On the B3145 Sherborne to Wincanton road, where the old coach road to Bath forks off for Corton Denham, a red sign post marks the parting of the ways.
Among the thousands of standard white sign posts scattered throughout Dorset are just thre of these ‘red posts’; ours in the parish of Poyntington, another at Benville on the Beaminster to Evershot road and the third between Bere Regis and Wimborne Minster at the junction with the roads to Anderson and Bloxworth on the A31.
All three red posts are lovingly maintained in their bright livery by Dorset County Council. Curious travellers abound and the Dorset county surveyor has prepared a printed letter, from which:
‘There are various theories regarding the origin of the red posts, some of them rather gruesome, such a being the site of a gallows or a gibbet. However, despite many enquiries by my department over the years none of these theories has been substantiated.
For some unknown reason there appears to be a ‘white post’ near the red post in most cases … there is a theory that these posts were for the guidance of illiterate travellers who were instructed to turn at the red or white post, but again this has not been substantiated.’
Just three red posts in the whole of Dorset would be of little help to the illiterate, and our red post was in Somerset until 1896 when the county boundaries were redrawn and Poyntington was transferred. But sites of gallows and gibbets? We visited the White Post at Rimpton, not a sign post but an inn on the Sherborne to Marston Magna road, and although not one of the gentry there gathered could offer a reason for the inn’s name, barlady Bella Rouse of Sherborne knew all about red posts. ‘All red posts are hanging places. I can guarantee that.’ How did she know this, we wondered? – ‘I have it in my memory, ‘replied fair lady, ‘And I knew it before that.’
The landlady of the White Post at Stratton on Fosse, in the north of Somerset, thought the name might be connected to the toll system. Toll bars, toll posts? A few more miles up the Fosse there is an old toll house opposite the Red Post inn at Peasedown St John but, unfortunately for this theory, records quoted by Robin Atthill in his book Old Mendip show ‘a toll house was built at the Red Post in 1824 but the Red Post, whatever it may have been, was already there.’
In case we are tempted to think toll bars might have preceded toll houses (the first toll was charged in 1663), especially since the 1817 Ordnance Survey map notes a White Post but no buildings at Stratton, Athill chanced his arm by stating ‘place names such as White Post, Red Post, White Cross and so on, are fairly widespread and always precede the arrival of turnpikes.’ Always?
Perhaps red posts do mark a bloodied spot. It is said that suicides were buried at crossroads. The sign post at the Holton turn on the Castle Cary to Wincanton road once stood on the precise site of Jack White’s gibbet post of 1730, and this murderer’s end is well documented. At Otterton Cross Devon there is an elaborate ornamental sign post which commemorates the place where five martyrs were burnt at the stake; it is not red but red posts might also date from the Middle Ages. If all but a few red posts have survived in name only, it may be because they were replaced by white posts (the obvious choice as white can be seen in the dark) when sign posts were made compulsory on highways in 1773.
Possibly the inns took their names from the sign posts; it seems more likely than naming them after the colour of their doorposts, the suggestion of Bath Postal History Museum. There is a credible alternative theory, however: the Blue Boy inn at Clapton, Crewkerne, was named after the livery of its postboy who rushed out to meet approaching mailcoaches. The alternative word for mail is post.
On red posts and white posts The Visitor has consulted more books and made more enquiries than for any other subject we have researched – and still, like Dorset County Council, we are left with theories. The suggestions of readers would be welcome.