A Miracle of Inn Signs

Many inns have had impressive signs but none as spectacular as the White Hart at Scole, Norfolk, that once had a sign spanning the road featuring 29 figures and 21 animals carved in black oak. Made by John Fairchild in 1655, it weighed 40 tons and cost £1,057 – the inn itself cost £1,500.

The title picture – from waveneyarchaelogy.com – depicts Charles II (who reputedly stayed there) at the doorway, though his presence appears to be of no interest to those admiring the magnificent sign. The White Hart was built by John Peck, a wool merchant. At the time Scole was well placed for such a venture, situated on an old Roman road about 20 miles south of Norwich. Around 40 coaches a day used the route so Peck saw a commercial opportunity, albeit his vision as a venue for balls and grand social occasions was largely unfulfilled.

Inns of the day had differing accommodation according to the wealth and status of the visitor. The White Hart had a circular bed for postboys and less affluent guests, considered large enough for 20 couples. It was a lively place. Highwayman John Belcher apparently rode his horse up the internal stairs to evade the law. In more sedate times, this is how the inn looks today on WhatPub.

The ostentatiousness of the original sign was seen as a riposte to a puritanical regime imposed by Cromwell but was not universally appreciated, described as “an enormous, spectacular and vulgar advertisement for the inn”. The many carved figures included Jonah and the Whale; a lion holding the arms of Great Yarmouth; Neptune on a dolphin; angels supporting the arms of Mr and Mrs Peck; Time devouring an infant; Cerberus, the three-headed dog; and Charon carrying a witch to hell. There is also an astromer seated on a compass that turned as the weather changed.

In The English Inn (1930) Burke described it as the “miracle of inn signs” stating that it disappeared sometime in the nineteenth century and that, despite his best efforts, no one could enlighten him as to its whereabouts. But writing on the Famed Gates of Norfolk claims it was taken down in the 1750s, as its lack of taste offended Georgian sensibilities. Burke is likely to be correct as there is evidence it was still present in 1842.

The post horns on the village sign represent the inn, which were blown as the coaches approached to alert the innkeeper of their impending arrival. The saltire, incidentally, represents St Andrew’s Church.

The White Hart was also known as the Scole Inn but it is now called Diss by Verve, a name that bears not the merest trace of its colourful history.

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