The Sign Bracket of the Old Ship Inn, Castle Street, Mere, Wiltshire
(circa mid-18th century)
Many of us are familiar with the main trunk road that runs from Hampshire to East Devon, namely the A303. This thoroughfare forms part of the road system linking London to southwest England. Over the centuries small towns have developed along it. In Wiltshire the small town of Mere, not far from the Somerset and Dorset borders, is one such example. Until the 1970s the A303 passed through its centre. Nowadays it bypasses it on the northern side.
I was reminded, when I recently stopped off at Mere, of the days of stagecoach travel. I came across the Old Ship Inn, situated on the western side of the town. The inn building looked rather neglected and abandoned. In contrast, the elaborate, wrought-iron bracket for the inn sign sparkled with brilliance.
The painted sign is small compared with the elaboration and size of the bracket. The fixings upon which the sign hangs appear original. Their narrow spacing allows the bracket to dominate the sign. On the Mere History website are 20th-century photographs with different signage. These signs appear as a similar size to the existing one.
The beautiful design incorporates a golden coronet with fleur-de-lis. Hanging down is an ornate bunch of grapes. Flowers and leaves shimmer. There is the head of a what looks like a sea creature with a spring-like body. It is a wonderful survival from the mid-18th century. Pevsner and Historic England suggest it is the work of Kingston Avery. He was a clock maker and blacksmith who lived at Mere from 1730-63. Pevsner makes the comparison of inn signs at nearby Wincanton to Avery’s work at Mere.
Wincanton Inn Signs & Brackets
Prince of Wales Coronet?
This wonderful sign bracket at Mere celebrates what seems a flight of imagination by the maker. The wrought iron would have been hand-worked to create this unique object. It has a delicacy, with its swirls and curls. I find myself wondering if the coronet is symbolic of that belonging to the Prince of Wales? It appears to sit on what may represent the Prince of Wales’s Feathers. The eldest son of King George III was born in 1762 and became Prince of Wales in the same year (later King George IV). Does it commemorate this event or was the inn positioning for later royal stop offs? King George III was a regular visitor to the seaside resort of Weymouth in the 1790s, along with his family. It is my flight of fancy in making such a connection as I don’t know of any historical records that would prove it (yet)!
Before the Old Ship was an inn it was a private house, built by Henry Andrews of Woodlands in 1711. It replaced an earlier 17th-century house (the mansion of Sir John Coventry). As a coaching inn it would have been a bustling place. People needed food, refreshments, accommodation and entertainment. Horses needed stabling, feeding and grooming. The large carriageway channelled access to the inn. How it functioned can only be speculated without knowing more about the building. Weary passengers travelling from London to the southwest would have stopped to break up their journey. Its heyday was that of stagecoach travel. The demise of the which came when the railways took over in the 1830-40s.
‘Old Ship Hotel’, Historic England List Entry 1130748, (1989),< https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1130748> [accessed 10 June 2019]
Orbach, Julian and Nikolaus Pevsner, Somerset: South and West (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014)
‘Photographs – Inns – Mere Museum’, Mere Museum,< http://meremuseum.org/?page_id=822> [accessed 10 June 2019]