After a century as a pub Torquay’s historic Clipper Inn in Melville Street, off Abbey Road, is closing. It’s the latest in a series of town pubs that have closed their doors over the last 20 years – the Alpine, the Parrot, the Railway, The Upton Vale, the Falcon, the Post Horn and many more.
In 2006 there were still 58,200 public houses in Britain. Today just about 53,000 survive – 26 pubs a week are being lost across the UK. Home entertainment, health concerns, the smoking ban and competition from supermarkets and the new corporate bars have all eroded the traditional pub.
The Clipper was one of those few remaining true Torquay ‘Locals’. It was one of those pubs where you didn’t even have to order a drink- they knew what you wanted as soon as you opened the door. It didn’t sell food but for many years was the focus for the community. Indeed, the great Torquay pub was never just a place to drink. It was, and sometimes remains, a social centre, the focus of community life and a launch pad for local musicians.
On Thursdays, for example, the Clipper held a Jam Night for local acoustic musicians organised by landlord Dave Brazier.
A few years ago Dave Brazier explained the history behind the Jam Nights “The Jam Nights are called ‘Catch the Wind’ as the Clipper Inn was the home to Torquay’s artistic and beatnik communities back in the 1960s. It was where local musicians and poets used to perform. One of those was Donovan who became famous as Britain’s Bob Dylan.
“As a leading British recording artist of his day, Donovan produced a series of hit albums and singles between 1965 and 1970. He became a friend of leading musicians including Joan Baez, Brian Jones and Bruce Springsteen, and was one of the few artists to collaborate on songs with the Beatles. He influenced both John Lennon and Paul McCartney when he taught them his finger-picking guitar style in 1968. These resulted in songs like Julia and Blackbird on the White Album.”
“However, in 1964 Donovan spent the summer in Torquay. He bought his trademark fisherman’s cap in Brixham, where he played in the Rising Sun, but the real home to the Bay’s folk musicians was the Clipper”.
The Clipper was also home to a resident ghost who Dave spotted in the pub one lunchtime. Locals immediately identified the apparition as that of Jack, a long deceased regular.
Dave said at the time of the first sighting: “Since I moved in with my three sons, we have heard banging, footsteps in the bar during the night, music levels keep changing, and windows shut on their own. There are certainly parts of the bar that dogs don’t like and they seem to be barking at something.
“The previous landlord did say that the Clipper was haunted but I took that with a pinch of salt and put the noises down to the building being so old. However, I can’t explain actually seeing the juke box levels going up on their own.
“One morning I came into the bar to get ready to open and saw a man in his 70s smoking a pipe. My first thought was ‘he can’t smoke in here!’ He was wearing a cap and an old-fashioned jacket. I would say the style of dress was from around the 1920s. I came around the other side of the bar to tell him we weren’t even open yet, but he had disappeared. Billy, one of my customers, says the description sounds like a man called Jack Bell, a regular that used to sit in the same spot before he died.
“A local tells me that the building used to house a mortuary, so if anyone does know more about the history of The Clipper, I would be interested.”
Dave’s son Ben, who worked in the pub, said: “Half a dozen times I’ve heard banging and what appears to be footsteps in the middle of the night. I’ve rushed downstairs expecting to confront a burglar, but found nothing.”
Certainly the Melville Street area is one of Torquay’s oldest, and it originally boasted three public houses: the Melville – which is now The Clipper – the Coburg and the Warren. The houses were constructed in the 1840s and the building was recorded as a pub in 1917. Before the Great War it appears to be a private house. Melville Street is on the side of the steep valley that runs down to the town centre and one of the old stepped walk ways that characterises the area can still be seen making its way through the building.
The area hasn’t changed significantly over the past century, though there was some clearance of dilapidated buildings where the car park now stands.
Though there doesn’t appear to be any records of anything supernatural connected to The Clipper, or a tradition of haunting, there was an intriguing comment made in a Herald Express article of November 20, 1976. The then landlady Connie Kelly made a point of saying “We haven’t any ghosts, real or imaginary”.
That just seemed an odd statement in an article reviewing the pubs’ food and beer… Perhaps she was protesting too much?
Local residents hope that a new landlord may want to take over the tenancy. Otherwise, some fear that the Clipper may end up as yet another set of town centre bedsits, or ‘Houses of Multiple Occupancy’ as the Council likes to call them.
But until the fate of this once popular Local is decided, the building lies empty…. and Jack, the Clipper ghost, will walk alone.