This morning I had the pleasure of the company of my good friend and fellow City guide Peter Twist on his early morning tour of Smithfield Market (an excellent walk and highly recommended, details of future dates here).

As I arrived at the ungodly hour of 6.45 am and shuddered down the cobbled curved ramp of the West Smithfield underground car park on my trusty scooter (the same ramp traversed by M and James Bond in Skyfall as this was the location used for the temporary home of MI6 in the film) I noticed this sign painted on the wall:

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Which naturally enough aroused my curiosity to find out more…

First off, what is (or was) the “Bull & Mouth”?  The ever-reliable British History Online provided the answer to that one (full text of the relevant article here):

The great coaching-inn of Aldersgate Street, in the old time, was the “Bull and Mouth.” The original name of this inn was “Boulogne Mouth,” in allusion to the town and harbour of Boulogne, besieged by Henry VIII. But the “gne,” being generally pronounced by the Londoners “on,” it gradually became “an,” and it only required the small addition of “d” to make “and” of it. The first part being before this made a “bull” of, it was ultimately converted into the “Bull and Mouth.”

Bull & Mouth
Yard of the Bull & Mouth c. 1820, (c) http://www.british-history.ac.uk

The “Queen’s Hotel,” St. Martins-le-Grand, rebuilt in 1830, now occupies the site of the old “Bull and Mouth.” On the front there is a statuette of a bull, above which are the bust of Edward VI., and the arms of Christ’s Hospital, to which the ground belongs. The old inn stood in Bull and Mouth Street, and the south side in Angel Street still retains the name of the old inn, but is merely a luggage depot of Chaplin and Home. On the front of the present hotel, much affected by Manchester men, under the turbulent little bull, is a stone tablet probably from the old inn, and on it are deeply cut the following quaint lines:— “Milo the Cretonian An ox slew with his fist, And ate it up at one meal, Ye gods, what a glorious twist!”

(From: ‘Aldersgate Street and St Martin-le-Grand’, Old and New London: Volume 2 (1878), pp. 208-228. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=45092  Date accessed: 11 September 2013.)

The Queen’s Hotel was itself demolished in 1888 but there is a City of London blue plaque on the site recalling the location of the Bull & Mouth and the statuette referred to has been relocated to a wall outside the Museum of London.

So, first part of the mystery solved; it was one of the many coaching inns that dotted London’s landscape until the 19th century arrival of the railways rendered them obsolete.  Which only serves to open a deeper mystery: what on earth is it doing painted on the wall of the Smithfield underground car park?

My first instinct when I saw it was “ghost sign”, but: i) The paintwork is far too fresh for that; ii) it’s about a half mile walk from the original site of the Bull & Mouth; and iii) the construction of the wall it is painted on was contemporary to that of the market in 1868 and therefore post-dates the demise of the Bull & Mouth by nearly 40 years (the underground car park at Smithfield was originally built as an underground rail terminus to deliver meat carcasses which were hauled up the curved ramp into the market).

So, who decided to paint it there, why and when?  I’m afraid I haven’t yet found the answer to that little conundrum, but hoping someone out there can enlighten us all.

Update 12 September 2013:

Well, this seems to have caused quite the stir!  You’ll see from the replies below that the suggestion has been put that it was painted as a set dressing for a film (the area has been used as film location several times).

This seems to me to make sense.  For reasons outlined above, it could clearly never have served any practical purpose and it would have been a very strange place to put something merely intended as a piece of civic decoration.

My esteemed Footprints of London colleague Brian McClory was one of the first to float this idea and has been delving into this line of enquiry.

He has spoken to someone at the City of London Corporation film unit who seemed to recall stagecoaches being used for the filming of Dorian Gray there in 2009 and referred him to the location manager for the film.

The location manager remembers the sign being there from when they were filming, but says it wasn’t part of their production, which was more centred on Smithfield’s Grand Avenue (which they had turned into a railway station for the day).  He was emphatic that the sign was not put there by his art director for the simple reason it was already there and believes it was used for a film prior to theirs, but unfortunately couldn’t recall the name of the film.

So, we’re looking for a film shot prior to 2008 using that location and featuring stagecoaches as our possible explanation.  Maybe…

Any ideas folks?

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