Sunday, 8 January 2012

Arrowheads and prisoners' uniforms

Though the broad-arrowhead mark has been used on government property since the reign of Henry VIII, it was used to denote prison uniform only from 1870 until 1922.  However there is an earlier association between this mark and prisons:
Ludgate had for centuries a debtors’ prison on its upper floor, above the gate’s arch, and one fifteenth-century inmate was an ironmonger, Stephen Forster.  Debtors were allowed to beg behind a gate at street level, and Forster was fortunate to attract the attention of a rich widow, who asked how much his release fee was.  ‘Twenty pounds’, he replied, equivalent to several thousand in current money.  She paid it, employed him, eventually married him, and agreed with him to make his former prison more comfortable for inmates. 

This story is related in Thornbury’s London Past & Present (1875), with quotations from Maitland (1739) and Strype (1720).  Stow (1598) clearly had little time for the story of Forster begging: ‘some vpon a light occasion (as a maidens heade in a glasse window) had fabled him to bee a Mercer, and to haue begged there at Ludgate.’  But he did ensure that when Ludgate was rebuilt in 1586 the plaque was restored, along with another bearing Forster’s coat of arms showing ‘three broad Arrow heades.’


Peter Doyle said...

Fascinating stuff - but why, was the arrow head ('broad arrow') used for Government markings, in any case? I'd love to know.

Julian Walker said...

My hunch is that it was something like the use of the axe to denote 'mast-appropriate' treetrunks, used in the American colonies in the sventeenth century. There are a number of stories realting to the origin of the mark, but I imagine that there are fewer marks that more easily convey the act of marking - even easier than the cross. Two marks could be construed as accidental, but not three meeting at the same point. There is some difficulty in making the inward angled line, which could be resolved by angling the leftmost line as vertical, the next pointing as it were to south-east, and the next to three o'clock (covering all possible cultural reference points here). But the likelihood is that this would be read as a vertically pointing arrowhead anyway.