Nottingham's oldest pub landlady dies at the age of 88

Landlady Judith Birkett pictured last year behind the bar at The New Castle in Sneinton
-Credit: (Image: Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post)

A Nottingham pub landlady in her late 80s, who said she wasn't old enough to retire, has died. Judith Birkett, who worked in the pub trade for 41 years, was 88.

She was believed to be the city's oldest landlady. Even though she stood less than 5ft tall, the no-nonsense pensioner wasn't afraid to keep customers in check if they stepped out of line at The New Castle in Sneinton. She had bought and renovated the semi-derelict pub nearly a decade ago, aged 79.

Judith died on Monday, May 20 in the City Hospital after being taken in on the Friday before. She had remained behind the bar almost right to the end doing what she loved the most. Her daughter Victoria Birkett, who lives in Colwick said: "She never stopped working in the pub essentially.

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"She loved it. It was her life. She loved all the different characters, just being amongst the community. She was firm, no swearing, no canoodling, although that didn't count her as she was the most kissed landlady in town."

Victoria used to work at the pub on Sundays, cooking roast dinners, until they tapered off. She also worked full-time with her mum at her previous pub, The Castle, now called the Nottingham Legend.

Victoria said: "She had got a new Monday club started, who were a gang drinking the real ales, there were people doing band practices, all sorts of things going on. She has had a very exciting life, very varied and adventurous. She never stood still."

The New Castle in Sneinton
The New Castle in Sneinton -Credit:Joseph Raynor/ Nottingham Post

Nottingham CAMRA paid tribute to Judith. Chairman Steve Westby said: "She was a truly remarkable lady who will be sadly missed. She ran a brilliant proper locals' pub. She was an amazing character, not afraid of hard work even as she reached her later years. Who else would buy and turn round a semi-derelict pub at the age of 79?"

Judith owned the Victorian property in Sneinton Road, which has been closed since her death. Speaking to Nottinghamshire Live last year, she said: "I'm not old enough to retire. I like people and to be honest the thought of retirement is not something I want to contemplate. What would I do with my time? Drive all the neighbours mad probably. I don't know. As I always said keep moving, they'll bury you if you don't.

"I think my customers would be more than a little upset if I departed even though I tend to be a bit heavy on them sometimes. The general opinion seems to be better the devil you know. One advantage of maturity, you don't have to apologise for anything. You can say put it down to old age or senility. I have a happy ship. If you don't customers get short shrift so we try and do our best for them.

"It's been very busy life. I won't sit on my deathbed and say I've not had much of one. They will have to drag me screaming to my coffin because I'm not going to be a willing participant even when I get round to being 110. Every day is a bonus, even if it's a boring one."

The divorced mother-of-four had been pulling pints for 41 years, joining the pub trade relatively late in life at the age of 47, in 1983, when she took over the lease of a country pub, The Willow Tree, at Barnby in the Willows, near Newark. A relative novice, up until that point she'd only pulled pints at the village hall in Hickling.

Before that she'd spent decades in the fashion trade. After leaving school at the age of 15, she began making women's and children's clothes from home, going on to run her own company, Judith Ann Fashions.

Later, she branched out into property, doing up houses, and opened takeaways in Newark and Nottingham's Thurland Street, called Scoffers. "I decided I would finish my working life in a pub," she said, She went on to run The Castle (now renamed the Nottingham Legend) in Lower Parliament Street. She was there when Nottingham's Motorpoint Arena was being constructed, likening it to living on a building site for two years.

The Castle passed from one pub company to another and at one point there were plans to demolish it and build flats, so Judith wanted out. She was planning to buy another house and modernise it but a stairlift put her off and she decided to buy the semi-derelict closed pub in Sneinton instead. Previously called The Lamp. it reopened as The New Castle after an immense amount of work to turn it into a cosy local.

"I was 79 at the time. Not everyone is as daft as I am but age is never something I've thought about to be honest. I am always slightly surprised how old I am," she said.

Judith had hoped to get the caves below the pub up and running for tours but ran out of time. Victoria said: "I share endeavour to sell it on as a business and make sure it continues one way or another. All the customers are really lost because they have nowhere to go now. They loved the cheap pool table and it was very friendly. Everybody spoke to everybody, you got all different ages."

James Marriott, who works at Tyrezone near the pub, said: "She used to be strict. If you swore you'd definitely get told off. She kept it like a family pub. She made everyone welcome."

Judith left instructions that she didn't want a funeral service, however some of the regulars will be gathering for a few drinks in her memory.

Read the full interview with Judith here.