THE SILENT WOMAN/KING’S HEAD, WIDFORD, ESSEX

During my wife Maureen and my sojourn into Herefordshire in November 2018, we decided at the beginning of the week to visit the village of Bosbury which we had visited some years before.  

Both the village and the pub, The Bell, seemed unchanged by the intervening years. Shortly after noon we parked up, alighted from our vehicle and approached the hostelry that had served us so well six years before. A non-welcoming sign in the window greeted us with the message ‘Closed Mondays’. We thought “How quaint,” and moved on.

Driving out of the village we soon crossed the main Hereford to Worcester road and on to Bromyard Road and within less than one hundred yards I espied a house sign ‘The Quiet Woman’. We stopped and I walked back and snuck into the drive to take a couple of snaps of a building that simply must have been a pub. Surely.

Indeed, it had been; this fact being confirmed by author Tony Hobbs who, approaching the building from the opposite direction to us, wrote of The Quiet Woman at Suckley in 2012:

At the bottom of the road on the right-hand side is a private dwelling which was formerly a pub called the Quiet Woman. Originally a small farm called Mockhall, it was occupied by Timothy Hill, a master shoemaker employing four men and two journeymen cordwainers. In 1851 this was also a beerhouse, with the owner paying a fee of two guineas to be allowed to sell beer from his premises in compliance with the Beerhouse Act 1830. The Quiet Woman was still open as a beerhouse in the 1920s and probably closed in the 1930s.

Hobbs does not give any explanation of why the beerhouse was so-named so, in fear of possibly offending those fascinated by political correctness and conscious of the sensitivity in some quarters surrounding such matters, I decided to look further into ‘quiet women’ and indeed its sister acts the Silent Woman, the Headless Woman, Good Woman and even the Headless Matron.

Apart from the obvious ‘headless’ woman, it was clear from the outset that any ‘quiet’, ‘silent’ and even ‘heedless’ woman in a pub name would be depicted on the pub sign minus her head. In some cases, the head was carried under her arm whilst in others the head was completely missing.

The results of my research have been published in consecutive issues of Pub History, the quarterly journal of the Pub History Society beginning with the Spring 2020 issue. To give a fragment of balance the third part (Autumn 2020) featured whatever ‘quiet men’ I could find. Alas, not surprisingly perhaps, given the patriarchal nature of the pub in days of yore, the names of pubs where signs feature a decapitated male are few and far between and mainly, if not exclusively, named the Honest Lawyer.

Given that the combined word count of my work appearing in Pub History extends to thousands of words, I have decided that, for this article, I would select just one ‘quiet’ or ‘silent’ woman as a point of discussion. Thus, I use as my example, the pub which existed closest to where I live but not extant during my lifetime: the Silent Woman at Widford, near Chelmsford, Essex

In their ground-breaking work The History of Signboards first published in London in 1866, Larwood and Hotten (hereafter ‘L&H’) mentioned ‘a very curious example’ of the Silent Woman sign at Widford, near Chelmsford, Essex.  At the time L&H were writing, Widford was a small village on the outskirts of the County town on the main coaching road between London and Harwich. Over the years Widford has become annexed to the ever-expanding city of Chelmsford. L&H described the pub sign in their time as

…representing on one side a half-length portrait of Henry VIII, on the reverse, a woman without a head, dressed in the costume of the latter half of the last [eighteenth] century, with the inscription Forte Bonne. The addition of the portrait of Henry VIII has led to the popular belief that the headless woman is meant for Anna [sic] Boleyn, though probably it is simply a combination of the KING’S HEAD and the GOOD WOMAN. (See below)

As far as my research is concerned, I have never found any other record of this King’s Head/Good Woman combination at Widford but that isn’t to say that that wasn’t the derivation of this Silent Woman.

As a great admirer of the writings of James John Hissey it was good news to me that during his travels throughout England during the latter part of the nineteenth century he had found the pub signs of my home County of Essex ‘frequently of interest’. During his tour in a phaeton through the Eastern Counties (1889), whilst travelling the turnpike and coaching road heading towards the County Town of Chelmsford, a ‘curious old sign-board’ at Widford arrested his attention. Hissey described it more or less the same as L&H, above, but was uncertain as to the exact origin of this ‘quaint sign’.  Fortunately, Hissey subsequently spoke to an antiquarian friend.

He told us [it] is known as the Good Woman. First it was called the Silent Woman, because having her head cut off the poor woman naturally could not speak; it would seem that in times past the Essex people did not esteem it a virtue for their wives to do much talking, and so as this woman was perforce silent she became to them the Good Woman, all of which, as our friend stated, was as true as most traditions are, and I dare say he was right.

Keen to discover more about this local inn I trawled through back issues of Essex Countryside magazine and almost immediately discovered an old etching submitted in 1966 by Mrs. I. Jennings of Christchurch, Hampshire in response to a general article about Essex inns in the previous month’s issue. Mrs. Jennings wrote

Reading the correspondence on old public-houses…I wondered if you would be interested in the enclosed picture, which has been in my family for many years. As a child I used to wonder why the lady in the inn sign was without head or legs. I do not suppose the inn is still standing today, but I think it is a charming old picture.

The ‘picture’, shown here, is titled ‘A view near Brentwood, Essex’ and is dated 10th October 1779. However, I would contend that this is more ‘near Chelmsford’ and indeed the Silent Woman at Widford. The church tower and spire in the near distance on the right-hand side of the image looks very much like that of Widford’s St. Mary’s Church. (See recent photo.)

