I believe that by writing this article I will become the first member of the PHS to use the word ‘arse’ in our Newsletter and on our website. However, I can assure everyone that it is utilised not to shock but to explain the derivation of a unique pub name that links the West Riding of Yorkshire, Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempt to invade England, a signboard exhibition in London in 1762, the ‘well-known’ assassination plot against an eighteenth-century Lord Treasurer, and the ‘buckish slang’ and ‘pickpocket eloquence’ that was the vulgar tongue of 200-300 years ago.
I first came across the pub named The Ass in the Bandbox whilst thumbing through the ‘Glossary of Signs’ in Henry Parr Maskell’s The Taverns of Old England (1927); a simple one-liner which read, ‘Ass in the Bandbox. The famous Bandbox Plot of 1711.’ I have to admit that this ‘famous’ plot was, until that moment, totally unknown to me and, to be totally honest, I did not know what a ‘bandbox’ was/is.
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1978) revealed that a bandbox was (and still is) ‘A slight box of cardboard or thin chip, for collars, hats, caps, and millinery; orig. made for the bands or ruffs of the 17th c.’ Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1990) confirms this derivation adding, ‘formerly used by parsons for keeping their bands in.’
OK. So what was the Bandbox Plot of 1711 and why was a pub, according to Maskell, named after it?
It was not only Maskell who linked the plot to a pub named the Ass in the Bandbox.Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten in their History of Signboards (Third edition, 1866) commented on this ‘very curious and rare sign’ which was ‘to be seen in the little village of Nidd, near Knaresborough.’ Indeed, thus far, my research has revealed only this one hostelry to ever bear that name.
Larwood and Hotten state, ‘We find it mentioned in 1712 in Partridge’s MS. Book “Celestrial Motions”’ but unfortunately I have yet to discover whether the ‘it’ refers to the pub or the phrase. The authors of The History of Signboards reveal that, at the end of this month [October 1711] the villains made the Band-box plot to blow up Robin [the Lord Treasurer] and his family with a couple of inkhorns [small portable vessels (originally made of horn) for holding writing ink]. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable expands on the plot stating that the bandbox contained ‘three pistols charged and cocked’ with the ‘triggers being tied to a pack-thread fastened to the lid’, the idea being that when the lid was lifted, the pistols would go off and shoot the person who opened the lid.
However, as luck would have it, Dean Swift or, some say, Jonathan Swift, happened to be there when the box arrived, saw the pack-thread and cut it, ‘thus saving the life of the Lord Treasurer.’ Larwood and Hotten refer to the bandbox as containing ‘a very poor infernal machine made of inkhorns’ and that ‘the affair…has never been satisfactorily cleared up.’ So, was this the reason for the pub at Nidd being named the Ass in the Bandbox?
However, G. A. Tomlin in the tiny volume Pubs (1922) notes that the Ass in a Bandbox (sic) ‘is now extinct, but the title is supposed to refer to Bonaparte’s attempt to invade England.’ Charles Hindley, author of Tavern Anecdotes and Sayings (1875) provides much more detail, initially describing the Ass in a Band-box (sic) in exactly the same way as Larwood and Hotten, as a ‘very curious and rare sign’ but record that it was ‘formerly to be seen in the little village of Nidd’ and that ‘the house…was discontinued as an inn some twenty years ago’; that is circa 1855.
Hindley stated that the sign was ‘historically interesting’ as its name referred to the threatened invasion of England by Napoleon Bonaparte; Hindley making no reference to the Bandbox Plot. The signboard, Hindley reported, ‘represents Napoleon in full uniform, riding on an ass; the ass standing in a bandbox which is floating on or sailing across the English Channel, with Napoleon saying, “Me vill make de Jean Bull tremble now, I have found out de grande conveyance.” One of Hindley’s informants, no less than Mr. John Musham, the station-master of Knaresborough Station on the North Eastern Railway, told the author that the Ass in a Band-box pub was known in the neighbourhood as the “Old Bonaparte.”
The monochrome image shown here is extracted from Hindley’s work and may be the original sign.
