Getting a drink in The Crooked House pub could feel intoxicating, even if you’d ordered a lemonade.
Originally built as a farmhouse in England’s West Midlands in 1765, the red brick structure had begun to sink in the 19th century after years of coal mining under its foundations. As a result, the walls slouched sideways at a 16-degree angle, dizzying customers and delighting children.
Buttresses and steel bars made the structure safe, but it remained charmingly askew, leading to its jokey designation as “Britain’s Wonkiest Pub.” (“Wonky” means “not straight or level” in the U.K.). In an optical illusion caused by the pub’s slant, patrons could roll marbles and coins on some of the interior’s surfaces and watch them seem to tumble uphill, as though gravity had magically reversed itself.
But this week the landmark was abruptly flattened, its structure reduced to rubble in a strange sequence of events that has outraged locals and raised suspicions of foul play.
When the building was sold to a private developer last month, patrons waited apprehensively to see what would become of the beloved local watering hole.
Then, on Saturday night, firefighters found the building ablaze. The police say they are now treating the fire as a suspected arson.
Just as the community began to take stock, a bulldozer arrived and demolished the remaining structure, a move the South Staffordshire local council said was “completely unacceptable and contrary to instructions” provided by its officers. The police said they had released the scene to the owners and did not have a say in its partial demolition.
“People are feeling real grief,” said Matt Wright, 45, a lifelong resident of the nearby town of Dudley. “It’s affected everybody. When we visited there the other night, we had adults crying over how special this place was.”
Mr. Wright was one of a few hundred people who gathered at the rubble of the site on Tuesday. “It’s probably the only pub in the world where you’d come out and feel more sober than when you were in,” he said. “It was a really bizarre feeling that you couldn’t experience anywhere else. And it made everyone who came really happy.”
British pubs — long the heartbeat of communities and neighborhoods across Britain — have faced challenging conditions in recent years, from the aftermath of a pandemic-induced crash in income to the country’s cost-of-living crisis. Fifteen percent of the country’s pubs closed their doors between 2010 and 2022, according to the Office of National Statistics.
Locals from this part of the West Midlands — also known as the “Black Country” for its seams of coal and smoke-belching iron foundries — fondly recalled growing up alongside the pub, visiting it with parents and grandparents, and even celebrating their weddings there.
“The Crooked House was more than just bricks and mortar, more than just a local legend,” said Tim Watson, who grew up 10 minutes away. “For me, it perfectly summarized the spirit of the Black Country.”
The Crooked House had faced tough financial circumstances, a local councilor, Roger Lees, said, although other customers said the spot had still been doing relatively brisk business. The new owners intended to redevelop the property for “alternative use,” said the West Midlands mayor, Andy Street, rather than maintain the pub.
The previous proprietor, Marston’s, sold the building to a company called ATE Farms Limited in late July, a Marston’s spokesman wrote in an email. ATE could not be reached for comment.
In a statement on Wednesday, Staffordshire’s police department said the fire may have been started deliberately, although it did not name any suspects. The police and firefighters visited the demolition site this week with a dog specially trained to detect accelerants, the department added. The police and the fire service declined to comment further because the investigation is ongoing.
Mr. Street, the West Midlands mayor, called for the pub to be rebuilt “brick by brick” and said the timing of the fire so soon after the pub’s acquisition raised “major questions.” Marco Longhi, a Conservative lawmaker for Dudley North, said he was “completely devastated and angry.”
Laura Catton, 40, went this week with her husband, Tom, to see the charred rubble of the pub. The couple had met while working there over a decade and a half ago, and Mr. Catton drank a final toast to the Crooked House in the wreckage. “It’s an iconic building for many, iconic of the Black Country,” she said. “But for us, it had such a special place in our hearts, because it was almost like our first home.”
Mr. Wright said he felt that the Black Country’s heritage, like the Crooked House, was being gradually blotted out by development. Demolition of the Dudley Hippodrome, a buff brick prewar theater in his hometown, began earlier this month. But “nothing will hit the community as hard” as the slanted pub’s sudden demise, he said.
The destruction of the pub has inspired not only mourning, but verse.
On Thursday, Pam Ayres, the British poet and broadcaster, shared a brief eulogy for the pub on social media. Ms. Ayers, who was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, or M.B.E., in 2004, inspired several other poems in the replies to hers, which ended with these words:
“Little wonky pub, where folk forgot about their trouble
Funny and familiar
Reduced to rubble.”