The Goat and Compasses
The Goat and Compasses, Hull (Image (c) Simon Mason
It’s happened again.
Inspiration for this contribution to the Pub History Society Newsletter came once more from a newspaper cutting found in a dusty tome.
This time it was wedged inside a copy of Kenneth Roger’s Signs and Taverns Round About Old London Bridge which I purchased from a secondhand bookshop in Aldeburgh, Suffolk during the summer of 2009. The undated cutting (shown here) refers only to the pub name ‘The Goat and Compasses’, so my quest was set; to find out more about the origins of the pub name.
The piece had been ‘PRINTED FOR THE BREWER’S SOCIETY’ and was probably part of a series of informative little scribblings about pub signs.
My starting point was the cutting itself which reads:
THE GOAT as a symbol sprang from a long-past mythology to become a favourite sign outside our English inns. The compasses may have indicated that mine host was a mason.
A more loveable legend from the 17th century has it that the name was originally “God encompass us”, reminding us that the inn inherited the ancient hospitality of the monasteries.
What we see for certain, from such signs and names, is how deeply the inn is woven into the pattern of our country’s story. Long may it continue to be, in the new communities now being planned.
By ‘new communities’ they were probably talking about ‘new towns’ so perhaps the cuttings is late 1940s/early 1950s. But let’s examine that cutting a little closer.
There are two theories within, the ‘mason’ theory and the ‘religious’ theory plus a fascinating statement that ‘The Goat’ has become ‘a favourite sign outside our English inns’. Yes, ‘The Goat’ has but not the ‘Goat and Compasses’. In Bryant Lillywhite’s massive tome London Signs, which covers centuries of pubs in the capital, the author only cites one – ‘7260 Goat and Compasses, New Road, Marylebone. Tavern 1809-11.’ This lack of popularity as a sign is reinforced by the fact that there are no ‘Goat and Compasses’ whatsoever mentioned in Kenneth Roger’s book.
Add to this other theories from other sources and the waters begin to muddy. Back in the nineteenth century Larwood and Hotten linked the goat to denizens of Wales stating that it was always considered an emblem of that nation and cited a ‘Captain Grose’ as writing ‘mentioning a Welshman with his goat, leek, hayboots [Grose’s emphasis, not mine], and long pedigree, as a standard joke’. So do we have a Welsh mason?
No we don’t...
Earlier in their study, Larwood and Hotten had noted the ‘Three Compasses’, Grosvenor Road, Pimlico which was ‘formerly called the GOAT AND COMPASSES’. For the source of this pub name they cite a ‘Mr. P. Cunningham’ who suggested that the origin was as follows:
‘At Cologne, in the church of S. Maria di Capitolia, is a flat stone on the floor professing to be the ‘Grabstein der bruder und Schwester eines Ehrbahren Wien und Fass Ampts, Anno 1693.'
That, Larwood and Hotten explained, was ‘a vault belonging to the Wine Cooper’s Company. The arms exhibit a shield with a pair of compasses, an axe, and a dray or truck, with goats for supporters.’ From that the authors deduced that ‘In a country like England, dealing so much at one time with Rhenish wine, a more likely origin for such a sign could hardly be imagined.’ Quite. Lillywhite refers to this explanation in London Signs but considered this as a remote connection with the Rhenish wine trade which ‘was of considerable importance in London’.
Lillywhite admitted that the ‘Goat and Compasses’ sign was of obscure origin ‘except for conjectural suggestions of various writers’. Although he tended to dismiss the Rhenish wine theory he did make it clear that goats, goats heads, and compasses were found in the arms of City livery companies, the goats and goats heads in the ‘Cordwainers, Curriers, and haberdashers’ and the compasses in the ‘Carpenters, Joiners, Masons, and Spectacle-Makers’.
