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Tavern Tokens Of Bishopsgate

April 2, 2019
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

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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 2, 2019


  2. Steve Hanscomb permalink
    April 2, 2019

    Interesting article. I have an inn token that is from a pub in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. It was issued in 1658, as the Civil War had disrupted cash flow badly in the area. Aylesbury was in the front line between Parliament held London and Royalist Oxford and held a Parliament garrison.
    My coin has ‘At Ye Kings Head’ on it, with a bust of Henry the Eighth (the pub sign) and ‘Aillsbvry (Aylesbury) 1657′ on the reverse. I bought it as the King’s Head is my local! The pub is owned by the National Trust and retains its’ cobbled courtyard, stables and looks much as it would have during the Civil War. During chimney repair work in the 1920’s, some civil war era pistols and a sword were found.
    Dating back to the 1400’s, the pub is well worth a visit, being a five minute walk from Aylesbury station on the Chiltern line from Marylebone. It is also the Chiltern Brewery’s only pub and their beers are all excellent!

  3. Chris Connor permalink
    April 2, 2019

    Fascinating to see items such as these. As you say they bring the past to life in a clearer way. Is the White Hart Bedlam the same White Hart which as been sadly lost to rapacious developers, on the corner of Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street. If so, then the article is entirely appropriate as the site is confined to history.

  4. PaulLLoften permalink
    April 2, 2019

    What a surprise seeing a token for the Black Raven in Bishopsgate. I wonder if it would be site the Black Raven in Bishopsgate that stood almost opposite Dirty Dicks until the redevelopment of the whole area ? . it was then in the early 1970’s, the home of the remaining Teddy Boys left from the 1950’s and it had a reputation that made people steer clear of entering it. However my friends and I found it a great place to start the weekend with a drink. The atmosphere became electric towards closing time with line dancing jive and Teddy Boy stomp, with thumbs in their trouser belts and the girls with beehive hairdo watching their boyfriends perform the complex hop steps with envy . They were not allowed that dance . There was supposed to be no dancing according to the notice but the landlord couldn’t stop it.! Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard blasting from the jukebox and the pub floor throbbing to the stomp. Just to say I was never nor any of my friends ever a Teddy Boy but we found it great to meet up and have a drink there.
    You could cast your minds eye back to the 17th century days of a token being handed to the Black Raven’s Sam Salway and imagine the bawdy atmosphere without a Jukebox . But I bet even then it was probably a place that most Londoner’s would probably avoid !

  5. HelenD permalink
    April 2, 2019

    This is another fascinating article on the history of the area. I never knew such tokens existed. Imagine the excitement upon finding one today!

  6. Sue permalink
    April 2, 2019

    Fascinating items.

  7. Jane permalink
    April 2, 2019

    Absolutely remarkable.

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