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London Taverns : Fishes and Insect signs.

London Taverns. The history of signboards,  from the Earliest Times to the Present Day.

By Jacob Larwood and john Camden Hotten. (1866)

THE MERMAID, as a sign, must have had great attractions for our forefathers. Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and other dramatists, notice this taste for strange fishes. The ancient chronicles teem with captures of mermen, mermaids, and similar creatures. Old Hollinshed gives a detailed account of a merman caught at Orford, in Suffolk, in the reign of King John. He was kept alive on raw meal and fish for six months, but at last “fledde secretelye to the sea, and was neuer after seene nor heard off.” Another chronicler says, “About this time [1202] fishes of strange shapes were taken, armed with helmets and shields like armed men, only they were much bigger.” And Gervase of Tilbury roundly asserts that mermen and mermaids live in the British Ocean. Even in more modern times, every now and then a mermaid (the mermen seem to have been more scarce) made her appearance. In an advertisement at the beginning of the seventeenth century, we find —

“IN BELL YARD, on Ludgate Hill, is to be seen, at any hour of the day, a living Mermaid, from the waist upwards of a party colour, from thence downwards is very strange and wonderful.
Mulier formosa superne
Desinit in piscem.”

After which follows a most promising and tempting little bit of information in French:—“Son corps est de divers couleurs avec beaucoup d'autres curiosités qu'on ne peut exprimer.” Again, in 1747:—

“We hear from the north of Scotland, that some time this month a sea creature, known by the name of Mermaid, which has the shape of a human body from the trunk upwards, but below is wholly fish, was carried some miles up the water of Devron.”

In 1824, a mermaid or merman (for the sex was discreetly left in dubio) made its appearance before “an enlightened public,” when, as the papers inform us, “upwards of 150 distinguished fashionables” went to see it. At Bartholomew Fair, in 1830, a stuffed mermaid was exhibited ; but if once she had been such a “mulier formosa” as captivated the ancient mariners, she was certainly much altered.f. A very different specimen had been exhibited in Fleet Street in 1822; but she disappeared all at once most mysteriously, not, however, without a rumour of her being under the protection of the Lord Chancellor, which, as she was a comely maiden with flaxen hair, “mulier superne et inferne,” lies within the range of possibilities. The sea-serpent has now almost done away with the mermaid; yet, as late as 1857, there appeared an article in the Shipping Gazette, under the intelligence of 4th June, signed by some Scotch sailors, and describing an object seen off the North British coast, “in the shape of a woman, with full breast, dark complexion, comely face,” and the rest.

At one time it appears to have been a very common sign, if we may judge from the way in which it is mentioned by Brathwait in his New Cast of Characters, (1631):—

 “If she [the hostess] aspire to the conceit of a sine and device, her birch pole pull'd downe, he will supply her with one, which he performes so poorely as none that sees it, but would take it for a sign he was drunk when he made it. A long consultation is had before they can agree what sign must be reared. ‘A meere-mayde, says she, “for she will sing catches to the youths of the parish.” “A lyon, says he, “for that is the onely sign he can make; and this he formes so artlessly, as it requires his expression, this is a lyon. Which old Ellenor Rumming, his tapdame, denies, saying it should have been a meere-mayde.”

Among the most celebrated of the Mermaid taverns in London, that in Bread Street stands foremost. As early as the fifteenth century, it was one of the haunts of the pleasure-seeking Sir John Howard, whose trusty steward records, anno 1464 —“Paid for wyn at the Mermayd in Bred Stret, for my mastyr and Syr Nicholas Latimer, x d. ob.” In 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh established a literary club in this house, doubtless the first in England. Amongst its members were Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Selden, Carew, Martin, Donne, Cotton, &c. It is frequently alluded to by Beaumont and Fletcher in their comedies, but best known is that quotation from a letter of Beaumont to Ben Jonson :

“What things have we seen

Done at the Mermaid I heard words that have been

So nimble and so full of subtle flame,

As if that any one from whence they came

Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,

And had resolved to live a fool the rest

Of his dull life; then when there hath been thrown

Wit able enough to justify the town

For three days past; wit that might warrant be

For the whole city to talk foolishly,

Till that were cancell'd; and when that was gone,

We left an air behind us, which alone

Was able to make the two next companies (Right witty, though but downright fools) more wise.”