In 1926 G. J. Monson-Fitzjohn in his light-weight Quaint Signs of Olde England wrote that the pub name could be found in London ‘and elsewhere’ (Very helpful) and supported the Masonic theory but emphasised that ‘The sign proper was a goat’ and was used ‘by the natives of Wales’ but ‘charged’ with a Masonic sign when the landlord was, or presumably became, a freemason.
Monson-Fitzjohn was doing OK up until then, and then he informed his readers that there was a legend of a private house in the seventeenth century (which Larwood and Hotten in their extensive survey appeared to have missed) which had over the doorway a Puritanical inscription which read ‘God encompass us’. According to Monson-Fitzjohn, when the house was granted a licence to sell drink the phrase was corrupted to ‘Goat and Compasses.’
Chances are that Monson-Fitzjohn found that theory in Frederick Hackwood’s Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England which was published sixteen years before his book, in 1910. Hackwood wrote extensively about English people and their sports and pastimes and in Inns… he mentions the ‘Goat and Compass’ (Note a single compass) as a ‘hostel sign of the Commonwealth period’ and that the name was ‘a verbal corruption of the Puritan’s motto ‘God encompasses (us)’. Hackwood included this derivation in a section called ‘Perversions and Corruptions’ and anticipated that theories such as these would provide a ‘fund for amusement’ for his readers; in other words he was not expecting the theory to be taken seriously and certainly not to be embellished, that is by Monson-Fitzjohn’s addition of the ‘inscription over the doorway’.
In 1988 Paul Cornbalis mentioned the same theory expanding the motto slightly to ‘The Lord Encompasseth Us’ and adding that it was ‘hard to say whether a Puritan or an enemy would apply the corrupted name to a pub.’ (Hmm…) A year earlier Dunkling and Wright in their Dictionary of Pub Names beefed up the legend a little by the addition of a new character, ‘a pious landlord’.
In an attempt to sort out the ‘God encompasseth us’ issue (so I could move on to something else) I consulted my local Churchwarden, Irene Allen, and she told me that although she had no knowledge of that particular Puritan phrase/motto, she did recall a Catholic prayer used in the past at ‘times of great calamity’ (and probably still is today). This prayer includes the phrase ‘Mercy of God, encompass us, and deliver us from every plague.’ That’s close and may well be close enough.
Still there was one ‘expert’ left, Eric Delderfield and so I consulted one of his numerous tomes on pub signs and I found him reinforcing the religious theory. However, Delderfield also pointed a finger of blame for the corruption at the sign-writers of the day who were ‘probably quite illiterate’ and who might have ‘deliberately or wilfully’ changed the motto to ‘Goat and Compasses’. What Eric, while it was still written over the door? I don’t think so.
Finally I consulted Miller Christy’s The Trade Signs of Essex. Back in 1887, Christy was of the opinion that the ‘God…’ theory is ‘not sound’ as ‘the motto could never have been represented pictorially upon the sign-board, and we know that pictorial representation was the sole aim and object of the sign in olden times.’ Good point. So that’s the sign-writers freed of blame. Christy also simply believed that the sign was ‘a compound one.’
Before we leave this crazy ‘religious’ theory for dead let us simply imagine all those years ago a humble peasant going off to the inn for an evening on the beer with the lads. When he returns much, much later, more than a little worse for wear after much quaffing of ale, his dutiful wife asks “And where have you been?” Can you imagine the reply? “I’ve been down the ‘God emthecassth.., the God encompasseththesssth…the Good emcompisseth… I’ve been down the Dog m’dear.”
Personally I favour the Masonic symbolism theory and believe it is also a combined sign. (For example when the landlord of the Compasses in a town moves to another inn in the same town (the Goat) and, in order to retain his original customer base from his previous inn, adds his previous pub name to the new one to form the ‘Goat and Compasses’.)
