If you are looking for a traditional and homely pub near Uckfield and Lewes, then come and visit us at The Laughing Fish and try our home-made pub food today!
Ever since we knew that we were taking on the tenancy of the pub – back in February 2001 – we have been keen to research its history. This page summarises what we think we have found out so far – but there are many gaps, and there may well be mistakes. Please let us know if you think you can add to – or correct – anything that follows.
The pub is reputed to have started life as a chapel when it was built in the 1860s. However, it is possible that this view has been influenced by the unusual shape of the entrance doors at the front. It was certainly never consecrated, and was soon a hostelry serving the newly built railway. At first, it was called the Half Moon – landlord Job Allen transferring the licence from his already existing pub in the village (that building survives to this day as Lime Tree Villas further along Station Road) – but it soon became the Station Hotel.
On 3rd November 1939, soon after the start of the Second World War, the pub was taken on by Mr Fred Pullinger. However, he quickly realised that it wasn’t making any money. He was on the point of giving up the tenancy when, out of the blue, an army officer turned up in a staff car and told him that three and a half thousand Canadian troops were about to be billeted at nearby Sutton Hall and they would need somewhere to drink! Army Officers were also living in the White House opposite. This secured the immediate future of the business. The new customers were not entirely well-behaved however – one night Fred had cause to eject a group of them. In their drunken state, they then returned with high explosive and blew up the porch! The following day Fred calmly went to see the Commanding Officer, who immediately arranged for the same troops to rebuild the porch.
For many years we were unsure how or when the change of name to The Laughing Fish came about, but we received the most plausible explanation in August 2010. A distant relative of Arnold Russell, who took over the pub from Tommy Thompson either in late 1956 or 1957, contacted us to tell us that Arnold had been a journalist whose ambition it was to take over a pub on his retirement. He thought that “The Station Hotel” was a very boring name, so because it was at that time the HQ of the Isfield and District Angling Club he came up with the name “Laughing Fish.” This also suggests that the engraved window in the porch came later – we believe from a fish and chip shop in Eastbourne!
When we first arrived we managed to glean quite a bit of information from the former owner of Boathouse Farm, Ian McKinney, and some gaps were filled in by another local who is sadly no longer with us, Johnny Allitt. Strangely, we know more about the period from 1939 to 1949 than we do about 1950-1973 – largely because the family of the wartime landlord still visit us from time to time.
1867 – Job Allen
Job Allen was the licensee of the Half Moon, which was the village inn before the coming of the railway (now Lime Tree Villas). He was almost certainly the first landlord of the Station Inn, and is listed as such in the Post Office Directories of Sussex from 1867 & 1874. (Intriguingly, a section from an Ordnance Survey map of 1874 shows this building as being called the Half Moon. We can only think that this was a contemporary error)
1882 – John Brooker (from the Post Office Directory 1882)
1939-1949 – Fred & Helen Pullinger
We know quite a bit about the wartime years because Fred’s family still live in the area and visit occasionally. They have confirmed the story of the Canadian troops (above) and the dates of the tenancy.
1949-1953 – ?
1953-1956 – John “Jack” Simmonds
John’s daughter Shirley (now Siggs) came in last year and brought with her some photographs of the outside of the pub and the garden. She met her husband, Ron Siggs, from Halland here. She also tells us that the old Village Hall used to be next door to the pub. We have a newspaper article from 1955 stating that John Simmonds had then been here for two years…
1956 – Tommy Thompson
Tommy wasn’t here for very long, but seems to have been quite a character. He originated our now famous annual “Beer Race”, which was nicknamed the “Tommy Trot” and is still run every Easter Monday. (It was sometime during the 1950s that the interior of the pub was painted black, and the piano in the bar painted yellow [M.Palfrey])
1956- ? – Arnold Russell
We now believe that it was Arnold who changed to name of the pub to The Laughing Fish when he arrived. (See above). Ian McKinney told us that he also installed a two-way mirror behind the bar. What is now the Bar Billiards room used to be the family’s living room, and the mirror enabled them to see if someone had come into the bar during quiet periods.
?1960-1964? – Tom & Mavis Alloway
Tom also had a job, possibly as a gas engineer (Malcolm Palfrey remembers he had a van with “Calor Gas” on the side). Mavis supplemented their income too by being the local Avon lady! (There may have been another landlord in between these two).
1964-1966 – John & Joan Page
This couple were popular, and also responsible for the building of the house opposite, “Sappers”, so called because John had served in the Royal Engineers before entering the pub trade. Prior to the Laughing Fish they had run a pub in Lewes.
