In ‘The Ladies Monthly Museum’ magazine dated November 1817 (page 248) there is an intriguing, albeit anonymous, note that states:
The celebrated John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim’s Progress, at one period in his life kept a public house in the neighbourhood of Turvey in Bedfordshire and perhaps, in commemoration of the profession of his father and his own in his youth put up the sign the Tinker of Turvey. How long he continued in that situation is unknown, but we have heard that both his father and he were frequently in pursuit of their occupation at Newport Pagnell. Bunyan died in London is 1688.
No reference is provided, but John Bunyan’s father is often referred to as a tinker although, in fact, he was a brazier and as such would have had a workshop at his home in Elstow and only rarely travelled to repair items. His son John, born in 1628, did help his father. Indeed, after a spell in the Army, based at Newport Pagnell and becoming involved in the Civil War, John returned to Elstow to assist his father and may well have travelled about the area.
The idea of John Bunyan keeping a public house may well seem strange but Bunyan, himself, admits to being a one-time prolific swearer, having learnt such words from his father. His three years in the army also taught him “bad” habits as he writes in his work Grace Abound:
so that until I came to the state of marriage I was the very ringleader of the youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness.
Alfred Russell Wallace, who became well known for his work with the famous naturalist, Charles Darwin, was first employed as a surveyor. In that role he travelled around the country. In 1838 he visited Turvey and stayed at The Tinkers Inn; he recounts his stay in chapter 8 of his book ‘My Life’, published in 1905.
He remarks that the painted sign of the Inn showed:
a man with his staff, a woman and a dog, and we were told in the village that the Tinker meant was John Bunyan.
That seems to be the case for the prosecution; hearsay was the only evidence that the ‘Tinker of Turvey’ was indeed John Bunyan’
Against this claim is the fact that Bunyan left the army in 1647 and married in 1649 after which he changed his ways. He would have been only 19 years of age and unlikely to have the experience or finances to be the proprietor of an important Inn.
Indeed, Wallace continues
But a recent inquiry by a friend both in Bedford and at Turvey shows that this is perhaps a mistake. In a little book “Turvey and the Mordaunts” by G. F. W. Munby, Rector of Turvey, and Thomas Wright (of Olney), we are told there is a very rare pamphlet in the British Museum entitled “The Tinker of Turvey, his merry pastime from Billingsgate to Gravesend. The barge being freighted with mirth, and mann’d with Trotter the Tincker of Turvey, Yerker a cobbler, Thumper a smith and many other fellows each one of them telling his tale” (dated London 1630).
In addition, the article ‘The Tincker of Turvey” refers to a bawdy song of the same name in wide circulation. The same article suggests that the inn sign was created in the mid 1700’s.
The sign may well have been inspired by the pamphlet, both the pamphlet and the song were likely to be well known and the name would seem appropriate for an inn in a village named Turvey. No doubt Bunyan would have been well known at Turvey as at other villages around Bedford where he was accustomed to preach, he may have been represented or caricatured as the Tinker of Turvey on the signboard.
The moral of this story? Don’t believe everything you read in magazines and beware old “yokels” who enjoy leading posh visitors astray.