Before I asked a real pub signs expert for his opinion (and the final determination) of the derivation I looked for this alleged ‘popular’ sign on the internet. This exercise bore little fruit thus supporting my belief that the ‘Goat and Compasses’ was never as popular or widespread a pub name/sign as some writers have implied. (Remember that in his extensive research for London Signs Bryant Lillywhite only found one example of the ‘Goat and Compasses’ in London which incidentally, in my opinion, shot the ‘Rhenish wine’ theory to pieces.)
'Goat and Compasses' sign (Image (c) Simon Mason)
My short search found only one ‘Goat and Compasses’ in England and that is in Hull. (Doubtless there will be more. Members please write in.) However, this ‘Goat and Compasses’ stands in Falkland Road, Hull and, according to pub enthusiast Simon Mason, is the local’s pub on the Greatfield estate. On his website Simon writes, ‘Landlady Pat informs me that there is live music Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The pub also runs darts, cricket and pool teams. A friendly welcome is assured.’ The sign, by the Mansfield Brewery Company, shows a goat with compasses in hand seemingly working out his way to the next field.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this brief adventure into the derivation of the 'Goat and Compasses' (the more observant PHS members will no doubt have noticed that I even managed to slip in a ‘darts’ reference) but I leave the final word on this fascinating subject to Alan Rose, Secretary of The Inn Sign Society.
Alan told me:
‘…there are a number of derivations given for this sign. As to whether it be of religious, trade or whatever origin no one can actually say. I personally agree with Sir Gurney Benham, who was an authority on heraldry and inn signs … it being a combination of two trade signs - the arms of the Company of Cordwainers (shoemakers) had three goat's heads, the Company of Carpenters contained three compasses.’
Alan added, ‘It is in fact for this very reason of not being sure, which is the real meaning behind [any] name, that makes our hobby so fascinating.’
Alan, I couldn’t agree with you more.
What’s ‘Inn’ A Sign? Much, much more than I ever imagined!
©2009 Patrick Chaplin
Christy, Miller. The Trade Signs of Essex (Chelmsford: Edmund Durrant & Co., 1887), page 82.
Corbalis, Paul. Pub Signs (Luton: Lennard Publishing, 1988), page 105.
Delderfield, Eric. British Inn Signs and Their Stories (London: Herbert Jenkins, Ltd., 1926), page 70.
Dunkling, Leslie and Wright, Gordon. A Dictionary of Pub Names (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), page 108.
Grose, Captain. Essay on Caricatures (Antiquarian Repertory, volume i) cited by Larwood and Hotten, page 147. (It is likely that the ‘Captain’ was Francis Grose (1731-1791) author of Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (London: Published by the editor, Pierce Egan, (3rd edition) 1823))
Hackwood, Frederick W. Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England (London: Bracken Books, 1985, originally published in London by T. F. Unwin, 1909), page 289.
Larwood, Jacob and Hotten, John Camden. The History of Signboards from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (London: John Camden Hotten, Third edition, 1866) pp. 147 and 442.
Lillywhite, Bryant. London Signs (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1972), page 220.
Monson-Fitzjohn, G. J. Quaint Signs of Olde Inns (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1926), page 70.
Rogers, Kenneth. Signs & Taverns Round About Old London Bridge (London: The Homeland Association, 1937)
Allen, Irene. E-mail to Patrick Chaplin dated 14th August 2009.
Rose, Alan A. Secretary of the Inn Sign Society (ISS). E-mail to Patrick Chaplin dated 22nd July 2009
www.innsignsociety.com – Official website of the Inn Sign Society (Join today!)
www.simonmason.karoo.net - Simon Mason’s website includes a section featuring images of all 257 pubs in Kingston-upon-Hull.
Special thanks - I am indebted to Simon Mason for providing the photograph of the pub and pub sign and giving his permission for the images to appear in this article.
Note: This article first appeared in the Pub History Society’s Newsletter Autumn 2009 and is reproduced with permission. For more information about the PHS and how to join visit www.pubhistorysociety.co.uk and for more information about the Inn Sign Society check out www.innsignsociety.com.
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