Mike Brown on the Brockley Jack's whalebone sign, which has been removed from public view.
The whalebone displayed -- until very recently -- in the Brockley Jack, is the oldest historical artefact in Crofton Park.
It is the only link to the area from when it was a rural Kentish hamlet, before the Victorians developed Brockley into the London suburb of Crofton Park.
There has been an inn on or near the site of the current Brockley Jack for centuries, and for much of that time, the Brockley Jack’s whalebone has been a famous and unique sign to travellers and locals.
Photographs from the 1890s clearly show the bone, nailed to a dead elm tree outside the pub. At one point in the nineteenth century, and rather incongruously, a painting of a woman in a crinoline dress was added to the lettering.
In medieval times, when few people could read, shops would hang signs outside which showed what they sold. This practice faded as literacy improved, except in the case of inns, which competed to produce the most eye-catching signs.
No-one knows quite when the Brockley Jack began using a whale’s shoulder blade for its pub sign. The first direct contemporary reference we have is from 1864 -- although other evidence suggests it was in place much earlier. In that year, however, the sign featured in an item in the Illustrated Times about a visit to Brockley and a conversation with a local resident: ‘…you inquire of such a person where you can obtain the desired refreshment, he will say, "Why, it's mostly to Jack's that people goes hereabouts.” Should you pursue the subject by any inquiry to the identity of Jack's, you will learn that it is Brockley Jack's, of course; and as "It’s close by, and precious sharp weather somehow makes yer feel thirsty like,” the “price of a pint” cannot be reasonably expected “either to make you or break you; which here you are, with the name wrote on a bladebone, though whether a real bone or not, your informant “ain’t rightly certain, but it's a big ’un if it is real, that’s all."‘
In February 1898, the Kentish Mercury described the sign as ‘the bladebone of a mastodon [prehistoric animal resembling an elephant] -- found in the course of excavating for the Croydon canal, in the bed of which now runs the L. B. and S. C. Railway line.’
Today, we know this as the stretch of the London Bridge railway line which runs behind the pub, between Brockley and Honor Oak Park stations. The idea that the bone was found during work building the canal would date it to 1801-1809.
The prehistoric animal theory was incorrect -- but at least it was plausible, Other, less credible, suggestions were that it was the shoulder blade of Black Bess, Dick Turpin's horse, from a circus elephant, or from a (gigantic) sheep
In July 1971, St Hilda’s Church Magazine found the definitive anatomical answer; ‘We started something when we began to delve into the past of this area. Nearly every week we hear (or read in the Mercury) of some new tit bit of rumour or old loca1 knowledge. A sheep, a horse, a mammoth, all were responsible. This is our contribution taken from a 1934 newspaper article: “Last week-end it was cleaned, and the cleaning showed that it consisted, not of wood but of bone - the surface having been covered with beer mixed with some other fluid to preserve it. It was this discovery which enabled Dr. Hopwood of the Natural History Museum at Kensington, to identify it. It is practically certain that the bone is the shoulder blade of a whale. Comparing it with similar bones in whale skeletons at the museum, he found that the sign was as large as any of them. (About five square feet in area).”’
The old Jack’s popularity rose during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, as the area changed rapidly into the London suburb of Crofton Park. The rambling, rickety buildings, low-ceilinged rooms, the unique sign, and local legends of highwaymen fascinated residents and visitors.
In the 1890s, the historian Walter Besant, wrote, ‘The taproom and the architecture of the [Brockley Jack] are curious, and the sign nailed to the stump of an old elm in yard is painted on a mammoth’s bone, which was dug up in the railway cutting behind the house.’
In 1897, the old Jack was demolished, to make way for a much larger pub in the latest Victorian style -- the pub as we know it today. The Kentish Mercury reported; ‘The pulling down of the quaint old tavern removes from the spot one of the rural associations which have lingered round the spot in despite of the bricks and mortar of the speculative builder.’ The dead elm-tree was cut down and carved up into souvenirs.
The rebuilt Brockley Jack opened in 1898. It was described by the Mercury as ‘a palatial public house on modern lines.’ The whalebone was the one remaining reference to the ancient building and was given pride of place above the fireplace where it could still be seen until a few months ago.
The whalebone was also an important architectural feature outside, as a reproduction of the bone was incorporated into the front elevation. You can still see it, above the date over the top floor window.
Enquiries are ongoing but so far there has been no definitive explanation from the pub or from Greene King as to the whereabouts of the whalebone. When it first disappeared, and a television was installed in its place, the pub staff told me that it had been moved to a room upstairs. If that is the case, restoration to a prominent position downstairs where it belongs should be no problem.
It was always a pleasure to take visitors to the Brockley Jack, to show off the whalebone and tell its story. At Crofton Park history, we hope it will soon be returned and we can update you with a happy ending.