Mrs. Jennings’s reference to the lady on the sign also being ‘without…legs’ is not something proven by any image I have seen although from the 1779 engraving that might appear to be the case: the image looking a little like ‘Gran’ from the Giles cartoons of much later date.

Another Essex Countryside reader, R. F. Buckley from the Isle of Wight, explained in the following month’s issue:

Mrs. Jennings’ letter and picture refer to an inn sign that was common in a ruder age, when a silent woman was esteemed to be the best of her kind. Some women could be silenced only but cutting their heads off, and the sign of a headless woman was an invitation to escape from what we now call “yak-yak.” The young man in the picture is obviously trying hard to do so. There was a Silent Woman pub and sign years ago opposite the White Horse at Widford.

Later, in the November 1970 issue a further letter was published enquiring about the Widford pub. A. W. Strait of Westcliff-in-Sea wrote:

When I was a boy my grandfather, John Harrington, used to farm at Pannells Farm, which was down a lane between Widford church and the White Horse. Do any of your readers remember a public-house opposite the White Horse named the Widford Good Woman? Why was it called the Good Woman?

Responses to that letter came in thick and fast; reader J. A. R. Pitts, from Salcombe, Devon, correcting Mr. Strait and confirming that the name was actually the Silent Woman and was mentioned in White’s Essex Gazetteer of 1848. Pitts said that the pub was on the opposite side of the road to the White Horse and that ‘As a child I was told it was named in memory of Ann [sic] Boleyn and the sign used to show a headless woman.’ T. D. Parkin from Seaford, Sussex said something similar but added ‘An old villager told me that as the woman had no head she was good because she could not speak.’   

J. Burley referred readers of Essex Countryside to Miller Christie’s publication Trade Signs of Essex (1887) in which the author ascribed the origin of the pub sign as relating to local traditions regarding St. Osyth. Burley wrote

The legend was that when the Danes attacked the convent in 635 they beheaded St. Osyth and on the spot where the head fell a spring of water burst forth. St. Osyth is supposed to revisit her former abode annually, walking with her head under her arm.

Springs bursting forth when saints were martyred is not uncommon in folklore but the trouble here is that the town/village of St. Osyth is over 40 miles away from Widford which makes one wonder if this possible origin for the sign is not a little far-fetched.

Miller Christie also stated that this and any other sign, be it Silent, Good or Quiet Woman, are

‘all alike [and] constitute a piece of unwarrantable slander on the fair sex, being intended to convey the idea that a woman can only be silenced by being deprived of her head.’

The actual position of the Silent Woman was again challenged in the Essex Countryside, this time by R.J. Jennings from Morpeth, Northumberland who thought it was on the same side of the road as the White Horse. Jennings also believed that the pubwas pulled down in ‘about 1920’. (If I mention that Jennings thought the pub was called the Wise Woman that would surely only confuse things!)

Ah! The joys of historical research!

As previously mentioned, Larwood and Hotten (1866) stated that the Silent Woman sign bore the inscription ‘Forte Bonne’, yet offered no translation. Miller Christie (1887) recorded that the inscription on the sign-board was ‘Fort Bon’ but had been ‘Fort Bone’ which he presumed was ‘intended to be the French for “Very Good”’. G. J. Monson-Fitzjohn (1926) wrote that the headless woman on the Widford sign had the words ‘Fort Bone’ over her, describing it as an ‘unnecessary legend’.

Unable to rely on my schoolboy French I checked a French-to-English translation website where “Very Good” was confirmed for ‘Fort Bonne’, yet another alternative (yet the correct) spelling. Interesting though that the photograph of the Quiet Woman pub sign published in Hackwood’s Inn, Ales, and Drinking Customs of Old England (1909) (see below) shows the legend at that time to be ‘Fort Bone’. (Just to confuse matters Hackwood refers to the pub name in the text as the “Good or Quiet Woman.”)

There are, I have discovered, many other versions of the headless woman-type pub names and signs all of which I am certain reflect the patriarchy of the pub in bygone days: male dominated and a home from home, warm, cosy, welcoming and a refuge from ‘her indoors’.

My research has shown that the number of pubs that remain bearing the Silent, Quiet or Headless Woman and displaying what are now regarded by many as totally unacceptable signs are few and far between. Perhaps in these days of political correctness and women’s rights that is just as well.

Books:

Benham, Sir Gurney. Inn Signs – Their History & Meaning (London: Brewers’ Society, 1939)
Christie, Miller. The Trade Signs of Essex… (Chelmsford: Edmund Durrant & Co., 1887)
Hackwood, Frederick W. Inns, Ales, and Drinking Customs of Old England (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1909)
Hissey, James John. A Tour in a Phaeton Through the Eastern Counties (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1889)
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)
Tuffs, J. Elsden. Essex Coaching Days (Letchworth: Essex Countryside, 1969)

Journals and Magazines:

At the sign of… The Journal of the Inn Sign Society – No. 74, Spring 2008, page 19.
Essex Countryside
– Vol. 14, No. 109, February 1966 page 272; Vol. 14, No. 110, March 1966 page 352; Vol. 19, No. 166, November 1970, page 67; Vol. 19, No. 168, January 1971, page 78 and February 1971, Vol. 19, No. 169, page 70.

Websites:

Translation of Fort Bonne – https://context.reverso.net/translation/french-english/Fort+bonne
Widford St. Mary’s Church – https://www.widfordparish.com/st-marys-history

Special thanks to David Roe, editor of the Inn Sign Society Journal At the sign of…

The full story of the Silent/Quiet/Headless and Heedless Woman was first published in 2020 in Pub History, the quarterly journal of the Pub History Society.

To join visit http://www.pubhistorysociety.co.uk.

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