Back in his twenties, Neil travelled through Africa selling filtration equipment for water wells. “It was a great time, an exciting time,” he says. “I saw a bit of the world before coming back to about 10 to 12 square feet of bar space.” He nods to the well-trodden area a few feet away.
“I had rather a difficult time of it for quite a while, pacing up and down. I love travelling.”
Neil is now 63 and has been landlord of Suddabys Crown Hotel in Malton for 33 of those years, with his wife, Karen. His family has held the lease for 140 years, but he looks to be the last Suddaby to run the pub. The couple are selling the lease and their two grown-up children will not follow the tradition.
Sniff deeply here and you can smell the past, along perhaps with the lost whiff of cigarettes. The smoking ban was good for Neil as a non-smoker, but bad for business – just another way in which running a pub has been made difficult.
“I moved here when I was three,” he says. “And I’ve worked here since I was five. We had a taxi and wedding car service. We weren’t funeral directors, but we were funeral transport.”
Karen chips in that one of the corpses his father fetched was that of Barry Prudom, the fugitive killer shot by the police in Malton in 1982.
Talking to Neil and Karen involves a maze of such stories. At one point, Karen brings up the vintage 1920s Rolls Royce converted into a hearse, thereby losing much of its value.
“We’ve still got the seats that were taken out,” she says. “Armstrong Massey in Beverley did the conversion,” says Neil. “I remember going to pick it up. I wasn’t very old, so it would be the early 1960s.”
Washing that hearse aged five was his first job. This pub has family memories like an old glass has fingerprints. The pony that used to come in for a pint, the racehorses brought into the bar or the fact that the family owned Malton’s first taxi. “Some of the regulars used to teach me to read,” says Neil, pointing down the bar. “I used to sit underneath the old Guinness clock there, and there was one particular regular called John Dunning and he used to read Thomas the Tank Engine to me.”
Neil went to school in Malton, then to Newcastle University, where he was a student of chemical engineering, leading to that job in the water well business.
When his father died in 1985, he followed the family footprints back to the pub. His dad was called William Robert Archer Suddaby. “Archer after the late great Fred Archer,” Neil says. “He was a famous jockey who blew his brains out with a pistol.”
The family tend to use their second name. “I’m Robert Neil. My dad was Robert, and his father was Robert. Apparently, this is because of the licensing laws at the time. You had to pay a fee if the name changed.”
He adds dryly: “There’s been a few Roberts.”
His grandfather was Robert Arthur Yates Suddaby, with the Yates being a link to the Malton family of that name. There is also a connection to the poshest second-hand dealers around. “I always thought we were under the bed sheets, but we are actually connected to Sotheby’s the auctioneers in London,” Neil says.
On another branch of the family tree sits the inter-war opera singer Elsie Suddaby, the Leeds lyric soprano who was known as the “Lass With the Delicate Air”. Elsie was related to Sir Francis Jackson, born in Malton 100 years ago, and York Minster organist for 36 years. “He’s one of our family – he’s a Suddaby on the family tree,” says Neil. “I’ve not seen Francis for a while, but he used to pop in.”
The pub was built in 1827 on the site of the Ship Inn. It was originally called the Rose & Crown, before becoming the Crown in around 1860. William Matthew Suddaby took over in 1879, then his wife, Adelaide, ran the pub from 1887 until 1909.
Adelaide it is who left the family mark. By 1902, the pub was known as Suddabys Crown Hotel, as can be seen from the sign in a photograph capturing street celebrations in the town to mark the coronation of King Edward VII.
Does Neil think it is unusual for one family to have run a pub for 140 years? “I think it’s absolutely amazing,” he says. Now the business is for sale.
“It’s a hard thing but I look at how the Government has treated pubs over the years. There’s something wrong because people are not using pubs. The supermarkets are a major issue, the smoking ban didn’t help, and taxation changes under Labour.”
And people are looking after themselves more – good for them, not so good for pubs.
Neil works 85 to 90 hours a week, running the pub, the B&B, the music sessions and the seasonal beer festivals.
For 30 years, Suddabys was listed by the Campaign for Real Ale, a cause of pride to Neil, although the pub has now been deselected. “Not enough craft ales,” he says. “We’re not a typical Camra hangout but we do have a lovely range of eclectic customers.”
In his university days, Neil used to come home at weekends to help behind the bar “for extra cheese and petrol”. And he didn’t mind one bit. “I loved it – you have to love it.”
The pub brewed its own range of beers from 1985, but Leeds Brewery does the job now. The main beer is Double Chance, and it comes with a story featuring airborne daredevilry, zeppelins and a wounded air ace called John Philip Wilson, who played cricket for Yorkshire and went on to become an amateur steeplechase jockey. In 1925, Wilson rode Double Chance to victory in the Grand National. The horse was stabled at the rear of the Crown Hotel. Neil’s grandfather had a hand in that National win.
The family used to ferry people around the town in a Hansom cab, and his grandfather had to pick a horse for the job.
“He had a choice of two horses to pull the local handsome cab, and the other horse went to train at Newmarket and won the Grand National,” says Neil.
The brewery fittings are still in place at the pub, and a new owner could easily start brewing again. “The potential here is great,” adds Neil. “But we haven’t got the energy or the momentum any more.”
The pub belongs to the Fitzwilliam Estate, owners of almost everything in Malton. “Everybody thinks we’re rich because we own this place,” says Neil, although the family has only ever owned the business, not the bricks and mortar. “I like to think I could hand it on to someone who could take it to the next stage. We’ve loved this building as a family for the past 140 years.”
Neil breaks off to say goodbye to a parting local – “Cheers, Bob, see you later.”
Soon the ghosts of the Suddaby family will be leaving, too.