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.