It has just been announced that a blue plaque is to be unveiled on the old Salisbury Gaumont where Buddy Holly and the Crickets played in 1958. There is, however, another iconic building in the city associated with his legendary visit to the city, which featured in a book we published in 2010 – The Inns of Wiltshire. Among the inns featured was the George, a Grade I listed building which has seen even more changes than the Gaumont since 1958.
The George was open by 1364, when the Teynturer family owned it. William Teynturer was a member of the Guild of St George, which probably accounts for the inn’s name. In 1623, the council decreed that the George was the only place in Salisbury where plays could be staged, ‘the size and form of the inner courtyard being well adapted for that purpose’.
Shakespeare and Cromwell are both reputed to have stayed at the inn. In June 1668, Samuel Pepys ‘lay in a silke bed’ there and had ‘very good diet’. When he ‘paid the reckoning’, however, he found it ‘so exorbitant, and particular in rate of my horses, and 7s. 6d. for bread and beer’, he ‘was mad, and [resolved] to trouble the mistress about it’. The George also features in HG Wells’ Secret Places of the Heart, in which he alludes to ‘the mediaeval modernity of the Old George smoking-room’. His reverie is interrupted, however, by an American visitor who instructs him to ‘just look at that old beam! … To think it was exactly where it is before there was a Cabot in America!’
It was to this ancient hostelry that Buddy Holly came with the Crickets on 22 March 1958. At the Gaumont that night, he was backed by the Tanner Sisters, Gary Miller, Ronnie Keene & his Orchestra, and Des O’Connor. In a letter written from the George to his parents back in Texas, he confided that ‘everyone comments on how my jokes get bigger laughs than the comedian on the show, Des O’Connor,’ before telling them what a ‘real old, quaint place’ the George was. Less than twelve months later, he died in a plane crash at the age of 22.
Less than ten years later, in 1967, the ground floor of the George was removed and a steel frame inserted to support the upper floors, creating an arcade into the ‘Old George Mall Shopping Centre’. Over 40 years later, even in a city so rich in historic buildings, the enormity of the devastation still seems incredible.
After the ‘conversion’, a restaurant opened upstairs in the old inn for a while, but this closed in the 1990s. Since then, most of the building has remained disused, empty and, except for occasional guided tours, closed to the public. The wonder is that, despite the destruction of the ground floor, the building should have retained its Grade I listed status. This can only serve to underline the importance of what remains, and of the urgent need to reverse decades of neglect.
Adapted from The Inns of Wiltshire published by Akeman Press, 2010