Beer history pubs

The Man Within Compass: mystery solved?

A couple of months ago someone tagged us into a Twitter query: what is the origin of the name of a pub called The Man Within Compass? After weeks of digging around, we think we’ve sussed it.

The Man Within Compass is a famous real ale pub in Whitwick, near Coalville, in Leicestershire, and has been in numerous editions of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide over the years.

Its name is apparently unique and certainly mysterious – none of the standard references seem to even offer a suggestion. There’s no joy to be had from local history websites, either.

So, we went through our usual research routines:

1. Search the exact phrase using quotes (“man within compass”) to see if it appears in old books, newspapers or the Bible. All the references we found were to the pub itself, or seemed unlikely to be connected, e.g. John Locke uses those words in that order but there’s no obvious link.

2. Search variations on the phrase: “manwithin compass” and “man withen compass” (between unorthodox spelling and dodgy OCR, this can sometimes turn up results); “manwidden compass” (pub names are often mangled versions of place or personal names); and “men within compass”.

3. Look for partial matches: “man within”, “within compass”, “man * compass”, and so on.

It was “within compass” that unlocked it, specifically leading us to the following mass-produced print from c.1820 at the British Museum website.

Keep within compass
SOURCE: British Museum.

The text around the frame reads: ‘Keep within compass and you shall be sure to escape many of the troubles that others endure’ and if you haven’t already guessed, it’s masonic propaganda.

Become a freemason, live under the influence of the compass, we think it implies, and you’ll have things a little easier in life thanks to the support of your brothers. But there’s a more literal meaning: live a moderate, restrained life and you’ll avoid trouble.

There are others along the same lines, too, such as this from about 50 years earlier:

A regency dandy within compass.
SOURCE: British Museum.

Pending further research, it seems reasonable to assume that The Man Within Compass first popped up in Whitwick in around 1830 after the passing of the Beerhouse Act (the first mentions of the pub we can find in newspaper archives are from the 1840s); that the proprietor was a Freemason; and that the pub may have served the function of a masonic lodge in the absence of a dedicated building.

It turns out that, while Man Within Compass might be unique as a pub name, Keep Within Compass isn’t: there are or were examples in Uxbridge, High Wycombe and Sydney, to name but three. And at the very top of this page is a picture from 1804, sourced via the Wellcome Collection, depicting a doctor delivering health advice outside an alehouse with this sign.

At least one other person, Whitwick resident Matt Merritt, beat us to this connection by 20 years, though, writing the following in the comments on a pubs website as far back as 2001:

It has been suggested to me that it has a connection with Freemasonry, compasses being a very Masonic symbol… Whether or not this is true, Whitwick and the surrounding area do seem to have a lot of place names connected with Freemasonry and the Knights Templar (whose beliefs and practices Masons have often claimed to keep alive).

He also gives a suggestion for the origins of the pub’s nickname, The Rag and Mop, but that’s a puzzle for another day.

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