The mermaid Inn is the first building that you come to on leaving the quay on St Mary’s. You certainly don’t have to experience the might of an Atlantic storm to sense its proximity to the sea. With the front of the building on the beach, facing the harbour, the Mermaid Inn has water on two sides. For a pub sited on this marginal territory between land and sea, its name ‘The Mermaid Inn’ seems rather apt. This solid granite pile of four storeys has not always been known as the Mermaid, however, and nor was it always a public house.
The Mermaid Inn owes its construction to Thomas Johns Buxton. Born in 1826 on St Mary’s, Buxton grew up to become one of the islands’ main shipping agents, alongside John Banfied, during the second half of the nineteenth century. Though there is little record of his early life, the sparse information afforded by the 1861 census gives an idea of his success. In the census, Buxton is described as a “Ships Agent” with a wife and daughter, both called Mary and both born in Falmouth. With the young Mary Buxton’s age given as four years old, it seems likely that at some point, Thomas J Buxton was based in Falmouth himself. By 1861, the Buxton family were living in Hugh Street and were sufficiently well off to have two domestic servants living with them.
Buxton acted for various Scandinavian shipping companies and his name also appears as agent for the Scilly Isles Steam Navigation Company, which was formed in 1858. At various times, Buxton had shares in the pilot cutters Agnes, Argus, Atlantic and Rapid. He also owned two gigs, Cuckoo and the ill-fated Hound. Buxton’s house and office remains one of St Mary’s finest town houses, currently serving as the islands’ branch of Lloyd’s Bank. With its white-painted render and classical porch, it is the very model of respectability. Dated to the mid-nineteenth century, it was built specifically for Buxton.
The building of his family home was not the only construction work that Buxton commissioned. Around the same period, the Scillonian firm of John Jenkins and Sons their partners. Despite the occasional celebration, many more years were to pass before Buxton’s Store was transformed into a public house. After Thomas J Buxton died, the building was leased to other merchants including R Chirgwin and Son. Chirgwin’s was a grocery shop, which sold bread and cakes. Their bakery operated for some time from what was to become the Mermaid’s public bar. Downstairs, the cellar is believed to have been used as a fishing tackle shop.
It was not until 1954 that Buxton’s Store was finally to become The Mermaid Inn and St Mary’s could enjoy the opening of a new public house. The proprietor was a man by the name of R M Stephenson. Redeveloping the storerooms into a hostelry required some structural changes, dividing up warehouse spaces into smaller rooms, building new staircases and providing living quarters upstairs. The external walls of the old stores were also given a dramatic makeover with the addition of a new doorway and several new and large windows. Stephenson decorated his pub with all manner of nautical objects and paraphernalia, from fishing nets to ships’ wheels.
In 1959, Mr Stephenson sold out to Redruth Brewery Company and, though times and licensees may have changed a few times since then, the Mermaid’s main bar is not so different today. Evidence of this can be seen in photographs from the Fifties but one of the real constants of The Mermaid Inn’s main bar is a striking sense of light and space. The original function of the building has resulted in the bar’s high ceiling, an unusual quality in Scillonian architecture. The big windows added by Stephenson in 1954 not only brighten the room but also provide the stunning view.
The bar’s decor is another of the pub’s appealing qualities. The walls are thick with eccentric and local artifacts: model ships, framed pictures of gigs and their crews, photographic portraits of Scillonians from yesteryear, the name board of a wrecked fishing vessel, flags and postcards from around the world.
“Our regulars, both locals and visitors, just bring us stuff in and we put it up! Rugby balls, gig paddles and a figurehead… it’s all here.” said Irene.
Some of the exploits of The Mermaid’s clientele are on display, as is an entertaining example of the pub’s own history. On the wall by one of the windows is a small frame containing a faded newspaper clipping from 1974. Its headline reads “THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED THE MERMAID”. The article recounts an extraordinary police operation to clamp down on illegal drinking on St Mary’s. Apparently, The Mermaid Inn had gained itself some notoriety for after-hours drinking and, perhaps, a slightly cavalier attitude to the local officers of the law. On Saturday 8th June, Inspector Biggs and two other police officers based at Penzance disembarked from the Scillonian on St Mary’s. Dressed in plain-clothes, their idea was to arrive on Scilly incognito. Hardly had they got of the boat when their cover was almost blown, as one of the officers was recognised by a former colleague on the quay.
The Penzance officers met up later with the islands’ new sergeant and two constables and changed into the uniforms, which had been concealed in their bags. At 00.20am on the Sunday morning, the combined force burst into The Mermaid Inn. They found some 29 people drinking inside and fifty charges of drinking after hours and obstructing the police were brought against the licensee, William Stancumbe, his staff and customers. William Stancumbe maintained that it was a private party and that no drinks had been bought or sold. Twelve of those present were fined and ordered to pay costs. The fines ranged from £2 to a combined £100 for Mr Stancumbe. The police were accused of victimisation by Mr Stancumbe, who suggested that his was far from being the only establishment on Scilly to have a relaxed attitude towards the licensing laws. The Sunday Times article on the matter ended with this assuring sentence: “The Scilly Isles, a police spokesman from Penzance confirmed. has no crime problem.”