A pub called the Nag's Head has been in High Street North since at least the 17th century. Famously, it was included in an old engraving published in 1861, showing the straw plait market held in the street outside when Dunstable was famous for making straw hats and bonnets.
Later, the Nag's became well-known as a stopping place for people travelling through Dunstable. In 1904 it was advertising good accommodation for motorists and cyclists, with well-aired beds and fine food.
By then, the pub had expanded into West Street, and it consolidated its position in 1908 by buying a little shop which had stood on the crossroads corner.
The Nag's is mentioned in histories of the Quaker movement, which formed a Dunstable group in about 1654. One of the founders, Edward Chester, was a baker whose shop was next to the pub.
The pub is best-known nationally as the birthplace on February 1 1648 of a famous playwright, Elkanah Settle, whose father Josias ran two pubs in Dunstable. Details of Elkanah's birth and christening were belatedly entered in the Dunstable Parish Register in 1656, at the request of his father.
Elkanah's abilities were so well recognised that by 1663 he was a King's Scholar at Westminster, and from there went to Trinity College, Oxford. He wrote a play while at university which had successful performances in 1666 and this led to patronage by the notorious Earl of Rochester, whose rakish adventures were portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2004 film The Libertine.
Rochester's influence enabled a lavish production of Elkanah's verse play Empress of Morocco to be presented in 1671. This was an enormous success, so much so that the script was published in book form with line-engraved pictures of scenes from the show. Today, copies of the book are extremely valuable.
Numerous other spectacular productions of his work followed but Settle became embroiled in an abusive controversy with the country's leading playwright, John Dryden. He took a prominent part in the politics of the time and eventually antagonised supporters of both the Whig and Tory parties. It meant an end to his prosperous public career and he survived for a while by selling one-off volumes of his poetry in richly ornamented covers, known today as Settle bindings, which were expressly designed for wealthy families. He died in poverty in 1724.
Text: John Buckledee of Dunstable and District Local History Society. ©
Design: David Turner.
Narration: Katherine Yates of Dunstable Repertory Company.
Recording: David Hornsey.
Website developer: Joshua Buckledee.