Solving the mystery of the Board Inns

A desk study of the old pubs and inns of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale seems to solve a 150-year-old mystery over the origins of the inn-name Board.

An oddity in Edward Baines’s 1823 directory of the North Riding – the first such directory – is that out of 17 pubs and inns listed in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, six were called the Board. There were three King’s Heads and two CB Inns, but no other multiples of any other inn-name. That the name Board should have been so outstandingly popular seems quite extraordinary, especially as the name completely disappeared within the following 50 years.

And this curiosity wasn’t restricted to the two dales. For the town of Scarborough, for example, Baines’s directory listed 69 pubs and inns, of which 11 were called the Board, while no other inn or pub name in the town appeared more than twice. Similar occurrences are found in a directory of Durham and Northumberland, published in 1827 by William White and William Parsons. White was a former employee of Edward Baines, and was his protégé in directory publishing. In this north-eastern directory there were for example 15 Boards in Sunderland, nine in Chester-Le-Street, and also large numbers in rural parishes, such as 10 in Allendale and 10 in Ryton-on-Tyne.

A subsequent directory for the North Riding, published by William White in 1840, covered more villages and hamlets in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale than its predecessor, and so the number of Boards increased. In all there were 24 pubs and inns recorded in the two dales, of which eight were called the Board. Conversely, in the same directory, in Scarborough the number of Boards had reduced from 11 to five, apparently as a result of some pubs closing and others switching to more traditional inn-names. But Board was still by far the most common name in the town.

These Boards flummoxed researchers into the origins of pub and inn names. The seminal work on the subject, The History of Signboards, was first published in 1866 by Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten. It’s so important that it ran to 12 editions by 1907, after which editedand up-dated versions were published under the title English Inn Signs in 1951 and 1985. Larwood, who was the original researcher and writer, must have used the county trade directories as a vital source, and clearly picked up on the plethora of Boards in the north. By explanation, he noted that:

‘Objects from the interior of the house were adopted as signs, such as furniture…’ and that ‘…the Board or Table [is] still a great favourite in the north – in Durham alone at least 60 public houses with that sign could be named’.

Larwood’s explanation was plausible enough, because according to Joseph White’s 1896 English Dialect Dictionary the word board was understood in the north at that time to mean a table, more specifically a table of food, such as would be found at an inn.

However, in 1902 a Yorkshire antiquarian, writing in the Leeds Mercury newspaper under the pseudonym Yorkshire Stingo, had another idea about the origin of the inn-name Board. Commenting specifically on those in Scarborough, he noted:

‘Many inns are described similarly in other towns, and some are styled Letters. Board and Letters, I suppose, mean the innkeepers had no particular sign but simply advertised their names and licences lettered on a board. Some such inns today have merely a letter sign’.

Yorkshire Stingo’s opinion was almost certainly never seen by the next significant writer on the subject, Gilbert John Monson-Fitzjohn. In his book Quaint Signs of Olde Inns, published in 1926, he stated with great certainty that Board was:

‘a very popular sign 80 or 100 years ago. In the year 1838 there were no less than 280 Board Inns in the northern counties alone. The name of course refers to the board or table upon which were set the cold joints and hams, venison and other game pies, cold roast turkeys, geese and capons. Later it was customary to place these pièces de resistance on a side-board – a name more familiar to our modern ears. From this term we obtain the words ‘board and lodging’, boarding house etc. There are also houses to be met with named Royal Board and the Royal Table, suggesting that the landlord considered his catering fit for royalty; in other words he provided a right royal fare.’

The modern editions of English Inn Signs have added nothing to the debate about the inn-name Board, and as far as I can discover nor has any other published work. But my study of the puzzling number of Boards recorded in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale might shed new light on the subject, and perhaps provide an explanation for the strange plethora of Board inns recorded in the north generally.

The first point is that wherever there were large numbers of pubs or inns called the Board recorded in the county trade directories, the number diminished quickly between the 1820s and 1870s – to the point of it becoming a rare name, as it has been ever since. In Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, some of the Boards closed and some acquired different, more-traditional inn names. After 1867, none were recorded with the name Board. It seems very puzzling.

However, by comparing the Swaledale and Arkengarthdale listings in the first five North Riding county directories, published in 1823, 1840, 1857, 1867 and 1872, a clear pattern emerges. The first two, as described above, were published by Edward Baines and his protégé William White. The third, of 1857, was the first of many editions of Kelly’s Post Office Directory. In this one, where pubs and inns had previously been recorded with traditional names, the same names were cited. But strikingly, where they had been previously recorded as Boards, and were still trading, they now appeared either with a new name or were listed simply by the name of the licensee followed by his or her occupation, such as publican or beer retailer. There was not a single Board inn in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale.