This allusion to Napoleon’s proposed invasion of England is borne out by Larwood and Hotten (probably long after their deaths) when the History of Signboards was updated, revised and modernized and republished in 1951 as English Inn Signs. This revised edition includes a chapter titled ‘Nicknamed, Perverted, Corrupted and ‘Refined’ Signs and Jocular Variations upon Signs’ in which, presumably Millar, writes (page 29), ‘sometimes changes owe their origin to fresh notions of verbal propriety. Thus the Ass in a Bandbox is a refined version of My Arse in a Bandbox, a satirical reference to Napoleon’s proposed invasion of England.’ Disarmingly, later in the revised work (page 272), the publishers have included the original Larwood and Hotten theory relating to the ‘famous’ Bandbox Plot!
The colour image shown here is from the British Museum collection and is a satirical print accredited to Piercy Roberts and dated 1803
But what, pray, does an ‘arse in a bandbox’ mean and how does it link with Napoleon?
Seeking out my copy of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1984 reprint) I discovered a definition of the phrase which shed significant light on the matter. It read: ‘BANDBOX Mine a-se on a bandbox; an answer to the offer of anything inadequate to the purpose for which it is proferred, like offering a bandbox for a seat.’ The Shorter OED you may recall above described a bandbox as being a ‘slight box of cardboard or thin chip.’ Indeed, Hindley wrote that ‘“Oh! my ass in a band-box” is a common exclamation in answer to the offer of services, or other things inadequate to the purpose for which they are proferred – like a pasteboard band-box for a seat’ adding, ‘from which doubtlessly the expression took its origin. The result is obvious.’ (Perhaps it wasn’t earlier Charles but I think it is now…)
So, was the Ass in a Bandbox pub in Nidd originally named after the ‘famous’ Bandbox Plot of 1711? If Partridge’s mention in Celestrial Motions was the pub and not the phrase then we can confidently say that it was but that the sign was replaced by one of Napoleon in celebration of that failed attempt to invade England. Interestingly though, according to Larwood and Hotten (1951) the original sign, (which the authors do not describe) was repainted ‘about 1800’ and ‘replaced by Napoleon.’ Thus one can only guess what that original sign looked like. There is really no point in surmising…
There is more positive news about the replacement ‘Napoleonic’ pub sign. According to Hindley (1875) when the Ass in the Bandbox was closed, the owners of the property ‘thought the signboard worth preserving’ and placed it in the care of Miss Rawson at Nidd Hall. When the 1951 revised and updated version of Larwood and Hotten’s work was published it was confirmed that ‘Lord Mountgarvel at Nidd Hall has the sign now.’ According to the ‘net, Nidd Hall is now owned by Warner Leisure. To date I have been unable to establish whether or not the sign still remains at the Hall.
Before leaving (for me anyway) this absorbing topic I must point out that the History of Signboards (Third edition 1866 and most likely the First and Second editions) includes an Appendix relating to ‘Bonnell Thompson’s Signboard Exhibition’ held in 1762 as the latest ‘annual Exhibition of Polite Arts’ and featuring the work of The Society of Sign-painters (like Larwood and Hotten’s original work not featuring exclusively pub signs. The exhibition included the bandbox sign.
This ‘Grand Exhibition’ was publicised in the St. James’s Chronicle on Tuesday 23rd March 1762; the event opening shortly afterwards at Bonnell Thornton’s chambers in Bow Street, London; admission one shilling. The catalogue includes, in the Grand Room, number ‘31 MY A---- IN A BANDBOX. By Sympson’; described as ‘Hieroglyphically expressed…an Ass standing in a bandbox.’ Sympson was clearly a painter of pub signs as his other works in the exhibition included ‘The World’s End (cat. no. 21) and ‘A Man Loaded With Mischief’ (cat. no. 73), both well-known pub signs in the capital at the time. Sympson’s other sign was titled ‘A Man Struggling Through The World’ (cat. no. 32).
In this article I seem to have only scratched the surface in relation to the sources of the Ass in a Bandbox but I do hope that it provokes discussion and, who knows, perhaps one or more members of the PHS can add something to my sketch.
© 2013 & 2014 Patrick Chaplin
Image – Courtesy of the British Museum. Used with permission.
(This article was first published in the PHS Newsletter Autumn 2013.)
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