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The Origins of Pub Signs

The idea of the pub sign came to Britain at the time of the Roman invasion. Wine bars in ancient Rome hung bunches of vine leaves outside as trading signs but when the Romans came to England, they found previous few vines in the inhospitable climate. Instead they hung up bushes to mark out the inns and the names Bush or Bull & Bush still survive today.

In 19393, King Richard II compelled landlords to erect signs outside their premises. The legislation stated, “Who so ever shall brew ae in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale”. This was to make alehouses easily visible to passing inspectors and borough ale tasters, who would decide the quality of the ale they provided. William Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was one such inspector.

Another important factor was that during the Middle Ages, a large proportion of the population could not read or write, so pictures on a sign were more useful than words as a means of identifying a public house. For this reason, there was often no reason to write the establishment’s name on the sign, so many opened without a formal written name, the name later being derived from the illustration on the pub’s sign.

The earliest signs, suspended above the door of the pub, were not painted but consisted of bunches of hops, brewing implements and other paraphernalia that was used in the brewing process. The later painted signs in some cases used local nicknames and farming terms; local events were also often commemorated and simple natural or religious symbols such as ‘The Sun’, ‘The Star’ and ‘The Cross’ were also incorporated into pub signs. Sometimes the coat of arms of the local lords who owned the lands upon which the pub stood was used.

Religious houses ran the earliest true inns to cater for pilgrims and knights on their way to the Crusades in the Holy Land. Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem, whose cellars are carved from the rocks beneath Nottingham Castle, is such an example. Established in 1189, it was a stop-over point for forces on their way to meet with Richard the Lionheart. Other signs on this theme are the Turk’s Head, Saracen’s Head and Lamb & Flag – the lamb representing Christ and the flag the sign of the crusaders.

Even after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century, some of the names denoting religious connections survived, such as the Mitre, the Ship (symbolising the Ark) and the Anchor (the Christian faith). However, many of the landlords through it more political to show allegiance to the monarch and hastily adopted titles like the King’s Head or the Crown. Henry VIII who ordered the Dissolution is, unsurprisingly, the most popularly depicted monarch.

Heraldry has been a recurrent theme, the Black, White, Red and Golden Lions have formed part of the royal coat of arms since the time of the Norman Conquest. The Unicorn was in the Scottish arms, the Red Dragon in the Welsh and the White Horse in the Hanoverian. The Rising Sun was the badge of Edward III.

Royalty was depicted in many pub signs/names i.e. Kings Arms, Queens Head (beheading of Anne Boleyn), Prince of Wales, Duke of York, The Crown, Queen Victoria, etc.

Not only were historic events such as The Crusades, War of the Roses, Balle of Sedgemoor used, but anyone who caught the public imagination was likely to be immortalised such as Lord Nelson, Duke of Willington or Robin Hood and even loveable rogues like Dick Turpin get a mention.

Sporty Names

In the days of a largely illiterate population, pictorial signs were an essential way of advertising the inn or the type of entertainment on offer inside. Any pub called the Cock Inn or the Cock Pit would once have been a venue for cock fighting. Ye Old Fighting Cocks in St. Albans was originally the dovecote for St. Albans Abbey. After the Dissolution, it was realised that its circular shape made it a perfect venue for cock fighting. Just to confuse things, any pub called the Cock & Bottle has nothing to do with sport. It simply denotes that both bottled and draught beers were available.

As to other entertainments, the Bear denotes bear baiting, the Dog & Duck hunting, the Bull & Dog bull baiting and the Bird in Hand, falconry. Nowadays, the more modern sports are represented by names like the Cricketers’ Arms, the Anglers’ Rest or the Huntsman.

Often the predominant trade of the area would give the pub its name. The Golden Fleece is a reflection of the local wool trade. The Coopers’, Bricklayers’, Saddlers’ and Masons’ Arms are commonplace signs. Legend has it that the Smiths Arms in Dorset was once a blacksmith’s forge where Charles II stopped to have his horse shod. Whilst he was waiting, he demanded a beer but was told the smithy was unlicensed. Exercising his royal prerogative, he granted one and was duly served.

In the 18th Century, the population became more mobile and a need for coaching inns grew with predictable names such as Coach & Horses or Horse & Groom. Later the advent of steam gave every town its Railway Inn or Station Arms.

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