The next directory, of 1867, was published by William White – his last for the North Riding, and probably the last in his life. He died in 1868. Here we find that some of the former Boards had either closed or acquired new names. Nonetheless, there were still four instances of the name Board in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale. Then in the 1872 directory, the second Kelly’s Post Office Directory for the county, one of these four premises was no longer recorded, and the other three were recorded simply by the name of the licensee followed by the occupational descriptions: licensed victualler, publican, or beer retailer. The Boards had disappeared again, and would never reappear in any future records.

The puzzle suddenly unravels. The Beer Act of 1830 had been introduced to steer the population away from the ruinous drinking of gin. For a small fee, any householder could now purchase a licence to brew or sell beer, and many people opened their front parlours as ‘beer houses’. Baines and White made a distinction between these un-named beer houses and the traditional category they labelled ‘inns and taverns’, in which it seems they felt every establishment should be identified by a name, even if it didn’t have one.

As Yorkshire Stingo noted, un-named pubs and inns were identified in their neighbourhoods by the erection of a simple board above the front door bearing the name of the licensee. They can be seen in many old photographs. Perhaps these un-named pubs and inns were sometimes known collectively as board inns, in which case each one was a board inn but not the Board Inn. And perhaps some were known individually in their neighbourhoods as the Board Inn, which might explain why in some rare cases the name was formalised and has survived, such as at the current Board Inn in Hawes, Wensleydale.

However, a colloquial name of Board Inn cannot have been the case in Muker, where two inns recorded in directories as Boards stood within a few yards of each other, or at Tan Hill, where briefly at least, two of the three houses were recorded as Board inns. It seems more likely that for the most part these Board Inns were known locally by the name of the licensee, as ‘so-and-so’s house’.

It seems that Baines and White might have taken a collective name for un-named inns, and recorded it against each licensee’s name, as if it was a real name. As to the apparent concentration of Boards in the north, it should be noted that Baines’s directories covered only Yorkshire, and William White, while being far more prolific and producing directories for Devon, Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Hampshire, published the great majority of his directories to cover the north and north-midland counties.

Kelly’s directories clearly rejected the use of the term Board for un-named pubs and inns. However, Jacob Larwood, writing in the 1860s apparently from a London base, must have taken the content of those earliest directories in good faith, deduced that Board was a real name, and that it was particularly popular in the north, and came up with a plausible explanation for it. Then Gilbert John Monson-Fitzjohn, writing in 1926, developed the mistaken theme into a romantic notion of luxurious inns with tables groaning with mouth-watering country fare.

In fact, the mysterious Yorkshire Stingo got it more-or-less right. It now seems clear that these Boards were just pubs and inns with no name. In the three Baines’s and White’s North Riding directories published in 1823, 1840 and 1867, a total of 11 pubs and inns in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale were recorded as Boards. The table below shows their locations together with a note of what became of them. Four are still trading.

‘Board’ inns and pubs recorded in 1823, ‘40 or ‘67 And what became of them
Tan Hill (Bowes Township) Actually King’s Pit House Inn since at least 1815. Recorded as King’s Pit House pub from 1854, then Tan Hill Inn from about 1903. Still trading.
Tan Hill (Muker Township) Actually named Tan Hill House. Not recorded as an inn after 1841. Unoccupied from 1916, a ruin by the 1950s, and now absent from the landscape.
Muker Recorded as the Queen’s Head from 1867. Ceased trading in 1927.
Muker Recorded as the Farmers’ Arms from 1890. Still trading.
Calvert Houses Recorded as the Travellers’ Rest from 1887. Ceased trading in 1898.
Feetham Recorded as the Punch Bowl from 1872. Still trading.
Low Row Recorded as the Miners’ Arms from 1840, then the Queen’s Arms from 1879. Trading in 1911 but probably closed during the Great War
Healaugh Not recorded as licensed premises after 1840.
Reeth Recorded as the Low Inn in 1844, then as the Temperance Hotel from 1889. Trading in 1939 but probably ceased to be a hotel during World War II.
Grinton Recorded as the Ship Inn in 1890, possibly in error, and then as the Bridge Inn from 1891. Still trading.
Whaw Recorded as the Rose and Crown public house from 1854. Not recorded after 1857.

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