Matt Green, author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, presents a quiz on the coded language of Georgian hanging signs.
Before we begin the quiz... a brief history of hanging signs
One of the first things a time traveller to 17th and 18th century London would notice would be its profusion of shop signs, jutting from every building at right angles, shimmering in the moonlight and squeaking and groaning in the wind. Huge (by modern standards) and powerful status symbols — some reportedly cost as much as a £100, dearer than a coach in 1748 — London’s old signs swung from wrought-iron brackets, some sculpted, some painted on wooden boards, and others carved into stone niches. To eyes inured to increasingly identikit high streets, they would have something of the exotic and fantastical about them.
They may have blocked out the daylight in alleyways, sent icy rainwater trickling down people’s backs, and occasionally crashed to the ground, killing people (as in Bride Street in 1718) but, in a city with scant street numbering and widespread illiteracy, they performed a crucial function as both navigational beacons and addresses. ‘Mr Bezaleel Creake, bookseller’ ran a typical address, ‘at the Bible and Ink-Bottle in Germain Street near St James’s’, betraying too that they were also the forerunners of the brand logos of later centuries.
Before 1625, only inn-keepers could hang a sign (at least in theory), but Charles I granted all householders the right to hang whichever device they liked outside their residence or shop, in part so he could tax them more easily. Some signs expressed the personality of their owners ('surly choleric fellows' favoured bears according to the Spectator; milder men, lambs) while others were simply meant to shout the loudest, drumming up custom — this is what taverns were up to with their goats in boots, hogs in armour, busty mermaids and so on.
Surreal hybrids were born when new occupiers retained old signs while adding their own. ‘When did the sheep and dolphin ever meet, except on a sign post?’ wondered the Spectator, before attacking the ‘daily absurdities committed over our heads’, forming what would, to 21st century eyes, seem like the most perplexing of Daliesque dreamscapes.
That said, certain trades favoured particular signs. But what is most surprising, perhaps, is how cryptic and enigmatic they could be, at least to modern eyes. The sign of a cat, for instance, did not mean you could buy a cat any more than the sign of a unicorn meant you could swan off into the sunset on the back of the fabled creature. You’d need various degrees of lateral thinking to decipher their meaning.
What better way, then, to commemorate and celebrate London’s gaudy old signs than with a quiz? In the 13 questions that follow, simply match the image of the sign to the correct multiple-choice answer underneath. We’ll reveal your score at the end.
A disclaimer — alas, very few of the original 17th and 18th century signs survive in London today. Those that do — usually carved into stone niches and affixed to modern buildings are like flotsam in a sea of modernity — are not necessarily the most cryptic. So in places, we’ve relied upon 19th or 20th century signs that perpetuate and sometimes evolve earlier motifs (especially on pub signs) as well as visual traditions long-since vanished from the metropolis but surviving elsewhere in the country.
We’d also like to draw your attention to a collaborative map at the end where you can mark your favourite London street sign — and the older, the better. Enjoy!
Take the quiz
A map of curious signs
This map is open for editing, if you'd like to add your own favourite hanging signs — click the box symbol, top right. (Please don't deface!)