Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Origin of Tavern Signs in London


The cognisances of many illustrious persons connected with the Middle Ages are still preserved in the signs attached to our taverns and inns. Thus the White Hart with the golden chain was the badge of King Richard II.; the Antelope was that of King Henry IV.; the Feathers was the cognisance of Henry VI.; and the White Swan was the device of Edward of Lancaster, his ill-fated heir slain at the battle of Tewkesbury.

Before the Great Fire of London, in 1666, almost all the liveries of the great feudal lords were preserved at these houses of public resort. Many of their heraldic signs were then unfortunately lost: but the Bear and Ragged Staff, the ensign of the famed Warwick, still exists as a sign: while the Star of the Lords of Oxford, the brilliancy of which decided the fate of the battle of Barnet; the Lion of Norfolk, which shone so conspicuously on Bosworth field; the Sun of the ill-omened house of York, together with the Red and White Rose, either simply or conjointly, carry the historian and the antiquary back to a distant period, although now disguised in the gaudy colouring of a freshly-painted sign-board.

The White Horse was the standard of the Saxons before and after their coming into England. It was a proper emblem of victory and triumph, as we read in Ovid and elsewhere. The White Horse is to this day the ensign of the county of Kent, as we see upon hop-pockets and bags; and throughout the county it is a favourite inn-sign.

The Saracen's Head inn-sign originated in the age of the Crusades. By some it is thought to have been adopted in memory of the father of St. Thomas à Becket, who was a Saracen. Selden thus explains it: "Do not undervalue an enemy by whom you have been worsted. When our countrymen came home from fighting with the Saracens, and were beaten by them, they pictured them with huge, big, terrible faces (as you still see the sign of the Saracen's Head is), when in truth they were like other men. But this they did to save their own credit." Still more direct is the explanation in Richard the Crusader causing a Saracen's head to be served up to the ambassadors of Saladin. May it not also have some reference to the Saracen's Head of the Quintain, a military exercise antecedent to jousts and tournaments?

The custom of placing a Bush at Tavern doors has already been noticed; we add a few notes:—In the preface to the Law of Drinking, keeping a public-house is called the trade of the ivy-bush: the bush was a sign so very general, that probably from thence arose the proverb "good wine needs no bush," or indication as to where it was sold. In Good Newes and Bad Newes, 1622, a host says:—

"I rather will take down my bush and sign

Than live by means of riotous expense."

The ancient method of putting a bough of a tree upon anything, to signify that it was for disposal, is still exemplified by an old besom (or birch broom) being placed at the mast-head of a vessel that is intended for sale. In Dekker's Wonderful Yeare, 1603, is the passage "Spied a bush at the end of a pole, the ancient badge of a countrey ale-house." And in Harris's Drunkard's Cup, p. 299, "Nay, if the house be not with an ivie bush, let him have his tooles about him, nutmegs, rosemary, tobacco, with other the appurtenances, and he knows how of puddle ale to make a cup of English wine." From a passage in Whimzies, or a new Cast of Characters, 1631, it would seem that signs in alehouses succeeded birch poles.

It is usual in some counties, particularly Staffordshire, to hang a bush at the door of an ale-house, or mug-house. Sir Thomas Browne considers that the human faces depicted on sign-boards, for the sun and moon, are relics of paganism, and that they originally meant Apollo and Diana. This has been noticed in Hudibras—

"Tell me but what's the nat'ral cause

Why on a sign no painter draws

The full moon ever, but the half."

A Bell sign-stone may be seen on the house-front, No. 26, Great Knight-Rider-street: it bears the date 1668, and is boldly carved; whether it is of tavern or other trade it is hard to say: the house appears to be of the above date.

The Bell, in Great Carter-lane, in this neighbourhood, has been taken down: it was an interesting place, for, hence, October 25, 1598, Richard Quiney addressed to his "loveing good ffrend and countryman, Mr. Wm. Schackespere," (then living in Southwark, near the Bear-garden), a letter for a loan of thirty pounds; which letter we have seen in the possession of Mr. R. Bell Wheler, at Stratford-upon-Avon: it is believed to be the only existing letter addressed to Shakspere.

