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William West’s Tavern Anecdotes

September 26, 2014
by the gentle author

It is my pleasure to publish this selection of the Origins of Signs by William West (1770-1854) from his Tavern Anecdotes of 1825 to be found in the Bishopsgate Library. “The absurdities which Tavern Signs present are often curious enough, but may in general be traced to that inveterate propensity which the vulgar of all countries have to make havoc with everything in the shape of a proper name,” West wrote contemptuously in his introduction.


A house, by this sign. stands near Suffolk St, Southwark, and is well known to the inhabitants of that district. The natives of most counties are honoured by some ludicrous appellation by their neighbours and moon raker has long been synonymous  with a Wiltshireman.

A party of Wiltshire smugglers having deposited their casks of contraband spirits in a pond, were in the act of raking them out on a moonlit night, when some excisemen cam near. Upon the latter demanding what they were about, one of the smugglers, with affected naivety, replied, “Whoy, don’t you zee that cheese there?” The idea that these pretended simpletons had actually mistaken the reflection of the moon for a cheese so diverted the excisemen that they laughed heartily and went away, and by this manoeuvre, they say, the smugglers’ kegs remained in safety.


This sign exhibits an instance of the corruption and perversion of language. Everybody knows that a bull has a mouth, but everyone does not know that is such a place as Boulogne, where there is a harbour, which necessarily must have an entrance, commonly called a mouth.

Originally the town was known as Boulogne Mouth, in allusion to the town and harbour of Boulogne, but the gne being generally pronounced by the Londoners on, it gradually became an and it only required the small addition of d to make and of it. The first part being before this made a bull of it, was ultimately converted to Bull & Mouth – the unmeaning title which it now bears. Situated in St Martin Le Grand, this is a house of much business, from whence several of the mails and various other coaches, to all parts of the kingdom, do take their departure.


There are various houses known by this name. That in Chancery Lane, nearly opposite to the gate leading in to Lincoln’s Inn Old Sq, is kept by Jack Randall, who has obtained the title of Nonpareil, having fought above a dozen pitched battles and proving the victor in every encounter. He weighs about ten stone six pounds and his height is about five feet six inches, but now he has retired from the ring, having nettled some blunt. There is also a noted ‘Hole in the Wall’ in Fleet St where compositors have long held their orgies.


The Devil Tavern in Fleet St near Temple Bar was well known to the facetious Ben Jonson and the celebrated Lord Rochester also takes note of this notorious scene of revelry.


This sign, like that of the Mariner’s Compass, Ship, Boat and Barge etc has been adopted in seaport towns, evidently in compliment to the seafaring man, as others have adopted the names of some favourite or fortunate admiral, commodore, captain etc.


Everyone is familiar with the history of Robin Hood. About half a century ago, there existed a debating society in London called ‘The Robin Hood Society’ which gave its name to house in Windmill St where it met.


This title is of considerable antiquity and probably originated with some veteran warrior, who had obtained prize money sufficient to enable him to retire and become publican. In Giltspur St, there is a house retaining that name, it is at the corner of Cock Lane, of Ghost notoriety.


A sign, so named, is observable on the road to Greenwich. It is a representation of the globe with a man walking on the lower part, alluding to the state of inebriation, in which a person is sometimes said to suppose himself walking on the crown of his head.


A house so styled is situated in Old St near to Shoreditch church. This may have an allusion to the rising of the city apprentices or perhaps, more probably, taken from Hogarth’s representation of the Industrious & Idle Apprentices.


There are many taverns so named but the most noted are the Horns Tavern in the vicinity of St Paul’s and the Horns at Kennington. Most of the public houses in Highgate have a large pair of horns fixed on the end of a long staff, by which it has been an ancient custom for persons to swear that they will never eat brown bread when they can get white and never kiss a maid when they can kiss the mistress, after which thy must kiss the horns and pay one shilling, to be spent in the house.


In Long Lane, Southwark, there is a house so named, probably having its origin in the times when Scripture names were adopted for men and things. In Acts CX V. 32, we read that the Apostle Peter dwelt for some time at the house of Simon, a tanner.

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. September 26, 2014

    What an excellent find.
    I love the jolly old soldiers with one leg and two arms between them.

  2. September 26, 2014

    Such inspiring stuff! I absolutely love these. May need to turn my hand to creating a few of my own!

  3. September 26, 2014

    Phenomenal cartoons! It seems as if “THE WORLD TURNED UPSIDE DOWN” could be a present-day event…

    Love & Peace

  4. Erika W permalink
    September 26, 2014

    “The World Turned Upside Down” was a very popular musical march, played by the military on both sides during the American War of Independence.

    Your website gives myself and my husband great pleasure–thank you.

  5. September 26, 2014

    At bottom left of the poster (?) is The Good Woman. This of course pertains to the fact that, lacking a head, she has been deprived of the power to scold her husband. A similar tavern sign, though not here, is The Honest Lawyer, who again has no head, and thus no opportunity to lie.

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