Many Americans visiting Essex take time out to make a trip to our county town of Chelmsford. They head for the Saracen's Head Hotel at 3 High Street, which today is a modern hotel with echoes of an ancient past. During World War II, the Saracen's Head Inn was the venue for the American Red Cross Service Club, a place where our US allies relaxed, enjoyed a meal, read their own national newspapers, but above all, were able to meet their countrymen in their precious off-duty moments.
Today, displayed on the walls of the hotel its walls, are many photographs of American Red Cross staff, taken some sixty years ago in their smart uniforms. Many have returned to Chelmsford over the years, savouring their special memories and recalling nostalgic reminiscences. The airbases in which the American servicemen were stationed include Willingale, Great Easton, Boreham, Matching, Birch and Rivenhall, among others, built from 1942 when America came into World War II.
Some American visitors have expressed interest in the fascinating history of this famous old inn. The Saracen's Head and its extensive backyard is seen clearly on John Walker's map dated 1591. Of course, it is recorded under its name from 1539 as one of Chelmsford's leading coaching inns. Daniel Defoe mentions it in his "Tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain" published in 1724. He reported that Chelmsford was "full of good inns" and the Saracen's Head was certainly one of them.
The inn was purchased by Thomas Nicholls in 1718 for £650 and redeveloped a few years later, described in 1724 as "lately erected and new built" by Nicholls. Unfortunately, he over-reached himself financially, by failing to repay the mortgage of £600. In 1738 his creditor's nephew and heir, William Taylor, foreclosed and took possession.
As the Saracen's Head was considered one of the larger and more commodious inns, it became the venue for balls and the famous annual "Flowerists" Feast held each July. The Chelmsford Beefsteak Club founded in 1768 met there where it had its own cellar (still extant in 1964). John Oxley Parker was one of the founders. The club was limited to 40 members who met to dine once a month on the market days nearest to the date of the full moon, to ensure a light night to ride or drive home. Following the construction of the splendid Shire Hall in 1791, this became the new fashionable venue and the hierarchy flocked there in all their splendour.
The novelist, Anthony Trollope enjoyed staying at the Saracen's Head either in his capacity as Inspector General of the Post Office or for hunting. Here - ensconced in the smoking room - he wrote parts of some of the famous Barchester Towers novels, while in residence. The novels were produced in weekly parts and Fred Spalding, Chelmsford's well known photographer, mentioned in his reminiscences, that Trollope was seated in the Sarcen's Head on one occasion when: Two clergymen entered having purchased across the street the last number of Barchester Towers. Hastily cutting it open, one of them ran his eye down the pages. 'Confound that Mrs Proudie,' he exclaimed, 'I wish she were dead.' The reader in the distance looked up. 'Gentleman,' he quietly remarked, 'she shall die in the next number.' The surprise of the visitors at discovering themselves in the presence of Mrs Proudie's creator may be imagined.
Today, the Saracen's Head continues to extend a friendly welcome to tourists and business folk alike, offering their warm hospitality as they have for five hundred years.