British Pub Signs - a short history
Signs From The Spirit World
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 here, they found precious 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.
What’s in a name?
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 (which also claims to be the oldest pub in Britain) 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 unlicenced. 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.
There is a story that, in Stoney Stratford, the London coach changed horses at the Bull and the Birmingham coach across the road at the Cock Inn. The passengers from the respective coaches would swap news whilst waiting for the change and it is from this that the phrase “cock and bull story” is said to have originated.
Plenty of cock and bull stories and local legends have found their way onto pub signs. Take, for example, the Drunken Duck at Barngates. The landlady one day found all of her ducks dead in the yard. Unaccustomed to waste, she plucked them ready for cooking. As she finished, the ducks began to revive and a search of the yard revealed a leaking beer barrel surrounded by webbed footprints. She was apparently so contrite that she knitted little jackets until their feathers grew back.
Alternatively, there was the Flying Monk of Malmesbury who claimed his faith was so strong it would enable him to fly. He jumped from the top of the local abbey to demonstrate his faith and…well, the pub was a nice memorial!
It is rare to take time to consider the sign outside the pub in the rush to get inside but few pubs were named by accident. Almost every name has a story behind it and, together, they illustrate the social history of England. With names enduring for centuries it is possible that the sign above the door is as old as the pleasure of drinking itself.
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I’d be pleased to hear from you with any comments about this article or pub signs in general.
all photos are © Elaine Saunders
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