Tag Archives: Thomas Parr

At the sign of the Old Man’s Head in St. James Market Place, Westminster

A farthing token issued by a tradesman operating at or by the sign of the "Old Man's Head" in St. James Market, Westminster

A farthing token issued by a tradesman operating at or by the sign of the “Old Man’s Head” in St. James Market, Westminster.

The above brass farthing token measures 15.9 mm and weighs 1.80 grams. It was issued by a tradesman whose premises were at or close by the trade sign of the “Old Man” in St. James Market Place, Westminster. The design of the token may be formally described as follows;

Obverse: (mullet) AT. THE. OLD. MAN. IN, around the left facing bust of a man with a receding hair line, moustache and beard.

Reverse: (mullet) WESTMIN. MARKET. PLA , around twisted wire inner circle, within a triad of initials comprising W | .F. | .I

While this particular token is undated, on stylistic grounds its appearance is suggestive of one from the 1650s. However, on the grounds that its issuing location (i.e. Westminster or St. James Market Place) was not officially established until 1663 a more probable date for the token’s striking would be the mid-1660s.

The triad of initials on the reverse of the token are those of its issuers, a Mr. “W.F.” and his wife Mrs. “J.F.”. As yet these individuals have not been identified. Unfortunately they do not match those of any of the local inhabitants listed in the 1666 Hearth Tax returns for this part of Westminster.

St. James Market, Westminster (c.1720).

St. James Market, Westminster (c.1720).

In the 1650s the open space west of the Haymarket and north of Pall Mall, known as St. James’ Fields was considered ripe for development but hitherto this had been forbidden by the Crown. In March 1661/2 the Earl of St. Albans was granted a lease of much of this area by the Queen Mother. Development of the area was given further impetus in July 1662 when a meeting of commissioners for reforming the streets and buildings of London ordered the “paving of the way from St. James’, north, which was a quagmire, and also the Haymarket about Piqudillo”. A further Act of that same year also made provision for the paving of Pall Mall, the Haymarket and St. James’ Street. By 1663 the development of St. James’s Fields by the Earl had begun. As part of this development he established a market to serve the growing number of people who had come to live in the new buildings in the vicinity (1). This is the Westminster (or St. James) Market Place referred to as being the issuing location of the above token.

A view of Westminster by the Dutch engraver Jan Kip (c.1722).

A view of Westminster by the Dutch engraver Jan Kip (c.1722).

The Earl’s new market is first mentioned in a building lease of July 1663. The Westminster rate books confirm that it had been laid out and houses built around it before the end of the year. Building in Market Lane and St. Albans Street soon followed. The market itself was proclaimed on 27th September 1664 and facilitated the sale of all sort of provisions every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. By 1665 the new market place had its own purpose built market house and had also been made the new venue for the ancient St. James’ Fair (1).

“Whereas St. James Fair has been formerly kept in the Road near the House of St. James; be it known, that hereafter it is to be kept in St. James’ Marketplace to begin the 25th of July 1665, and to continue for 15 days at least in the Place aforesaid: A special care being taken for a better Regulation of the People thereabouts then has been formally.”

This annual fair had been held in the vicinity of St. James’ Fields since 1290. By the mid-17th century it had gained the reputation of being a boisterous and at times rowdy event. There is no record of how long the fair continued to be held in its new location.

On 1st April 1666 Samuel Pepys, the celebrated diarist and naval administrator recorded visiting the new market;

“So all up and down my Lord St. Albans his new building and market-house, and the taverne under the market-house, looking to and again into every place of building, and so away and took coach and home…”

Pepys mentions the market a second time in his diary in his entry for 11th April 1669.

“My wife and I out by coach, and Balty with us, to Loton, the landscape-drawer, a Dutchman, living in St. James’s Market, but there saw no good pictures. But by accident he did direct us to a painter that was then in the house with him, a Dutchman, newly come over, one Evarelst, who took us to his lodging close by, and did shew us a little flower-pot of his doing, the finest thing that ever, I think, I saw in my life; the drops of dew hanging on the leaves, so as I was forced, again and again, to put my finger to it, to feel whether my eyes were deceived or no. He do ask £70. for it: I had the vanity to bid him £20.; but a better picture I never saw in my whole life; and it is worth going twenty miles to see it.”

The Dutch artists being referred to above can be identified as Jan Looten (1618 to 1681) and Simon Verelst (2).

In 1720 John Strype (3) describes St. James Market as follows;

“St. James’s Market, a large place, with a commodious Market-house in the midst, filled with butchers shambles; besides the stalls in the Market Place, for country butchers, higglers, and the like; being a market now grown to great account, and much resorted unto, as being well served with good provisions. On the south-west corner is the paved alley, a good through-fare into Charles Street, and so into St. James’s Square, and those parts; but is of no great account for buildings or inhabitants. On each side, or square, of this market is a Row of houses, inhabited by such as have a dependence on the market, kept twice a week, but that on Saturdays is the most considerable.”

Parts of St. James Market house were occasionally used for purposes unconnected with trade. Richard Baxter, the Presbyterian preacher, held a number of meetings in rooms above Market-house and on one such occasion, in 1674, the size of his congregation was so great that the central supportive beam which supported the market’s upper story split and had to undergo emergency repairs before the upper rooms of the market could be re-opened (2).

The Market House in St. James Market Westminster from Strype's Map of 1720 and Jan Kip's engraving of Westminster of c.1722.

The Market House in St. James Market Westminster from Strype’s Map of 1720 and Jan Kip’s engraving of Westminster of c.1722.

