The Thomases' Local: the Mason Arms

The Mason Arms, a Grade II listed building which may date to the early 1700s, was named after the Mason family of Eynsham Hall, who were once the major landowners in the area. It was originally Ivy Farm. It seems to have started as a pub around 1879, but also continued as a dairy and wheat farm.    

The Mason Arms' first known landlord was Thomas Harris, farming júst 24 acres in 1881, and he was there for more than twenty years. By the 1911 census, Mark Hopkins was the tenant publican and farmer; he had previously worked as a "Foreman Agric. Experimentalist". This suggests that he had probably worked for James Mason of Eynsham Hall, whose interests included scientific agricultural research. [i] 

Mark Hopkins was succeeded by his son, Albert Thomas Hopkins, who had married Mary Busby in 1921. They ran both the pub and the farm, as well as a business as a coal merchant. Yet Albert had very little, if any, experience as a publican or farmer. He had previously worked as a footman to a banker in London, and then as a butler-valet in Malmesbury. 

Albert and Mary's niece, Dorothy Murray, went to live with them in the pub in the 1920s, and has provided some information on the Hopkins’ time there, including the fact that Albert farmed three hundred acres, and that the pub did not serve food, though it did provide accommodation. The pub's beer came from Garne's brewery in Burford. [ii]  After Albert's death in 1963, the pub was run for a period by Joan Lee:

      "I was asked by Michael Mason, who owned the property as well as most of the land                    around South Leigh, if I could come to manage the Mason Arms after Mrs. Hopkins left for         Church End, and keep the licence running until a new landlord could be found.

        I agreed to give it a try, although I had never tapped a barrel or used an optic. The                        premises were very dilapidated with no inside toilets or hot water. There were coal fires to         heat the water and keep us warm. We did have electric light, but only one tap in the                    kitchen. There were rats in the cellar and in the loft and also a ghost, a cavalier, who used            to haunt us at full moon." [iii]  

Lee was succeeded by Tom Litt. After several months of renovation, during which the bar was located in a barn in the grounds, Litt re-opened the pub on July 15 1964, with thirteen customers for dinner.[iv] In 1974, he opened a micro-brewery at the pub, producing 72 gallons per week of Sowlye Ale.[v] 

In 1982, Don Franks took over the pub and the micro-brewery was closed. 

The pub’s landlord from 1995 was Gerry Stonhill. He ran it as a gastro pub, that was commended by Raymond Blanc and Marco Pierre White. It attracted a number of celebrity customers and its facilities included a helipad. Michael Winner is said to have called it the tackiest pub in Britain. 

Stonhill allowed his customers to smoke inside the pub in defiance of the ban on smoking in public buildings. In April 2008, he was successfully prosecuted and ordered to pay five separate fines and prosecution costs totalling £5,750.  

After Stonhill’s departure in 2013, the pub lay empty for a number of years. In 2015, the Mason Arms was listed as an asset of community value under 2012 regulations arising from the Localism Act 2012. 

The Mason Arms was subsequently bought by Justin and Charlotte Salisbury, and re-opened  in 2017 as one of their Artist-in-Residence boutique hotels.

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[ii]  Dorothy 'Dosh' Murray nee Worley, b. 1906 in Wallingford, married Norman Murray in 1943. See her interview on this site in: South Leigh residents talk about Dylan Thomas. For more on Garne's brewery:  https://www.victoriacountyhistory.ac.uk/explore/items/sheep-street-north-garnes-brewery-and-malthouse-now-tourist-information

[iii] Joan Lee: taken from her obituary on the South Leigh website. After leaving the pub, she became postmistress at the village post office until its closure in May 1987.

[iv] Tom Litt, radio interview with John Simpson, 1973, Oxfordshire History Centre.

[v] . Sowlye Ale 1040og  was a dark hoppy brew available only at the Mason Arms.

Books

M. Brown (2004) Oxon Brews: The Story of Commercial Brewing in Oxfordshire, BHS

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