In 1475, the newly-formed Guild of Our Lady Saint Mary the Virgin received a licence from King Edward IV to hold a property for their meetings. 2 Bancroft (The Brotherhood) has long been identified as the community’s Guildhall. As this part of Bancroft was formerly called Golden (earlier Gilden) Square, referring to the medieval Guild, the identification is plausible. Details inside the building confirm the likelihood, as the upper floor was built as one large room open to the roof. This floor originally projected out to the east, in what is known as a jetty (the overhanging part of a timber-framed building). Painted glass in the windows shows that this was a high status building, but it was destroyed in 1815 for sash windows, themselves removed at some time after 1885. It is now (January 2023) home to part of Lloyds Bank, Wilbury Clinic and Phone Tech.

Until the twentieth century, decorated tiles stood at each end of the roof ridge. Before 1912, when the Victoria County History described the originals as ‘still remaining in one of the shops’, replacements had taken their place. A photograph in the Lawson Thompson scrapbooks held in the museum shows that one of them was broken, missing its head, arms and reins. The business was probably Passingham’s wine shop at 2 Bancroft, as Alfred Passingham donated the tile to the newly formed (and still unopened) Hitchin Museum in 1939.

The tile measures about 315 mm in length and 256 wide. From the lowest part to the top of the rider’s head is about 360 mm, making it taller than it is long. It is earthenware with traces of a green (copper) glaze, discoloured through centuries of standing out in English weather. The horse and rider were made and fired separately from the tile and held in place with strips of lead. The example in the museum is mounted into a tile that is rounded, while the other was in an angled tile. An illustration in Reginald Hine’s History of Hitchin shows the surviving horse and rider on the angled tile; it is a composite of the two. It does not show the lead plugs, making it appear as if the tile, horse and rider were all one piece of clay.

The details of the rider’s head in the drawing are also inaccurate. The surviving rider does not wear a ‘cap’ like that in the drawing, but rather a lobster-tailed helmet, with a forward-projecting peak. These helmets, based on a Turkish çiçak type, became popular after 1600 and had fallen out of favour by about 1700. This detail gives us a good date for the tile, making it well over a century younger than the building.

According to Hine, George Lewin (1832-1896) used to try to hit the riders – whom he called Hengest and Horsa – with missiles from his catapult when he was young. Could it be that he managed to hit the broken example? Mr Lewin – who played football for Hitchin Town FC in the 1860s – became the town’s constable, so he may not have wanted to own up to it. Local folklore has the riders coming to life: again, according to Hine, they would ride along the ridge of the roof every night, although the writer (Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews) remembers that his mother told him when he was a child that they came down from the roof and did a circuit of the town at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In those days (the 1960s), the copies were still there, but they have since vanished. Where are they now? And where is the broken original?

In 2005, someone got in touch with the then assistant curator of Hitchin Museum, Caroline, to say that they knew where the missing tile was. They claimed that it was in a pond in a garden in The Avenue and asked if she’d like to go and ‘fish’ for it. It was a cold February day, so she said it might be possible later in the year. Then the trail went cold as the person never got back to her. Whether it’s one of the replacement tiles, the broken one or a tall story, we don’t know. A diver once told the writer in all sincerity that he had discovered a sunken Viking ship in the River Dee at Chester, only to vanish without trace (letters and telephone calls went unanswered). I am now suspicious about unevidenced tales of underwater discoveries, perhaps wrongly. If you know anything, please get in touch with the museum!

The first roof tiles to show a horse and rider date from the Chinese Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) and are known as liuli wa (‘roof tile of glass’), referring to their shimmering glazes. The technique is known as sancai (‘three glazes’) as the artists used a minimum of three different coloured lead glazes, usually green, cream and amber, and sometimes blue. These highly decorated products decorated both private and public buildings and were popular on tombs of the wealthy. They were intended to scare off evil spirits as the roof of a building is where the world of the living meets the world of spirits in the air. Another Chinese tile design that travelled west along the Silk Road in the Middle Ages is one of three hares arranged in a circle, so that each shares the two ears at its centre.

Hitchin Museum used the tile as its logo until the 1990s, as it has an iconic place in the history of the town. Although some people believe it to be medieval and original to the building, the design did not reach Europe before 1500, and the style of the rider’s helmet is a sure sign that it was made after 1600. It is now on display in the reception area of North Hertfordshire Museum.

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