I have been unable to find any contemporary images of St. James Market other than for the long distant partial view plus the schematic representation illustrated above. The first of these is Johannes Kip’s early 18th century print entitled “A Prospect of the City of London Westminster and St James’s Park”. In this the partial view of the Market shows a large building with a simple front, probably classical in style, having a pedimented centre facing down St. Albans Street and twin pediments at each end. Although this cannot be accepted as definite evidence of the building’s appearance, it is likely to be a more reliable representation than that the above mentioned schematic representation shown in John Ogilby and William Morgan’s survey (map) of London and Westminster of 1681/2. This representation of the market house shows it as a Jacobean building of two stories, with three entrances separated by projecting turrets which rise against a high hipped roof.

It is not apparent from the information presented on the above farthing token what particular trade its issuer (Mr. W.F.) was engaged in. However, it is clear from the information on presented on the token’s obverse that he traded at or close by to the sign of “Old Man” or “Old Man’s Head”. The suspension of distinctive trade signs above the entrances to trade premises in a particular street acted as an early form of address prior to formal building numbering in the mid-18th century. Certain very popular and early established trade signs, particularly those used by taverns (i.e. the Red Lion, Bell or Mermaid etc.), were by the mid-17th century common throughout London and the rest of the country. Others however were more obscure and transient in their use. The trade sign of the “Old Man” is one such example.

Bryant Lillywhite’s extensive survey of ancient London trade signs has recorded thousands of different examples by date and location which were variously adopted by the practitioners of different trades around the metropolis (4). Most such signs are know from a multitude of  examples from across the city. However, only a single example of the sign of the “Old Man” was recorded in his survey. A further review of the occurrence of this trade sign is possible from an examination of its depiction on tokens within the city’s mid-17th century paranumismatic record (5)(6)(7). Such an evaluation confirms the example identified by Lillywhite plus identifies a further example. These are listed below;

·         Westminster (i.e. St. James) Market Place – Mr. W.F. & Mrs. J. F. at the sign of the Old Man or Old Man’s Head (as per above brass, farthing).

·         Holborn, Chancery Lane – Mr. D.P. & Mrs. E. P. at the sign of the Old Parr’s Head (from a brass, half penny).

It is likely that both the above tokens depict trade signs having a common origin. The second of the two examples listed clearly identifies the derivation of this sign, namely “Old Parr”. Even today the sign of “Old Parr’s Head” can still be found above several public houses within the London area.

The sign board hanging above the entrance to the Old Parr's Head Public House in Islington.

The sign board hanging above the entrance to the Old Parr’s Head Public House in Islington.

Old Parr was the name given to one Thomas Parr who reputedly lived to the record age of 152! This remarkable character first came to public notice in 1635, when the poet John Taylor published a lively account of his life in a pamphlet entitled “The Old, Old, Very Old Man”.

Parr was reportedly born in 1483 at Alberbury near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. At the age of 80 Thomas married Jane Taylor. The couple had a son and a daughter both of whom died in infancy. At the age of 105 Parr did penance for committing adultery with Katherine Milton. After 32 years of marriage Jane Parr died. A decade later, at the ripe old age of 122, Thomas married his second wife, Jane, widow of Anthony Adda, of Guilsfield in Montgomeryshire.

By 1635 Thomas Parr was blind and had one tooth, his beard was neat, his hearing and digestion were good and he slept well. In that year, whilst visiting his Shropshire estates, the 21st Earl of Arundel learned of Thomas. He paid for the old man to be brought to London where he was put on show. He had his portrait etched by Dutch artist Cornelius van Dalen and was presented to King Charles I.

Contemporary images of Thomas Parr by Cornelius van Dalen (left) and Peter Paul Rubens (right).

Contemporary images of Thomas Parr by Cornelius van Dalen (left) and Peter Paul Rubens (right).

In November 1635, six weeks after his arrival in London, Thomas Parr died suddenly. The Royal physician, William Harvey, conducted an autopsy on the old man’s body. Uncritically accepting that Parr had been 152 years of age, Harvey noted that his reproductive organs were in a healthy state, this being consistent with the story of his adultery and with his second wife’s report that he had regular sexual intercourse with her until about twelve years previously. Harvey attributed Parr’s death in part to his sudden exposure to rich food and strong drink after a lifetime’s diet of cheese, buttermilk, and coarse bread. The main cause of death in his opinion was due to the adverse effects of London’s polluted atmosphere upon someone accustomed to the clean country air of Shropshire.

Thomas Parr's tomb and memorial in Westminster Abbey.

Thomas Parr’s tomb and memorial in Westminster Abbey.

By arrangement of King Charles I, Thomas Parr was buried in Westminster Abbey on 15 November 1635.


1)      Sheppard, F.H.W. – Survey of London: Volumes 29 and 30: St James Westminster. Part 1 (1960).

2)      Wheatley, B & Cunningham, P. – London Past and Present: Its History. Associations and Traditions. (2011).

3)      Strype, J. – A Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster. Volume II, Book VI (London, 1720).

4)      Lillywhite, B. – London Signs: A Reference Book of London Signs from Earliest Times to about the Mid Nineteenth Century. (London, 1972).

5)      Thompson, R.H. & Dickinson, M.J. – Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles – Volume 59 (The Norweb Collection) – Tokens of the British Isles 1575 – 1750. Part VII – City of London. (London, 2007).

6)      Thompson, R.H. & Dickinson, M.J. – Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles – Volume 62 (The Norweb Collection) – Tokens of the British Isles 1575 – 1750. Part VIII – Middlesex and Uncertain Pieces. (London, 2011).

7)      Williamson. G.C. – Trade Tokens Issued in the Seventeenth Century in England, Wales and Ireland by Corporations, Merchants, Tradesmen, Etc. – A New and Revised Edition of William Boyne’s Work. – Volume 2. (London, 1967).


Filed under Tokens from West of the City Walls