?1967-1970? – Ron & Rossi Waggett
?1970-Feb 1973 – Geoff & Sheila Jenner
Feb 1973 – Jan 1976 – Ron & Mary Gower
We met this couple, now living in Thurso, in 2007 when they visited while in the area. We wish that we had had more time to chat to them about their time here. We do know that it was during this period that the archway linking the public bar and the saloon bar was knocked through. They also introduced the selling of meals.
Jan 1976 – Mar 1979 – Charles & Jean Allen
Mar 1979 – Apr 1990 – Barry & Barbara Dimmack
The pub appears to have been in its heyday during Barry and Barb’s long tenancy. We met them when we first arrived in 2001, as they were still then running the Brewer’s Arms, Herstmonceux, having been at the Wellington, Seaford, in between. Structural alterations to the pub were approved in 1984, and we think that that was when the kitchen was moved from its old location (a small room overlooking the garden, now itself disappeared as a separate room) to its current location. That itself was once stables, and then later a function room which used to house a weekly Folk Club.
Apr 1990 – Oct 1993 – Derek & Val Gilbert
We have in our possession a video of clips from a programme made about Dame Thora Hird during this period, filmed in and around the pub. Several current customers feature prominently! Dame Thora’s daughter, Janette Scott, lived in the village at this time, and the film featured Dame Thora apparently starting the Beer Race. However, what actually happened was that the producers asked Derek & Val to organise a re-run of the race later in the year just for the purposes of the documentary. This, of course, involved getting all the customers back to pretend it was the real race.
Oct 1993 – Oct 1997 – George & Sheila Thornton
George and Sheila left the licensed trade when they left the Fish. This was the time when the pub trade was beginning to change from its traditional structure (most pubs either freehold or tied to a small, local brewer) to the situation we have today where the majority of pubs are owned by massive corporate property companies such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns. This pub was at that time (and had been possibly since its inception) owned by Beard’s of Sussex, a small family owned company which had ceased brewing itself some years before. Most of their pubs therefore sold Harvey’s ales, and it was difficult to tell a Beard’s house and a Harvey’s house apart.
Oct 1997 – Oct 2000 – Mick Kirby and Jacquie Webber
Mick and Jacquie took on the Beard’s tenancy after having run the Cricketer’s Arms in Burgess Hill. It was while they were here that Greene King purchased the entire group of pubs owned by Beard’s, to give them a foothold in the South-East*. Whilst Greene King at that time promised that tenants used to selling Harvey’s beers could keep them during the remainder of their tenancy, the change from a small to a big landlord was difficult for many of the Beard’s tenants to adapt to, and Mick and Jacquie left the licensed trade.
Oct 2000 – Feb 2001 – Rob & Carole Sawyer
Rob and Carole had shown an interest in taking on the tenancy, but were asked by Greene King to hold the pub as “tenants-at-will” whilst a decision was made. Unfortunately they had to take the flack when Harvey’s ales were finally removed from the pub.
Feb 2001 to date – Andy & Linda Brooks
We were somewhat surprised when Greene King offered us this pub, as we had applied for it in August 2000, and then had heard that it had been given to Rob & Carole. In the meantime, Greene King tried to get us interested in another of their tenancies which was becoming available, at the Brewer’s Arms in Vines Cross. We confidently expected that it was there that we were to be sent when we were called to a meeting in January 2001, but we are so pleased that it was the Fish!
*This was the beginning of Greene King’s massive growth in the last ten years or so, which now sees them as the biggest vertically integrated brewer in the country, closely followed by Marstons. (We’re sorry about the management-speak, but “vertically integrated” does actually describe the set up quite well – they still brew beer, still own pubs, and want their own beer sold in their own pubs. A very traditional set-up, but obviously now on a massive scale.) Neither Punch nor Enterprise brew any beer, but still tie their tenants to supply contracts which they negotiate with brewers.
Dates of structural alterations and other changes
The existing children’s play area was installed to replace a very dilapidated climbing frame and swings. One of our best investments, there was now a reason for families with young children to visit during the summer months.
Further works in the garden included the building of the pergola and the fencing-in of the entire area.
Re-decoration of the outside of the pub, and new signage. This really completed our first major “makeover” and we started to see good growth in trade.
Installation of a modern air extract system and canopy in the catering kitchen
Work begins (ended mid-November) to refurbish the cellar. Over £50000 was spent by the brewery to completely rebuild what had become very dilapidated and difficult to clean, with pitted floors, water ingress everywhere, and insufficient insulation. During this period we had a temporary cellar in a portable building where our smoking area now is.
