Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Tavern signs


The number and diversity of signs which prevailed at one time through every street of London, presents no uninteresting subject of research. The stern orders of unpoetic commissioners for paving, have now cleared away that infinite variety of highly embellished symbols which were once considered necessary to the well-being of every trade. The red brick front with its stone signs and window cornices, unregretted amidst modern improvements, has passed away, but a sumptuous banquet of speculation has been left to us in the inscriptions on public houses and other places, which those signs originated. For instance, to plunge at once into the midst of examples, we meet with The Pig and Chequers. Here the reflective mind is immediately provided with a fund of more or less probable hypotheses as to the meaning of this somewhat extraordinary appellation. The last probably that will occur to it, is that The Pig and Chequers, with its sanded floor and sparkling ales, was at first a gaming house, that it was distinguished by the Pique et Carreau, or spade and diamond—which by the way exists now somewhere in the Isle of Wight, under the name of the Pig and Carrot,—represented on its sign board, and that owing perhaps to an undue appreciation of the carreau, or it may be partial obliteration of the pique, the form of the diamond induced its present name.

For our Red Lions, Blue Boars, and Black Swans, and other natural anomalies, which the student of high art has in some instances desired unhappily to perpetuate, we are indebted to the heraldic distinctions of noblemen, on whose property perhaps the hostelry was built, or by whose munificence it was chiefly supported, bearing on their coat armour a swan sable, a boar azure, or a lion gules. To this the Green Man is an exception, who may be confidently pronounced to be the bold Robin Hood; especially as, if the size of the picture admits it, and the artist places sufficient belief in his ability to represent him, Little John is commonly visible walking away in the far distance. It is a happy thing, and deserving of much congratulation, that at the present day publicans are most generally contented with a gorgeously lettered instead of a pictorial representation. This may be classed among the beneficial results of educational progress. Formerly the orthography and the painting were both mystical and undetermined, neither throwing much light on the other; now, with the exception of some few cases, as rare as they are full of warning, the orthography, and etymology alone remain to be explained. Strange must be the taste, observes Addison, after commenting with no little fervour on flying pigs and hogs in armour, of that man who, having all the beasts and birds in nature to choose out of, should yet prefer to call his house by the name of an ens rationis, of some creature more horrible and extraordinary than any in the deserts of Africa.

After this consideration of simple monsters, we are not unfrequently startled by the close communion, under one sign, of creatures of jarring or totally incongruous natures—such as the Colt and Cradle, the Fox and Seven Stars, the Dog and Gridiron, the Cat and Fiddle, amongst which several pairs we would imagine that there could be nothing in common, neither would it be easy to conceive that they ever met before their hazardous conjunction on a sign post.

The Devil and Dunstans was the sign of an ale-house within Temple Bar. The sign-board represented the devil sable, as he appeared when held by the nose by St. Dunstan. Hogarth has represented this sign in one of his illustrations of Butler’s Hudibras. From some work on ecclesiastical history we learn that the devil was accustomed to assail St. Dunstan in numberless Protean shapes during his—the Saint’s—hours of devotion. That on one occasion, when his satanic majesty assumed the figure of a lovely woman with flaxen hair, the saint was more than usually incensed by the profanation. Being engaged at the time in some chemical analysis for the production of gold, he seized him with the instrument he was using, and held him till, as the ecclesiastical history asserts,

On hoofs erect the devil stood confessed.

At this juncture of the miraculous metempsychosis, the sign-painter appears to have embodied the pictorial representation. Near the saint a crucible is lying on the ground, St. Dunstan being supposed to be the patron saint of goldsmiths.

In conclusion it may be remarked, that signs served formerly as a general directory. There were but few names to the streets, and signs were almost the only landmarks. At night, when however few people ventured abroad, owing to the feeble and imperfect trust to be placed in the watchmen of the period, these signs were illuminated by lamps of divers colours, imparting to the aforesaid monsters an aspect of increased and surpassing hideousness.