There was another Mermaid in Cheapside, frequented by Jasper Mayne, and in the next reign by the poet laureate, John Dryden. Mayne mentions it in “The City Match,” (1638:)—

“I had made an ordinary,

Perchance at the Mermaid.”

At one time the landlord’s name was Dun, which is told us in a somewhat amusing anecdote:—

“When Dun, that kept the Meremaid Tavern in Cornhill, being himself in a room with some witty gallants, one of them (which, it seems, knew his wife) too boldly cryd out in a fantastick humour,

“I’ll lay five pound there’s a cuckhold in this company.’ ‘’Tis Dun, says another.””

 In 1681, there was a Mermaid in Carter Lane, which had a great deal of traffic as a carriers' inn.

The sign was also used by printers. John Rastall, for instance, brother-in-law of Sir Thomas More,

“emprynted in the Cheapesyde at the sygne of the Meremayde; next to Poulysgate in 1527;” and in 1576 a translation of the History of Lazarillo de Tormes, dedicated to Sir Thomas Gresham, was printed by Henry Binnemann, the queen's printer, in Knight-rider Street, at the sign of the Mermaid. A representation of this fabulous creature was generally prefixed to his books.

The SEAHORSE may be seen in Birmingham, York, and various other places. Bossewell, in his peculiar mixture of English and Latin, gives a quaint description of this animal:—

“This waterhorse of the sea is called an hyppotame, for that he is like an horse in back, mayne, and neying: rostro resupinato a primis dentibus: cauda tortuosa, ungulis binis. He abideth in the waters on the day, and eateth corn by night et hunc Nilus gignit.”

The DOLPHIN is another sign of very old standing. One of the first instances of its use was probably the following inn:—

 “The other side of this High Street, from Bishopsgate and Houndsditch, the first building is a large inn for the receipt of travellers, and is called the Dolphin, of such a sign. In the year 1513, Margaret Ricroft, widow, gave this house, with the gardens and appurtenances, unto William Gam, R. Clye, their wives, her daughters, and to their heirs, with condition they yearly do give to the warders or govornors of the Greyfriars' Church, within s:" 40 shillings, to find a student of divinity in the university for ever.”

Moser, in his “Westiges Revived,” mentions this same inn as the Dolphin, or rather, Dauphin Inn; and says that it was adorned with fleur-de-lys, cognisances, and dolphins; and was reported to have been the residence of one of the dauphins of France, probably Louis, the son of Philip August, who, in 1216, came to England to contest the sceptre with King John.”

The house was still in existence at the end of the seventeenth century, when it was a famous coaching inn. Perhaps it was to this tavern that Pepys and his company adjourned on 27th March 1661 :—

“To the Dolphin to a dinner of Mr Harris's, where Sir William and my Lady Batten and her two daughters, and other company, when a great deal of mirth, and there staid till 11 o'clock at night, and in our mirth I sang and sometimes fiddled, (there being a noise of fiddlers there,) and at last we fell to dancing, the first time that ever I did in my life, which I did wonder to see myself to do. At last we made Mingo, Sir W. Batten's black, and Jack, Sir W. Penn's, dance, and it was strange how the first did dance with a great deal of skill.”

Pepys might well wonder what a man may come to, he who had been born when “lascivious dancing” was considered a heinous crime. Another Dolphin, well worthy of remembrance, was the sign of Sam. Buckley, a bookseller in Little Brittain, at whose house Steele and Addison's Spectator was published.