The Bull, Bishopsgate, is noteworthy; for the yard of this inn supplied a stage to our early actors, before James Burbadge and his fellows obtained a patent from Queen Elizabeth for erecting a permanent building for theatrical entertainments. Tarleton often played here. Anthony Bacon, the brother of Francis, lived in a house in Bishopsgate-street, not far from the Bull Inn, to the great concern of his mother, who not only dreaded that the plays and interludes acted at the Bull might corrupt his servants, but on her own son's account objected to the parish as being without a godly clergyman.

Gerard's Hall, Basing-lane, had the fine Norman crypt of the ancient hall of the Sisars for its wine-cellar; besides the tutelar effigies of "Gerard the gyant," a fair specimen of a London sign, temp. Charles II. Here also was shown the staff used by Gerard in the wars, and a ladder to ascend to the top of the staff; and in the neighbouring church of St. Mildred, Bread-street, hangs a huge tilting-helmet, said to have been worn by the said giant. The staff, Stow thinks, may rather have been used as a May-pole, and to stand in the hall decked with evergreens at Christmas; the ladder serving for decking the pole and hall-roof.

Fosbroke says, that the Bell Savage is a strange corruption of the Queen of Sheba; the Bell Savage, of which the device was a savage man standing by a bell, is supposed to be derived from the French, Belle Sauvage, on account of a beautiful savage having been once shown there; by others it is considered, with more probability, to have been so named in compliment to some ancient landlady of the celebrated inn upon Ludgate-hill, whose surname was Savage, as in the Close-rolls of the thirty-first year of the reign of Henry VI. is an entry of a grant of that inn to "John Frensch, gentilman," and called "Savage's Ynne," alias the "Bell on the Hoof."

The token of the house is—"HENRY YOVNG AT Y^E. An Indian woman holding an arrow and a bow.—℞ ON LVDGATE HILL. In the field, H. M. Y."

"There is a tradition [Mr. Akerman writes] that the origin of this sign, and not only of the inn, but also of the name of the court in which it is situate, was derived from that of Isabella Savage, whose property they once were, and who conveyed them by deed to the Cutlers' Company. This, we may observe, is a mistake. The name of the person who left the Bell Savage to the Cutlers' Company was Craythorne, not Savage."

In Flecknoe's Ænigmatical Characters, 1665, in alluding to "your fanatick reformers," he says, "as for the signs, they have pretty well begun the reformation already, changing the sign of the Salutation of the Angel and our Lady into the Shouldier and Citizen, and the Catherine Wheel into the Cat and Wheel, so that there only wants their making the Dragon to kill St. George, and the Devil to tweak St. Dunstan by the nose, to make the reformation compleat. Such ridiculous work they make of their reformation, and so zealous are they against all mirth and jollity, as they would pluck down the sign of the Cat and Fiddle, too, if it durst but play so loud as they might hear it."

The sign In God is our Hope is still to be seen at a public-house on the western road between Cranford and Slough. Coryatt mentions the Ave Maria, with verses, as the sign of an alehouse abroad, and a street where all the signs on one side were of birds. The Swan with Two Nicks, or Necks, as it is commonly called, was so termed from the two nicks or marks, to make known that it was a swan of the Vintners' Company; the swans of that company having two semicircular pieces cut from the upper mandible of the swan, one on each side, which are called nicks. The origin of the Bolt-in-Tun is thus explained. The bolt was the arrow shot from a cross-bow, and the tun or barrel was used as the target, and in this device the bolt is painted sticking in the bunghole. It appears not unreasonable to conclude, that hitting the bung was as great an object in crossbow-shooting as it is to a member of a Toxophilite Club to strike the target in the bull's eye. The sign of the Three Loggerheads is two grotesque wooden heads, with the inscription "Here we three Loggerheads be," the reader being the third. The Honest Lawyer is depicted at a beershop at Stepney; the device is a lawyer with his head under his arm, to prevent his telling lies.

