Best known as the family home of the Twitts in olden times, the Alma of King’s Head Street established itself as a public house in the Victorian era and, while relatively modern in Harwich terms, has remained active at that site to the present day. But how and why did it become a pub?
The Harwich Pub Trail website offers a solid overview of the situation of the era & the early days of the Alma, and it is the advert shown on that page, from April 1859, which forms the base of much of the research to follow.
Firstly, a little background knowledge. By the 1850s, packet boat services had been in operation for the best part of two centuries, transporting passengers and goods (typically parcels for the Post Office) – one ancient example being Harwich to Helvoetsluys (modern: Hellevoetsluis), dating back to the 1660s. As wooden sail boats made way for industrial steam ships, numerous steam packet companies were formed, initially as stand-alone companies, then later many joining forces with their respective local railway companies as rail travel grew. Ultimately, rail expansion meant these packet services would eventually die off, but there was still plenty of room for them in the mean time.
Edward Dorling, a Sussex man by birth, with direct connections to the Dorlings of Epsom, had moved to Ipswich as a young adult. An “enterprising townsman“, Dorling worked closely with the rail companies in the area, and by the mid 1850s he had established himself as a district superintendent of the Eastern Counties & Eastern Union Railways, and a stationmaster at Ipswich itself. However, he had found himself on the wrong end of a court case in 1856 and, while it was a relatively minor incident that he was acquitted of, was forced out of his position at Ipswich; he was offered a position at Stratford instead, but due to his connection with Ipswich, preferred to leave the employ of the rail company, having grand plans of his own.
Dorling intended to set up a steam packet service, and asked his previous employers if he could purchase any ships they used for their own service, which they eventually declined. Undeterred, and wishing to get his service up and running for the Summer season of 1857, he looked elsewhere for a suitable ship. As it happened, the Medway Steam Packet Company had the ideal river vessel for him, having only been built the previous year, and used for journeys between Chatham and Sheerness. Dorling agreed to the purchase of this vessel, and continued to serve Chatham and Sheerness in the interim, while also using it for his intended route between Ipswich, Harwich, Walton-on-the-Naze, and London. This steam ship was under the command of one O. D. Cook, and was known by the name of… the Alma.
After a successful trial run for the rest of the Summer season, which met with public approval, owing to the Alma being “admirably adapted for pleasure trips, being very fast and possessing excellent accommodation“, Dorling set out to establish his own route, under “Alma” branding. Thus, for the 1858 season, he ran a service from Ipswich to Harwich from the newly-crowned “Alma Wharf”, having relocated to premises next to the Crown & Anchor (later Lock Tavern) on the “New Cut”, and retaining the services of the Alma & commander Cook. His previous employers at the Eastern Counties Railway Company attempted to unsettle him by undercutting prices (which he had frozen at the company’s original pricing), but the quality and personal touch of his service proved too popular.
We arrive at 1859, the year of most importance from a Harwich perspective. Dorling’s steam packet service was so popular that he could afford to take out an ad in the local papers advertising it for the 1859 season – this is the ad from the Pub Trail site. The Alma vessel was no longer involved; instead, the service was to be undertaken by the Father Thames, a ship of the Woolwich Steam Packet Company, under the command of Captain S. Rackham, an experienced pilot of the route. Dorling now had dedicated agents put in place – there was Mr Manning, probably Joseph, at Walton, and Mr Ward, aka Henry Ward, former boatman of the Alma, at Pin Mill. Meanwhile, in Harwich, a dedicated victualling point was established on King’s Head Street, under agent William Hammond and the Dorling brand; thus, the Alma Inn was born.
William Hammond was a Beccles man by birth, but like Dorling moved to Ipswich as a young adult, originally as a mariner, but took over a beer house in the town at around the time Dorling was a railway superintendent. Hammond’s connection to Dorling is not yet certain, but as his beer house was located near to the “New Cut”, it seems reasonable that their paths would have crossed on many an occasion by this time. Regardless, by 1859 Hammond moved to Harwich and opened the Alma.
Dorling’s steam packet service ran for a decade. Up to and including 1864, it ran much as can be seen in the ad, though with an occasional change in agents and ships. After this, a reduced service ran for a few more years, likely due to Dorling’s appointment as manager of the Woolwich & Waterman Steam Packet Company; a consequence being the Alma service, still named as such, was amalgamated into their own dealings. After the 1867 season, Dorling left the industry entirely, moving to Walton and becoming owner & manager of “Dorling’s Family and Commercial Hotel”.
The steam packet service ran for one final year in 1868, with a man named Robert Liffen now running the show from Alma Wharf (Liffen was coincidentally from Beccles, like Hammond). Hammond was still the Harwich agent, and Dorling still had an agent operate in Walton from his hotel. The final vessels used were called the Queen of the Thames and Queen of the Orwell, and would pop up again when Clacton came calling a few years later.
By 1869, Alma Wharf was no longer in operation, the house next to the Lock Tavern the final remnant of the Alma name. With the service having ended, Hammond saw fit to end his own tenure at the Alma Inn, choosing instead to continue the late Charles Stiles‘ fishmonger’s business at 2 King’s Quay Street. The Alma was taken over by one Thomas Hill Jennings, remaining under his name for the best part of 15 years.
Thomas Jennings, the Alma’s second landlord, may also have had connections to Dorling and his steam packet service. Jennings was born in Sheerness, a port of call of the original Alma steamship, and appears to have moved from the area to Harwich at around the time of Dorling’s dealings (he was a resident of nearby Minster in 1851, but got married in Harwich in 1859). At this point, it is unknown whether he had a direct connection, he moved to Harwich via the service, or these facts happen to be a coincidence, but the fact he took over from Hammond suggests there may be another story there.
(Information primarily sourced via the British Newspaper Archive, and Ancestry (specifically census data and county directories)