Ancient naturalists made a wonderful animal of the dolphin. Bossewell, for instance, from whom we have just quoted, tells most extraordinary stories about him; but they are unfortunately too long to quote. Londoners formerly might have seen the living fish from the river banks, for old chroniclers every now and then have entries to the effect that dolphins paid London a visit. Thus: “3 Henry V. Seven dolphins came up the river Thames, whereof 4 were taken.” “14 Rich. II. On Christmas day a dolphin was taken at London Bridge, being 10 ft. long, and a monstrous grown fish.” The DOLPHIN AND ANCHOR is still a common sign; and the FISH AND ANCHOR, at North Littleton, Warwickshire, evidently implies the same emblem. Aldus Manutius, the celebrated Venetian printer, was the first to use the sign, adopting it from a silver medal of the Emperor Titus, presented to him by Cardinal Bembo, with the motto, oratios 832%ag. Camerarius thus (in our translation) mentions this sign in his book on Symbols:—

“That the dolphin wound round the anchor was an emblem of the Emperors August and Titus, to represent that maturity in business which is the medium between too great haste and slowness; and that it was also used in the last century by Aldus Manutius, that most famous printer, is known to everybody. Erasmus clearly and abundantly explains the import of that golden precept.

“Our emblem is taken from Alciatus, and has a different meaning. He reports, namely, that “when violent winds disturb the sea, as Lucretius says, and the anchor is cast by seamen, the dolphin winds herself round it, out of a particular love for mankind, and directs it, as with a human intellect, so that it may more safely take hold of the ground; for dolphins have this peculiar property, that they can, as it were, foretell storms. The anchor, then, signifies a stay and security, whilst the dolphin is a hieroglyphic for philanthropy and safety.’”—Joach. Camerarius, “Symbolorum et Emblematum Centuriae Quatuor.” Centuria iv. p. 19; Moguntia, 1697.

This sign was afterwards adopted by William Pickering, a worthy “Discipulus Aldi,” as he styled himself; Sir Egerton Bridges made some verses upon it, amongst which occur the following:— “Would you still be safely landed, On the Aldine Anchor ride;

Never yet was vessel stranded,
With the Dolphin by its side.

“To the Dolphin as we're drinking,
Life and health and joy we send;
A poet once he saved from sinking,
And still he lives—the poet's friend.”

The DOLPHIN AND COMB was the sign of E. Herne, a milliner on London Bridge in 1722. This is an instance of one of the articles sold within being added to the original sign of the house. Milliners in those days used to have a much more extensive variety of objects for sale than they have now, comprehending almost every article required for female apparel,—and including knives, scissors, combs, pattens, patches, poking sticks, fans, bodkins, &c. Such additions to signs were of frequent occurrence, thus the Fox and Topknot, the Lamb and Breeches, the Fox and Cap, and the LAMB AND INKBOTTLE, which last figures on the imprint of Thomas Roch, Newgate Street, a bookseller who made “the best ink for deeds and records,” 1677. Frequently the sign of the FISH is seen without any further specification; in this case it is probably meant for the Dolphin, which is the signboard-fish par excellence. The Fish sign is a very common public house decoration at the present day, probably for the same reason as the Swan, because he is fond of liquor, -nay, to such an extent goes his reputation for intemperance, that to “drink like a fish” is a quality of no small excellence with publicans. In Carlisle, however, there are two signs of the FISH AND DOLPHIN, a rather puzzling combination,-unless it has reference to the dolphin's chase after the shoals of small fishes. The FISH AND BELL, Soho, may either allude to a well-known anecdote of a certain numskull, who, when he caught a fish, which he desired to keep for dinner on some future grand occasion, put it back into the river, with a bell round its neck, so that he should be able to know its whereabouts the moment he wanted it ; or it may be the usual Bell added in honour of the bell-ringers. A quaint variety of this sign is the BELL AND MACKEREL, in the Mile-End Road. The THREE FISHES was a favourite device in the Middle Ages, crossing or interpenetrating each other in such a manner, that the head of one fish was at the tail of another. We cannot prove that it had any emblematic meaning, but it may possibly represent the Trinity, the fish being a common symbol for Christ, derived from the Greek monogram or abbreviation, IX®r2. It occurs as a sign in the following advertisement, which minutely describes the livery of a page in the year of the Restoration:—

“ON SATURDAY night last run away from the Lord Rich, Christophilus Cornaro, a Turk christened; a French youth of 17 or 18 years of age, with flaxen hair, little blew eyes, a mark upon his lip, and another under his right eye; of a fair complexion, one of his ears pierced, having a pearl coloured suit, trimmed with scarlet and blue ribbons, a coat of the same colour with silver buttons; his name Jacob David. Give notice to the Lord, lodging at the Three Fishes in New Street, in Covent Garden, a cookshop, and good satisfaction shall be given.”