A major building programme, which effectively closed the pub for six weeks. The separate little room overlooking the garden (which had been once the kitchen, then a family room, and at times had housed the bar billiards table) was knocked into the main bar, involving the removal of the fireplace. The customer entrance from the car park was remodelled so that we lost the feeling of walking into a corridor. We built a new toilet block to provide a disabled/additional ladies’ loo, and to replace the rather quaint old, once outdoor gents toilet. We provided the access ramp for wheelchairs, and put in the “Jumbrella” to provide a sheltered outdoor area for smokers in anticipation of the Smoking Ban. We also completely refurbished the catering kitchen, replacing the walls and flooring and installing professional catering equipment replace the inherited built-in domestic-style units.
A ten-day closure enabled complete re-decoration of the inside and outside of the pub. There were no major structural alterations this time, although some new “Chesterfield” style bench seating was built in, which together with a new colour scheme and dimmable lighting made the newer, back part of the pub feel much cosier.
A full two week closure of the kitchen for a full refurbishment including removal of a partition wall, new floor, walls and extract/fresh air fan system.
The beer race
Winners of the “Tommy Trot” Beer Race
1956 E. F. Tredgett
1957 E. W. Vinall
1958 Mrs. Rose Satterley
1959 Colin Bradford
1960 Tony Ockenden
1961 Michael Reed
1962 Cecil Page
1963 Peter Weston
1964 Guy Cogger
1965 Robert Hedger
1967 (No names)
1969 P. Roberts
1970 (No name)
1971 J. S. W. Long
1972 D. Page
1973 H. Fingerneissl
1974 A. Nunn
1975 Guy Cogger
1976 K. Woolfenden
1977 Colin Harvey
1978 (No name)
1979 A. Winder
1980 A. Winder
1981 A. Winder
1982 M. Strange
1983 D. Cannon
1987 (No names)
1992 (No name)
1993 Sue Hazelden
1994 J. Reynolds
1995 Sue Hazelden
1996 K. Duncton
1997 K. Duncton
1998 Alan Cox
1999 Vanessa Moore
2000 Suzi Fantom
2001 Lorraine Watson
2002 Ian Moore
2003 Ian Moore
2004 Ian Moore
2005 Nick Betts
2006 Will Miles
2007 Craig Mitchell
2008 Ashley Madden
2009 Dean Battye
2010 Lorraine Watson
2011 Dean Battye
2012 Tom Fantom
2013 Becca McCann
2014 Zac Salvage
2015 Lewis Fish
2016 Declan Emmerson
2017 Denise Emmerson
2018 Denise Emmerson
We can be confident that the Easter Monday Beer Race was started by Tommy Thompson in 1956 because we still have the trophy! We know that the race has been held most, if not all, years since because, again, the winners names are engraved on it. A list of these is on the left.
Anecdotally, apart from the Thora Hird story related above, we understand that actress Diana Dors and band-leader Joe Loss were at least two celebrities who attended through the years.
Why the beer race was started is a mystery, but the rules are well-established – competitors are provided with a half-pint tankard of ale, which they are then required to carry through the village to the mill – about ¾ of a mile – and back, spilling as little as possible, with the winner being the one who returns the fullest glass within a time limit of 35 minutes. Opportunities for cheating are, of course, rife, but so are the opportunities for grassing on the cheats, so it usually works out fairly! We’re always intrigued when two friends set out together for one to return with an empty glass but his companion with a very full one!
These days the race is run for charity, and the RNLI have become established as the recipients, and great friends and helpers on the day. Since we’ve been at the pub the weather has been tremendously kind to us, with often very warm sunshine on Easter Monday – until 2008, when it showed and rained in turn! Despite this 65 stalwarts still braved the conditions, and we raised over £200 for the RNLI.
If any of these listed are you, or a relative or friend, we’d love to hear from you, especially if you have any photographs or other anecdotes that we can add to our history.
Does anyone recall the period 1966-1968? Was the race not run, or did the landlord at the time simply fail to get the cup engraved? The same questions arise for 1970 and 1978; we have been led to believe that from 1984 until 1992 the cup was simply missing; again, any information to fill in the gaps is most welcome.
Due to the Covid-19 shutdown from March 21st 2020 the Beer Race was not able to be held - as far as we know, and in common with so many other events nationwide, the first time ever. However, we were able to raise £1300 for Coronavirus charities as friends and customers gave back a little of what they might have spent!