The Lamb and Lark has reference to a well-known proverb that we should go to bed with the lamb and rise with the lark. The Eagle and Child, vulgo Bird and Baby, is by some persons imagined to allude to Jupiter taking Ganymede; others suppose that it merely commemorates the fact of a child having been carried off by an eagle; but this sign is from the arms of the Derby family (eagle and child) who had a house at Lambeth, where is the Bird and Baby.

The Green Man and Still should be a green man (or man who deals in green herbs) with a bundle of peppermint or pennyroyal under his arm, which he brings to be distilled.

Upon the modern building of the Bull and Mouth has been conferred the more elegant name of the Queen's Hotel. Now the former is a corruption of Boulogne Mouth, and the sign was put up to commemorate the destruction of the French flotilla at the mouth of Boulogne harbour in the reign of Henry VIII. This absurd corruption has been perpetuated by a carving in stone of a bull and a human face with an enormous mouth. The Bull and Gate, palpably, has the like origin; as at the Gate of Boulogne the treaty of capitulation to the English was signed.

The Spread Eagle, which constitutes the arms of Austria and Russia, originated with Charlemagne, and was in England introduced out of compliment to some German potentate.

The oddest sign we know is now called The Mischief, in Oxford-street, and our remembrance of this dates over half a century, when the street was called Oxford-road, then unpaved, is truly Hogarthian. It was at that time called the Man loaded with Mischief, i.e. a wife, two squalling brats, a monkey, a cat, a jackdaw, etc. The perpetrator of this libel on the other sex, we suppose, was some poor henpecked individual.[59]

On the subject of sign combinations, a writer in Notes and Queries says:—"This subject has been taken up by a literary contemporary, and some ingenious but farfetched attempts at explanation have been made, deduced from languages the publican is not likely to have heard of. The following seem at least to be undoubtedly English: The Sun and Whalebone, Cock and Bell, Ram and Teazle, Cow and Snuffers, Crow and Horseshoe, Hoop and Pie,—cum multis aliis. I have some remembrance of a very simple solution of the cause of the incongruity, which was this: The lease being out of (say) the sign of The Ram, or the tenant had left for some cause, and gone to the sign of The Teazle; wishing to be known, and followed by as many of his old connexion as possible, and also to secure the new, he took his old sign with him, and set it up beside the other, and the house soon became known as The Ram and Teazle. After some time the signs required repainting or renewing, and as one board was more convenient than two, the 'emblems,' as poor Dick Tinto calls them, were depicted together, and hence rose the puzzle."

There have been some strange guesses. Some have thought the Goat and Compasses to be a corruption of "God encompasseth us," but it has been much more directly traced as follows, by Sir Edmund Head, who has communicated the same to Mr. P. Cunningham: "At Cologne, in the church of Santa Maria in Capitolio, is a flat stone on the floor, professing to be the Grabstein der Brüder und Schwester eines ehrbaren Wein- und Fass-Ampts, Anno 1693; that is, I suppose, a vault belonging to the Wine Coopers' Company. The arms exhibit a shield with a pair of compasses, an axe, and a dray, or truck, with goats for supporters. In a country, like England, dealing so much at one time in Rhenish wine, a more likely origin for such a sign could hardly be imagined."

The Pig in the Pound might formerly be seen towards the east end of Oxford-street, not far from "The Mischief."

The Magpie and Horseshoe may be seen in Fetter-lane: the ominous import attached to the bird and the shoe may account for this association in the sign: we can imagine ready bibbers going to houses with this sign "for luck."

The George, Snow-hill, is a good specimen of a carved sign-stone of—

"St. George that swing'd the dragon,

And sits on horseback at mine hoste's door."

[59] Communicated to the Builder by Mr. Rhodes.

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. II
London, 1866