I often gain inspiration for my articles from newspaper cuttings found in dusty tomes. In the past such sources have led to the publication of articles in the Pub History Society Newsletter (renamed Pub History in 2018) including the origins of the Goat and Compasses and the Magpie and Stump.  This time my late father Albert was responsible.

Crossbow bolts – A forerunner of the dart?

He used to attend many auctions of second-hand goods and often came away with things he never knew he wanted; rather like I tend to do at boot fairs. Back in 2009 he purchased a box of ‘tut’ and amongst it was a framed reproduction of the ‘Maidenhead Coach List’, originally printed in 1837 by W. Tagg. Dad handed it to me and said, “Here. You have this. You know a bit about pubs.”

Indeed I do. A bit…

The print listed thirty-four separate starting and finishing points both to and from London and of those sixty-eight points all began at public houses/coaching inns except two from London (both ‘Water Lane, Fleet Street’). But what interested me in particular was the Fleet Street ‘Booking Place’, a pub called The Bolt in Tun.

My previous ramblings about the history of darts, some of which can be found on this website) have failed, until now, to mention one of the more (in my opinion) outrageous theories of the game’s origins; as being a derivative of the crossbow.

Peter Bills (1983) was convinced that the crossbow was ‘How it all began’ and even illustrated his theory with early examples of crossbows and bolts which were, he says, ‘the origins of the modern dart’. (See illustration above.)  I pursued this theory (amongst many others) for one of the early chapters of my PhD dissertation (2006) and my book Darts in England 1900-39: A social history (2009) but failed to find any primary evidence of any connection between the crossbow and darts.

However, the word ‘ton’ is common terminology in modern darts for 100 and links nicely to the ‘tun’, a beer or wine cask which, if used as a target, would have involved the bunghole (20th century slang for the bull’s eye) as its primary target, scoring 100 points. Even given the legends about medieval archers throwing cut-down arrows at beer barrels or wine casks I have failed to discover any primary source material to support either the arrows or the crossbow theory, although I keep an open mind.

The Bolt-in-Tun and its unusual sign

That, as it happens, is just as well as the sign for The Bolt in Tun (formerly of Fleet Street) mentioned in the 1837 coach list shows what appears to be a crossbow bolt through a beer barrel. I discovered this in Paul Corballis’s book Pub Signs (1988). A print dated 1859 shows ‘the combined use of the traditional signs together with contemporary sign-writing.’  Focussing more on the design of signs rather than origins of pub names Corballis makes no further comment about the nomenclature.

Checking out Lillywhite’s masterwork London Signs (1972) no fewer than eleven entries can be found for Bolt in Tun (or similar, for example, Bolte in Tunne) the oldest entry being ‘Bolt and ye tonne yn fletestrete’ ‘Inn or brewhouse 1424-43’. Bizarrely (as I originally thought) Lillywhite writes of the origin of the name ‘The sign of The BOLT AND TUN or BOLT IN TUN is said to have originated as a rebus on the name of Bolton.’  (Huh? Into the realms of fantasy we go. Why should a London pub be named after a Lancashire industrial town?)

However bizarre it may seem Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten (1866) are of the same view and clarify the issue. Quoting The Bolt in Tun as an example of a Cockney pun and ‘their wit and originality’, Larwood and Hotten reveal that it has nothing whatever to do with Lancashire but everything to do with ‘The well-known bird-bolt through a tun, or BOLT IN TUN for Bolton, the device of one of the priors of St. Bartholomew, is still in existence in Fleet Street. The authors state ‘Camden writes’:

“It may be doubtful whether Bolton, prior of St. Bartholomew, in Smithfield, was wiser when he invented for his name a bird-bolt through his Tun, or when he built him a house upon Harrow Hill, for fear of an inundation after a great conjunction of planets in the watery triplicity.”

(I’ll have some of whatever he’s on.)

Larwood and Hotten also reveal that an entry in the Patent Roll of 21 Henry VI., (1443) states that ‘this house in Fleet Street appears to have been an inn at that period. In a ‘licence of alienation’ to the Friars Carmelites of London, of certain premises in the parish of St. Dunstan, Fleet Street, the authors reveal that “Hospitium vocatum le Boltenton” is mentioned as a boundary. 

Pursuing the name further Larwood and Hotten discovered that a tun pierced with three arrows appears on some seventeenth century trades tokens. This variation was known as Tuns and Arrows (‘or harrows, as the Cockney tokens have it’).  They also mention that inns of that name were extant in the reign of Charles II at both Bishopsgate Street Within and Bishopsgate Street Without. Lillywhite cites both The Tvn and Arowes Without Bishopsgate (c 1648-60s) and The Tvn and Harros in ‘Bvshopes Gate Street’ (also c 1648-60s). According to Lillywhite this unusual sign was ‘noted only in Bishopsgate’ about the middle of the seventeenth century. In both cases the sign is of a tun pierced by three arrows and this leads him to postulate that the sign is perhaps an indication of a connection with the Fletchers’ Guild ‘on whose arms are three arrows’.

So do we have a link with crossbow bolts and a possible forerunner of modern darts? The ‘bolt’ makes sense but then there’s the prior. Or do we have a previously undiscovered pub game where crossbows are fired at tuns? (I doubt this now.) Or do we have a rebus (def: ‘a kind of puzzle consisting of pictures of things combined so as to suggest words or phases’) where Cockneys have played on the name ‘Bolton’?  Or is the derivation directly connected to the Fletchers’ Guild – whose device features three arrows and not bolts and therefore nothing whatever to do with either crossbows or an early form of darts? 

For my part, for the moment, I’ll run with the link with the Fletchers’ Guild for both Tun and Arrows and Bolt in Tun.

Any assistance from visitors to this website to clarify this matter would be gratefully received at

© 2009 Patrick Chaplin (Updated 2019)


Bills, Peter. Sportsviewers Guide: Darts (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1983), page 5

Chaplin, Patrick. Darts in England 1900-1939: A social history (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009) (For my theories of the origins of darts see Chapter 2, pp. 37-50.)

Corballis, Paul. Pub Signs (Luton: Lennard Publishing, 1988) page 35.

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. 470-1*

Lillywhite, Bryant. London Signs – A reference book of London signs from earliest times to about the mid-nineteenth century (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1973), pages 68 and 597.

*It is interesting that little of the information contained in the Third Edition was included in the ‘revised and modernised version’ of The History of Signboards published by Chatto & Windus in 1951. However, the revised text (page 275) states that in relation to the pub’s former Fleet Street premises the sign (‘device’) of the Bolt in Tun was by then ‘over a railway receiving office’.

NOTE: The original version of this article appeared in the Pub History Society’s Newsletter Winter 2009.

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