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Battle royal over iconic Art Deco pub

Added: Thursday, June 15th 2023

Iron Duke

By Caroline Jones Friends of the Iron Duke

There has been a six-year battle royal to save the Iron Duke, a Grade II-listed Art Deco pub in Great Yarmouth on the Norfolk coast. The local council’s Preservation Trust plans to sell the pub to a chain of American-style hamburger restaurants.

The trust has refused to put the pub out to tender and has refused applications from successful local publicans to run the pub. Now, at short notice, it has called a public consultation on 29 June at 3.30pm, a weekday afternoon when many people who would like to express their views will be at work.

The pub was built by local brewer Lacons and is dedicated to the World War One battleship HMS Iron Duke, captained by Admiral Jellicoe at the Battle of Jutland. The bars in the pub are made from teak taken from the historic battleship. In spite of not being fully constructed, it was granted a special licence to serve troops stationed locally during World War Two. It opened officially in 1948.

The Iron Duke traded successfully for decades until in the 2000s it was bought by Bourne Leisure. The company closed the pub to stop it offering competition to its bars on its adjacent holiday camp. In 2017, when it became evident the pub was facing demolition, a small group of local people came together and formed Friends of the Iron Duke.

In August of that year they applied to Historic England to list the pub. The group approached Great Yarmouth Borough Council asking for the pub to be awarded non-designated heritage asset status to give the Iron Duke extra protection while awaiting Historic England's inspection.

The local authority refused and in October Bourne Leisure stripped the pub of the Lacon Brewery falcons logos and several rain hoppers bearing the crest of the Iron Duke battleship. This was a blatant attempt to devalue the pub's heritage and architectural significance. The falcons have been recovered but the hoppers remain lost. 

Grade II status was awarded in November of the same year. The group realised they couldn't leave the pub in limbo and in the hands of Bourne Leisure, which was refusing to open or sell the pub.

The Friends have collaborated with many heritage groups to raise the plight of the pub to national level. As a group they have attempted to engage with the local authority on numerous occasions, seeking council intervention to enforce much needed repairs and start a dialogue with Bourne Leisure.

Bourne Leisure's refusal to sell meant that only local authority intervention could remove the pub from their ownership. In 2020 the council finally but reluctantly stepped in, bowing to public pressure. They negotiated the sale of the  pub for £110k on behalf of The Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust. The trust is a charity run by the council with the purpose of preserving and promoting the town's heritage.

This is achieved by bringing historic buildings back into use. The trust's chairman is Councillor Bernard Williamson. The manager is Darren Barker, the council's conservation officer and the board of trustees also includes several local councillors. 

The Friends of the Iron Duke have actively promoted the pub's availability through their social media platforms. They passed on all enquiries and followed up to ensure the council and trust engaged with all interested parties. This has not been the case. Highly qualified operators with a proven track record in the pub industry have been either ignored or turned down.

One highly successful publican managed to battle through Councillor Williamson's obstruction to submit a business plan but was refused a site visit or even floor plans. Councillor Williamson stated that all avenues would be explored for the historic building but there is no evidence the pub’s availability has been marketed, not in trade journals, not on websites, not even via commercial estate agents.

The trust describes itself as a developer of the last resort but in the case of the Iron Duke, this was not a pub no one wanted, it was a pub no one could buy. The group has asked for the feasibility study the trust paid David Clarke Associates to conduct to be put in the public domain. It would be expected that any study would include the Iron Duke being restored and reopened as a public house. To date the feasibility study remains unpublished.

In December 2022 the trust announced it had applied for over £2.5 million of lottery heritage funding to restore the pub. It also announced that the operator would be a local American-style burger chain, Zaks.

The decision is highly questionable. American culture has no connection to the pub, Lacons’ legacy or the town of Great Yarmouth. Zaks was one of the businesses that approached Friends of the Iron Duke and was passed on to the council and again the Friends followed up to ensure the trust and council engaged.

Everyone who made enquiries was given the same information and help. The council and trust though have failed to answer enquiries, have acted with zero transparency and even considered the pub being converted to a nature observatory. No one is criticising Zaks but it already has an American-style diner in the town. There are also two other similar restaurants just a brief walk from the pub.

The Iron Duke pub is a stunning example of interwar design. The scope is huge for this heritage pub. Packed full of original features with a faithful restoration, it is going to be a highly valuable asset and all-year round attraction for Great Yarmouth.

The Iron Duke is a venue that can offer far more than a single-offering restaurant. It can work with local brewers to supply their best ales and beers, along with locally-sourced food and seasonal menus. Beer festivals and vintage events can be held. People can enjoy afternoon tea while enjoying stunning views of the sea – the list is endless.

The public consultation to discuss the council and trust's plans for the pub is a Lottery Heritage Fund requirement. The Friends of the Iron Duke are keen that it is accessible to all. It’s difficult to see how disregarding the pub’s heritage will ensure the Iron Duke has a successful and sustainable future.

LATE NEWS: The public consultation will take place on Thursday 29 June, 3.30-6.30pm, North Denes Primary School, Jellicoe Road.

Cllr Bernard Williamson told the Eastern Daily Press the Iron Duke is “an important historic building, part of the town’s heritage”. He added he was delighted to have formed a partnership with Zak’s – a partnership that will turn the pub into an American-style burger restaurant.