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The Intriguing World of Pub Signs

Pubs signs are a familiar sight across the whole of the UK in towns, cities and villages. As well as acting as an invitation to today's travellers and local residents, they can give us clues to the age of the buildings they advertise, and many also tell tales of fascinating British history and folklore…


Origins enshrined in the law…

Most early pub signs depicted a simple bush or branches symbolising the Greek god of wine, Bacchus, and from these humble origins it is likely that the pub name The Bush derived.

The naming of inns and pubs became common by the 1100s and pictorial signs were used because the majority of the population at that time could not read or write. Then, in 1393, King Richard II passed an Act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign, so they could be identified by the official Ale Taster.

We have not looked back since and even today's new pubs have names that can give clue to the origins of the building and its customers. There is no single naming convention and pub names and signs have been used to show loyalty, attract local tradesmen, advertise entertainment, demonstrate an affiliation to local surroundings and promote new innovations such as transport links.


Showing loyalty….

Before King Henry VIII and the Reformation, many pubs had a religious theme, for example, The Crossed Keys, the emblem of St. Peter. Early pubs and inns that wanted to show loyalty to the crown had somewhat hidden royal links, for example, most White Lion inns date from the time of Edward IV and the White Boar was the emblem of Richard III.

When Henry VIII split with the Catholic church, many names were changed from religious themes to names that expressed loyalty to the crown. This was often just by simply renaming the pub or inn to the King's Head or the Rose & Crown.
Red Lion Pearmain-1756.jpgDuring this period Henry VIII sold off the monastery lands to the highest bidder and granted peerages to his supporters, so some landlords aligned themselves with the new incoming lord of the manor (rather than directly to the King), giving us names like the Devereux Arms or the Duke of Norfolk.

The king was also a great sportsman, a fact celebrated in many pub signs. Near hunting grounds there are plenty of pubs called The Greyhound (Henry's favourite hunting dog) or The Bird in Hand for his love of falconry. Other common sporting signs include the Fox & Hounds, Dog & Duck or Hare & Hounds.

Changes were not confined to the time of Henry VIII. The Red Lion is one of the most common names for a pub and it is thought by many to originate from the time when James I and VI of Scotland came to the throne in 1603. James ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance, including pubs. But some dispute that this was the sole reason, as it would surely have resulted in almost every pub adopting the name.

The popular name of Rose & Crown may have also arisen at this time it is said that pubs called the Crown added an English rose to their signs, implying that their loyalty to a Scottish king must always take second place to their Englishness.

At the end of the 1600s, King Charles I's disputes with Parliament had spilt over into civil war, the Parliamentary army being commanded by Oliver Cromwell. Despite fleeing to Scotland, King Charles was eventually captured, tried and executed in 1649, his son was exiled, and Cromwell assumed power.The Royal Oak Bovingdon-8343.jpg
Cromwell was a Puritan and deeply religious, and he effectively prohibited most forms of enjoyment. Pubs and theatres closed, sports were banned, and colourful clothing and cosmetics were forbidden.

Cromwell's death and the restoration of King Charles II heralded a new era of indulgence. Theatres reopened for the performance of the new, bawdy, comic Restoration plays whilst ale flowed in taverns once more. Landlords were so relieved at the return to business that pubs were renamed in Charles's honour.

For example, most pubs called the Royal Oak show a painting of a tree with a crown resting in the branches. This takes us back once more to the English Civil War when the future Charles II was on the run from Cromwell's army. He remained undiscovered for a day in the branches of an oak tree in Boscobel wood, even though Cromwell's men were on the ground below. On Charles II's restoration, this became a popular story and a great number of pubs took the name.


Attracting custom…

As there was often more than one pub in any village or town, each pub worked hard to attract custom from particular trades and therefore took names such as the Jolly Farmer, the Golden Fleece (for the local wool trade), the Bricklayers, the Blacksmiths and the Carpenters Arms. Pubs were meeting places for local tradesmen and often acted as unofficial employment exchanges. A craftsman moving to the area would seek out such a pub where the landlord could introduce him to an employer or extend credit until he established himself in business.Welldiggers Arms.jpg

The pub name of the White Swan has mixed origins. Whilst Henry IV's wife, Mary de Bohun of Hereford, had a white swan in her coat of arms, as did Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI, the white swan name could easily have been connected with the ancient trade guilds instead. The reigning monarch still owns all swans on open water but, in the 1400s, the Worshipful Companies of Dyers and of Vintners were both granted rights of ownership. The Swan could have been a meeting place for workers in either of these trades. Roasted swan was also served at ceremonial banquets so a pub by this name could have implied fine dining. Ironically, today pub signs that wish to depict good food and wine have names such as the Fat Duck and the Slug and Lettuce.


