Zooming into Over t’ Head History

Todmorden U3A’s first virtual Monthly Members’ Meeting was an insightful pictorial and historical tour of Britain described through some of our pub and inn signs.  In an articulate and energetic Zoom presentation, Michael Astrop, one of our members, offered us ways to enhance our historical awareness of England, revealing how inn signs are indicators of both the past and key issues that once prevailed in our towns and villages.

He traced this development from Roman to the present day, showing that our inn signs have been inspired by a huge variety of key developments and themes in our history, including transport, religion, politics, royalty, heroes and the occasional scandal.

However, we were first introduced to the four main types of signs – Hanging , Pillory, Banged Up and Gallows or Beam signs. As space and expense allowed, inns advertised themselves prominently on their street location and often became very large, with one sign in Norfolk being so heavy it pulled a house down.

But why have signs at all? Taxes, illiteracy, and streetmapping.

Signs in a largely illiterate world served two major purposes: they were both a tradesman’s advertisement and a public way marker. ‘How do I find the road to X?’ ‘Turn right at the White Lion, go past The Robin Hood and the sign of the pawnbroker…’ and so on. But such signs were mandated for inns and pubs only in 1393 by Richard II so his inspectors could identify them for tax purposes.

Inn signs also record and commemorate former historical realities. Political allegiances might be indicated by the colour of the ‘Lion’. A red one indicated loyalty to John of Gaunt, for example, while a White Hart represented Richard II. If your town had a Blue Boar, if probably favoured the Earls of Oxford.

The Old Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham, and references to Saracen’s and Turk’s Heads remind us of the era of the Crusades; great commanders such as Wellington, Marlborough, and Nelson preside over many a drinking den as do highwaymen, and the frequency with which The Marquis of Granby is commemorated is a reflection of his having given each of the men in his service money to buy their own inn – he died in debt!!

Developments in transport are often to be celebrated: The Bargeman’s Rest, The Railway Inn, The Old Ship, The Mermaid, The Prospect of Whitby.

And all this history is traditionally presented to the public by skilled professional pub sign artists.

Our speaker kept us on our toes by using a quiz sheet where we had to try and match a sign to one of three possible names. This gave rise to more anecdotes of the history above our heads.

 During discussion following his talk, Michael speculated on some local inn signs such as The Shannon and Chesapeake, based upon an American sea battle in 1813. Worth investigating further in the light of Todmorden’s history.

He ended by considering an intriguing group of inn signs that were variations depicting the Four Alls – Rule, Pray, Fight and Pay, and it would be fair to say we were All Entertained, Enlightened, Engrossed and Excited to have this, our first Zoom meeting, so well attended by over 100 members.

This reviewer will certainly spend more time looking at our richness of inn signs with a keener eye when we can each more safely travel around our country visiting friends and family or enjoying a holiday, maybe just a pie and a pint.

Mary Carrigan

The next Todmorden U3A Monthly Members Meeting by Zoom will be on July 16 at 1.45 p.m., open to all fully paid up members for 2020. Our presenter will be David Keep, a world-travelled professional photographer, who take us on a set of journeys into “Underwater Photography: From Sharks to Gannets.”

Contact details – www.u3atod.org.ukinfo@u3atod.org.uk; 01422 886021