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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