When discussing the origin of words, and in particular place names and pub names, it is amazing how often I hear alternative explanations which have no truth in them whatsoever. Irritatingly these alternatives are invariably far more entertaining than the true explanation, thus making them virtually impossible to eradicate. Some months ago I discussed the origins of the Elephant and Castle on this blog and recently came across another pub name which has had several explanations offered, all of which are quite wrong but are far more interesting than the truth.
Even if taken completely out of context the unique language which produced the name of the Goat and Compasses can only refer to a pub. Typically with such apparently nonsense names there have been several suggestions as to its origins, the only link between them being they all agree there has been a corruption of at least one of the elements. The most common explanation suggests this began as ‘God encompasseth us’, this entirely down to the nineteenth century novel Framley Parsonage where Anthony Trollope states this as the origin of this apparently meaningless name. Note this is a work of fiction and so is the explanation.
A second explanation accepts the ‘Goat’ and suggests this has exactly the same origin as the term ‘scapegoat’. Many cultures once believed the goat a boon for any farmer to keep alongside other livestock, this suggesting it could well have its origins almost at the very beginning of farming. The very presence of the goat meant any ailments, misfortunes or bad spirits would be attracted to the poor goat, while the rest of the livestock could enjoy life to the full. In later years a goat would be led around a house where sickness had taken hold and for the same reason.
The real explanation is hardly so convoluted. As with so many pub names the answer is heraldic, in particular the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. Examine the image and note the chevrons, quite easy to see as a pair of compasses used by many tradesmen including the cordwainers or leatherworkers, alongside the head of a goat. The earliest cordwainers used the hides of goats from Cordova in Spain, which is how they got their name and how the pub became the Goat and Compasses.