North Devon in 100 Objects 88

88. The Sign of the Three Tuns

These three miniature barrels or tuns suspended one above the other are a pub sign that used to hang outside the Three Tuns Inn in Barnstaple High Street. In the 19th century there were over 100 pubs in the town.

 The sign was made by William James Norman of Pilton over 100 years ago. Amid the wealth of pub names and signs to be seen in Britain, ‘The Three Tuns’ is widespread but not common; others are to be found in Bristol, Chepstow, Lichfield and York, to name a few.  

Formerly inaccurately marketed as ‘the oldest tavern in the oldest street in the oldest borough in Britain’, The Three Tuns probably began life as a merchant’s home and premises in the 14th century. When the building became an inn is unknown. The earliest record of the name The Three Tuns dates from 1704, so it probably goes back to at least the 17th century.  

The vaguely Elizabethan appearance of the building  in a street which otherwise shows little sign of its thousand year antiquity is in fact a pastiche dating from 1947, when local architect and antiquarian Bruce Oliver was commissioned by the owner Harry Daw to ‘restore’ the building to its imagined historic state. Before that date it had a flat Georgian frontage like many other High Street buildings.

When Pizza Express took over the building in 2011, the sign was claimed by William Norman’s grandsons who presented it to the Museum. William Norman himself was killed in action over 100 years ago in July 1916.

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