THE THREE HERRINGs, the sign of James Moxton, a bookseller in the Strand, near Yorkhouse, in 1675, is evidently but another name for the Three Fishes; at the present day it is the sign of an ale-house in Bell Yard, Temple Bar. Several taverns with this sign are mentioned in the French tales and plays of the 17th century; two of them seem to have been very celebrated, one in the Faubourg St Marceau, the other near the Palais de Justice; this last one seems to have been particularly famous, for it is named as a rival to the celebrated Pomme de Pin. “Si je vay au Palais, tous ces clercs sont alentour de moy; l'un me mêne aux Trois Poissons, l'autre à la Pomme de Pin.”—Comédie de la Wefve, ac. iii. s. 3."

The FISH AND QUART at Leicester must be passed by in silence, as the combination cannot immediately be accounted for. Were it in France a solution would be easier, for in French slang a “poisson,” or fish, means a small measure of wine. The FISH AND EELS at Roydon, in Essex; the FISH AND KETTLE, Southampton; and the WHITE BAIT, Bristol, all tell their own tale, and need no comment. The SALMON is seen occasionally near places where it is caught. The SALMON AND BALL is the well-known Ball of the silkmercers in former times, added to the sign of the Salmon; whilst the SALMON AND COMPASSES is the masonic emblem that is added to the sign. Both these occur in more than one instance in London. The FISHBONE is rarely met with as a public-house sign, though there is an example of it at Netherton in Cheshire, and also amongst the seventeenth century tokens of New Cheapside, Moorfields. But generally it is the sign of a rag and bone shop, or, in the euphonious language of the day, a “miscellaneous repository,” or “bank of commerce.” These shops, as their title of “marine stores” implies, used to buy all the odds and ends of rope, sails, seamen's old clothes, in short all the rubbish of which a ship is cleared after its return from a long voyage. Bones of large fish would be often amongst the curiosities brought home by the sailors, these also they bought and hung them up outside their doors, and in the end these bones became their distinctive sign. The SUN AND WHALEBONE at Latton, in Essex, may have originated from a whalebone hanging outside the house, or that the landlord had laid the foundation of his fortune as a rag merchant.

Insects are of very rare occurrence. The industrious habits of the bees, however, made their habitation a favourite object to imply a similar industry in the shopkeepers. Many years ago there used to be at Grantham in Lincolnshire, a signpost on which was placed a Beehive in full swarm, with the following lines under it —

“Two wonders, Grantham, now are thine,
The highest spire and a living sign.”

* If I go to the Palace of Justice, all those clerks are constantly after me; one takes me to the Three Fishes, the other to the Pine Cone.”—Comedy of the Widow, a. iii. s. 3.

Though the living bees were gone the following season, yet the sign and inscription remained until very recently. The following is a common inscription under the sign of the Beehive:

“Within this hive we’re all alive,

Good liquor makes us funny;

If you are dry, step in and try

The flavour of our honey.”

A tea-dealer at the corner of Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, in the end of the last century, had for his sign the Walking Leaf, (the Phyllium siccifolium of the naturalists) an East Indian insect, of an anything but agreeable association, when we consider the remarkable vegetable appearance of this insect, and the possibility that it might be dried among the tealeaves. Although the frog cannot be considered either an insect or a fish, yet we may include it in this chapter. Of frogs there are some instances on the signboard; the THREE FROGs, (see under Heraldic Signs) and FROGHALL, formerly a public-house at the south end of Frog Lane, Islington. On the front of this house there was exhibited the ludicrous sign of a plough drawn by frogs. There is at the present day a Froghall Inn at Wolston, near Coventry; and a public-house of that name at Layerthorpe in the West Riding, but the picture of the sign was doubtless unique. The principal inn on the island of Texel is called the GOLDEN FROG, (de Goude kikker.) We may wonder that there are not more examples of this sign in Holland, for there are, without doubt, as many frogs in that country as there are Dutchmen; and even unto this day it is a mooted point, which of the two nations has more right to the possession of the country; both, however, are of a pacific disposition, so that they live on in a perfect entente cordiale.