As I walk around the museum, I like to appreciate the detail, so I thought I would share with you the mythical creatures I have found.
There is a very impressive coat of arms which used to hang in the magistrates’ court. The royal arms of the United Kingdom are supported by a lion and a unicorn, symbols of the United Kingdom; the lion stands for England and the unicorn for Scotland; this combination dates back to 1603 when James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England, uniting the two countries.
The unicorn was believed to be the natural enemy of the lion – a symbol that the English royals had adopted around a hundred years before – and was also chosen because it was seen as a proud and haughty beast which would rather die than be captured, just as the Scots would fight to remain sovereign and unconquered.
The police badge from Phoenix, Arizona, depicts a new phoenix rising from the ashes of its dead predecessor. This symbolises rebirth, hope, renewal, progress, end of oppression, and eternity. It is no wonder that the beautiful bird has inspired many tales, poems, and even legends.
The history of the city of Phoenix begins with Jack Swilling, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who was prospecting in the newly formed Arizona Territory. He was travelling through the Salt River Valley in 1867 and saw a potential for farming; henoted the eroded mounds of dirt that indicated previous canals dug by native peoples who had long since left the area. Lord Darrell Duppa was one of the original settlers in Swilling's party, and he suggested the name "Phoenix", as it described a city born from the ruins of a former civilization.
The last inn sign from The George Inn depicts St George killing a dragon. The small coaching inn was acquired by Abbot Richard Kidderminster in the sixteenth century to accommodate the pilgrims who were coming to visit St Kenelm’s shrine. He had dragons carved on the porch of The George, and these can still be seen.
St George, the patron saint of England, is popularly identified with English ideals of honour, bravery and gallantry; however, he was not English and is unlikely to have visited this country. The sign was given to the museum when the building was converted to housing units and a shop in 1988.
There is another dragon to be found in the museum. Dragons breathing fire are featured on each side of the crest on a Merryweather brass fire helmet, which belonged to Mr Gillett. These helmets were introduced in 1868 and continued to be used until the 1930s.
Two sea lions support the coat of arms of the Port of London Authority and feature on this plaque belonging to police at Tilbury Docks. In heraldry, a sea lions, or morse, is a mythical sea-creature with the head and upper body of a lion but with webbed forelimbs and a fish tail; it is an emblem of bold actions achieved on the ocean in the country's service.
Unicorns, dragons, sea lions etc. are the stuff of legend and myth, frequently found in story books. While the animals are mythological, the qualities they represent are the reason why they were chosen to symbolise a knight, a nation, or a group of people.
Keep your eyes open and you will find more examples. For instance, look at the inn sign for The Plaisterers’ Inn. Each side of the shield stands an opinicus, a fabulous creature with the head and wings of an eagle or griffin, the body and legs of a lion and the tail of a camel.