Popular at the time…

Some pubs signs simply reflect the trends of the day, such as naming inns after national heroes like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson. Others drew from local beliefs and folklore. Bells were believed to have magical powers, protecting against evil spirits and lightning. Before today's urban noise, bells ringing out to summon the faithful to prayer or sounding curfew would have been far more noticeable. This is probably the reason for names like the Bell, the Old Bell, Six Bells and Eight Bells.
Duke of Wellington -6932.jpgLandlords also wanted to show that they were keeping up with modern times rather than languishing in the times of distant kings and queens. Many pubs that were established near to the main transport routes took their names from the mode of transport - Coach and Horses, the Wharf, the Narrowboat, the Railway Arms, etc. As with so many pubs, these names have often persisted even if the transport route has since closed, giving a clue to a now disused railway, canal or ferry.


The trend continues…

As pubs change hands and new pubs open, the culture of pub names and signs shows few signs of disappearing. Many pubs stick with the historic name, some are reversing name changes from the previous ten or twenty years and some draw on their new surroundings and can still give us a clue to the building's past, a clue to yesterday's customers or local folklore.

Here are a few of the more unusual pub names and signs that we have spotted whilst creating pub walks for iFootpath

The Eel's Foot in Eastbridge, Suffolk. There are several theories behind the name of this pub. It may have come from Heel's Foot, a cobbler's implement, or more likely named after the Eel's Boot, a type of woven reed basket used in Eel Fishing. A more fanciful explanation is that it is a derivation of Neale's Boot, named after a medieval priest who trapped the Devil in his boot and tossed him into the river. The Devil escaped disguised as an eel! Check out the pub walk...

The Old Courthouse in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. This pub is housed in the former Court House buildings dating from 1871. The Court at Cheltenham was operational until the beginning of the 21st Century when it was closed as part of the rationalisation of the Government's estate. Check out the pub walk...

The Old Post Office in Wallingford. The pub is housed in the former Post Office, built in 1936. Over the door of the building is a rare monogram of Edward VIII who abdicated in 1936 and so was never crowned. Check out the pub walk...

The Physician in Edgbaston, Birmingham. The Physician is housed in the former British Medical Institute building. Check out the pub walk...

The Armoury in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. The Armoury sits in a magnificent brick building overlooking the River Severn and has an eclectic history of use including being (unsurprisingly!) an armoury, a convalescence home, a bakery and now a great town pub. Check out the pub walk...

The Corn Mill in Llangollen, Denbighshire. The Corn Mill, as the name suggests, is a converted mill which sits over the mill race and rapids on the banks of the River Dee. Check out the pub walk...

The True Lovers Knot in Tarrant Keyneston, Dorset. There are many different versions of how the True Lovers Knot got its unusual and unique name, but the one that gains the most consensus with locals is the tale of a tragic love affair. The landlord's son and the daughter of the local lord fell in love, but their secret affair was discovered and the two were separated. Overcome by grief, the daughter hung herself from a tree on his estate. The boyfriend consumed by the loss of his girlfriend also hung himself from the same tree. The landlord could not carry on without his son and in a fit of depression, he hung himself from the same tree as the tragic youngsters. The locals soon referred to the inn as the True Lovers Knot because this knot has three loops and when tied correctly it has a heart in the middle. Check out the pub walk...

The Architect in Chester, Cheshire. The Architect has an interesting history, as the building was designed by the renowned classical architect Thomas Harrison as his own home, and he lived there from 1820 until his death in 1829 at the age of 85. Check out the pub walk...


A search of the internet will reveal a lot of information on pub signs new and old. A good place to start is the 'Pub names' Wikipedia page. You may also like the following resources:

The Inn Sign Society 

iFootpath pub walks - full collection

Join the Big Spring Beach Clean 2018
iFootpath Expert: Why our Pub Walks are Win Win Wi...

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Guest - Miles on Tuesday, 03 April 2018 20:26
Pub Name

I was raised in a 60s-built council estate - Fieldway - in the London borough of Croydon. The one and only pub was called 'The Bunker's Knob'. To this day, I've got absolutely no idea what that means or where it came from but it was the source of much amusement. It was changed in the 90s to 'The Randall Tavern'.

I was raised in a 60s-built council estate - Fieldway - in the London borough of Croydon. The one and only pub was called 'The Bunker's Knob'. To this day, I've got absolutely no idea what that means or where it came from but it was the source of much amusement. It was changed in the 90s to 'The Randall Tavern'.
default_blogger The Intriguing World of Pub Signs - iFootpath
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Tuesday, 13 November 2018
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