The Great British Pub

The great British pub

The great British pub

For most Brits, think summer and the image of sitting outside your favourite pub with a glass of something thirst quenching in your hand will immediately flash into your head. Ahh the pub… it’s such an institution it’s almost a way of life, and actually, in the past this was true because the life of whole communities would centre on the pub, from trade or society headquarters, village meeting place, and local banking services.

This is reflected in many of the pub names that survive to this day, as is the nature of what they sold, where they sold it, as well as cultural, historical and the political events. Pub names are, in fact, an amazing open book of our history and culture.

The word “pub” is actually a constriction of the Victorian term, public house, while the first recorded drinking houses were the taveners set up by the Romans in the 1-4th centuries, where either beer or wine, or both, were sold.

These would have been advertised by placing objects representing the drink they served outside the building – so hops for beer (“The Hop Pole”) or vine leaves for wine, although in reality this would have been a bush of anything green in Britain since our climate didn’t support vines (“The Green Bush”), and (mainly female) publicans would have continued doing this throughout the Middle Ages as painted inn signs were far from commonplace, hence you might find have seen a boot strung up outside a house that sold its ale, or a copper kettle, perhaps even a harrow or a plough.

Pubs that were built near a theatre, or frequented by the actors, became known as “The Globe” in honour of Shakespeare’s theatre, while the Rampant Cat is actually another name for the heraldic lion of England and British royalty, as is the Red Lion, which is one of the most popular pub names in England, along with The Crown and the Royal Oak. The latter is a reference to the historical myth of King Charles I hiding up an oak tree to evade capture by the Roundheads. It seems the English are an inherently Royalist nation, not withstanding the Civil War, or perhaps they are just pragmatic.

In Wales we often find the patriotic ‘Red Dragon’ of Prince Cadwaladr and the symbol of Wales, while in England there is the ‘George and the Dragon’, named after the patron saint, and the ‘Green Man’, named after a more ancient sacred spirit, the spirit of the land, known as ‘Jack of the Green’ or the ‘Will of the Wisp’, which links with the stories acted out by traditional Morris Dancers and Mummers.

Publicans were also savvy about whom and what had an influence on their trade…so a pub with ‘arms’ (short for ‘coat of arms’) in the name reflected the landowner on whose land the pub stood or where the allegiance of the owner lay. The trades that drank in the pub were often behind the name, too – so we find ‘Coopers Arms’ for example, which would be the pub where coopers (barrel makers from a nearby brewery) came and drank, and which was on the land of a particular lord. Equally we often find pubs simply named after bricklayers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other trades and manual work, although rarely lawyers, accountants, or scribes, which probably says more about the numbers of people employed in certain occupations rather than any inherent pub snobbery! Many pub names starting with the word ‘Three’ are usually based on the arms of one of the 12 great London Livery Companies (trade guilds), so we find:

• Three Arrows: The Worshipful Company of Fletchers
• Three Bucks: Leathersellers
• Three Castles: Masons
• Three Compasses: Carpenters
• Three Crowns: Drapers, although it can also refer to the Magi who visited the Christ child
• Three Cups: Salters
• Three Goats’ Heads: Cordwainers (makers of shoes and leather goods)
• Three Hammers: Blacksmiths
• Three Horseshoes: Farriers
•Three Tuns: Brewers and Vinters (wine makers)
• Three Wheatsheafs: Bakers

What services the pub offered could also be reflected in the name, such as ‘Checkers’ or ‘Chequers’, which originated in ancient Rome when a chequer board indicated that a bar also provided banking services. The checked board was use as an aid to counting and is the origin of the word exchequer. The ‘Coach and Horses’ is a very common name that reflects that fact that the pub was also a coaching inn (had stabling and lodgings).

In Ireland pubs are frequently named after the publican as much as for the trade or in honour or something, so you find a lot of O’Leary’s and O’Donovan’s, and these can also mutate into nicknames, as in the case of the two ‘Grumpy’ pubs that are found in Dublin!

So, we have the pub, we hope for the weather…now let’s get the drinks in.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2008.

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Comments (2)

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  1. What a great post! And you’re so right. Pub signs are an often disregarded historical reference that tell the history of Britain up and down the High Street. Sadly the great British pub is in decline, taking with it many of the traditional names and signs. It would be such a shame to let these historical markers go unnoticed.

    Elaine Saunders
    Author – A Book About Pub Names
    It’s A Book About….blog

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Claire Burdett and TheMediaMarketingCo, Business Midwife. Business Midwife said: RT @funkyangelclair: RT @Telegraph: The history of the English pub http://tgr.ph/h2rZgY and pub signs http://bit.ly/ePRw1d [...]

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