British inns: the colorful signs sometimes need decoding

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Visitors to Britain are not the only people bemused by the curious and often baffling inn signs they encounter, for even the locals are often unable to explain them. Some signs, such as ``Duke of Wellington'' or ``Angler's Rest,'' for example, are easily understood. But for every obvious sign there are scores of others that defy a ready explanation. And with 75,000 inns in Britain, there are plenty of specimens for inn sign ``detectives.''

Why such signs as ``Goat and Compasses,'' ``Three Tuns,'' or ``Bag O' Nails,'' for example? One must delve into history, local customs, and celebrities to discover their meanings. This can be difficult, since many British inns date back for centuries.

The earliest signs are a reminder of the days when most people were illiterate, and innkeepers had to resort to displaying some kind of sign or symbol outside their premises to advertise the nature of their business. The sign ``Crooked Billet'' is derived from the fact that early alehouse keepers hung a ``billet'' (a log of wood) over their doors. Another ancient sign is ``The Bush,'' formerly in the form of a branch or bunch of leaves.

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Variations on the arms of ancient companies have given birth to intriguing pictorial signs. ``The Ram,'' ``Ram & Teasel,'' and ``Ram & Flag'' are ancient signs based on the arms of the Clothworkers' Company or those of the Drapers' Company (incorporated in 1438), the two crests being almost identical. ``Noah's Ark,'' ``The Dove and Rainbow,'' and ``Dove'' are based on the crest of the London Company of Shipwrights.

``Adam & Eve'' is a reproduction of the arms of the Fruiterers' Company, formed in 1515. ``Three Tuns'' is related to the arms of the Ancient Company of Vintners and that of the Brewers' Company, incorporated in 1470.

A real puzzler is ``Goat & Compasses.'' This is a combination of the arms of the Company of Cordwainers (shoemakers) and the three compasses of the arms of the Ancient Company of Carpenters. It is said that shrewd landlords used this combined sign to curry favor with craftsmen from both trades in their area.

``Hole in the Wall'' is an ancient and fairly common sign derived from the hole in the wall of debtors prisons through which prisoners received gifts of food and other items from friends and relatives. The sign ``Eagle & Child'' is the crest of the Stanleys, Earls of Derby, and is said to have originated from the story that a member of the family found a child in an eagle's nest on his estate and adopted it.

``Cat & Kittens'' is not as obvious a sign as it seems. It refers to the sizes of pewter mugs in which drinks were once served: larger sizes were known as ``cats'' and the smaller ones as ``kittens.''

Some signs are the result of phonetic corruption over long periods of time. ``Bull & Gate'' was originally ``Boulogne Gate,'' intended to commemorate the capture of Boulogne by Henry VIII in 1544. No amount of speculation is likely to suggest the origin of the puzzling sign ``Bag O' Nails,'' a corruption of a very early sign, ``Bacchanals.'' Most of Britain's inns are owned by large brewing companies, and they take great pride in their signs. Some have their own woodworking shop and employ skilled artists, not only to maintain existing signs, but to produce new ones. In recent years, there have been signs such as ``Man on the Moon,'' ``Space Age,'' and ``Winston Churchill.''

The inn signs of Britain will doubtless continue to record glimpses of passing history. More than just invitations for custom, they are ``signs of the times.''

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