The Gary Cooper pub was nearly named the Elkanah Settle

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J. D. Wetherspoon, the pub chain, thought they had found an ideal local name for their new Dunstable business.

They had discovered that the playwright Elkanah Settle, immensely popular in his heyday, was born in Dunstable.

Engraved picture of a scene from Settle's play Empress of Morocco

Engraved picture of a scene from Settle's play Empress of Morocco

What better way to please Dunstablians than to name the new pub in Grove House Gardens after one of the town’s most famous sons?

Alas, Wetherspoon’s soon discovered that hardly anyone in Dunstable had heard of Elkanah, and the pub was christened the Gary Cooper instead after the film star who attended Dunstable Grammar School.

But who was Elkanah Settle? Dunstablians really ought to know. Elkanah was born on February 1, 1648 at the Nag’s Head, the pub still standing on the corner of West Street.

His father, Josias, seems to have moved to Dunstable from Hemel Hempstead, where his family had been surgeon-barbers.

With the help of his wife Sarah he ran two pubs in Dunstable – the Nag’s Head and the Bell, which stood in High Street South “between the Saracen’s Head and the George” according to Josias’s will, made in 1666.

The Saracen’s Head, in those days, was where the William Hill betting shop is today, and the George was on the site of what is now the Vantage Indian restaurant.

Elkanah was their first son and details of his birth and christening were belatedly entered in the Dunstable Parish Register, at the request of his father, in 1656.

It is not known where he went to school, but his 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 called Cambyses, King of Persia, which had successful performances in 1666 at a theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

This led to patronage by the 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.

After the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell it was an enormous success, so much so that the script was published in book form with line-engraved pictures of scenes from the show. One of these is reproduced on the right. These are the first theatre illustrations of this type and copies of the book are extremely valuable.

Numerous other spectacular productions of his work followed (the opening scene of his opera The World in the Moon featured a moon 14 feet across) and, famously, he became embroiled in a notoriously abusive controversy with the country’s leading playwright, John Dryden.

His connections with the Earl of Rochester might also have led him to take part in the exploits of the infamous ‘Merry Gang’ whose drunkenness and lewd behaviour (Nell Gwynn was Rochester’s mistress) became the talk of the town.

Settle took a prominent and fluctuating role in the tumultuous politics of the time (King Charles II was battling to reconcile Protestant and Roman Catholic factions) and his changing allegiances eventually antagonised supporters of both the Whig and Tory parties. It meant an end to his prosperous public career and he survived by selling one-off volumes of his poetry in richly ornamented covers (known today as Settle bindings) which were expressly designed for wealthy families of the time.

He would alter the poems to suit the recipients. Despite that unique enterprise, he died in poverty in 1724.