Thame Local History
The Bird Cage as it is today
The Birdcage public house is one of Thame's most prominent and certainly most historic buildings.
Thame's wide High Street was laid out by the Bishop of Lincoln in the twelfth century. It would originally have had few if any buildings in the middle, until the thirteenth century when in-filling began to take place. The buildings in the middle of the High Street became known as Middle Row.
One of the first buildings to be erected in Middle Row would have been a building used to control and administer the market. The site on which the Birdcage now stands would in all probability have been this first market house.
It is centrally positioned within the confines of the High Street and, as the only permanent building, would have commanded a dominant position over the market, facing as it does down the High Street.
It should be noted the view of the Birdcage from the Cornmarket that we enjoy today is actually the side of the building. The true front is facing into the Shambles and if it were not for the large building of the Nat West Bank then it would command an outstanding view down the High Street.
The earliest parts of the current building date from the late thirteenth century, and the building was constructed in phases over the next 100 years, the central two-storey section being the oldest part.
The later, but more prominent, part has many impressive features; massive elm corner post timbers; three storeys over-sailing on three sides with the hugely impressive dragon beams and two oriel windows with fine wooden tracery work.
All of these would have indicated a building of great importance to the inhabitants of fourteenth century Thame. In keeping with other market houses of this time, the lower storey would have been open for use by the market traders. Later maybe, bars could have been inserted to keep out undesirables.
The whole building is surrounded by nineteenth century outshuts which now mask the original lower floor level and its oversailing jetties, the latest part of which now houses the bar area and is probably 16th century in build.
The cellar with its moulded stone doorway and aumbries (wall recesses for religious vessels) may be part of the original thirteenth century market hall, for it had a separate entrance direct from the street, evidence of which still remains today in the western extended cellar area.
This may suggest some early ecclesiastical use, but more likely an area for storage of parish arms and armour, or even perhaps an early prison associated with the local Bishop's court which would probably have been held in the market hall above.
The earliest date the building was used as an inn cannot be certain, but it would have been sometime after the erection of the new market hall, during the fifteenth century.
In 1529 "a tenement called the Cage" was the property of the Guild of St Christopher, a local merchants' guild founded by Richard Quartermain, in 1447. The Cage was then granted, by Edward VI, to Sir John Williams, who rented it to James Roose for eight shillings a year.
Around 1600, the property, like much of Thame, belonged to Lord Bertie (Earl of Abingdon) and was held as copyhold by a yeoman Philip Bird. Could this be when it became Bird's Cage?
It continued in legal documents to be referred to as "a tenement named the Cage" up to the 1780s. Edward Turner was the first licensee formally to use the name Bird Cage in 1787.
One of his successors as licensee was Ann Turner who used the name Bird in the Cage from 1821 to 1847.
During the Napoleonic Wars most English towns were required to accommodate French prisoners of war and the larger houses with cellars or attics proved ideal locations. It would therefore have been Edward Turner who entertained sixteen Napoleonic prisoners in his cellar from 1805.
The current landlord discovered a ball and chain of the period during the recent re-decoration.
No account of the Bird Cage would be complete without a mention for the ghost of the Restless Soul. One time landlady Pat Ellis who claimed to have encountered the Restless Soul in the top storey of the pub believed it to be that of a leper who had been stoned to death by the people of Thame.
Brewery ownership dates from the late 19th century. When it was put up for sale by Watlington Breweries in 1906 the Birdcage was bought by Simmonds Brewery of Reading.
The Birdcage sale notice
The licensee at the time of the sale, Charles Blood, went on to become Mayor of Thame in the 1920s. The picture here shows the building complete with stucco render that Maurice Howe, the then estates manager for Simmonds Brewery, ordered to be removed in 1948.
The Bird Cage in former times
Ownership was transferred to Courage in 1963 and the recent changes in the way England's pubs are controlled and managed sees the Bird Cage now owned by the Unique Pub Co. who have their headquarters at Mill House on the outskirts of Thame.
The business has been transformed in recent year by the current tenant Paul Campion and the pub now enjoys a reputation as a discernible inn with good food and drink served in a friendly atmosphere.