London has always been a city through which to travel to other places, as well as a destination in its own right. Nowadays, the airports, railway stations and coach stations are the transport hubs, but when travel relied on horses, coaching inns performed this function. These inns stabled teams of horses so that stagecoaches and mail coaches were provided with fresh animals along their route after travelling around 7–10 miles. They also offered food and drink to travellers. Some visitors used coaching inns as hotels, renting a room for the duration of their stay and taking some meals there. One of the most famous was the Belle Sauvage, also known as the Bell Savage, on Ludgate Hill.
An American in London
In 1805 Benjamin Silliman, a 25-year-old American, arrived in England to further his science studies. He had read law at Yale College and then studied chemistry and natural philosophy, and he was destined to become a foremost figure in science. On returning to America, he published three volumes of his experiences, including his initial arrival in London:
‘Hyde Park, with its extended fields, fine forest trees, and promiscuous assemblage of pedestrians, coaches and horsemen, soon came into view on our left;– we whirled rapidly by it, and, at Hyde Park corner, abruptly entered the Metropolis of the commercial word. We drove through Piccadilly, and were instantly involved in the noise and tumult of London. We were obliged to hold fast as we were driven furiously over rough pavements, while the clattering of the wheels, the sounding of the coachman’s horn, and the sharp reverberations of his whip, had there been no other noises, would have drowned conversation, and left us to admire and wonder in silence, at the splendor of the English capital.’
Silliman’s first impressions did not meet his expectations:
‘I had long been anticipating the emotions which I should experience on entering London. But, I was not a little disappointed at finding myself perfectly unmoved, and was disposed to conclude that one great city is very much like another, and does not impress a stranger with an idea of its magnitude, since only a small portion can be seen at once.’
The coach headed for the Belle Sauvage, where he stayed one night before moving into lodgings more suitable for a longer stay in London:
‘We were driven through the Strand, Temple Bar, which is one of the ancient gates of the city, and Fleet-street. The coach stopped at the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill. The coachman, by a short turn, drove us, with astonishing swiftness, through a narrow opening, where the least deviation would have overturned the coach, and we were set down in a large back yard, full of coaches, horses, servants, and baggage.’
Bitten by bugs
Parson James Woodforde, whose parish was at Weston Longville near Norwich in Norfolk, always stayed at the Belle Sauvage when visiting London, though he did not always enjoy the experience. On 24th June 1786 he arrived with his niece, Nancy, and the next day he wrote in his diary: ‘We breakfasted, supped & slept again at the Bell Savage. Very much pestered & bit by buggs in the night.’ The next night was worse: ‘We breakfasted, supped & slept again at the Bell Savage – I was bit so terribly with buggs again this night, that I got up at 4. o’clock this morning and took a long walk by myself about the City till breakfast time.’ For the final two nights, he found an uncomfortable solution: ‘I did not pull off my cloaths last night but sat up in a great chair all night with my feet on the bed and slept very well & not pestered with buggs.’ Woodforde’s extensive diaries are published by the Parson Woodforde Society, and this one is edited by R. Winstanley and P. Jameson (1999) as The Diary of James Woodforde. Volume 11 1785–1787.
Belle Sauvage or Bell Savage?
This particular coaching inn dated to the early 15th century, possibly even the 14th, and over time its name altered. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was discussion over the name’s origin, as Benjamin Silliman noted:
‘This was a public-house a century ago, and gave occasion for the wit of Addison to investigate the derivation of its name. He informs us that it alludes to a French story of a very beautiful woman found in the wilderness, whence the romance, built on this incident, is entitled La Belle Sauvage. This was probably at first the sign of the house, but the allusion has been so long forgotten that even the orthography is changed, and we find it no longer La Belle Sauvage, but the Bell Savage.’
By ‘Addison’, Silliman meant Joseph Addison, co-founder of The Spectator, which was published daily in London in 1711 and 1712. In April 1711 it published a satirical piece about the ‘absurdities hung out upon sign-post in this city’, including the Belle Sauvage:
‘As for the bell-savage, which is the sign of a savage man standing by a bell, I was formerly very much puzzled upon the conceit of it, until I accidentally fell into the reading of an old romance translated out of the French, which gives an account of a very beautiful woman who was found in a wilderness, and is called in the French La belle Sauvage; and is every-where translated by our countrymen the Bell-savage.’
His conjectured derivation gave rise to even more guesswork, with famous women such as Pocahontas being put forward to account for the name.
Or maybe the Bell on the Hoop?
The dispute over the origin of the name continued, and in 1815 a letter from the antiquarian Samuel Lysons was read to the Society of Antiquaries of London, suggesting a less romantic origin:
‘The enclosed copy of a deed … serves to ascertain the true description of one of the oldest Inns in London, the Bell-savage on Ludgate Hill, in the parish of St. Bride Fleet Street, which has for more than a century … occasioned a great variety of conjectures. It appears from this record [the deed] that they have all been unfounded, as the Inn took the adjunct to its name, from the circumstance of its having belonged to, or been kept by a person of the name of Savage. The sign appears to have been a bell hung within a hoop.’
Dating to 1453, the deed was written in Latin and recorded the grant by John French to his widowed mother Joan French giving possession of ‘all that Tenement or Inn, with its appurtenances, called Savage’s Inn, otherwise called the Bell on the Hoop, in the parish of St. Bridget in Fleet Street, London.’ Lysons had discovered that the famous Belle Sauvage was actually the Bell on the Hoop, and in his letter he pointed out that there were other inn names with a hoop, such as George on the Hoop, Hart on the Hoop and Swan on the Hoop – but he never thought to explain the significance of the hoop.
The formula ‘on the hoop’ was a feature of many early inn signs, but its precise origin is unknown. It may been a reference to a hoop from a wooden beer barrel, signifying an alcoholic drink, such as in the modern ‘Frog and Firkin’. Or it might simply have been a circular metal hoop in which to suspend the emblem of, say, a bell or a swan, leading to one inn being referred to as the Bell on the Hoop to distinguish it from another inn called The Bell where the sign was fixed on the wall. Alternatively, there may be a totally different meaning. The famous Belle Sauvage inn was demolished in 1873, but the mystery surrounding its name still stands.