Leaving The Old Unicorn with Christmas dinners for the inmates of Dear's Almshouses, 1911

The Unicorn

The Unicorn was one of the great pubs of old Chichester. It was famous for its catering at a time when very few pubs offered meals. The photograph from 1911 shows Christmas dinners being taken from the Unicorn to be delivered to the elderly widows living in Dear’s Almshouses. The dinners were paid for and delivered by members of the Corporation of St. Pancras – a mock corporation set up to celebrate the accession to the throne in 1689 of William of Orange following the overthrow of the Roman Catholic, James II. The St. Pancras district of Chichester had a long association with radical Protestantism dating back to the siege of the city during the English Civil War in 1642.

The old Unicorn was demolished and replaced by a new building in 1938, which later became newspaper offices, following the closure of the new Unicorn.

Pat Saunders, one of the research volunteers on the Chichester Heritage Trails project has done much original research on the inns and pubs of Chichester. This is what she has found out about The Unicorn –

Minerva Studios

The building during the time that it was leased to the Chichester Festival Theatre and known as the Minerva Studios.

The Unicorn in the picture above was demolished in 1937 and replaced by the present Art Deco building (left) which remained The Unicorn for a further 23 years. It was leased in 1962 to The Festival Theatre who renamed it Minerva Studios. Props continued to be made there until all operations were concentrated on the main Festival Theatre site. Between 1994 and 2015 it became offices for the Chichester Observer newspaper and the building will soon become a Sainsbury’s Local.

During the English Civil War all the buildings in the Eastgate area were raised to the ground by the forces of General Waller, including St Pancras Church. There had previously been an inn there (No 1 Eastgate square) The Lion. The Unicorn was built around 1670 to replace a victualling house in the occupation of Humphrey Collins.

In 1689 the Unicorn became the headquarters for the Mayor and Corporation of St Pancras, a charitable dining club set up to celebrate the Accession of William III and Mary II. Much of the inn was rebuilt in 1760. By 1807 the property passed to the brewers Humphreys of Westgate and later the Henty’s. In 1938 it was demolished again and rebuilt on the back of the old site. During the Second World War the landlord Arthur King always had a warm welcome for the RAF who came into town from Tangmere. They were drawn to a little upstairs bar with its walls crowded with signed photographs of Aces and RAF groups so that it was known as the Heroes Room. One regular was Douglas Bader.

In the 1950s the Unicorn was run by Doug and Kay Harcourt. They employed a part-time steward and chef, Frederick Phillips. They provided good value for money. Being close to St Pancras Church the pub held a lot of receptions for weddings, christenings and funerals, plus diners for the Mayor and Corporation of St Pancras.

Doug Harcourt was born in 1916 at Croydon; he left school at 15 to be an apprentice toolmaker and fitter but joined the Navy after a year. He transferred to the Fleet Air arm in 1936; then in 1942 as there was a shortage of pilots he transferred into the RAF. When he was demobbed in 1945 he went into the hotel business. He married Kay Durham in 1947 and their son Michael was born the following year. As a family they moved to the Unicorn in 1951. After the Unicorn was closed in 1960 they moved to Barnham to run the Railway hotel. Doug retired in 1981; he died in 2009.

Chris Hare interviewed Doug Harcourt in 1999. Here he describes the Christmas savings of ‘tontine’ club that he ran at The Unicorn. He also remembers how different pub catering was in the 1950s to today. The interview extract is verbatim – transcribed exactly from the recording

The whole thing was, when we went there we had a tontine which people paid into and the brewery gave us interest on. Also, that was amazing, everybody paid in and had their Christmas money, you know. And it was paid into the bank and they gave us a good interest on it, and then of course a good party when we paid out at Christmastime. And the other thing was, there was much more – you see, we had a public bar, a private bar, and originally we had a ‘bottle and jug’ where people come in with their jug to get some beer. It was a focal point because you didn’t have television and things like that. And the other great difference of course was, there was ourselves, Kimbels in North Street which would cater for big parties, the Dolphin, and that was about all. Now every pub does catering, all the pubs up until the ‘60s, in all the pubs it was a wrapped pork pie and a packet of crisps. I mean, you didn’t have to do anything else. But now, also every sports and social club caters for outside parties. 

We would welcome any memories about The Unicorn, The Corporation of St. Pancras, the use of the new building by Chichester Festival Theatre or Doug Harcourt and his family.