BOLD and bright, swaying gently in the wind high above our heads, illustrated inn signs are as ubiquitous as they are often unnoticed. Part navigational aid, part advertising billboard and part street art, they’ve been guiding drinkers to the pub door in our towns and villages for centuries, a vital ingredient of the traditional British local.
Strange to think, then, that these pictorial placards weren’t always unique to the inn trade: as 18th-century street scenes show, they once hung from every kind of shop, coffee house and tavern, jostling with one another for space and sometimes stretching right across the road.
By then, they were considered a public nuisance. Growing ever bigger as proprietors tried to outdo their neighbours, hanging signboards not only made narrow streets dark and stuffy, they creaked eerily day and night and had a frightening tendency to detach from their brackets and crash to the floor, killing unsuspecting pedestrians.
The City of London banned them in 1762, a move swiftly followed by numerous other London boroughs. Yet the owners of taverns seem to have defied the ban with impunity. As shopkeepers turned to fascias displaying a written name, the illustrated sign carried on swinging tipsily on the side of Britain’s pubs.
Perhaps the publicans’ stubborn devotion to it was a natural consequence of the old law that had, in the time of Richard II, compelled ale-sellers to display one (many chose Richard’s personal emblem, the white hart, which accounts for its popularity today). When a landlord’s licence was revoked, his sign was unceremoniously removed, creating a symbolic, and seemingly lasting, bond between the proprietor and the placard that proclaimed his right to trade.
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