As we near the darkest and coldest nights in the U.K. many of us will be spending at least some times in pubs. This would have been even more the case in years gone by. There have been pubs of one variety or other since at least Roman times and almost since that time there has been pub signs.
In Britain we have a unique heritage when it comes to pub signs and in a manner of speaking they offer us a record of our history and the people who made it. Pub signs depict everything, from battles to inventions, from sporting heroes to royalty.
The Romans had familiar sounding drinking establishments known as a ‘Tabernae’ or as we might sometimes call pubs, taverns. Outside a Tabernae there would normally be hung some vine leaves outside to show that they sold wine. Due to the cooler clime on our shores, vines were harder to grow (though I have several in my garden) and so instead small evergreen bushes were substituted.
One of the first Roman tavern signs was the ‘Bush’. Early pubs hung long poles or ale stakes, which might have been used to stir the ale, outside their doors. If both wine and ale were sold, then both bush and pole would be hung outside. I live just a few miles from a pub called The Holly Bush.
After the Romans left and our islands were invaded by waves of Vikings, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and eventually Normans, the tradition of pubs remained and more than that they thrived.
The naming of inns and pubs became common by the 12th century but as the majority of the population could not read or write it seemed the obvious thing to do was to have a sign outside the pub as a point of reference. By 1393, King Richard II passed an Act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign (his own emblem the ‘White Hart’ in London) in order to identify them to the official Ale Taster. Ever since then, inn names and signs have reflected, and followed, British life at that time.
The nature of pub signs have changed through the ages and before the reign of the infamous King Henry VIII and the Reformation, many pubs had a religious theme, for example ‘The Crossed Keys’ which were the emblem of St. Peter. When Henry split with the Catholic church, names were changed from religious themes to ‘The King’s Head’ or ‘The Rose & Crown’ etc. However you can still find names with religious origins and even on my Pub Tour we go past the Jerusalem Tavern and the Knights Templar.
The ‘Red Lion’ probably beats out the ‘Kings Head’ as the most common name for a pub and this name originates from the time of James I of England and VI of Scotland who came to the throne in 1603. King James ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance and he naturally deemed pubs to be significant!
There are various signs have royal links with most ‘White Lion’ pubs dating from the time of Edward IV and the ‘White Boar’ was the emblem of Richard III whilst many Royals as as Queen Victoria and her family are simply named in their honour with less of the symbolism. I go past the pub pictured below every day and the first in the country to be named after the then baby, now young Prince George.
Inns and Pubs are also named after famous other famous people in history, such as Churchill, The Duke of Wellington and Shakespeare. Trades and local events are also remembered whereas in more recent times sport, social and industrial change has been reflected in pub names, for example ‘The Railway’ or ‘The Cricketers’.
Infamous goings-on are also remembered: for example, ‘The Smugglers Haunt’ and ‘The Highwayman’ and many pub signs as the only visible reminders of buildings and neighbourhoods that were redeveloped, sometimes centuries ago.