Mystery surrounds burning of Crooked House, Britain’s ‘wonkiest’ pub

LONDON — Nestled amid the winding lanes that crisscross England’s West Midlands sits the Crooked House pub, where you could be forgiven for feeling dizzy before you’ve even ordered a drink. That’s because the building, which has stood near the village of Himley since 1765, leans more than 15 degrees to its side. Some time in the Victorian era, the digging of a nearby mine destabilized the earth below it, causing the building to tilt.

The establishment, nicknamed Britain’s “wonkiest pub,” has delighted thirsty old-timers and curious visitors ever since in this quiet corner of central England, known as the Black Country for its role in Britain’s coal-mining history. The building was so lopsided that visitors recalled an immediate sense of disorientation on entering. If you released a marble on a tabletop, it would roll.

That was until earlier this month, when over three days, the 258-year-old leaning pub of Himley went from historic landmark to rubble. Police believe someone deliberately torched the building. The local council says its burned remains were then illegally demolished. Both are investigating, although no suspect has been named in the criminal investigation.

The pub’s destruction has gripped Britain, fueling rampant speculation in the press over who would willingly destroy the landmark and sparking fury among locals, who are demanding that it be rebuilt brick by brick. It has also revived broader fears over the future of the country’s pubs, which play a central and beloved role in everyday life but are struggling to stay financially viable. According to one tally, 140 pubs permanently closed last year, with the real estate on which they sit frequently more valuable than the pubs themselves.

The fire at the Crooked House occurred less than three weeks after the pub was sold to new, private owners, its previous owner, Marston’s Brewery, told The Washington Post. The new owners of the property could not be reached by phone for comment.

“It is like grief. It’s almost like losing someone you loved,” said Matt Wright, 45, who also said he drank his first legal pint of beer at the Crooked House and is campaigning for it to be rebuilt. “It’s part of the makeup of the Black Country. We’ve lost the heart of the community,” he said. “The anger is at whoever is responsible for this. We don’t know — factually — who is responsible.”

It was dusk on Aug. 5 when the local fire service received reports that smoke was billowing out of the pub. Firefighting crews rushed to the scene from four nearby stations, only to be met with an obstacle on their path: A mound of dirt six feet high. Police and witnesses said the dirt had been deposited on the only lane leading to the pub. No one was able to say who placed it there or why. To reach the blaze, firefighters deployed a high-volume pump capable of spraying water at a great distance.

By the time the fire was extinguished, it had torn through the building’s interior, leaving only a charred, crooked shell. Only the building’s frontage, including its slanted windowsills and door frame, survived. Officials from South Staffordshire Council visited the site and said they agreed on a plan with the pub’s new owners on how to preserve what remained.

Within days of the fire, the remaining structure was razed by the use of an excavator, leaving just rubble. It was an “unauthorized demolition,” the local council leader said in a statement, condemning the act and announcing an investigation into potential breaches of zoning laws.

The cause of the fire also was a mystery, with some suspecting foul play. After inspecting the site with dogs capable of detecting traces of fire accelerant, Staffordshire’s local police announced that they were treating the blaze as arson. “We understand the significance of this much-loved building and the upset and anger felt by many,” Detective Chief Superintendent Tom Chisholm said in a statement. “We’re doing all we can to understand more about what happened, and who was responsible.”

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Historian Colin Morris, 74, who lives half a mile from the pub and has visited it since the 1970s, could not bring himself to visit the rubble. “I’m not sure I have the heart to see it in that state,” he said, expressing dismay that no one else will be able to enjoy its crookedness. “I don’t think there’s another place on earth with quite the same feeling,” he said, comparing a walk through the pub’s rooms to the feeling of being caught in an ocean storm. “If you imagine going on an old galleon that was rocking at sea, it was like it had rocked to the one side but had stuck there.”

“You felt like you’d had far too much to drink before you’d even started,” he said.

“It was a real, real sad and emotional sight,” said Wright, who visited the pub’s wreckage after it was bulldozed. “I’m heartbroken. I still to this day can’t believe she got knocked down the way she did.”

Wright is among a number of locals organizing a campaign for the pub to be rebuilt brick by brick, coalescing into a Facebook group that has swollen to almost 20,000 members less than two weeks after the fire. “We want that pub to be rebuilt where she stood, since the 1700s. And we want her to be exactly as she was before she was knocked down,” Wright said.

Politicians also have expressed outrage. On Wednesday, the BBC reported that the local member of Parliament Marco Longhi addressed a group of 100 nearby residents, vowing to propose a “Crooked House law” in Parliament to bolster protections for historic pubs and other buildings across the nation. Andy Street, the mayor of the neighboring West Midlands region, also gave his support to the campaign to rebuild the pub. “Whoever has targeted this beloved landmark in this way has messed with the wrong pub, the wrong community, and the wrong authorities,” he said in a statement.

The pub’s demolition is the latest in a spate of unauthorized demolitions of pubs in Britain, according to the Campaign for Real Ale. Many local councils, hoping to preserve the businesses in their communities, frequently refuse requests from property owners to change zoning requirements so they can turn a profit from their property. Some owners, faced with such refusals, have taken the law into their own hands.

Developers demolished a historic pub. They must rebuild from the rubble.

In the most extreme cases, councils have ordered property owners found to have illegally demolished pubs to rebuild them brick by brick. This year, a judge ruled that the 18th-century Punch Bowl Inn must be rebuilt by the property developers who destroyed it without permission. In London, the Carlton Tavern was reopened in 2021 after the local council ordered its owners to reconstruct the building “in facsimile,” local media reported. The pub was demolished less than three months after its owners had asked to repurpose the building into apartments, which the council refused.

The future of Britain’s slanted pub is unclear, but locals are demanding straight answers. As Wright put it: “The people of the Black Country will not stop until we get justice.”


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