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Bishopsgate Tavern Tokens

October 19, 2014
by the gentle author

The Ship Tavern, Bishopsgate

There are some artefacts that, in their detail and evidence of wear, can evoke an entire world. Although no larger than a thumbnail, these modest seventeenth century tavern tokens in the collection at the Bishopsgate Institute bring alive that calamitous era after the English Revolution when London was struck by the Great Plague in 1665 and then the Great Fire in 1666.

Bishopsgate was one of the few parts of the City spared by the Fire. It was lined with ancient taverns, used as points of departure and arrival for those travelling up and down the old Roman road north from the City of London. The part inside the City wall was known as Bishopsgate Within and the part outside the wall was Bishopsgate Without, and beyond, where the muddy road widened, was known as Bishopsgate St. The taverns served as hotels, drinking and dining houses, breweries and stables, couriers and coach offices, places of business and of entertainment, and were such significant centres of commerce that they issued their own currency for use as change.

There is a vibrant graphic quality in these miniature token designs, delighting in combining hand-lettering and familiar imagery with an appealing utilitarian irregularity. Long before universal literacy or the numbering of London streets, buildings were adorned with symbols and easily-recogniseable images like those graven upon the front of these tokens. The reverse carries the date and initials of the owner that issued the token, who may latterly be identified from the vintners’ records.

As well as those from Bishopsgate, there is one here from Spittlegate, now known as Widegate St, and another from Bedlam, now known as Liverpool St, which was formerly the location of the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem – of all the tokens here, The White Hart is the lone tavern that has weathered the centuries to survive into the present era.

After the Fire, rubble was spread upon the marshy land of Spitalfields, preparing it for the construction of the streets we know today, and, occasionally, charcoal is still uncovered when foundations are excavated in Spitalfields, recalling this distant event. In 1632, Charles I gave a licence for flesh, fowl and roots to be sold in Spitalfields and the market was re-established in 1682 by Charles II, defining the territory with a culture of small-scale trading that persists to this day.

Once, tavern tokens were unremarkable items of small monetary value, passed hand to hand without a second thought, but now these rare specimens are precious evidence of another life in another time, long ago in this place.

King’s Head, Spittlegate, Charles I

King’s Head, Spittlegate, issued by Vintner Thomas Avis in 1658

The Beehive, Bishopsgate Without, issued by Thomas Goss, 1652

The Mitre Tavern, Bishopsgate, issued by Robert Richardson 1644

The Flower Pot, Bishopsgate Within, issued by Ascanius Hicks, 1641

The Helmet, Bishopsgate Without, issued by Robert Studd

At the White Hart, Bedlam

The White Hart at Bedlam, issued by EE, 1637

The White Hart still stands at the corner of Liverpool St, formerly the location of Bedlam

Red Lion Court, Bishopsgate Without, issued by John Lambe

The Black Raven, Bishopsgate Without

The Black Raven, Halfpenny issued by Sam Salway

The Sunne, Bishopsgate Within

Lion Above a Stick of Candles, Bishopsgate Without

Lion Above a Stick of Candles, issued by Ralph Butcher, 1666

At the Sign Of The Boore, Bishopsgate Without

At The Sign Of The Boore, Bishopsgate Without

The Half Moone Brewhouse, Bishopsgate Without

Edward Nourse Next The Bull In Bishopsgate Street, 1666

The Mouth Tavern, Bishopsgate Without, issued by Robert Sanderson, 1638

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to look at

The Inns of Forgotten London

The Gentle Author’s Spitalfields Pub Crawl

William West’s Tavern Anecdotes

The Pubs of Old London

The Language of Beer

The Signs of Old London

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Mick O'Rorke permalink
    October 19, 2014

    This is fascinating stuff! But isn’t it a great shame that the White Hart is now closed – I understand that permission has been granted to demolish whilst retaining the facade.

    I recall the Black Raven in the late 60s where Teddy Boys would hang out, they were rather passé by then but I actually encountered a few in a pub in Crystal Palace the other night!

  2. October 19, 2014

    The tokens must have been sufficiently well-known / widely used to provide slang with a couple of terms:

    1. to swallow a tavern token: to become drunk

    1598 Jonson Every Man In his Humour: Drunk, sir! […] perhaps he swallowd a tavern-token.
    1650 The Eighth Liberal Science: No man must call a Good-fellow Drunkard […] But if at any time they spie that defect in another, they may without any forfeit or just exceptions taken, say, […] He hath swallowed an Hair or a Taven-Token [sic].

    2. a spot or pimple
    1653 Mercurius Democritus 28 Sept.-5 Oct.: The other day a pimple, or Tavern Token coming out on his Brows, he swore it was a Horne.

  3. October 19, 2014

    Very interesting to see the tokens. Marvelous that they survived. Valerie

  4. Vicky permalink
    October 19, 2014

    Sad to say that the White Hart is now closed for Crossrail.

  5. Gary Arber permalink
    October 19, 2014

    What could the customer get for his token – a pint ? – a bed ?
    Did they have a selection of tokens for different values ?
    Further research needed for another interesting item from you G A
    Keep ur the good work

  6. October 19, 2014

    Wonderful piece: the designs are fascinating. Is the ‘Lion and Line of Candles’ a garbling of another name, like Elephant and Castle v. Infanta of Castile? More on taverns at

  7. October 19, 2014

    Ancient graphic design — and it’s current validity…? I think it is just so!

    Love & Peace

  8. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 19, 2014

    How wonderful to know that these tokens have survived, and what stories they could no doubt tell if they could speak. I remember having to write an essay at school entitled a day in the life of a penny. How about one now entitled a day in the life of a tavern token I bet that would make interesting reading!! A real personal interest to me as well as I had so many ancestors living in London in the 16th and 17th centuries, and anything that sheds light on their day to day lives fascinates me. So thank you again GA.


  9. October 19, 2014

    The designs are beautiful but made more so by the weathering of time .

    Thanks for another quaff of delicious SpittlefieldsLife.


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