahs’ military pension records, he was Private 3982, who left the army in January 1880, after just short of 13 years service in the 1st Batt. Scots Foot Guards, including 5 years and 8 months in the East Indies. His discharge was due to no longer being fit for active service, but “his conduct has been that of a good and efficient soldier, trustworthy and sober. He is in possession of three Good Conduct Badges.” His army papers record he was intending to live at St Albans.

1883 – Sale Sold by David Hammond and Sarah Jane Deverell to Robert Tucker Pain of Bromley in Surrey but there is no record of his holding the license himself. [BLARS Bedford Office index]

1885 – Baptism Noah and Ann baptise Albert William at St Michaels. Noah is described as an Innkeeper.

1887 – Beds Times 15th October “Aspley Heath Hotel – To be sold – A Freehold House and Premises known as the “Heath Hotel” with a portion of the ground now occupied by the tenant of the house – Apply to Geo. Whitman, House and Estate Agent, Aspley Guise.”

1888 – Mortgage Pain mortgaged to John T Green. [BLARS Bedford Office index]

1890 – Directory Noah Ambrose – Beer Retailer.

1891 – Licensing Report states “Duck, on the Heath” had a “On and Off without Wine License”, and had been licensed prior to 1869.Owned by and tied to Morris and Co, of Ampthill, and occupied by Noah Ambrose. Rental £10 p.a., Rateable value £9 and has not had license transferred in the last 10 years.

1891 – Census – house described as Heath Hotel, Ambrose family plus lodgers are recorded.

1894 – Directory – Noah Ambrose – Beer Retailer.

1894 – Beds Times, 15th September: “WOBURN SANDS. A Natural History Ramble. On Saturday afternoon party visitors from Bedford, by kind permission of the Duke Bedford, spent a pleasant time in search of natural history objects in the woods of Woburn. Aspley and Woburn Sands. Among them were Messrs. A. Ransom, R. Stride Ager. A. E Hawkins. P. W. Barker. J. Harason, G. D. Allen, and H. Studman, of Woburn, who, with Mr. A. Ransom, piloted the party through the woods, and pointed out some charming views, especially one in the direction of Woburn, and the magnificent panorama visible from the heights above Bow Brickhill. After visiting Aspley Woods the naturalists wandered through “Beech Hundreds” to Bow Brickhill, returning through Wavendon Woods to the Aspley Heath Hotel, where justice was done to the generous entertainment offered the house.”

1898 – Directory – Noah Ambrose – Beer Retailer.

1901 – Census – house described as the Duck Inn, Ambrose family and barman recorded.

1903 – Directory – Noah Ambrose – Beer Retailer.

1903 – Licensing Report States “Heath Hotel” still under Noah Ambrose, and owned by Morris & Co.  Rental was now £20, Rateable value £16 “Clean and in fairly good repair”.

1905 – Beds Times, 19th May – “Health Resort – The Heath Hotel, Woburn Sands – Spendid position in the midst of the pine woods; tea parties catered for. Seabrook.”

1906 – Directory – Harry Seabrook, beer retailer and painter. Harry was born in George’s Square, Aspley Heath in 1867. He joind St Michaels choir aged 10, became the organ blower at 12, and finally became the organist at age 26 after training with the organist who was losing his sight. He remained as organist for 56 years, and was also very involved with the Woburn Sands Brass Band, becoming the conductor, and only retired as bandmaster in 1934.

1907 – Sale Deed showing that the beerhouse was conveyed to brewers Morris & Company (Ampthill) Limited. [BLARS CCE5304/1]

1910 – Rating Survey Shows the Heath Beerhouse, called the Heath Hotel. [BLARS DBV1/3 and DBV3/249]

The Woburn Sands Band playing in the Square, Woburn Sands, on Easter Sunday 1927. [Postcard courtesy of Mr. T. Nightingale, Florida.]

1910 – Directory – Harry Seabrook, beer retailer.

1914 – Directory – Harry Seabrook, beer retailer.

1917-18 – Closed Sold to Duke of Bedford, and beer license withdrawn.

Noah Ambrose died in 1932, aged 83. His wife Ann died in 1923, aged 76. Their son, Albert William, died at the young age of 23 in 1907, living in The Leys, Woburn Sands. Harry Seabrook died aged 87, in 1954, his wife Dorcas died aged 79 in 1958.


Page last updated Dec. 2018.