The Secret Histories Of Pubs
Arguably the oldest pub in Britain is in, of all places, Nottingham. ‘Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem’ is twelfth century and rather an oasis in the lawless party town. Its name clearly derives from the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, but other pubs have more obscure origins. The ability of pubs to reinvent themselves and adapt to changing times is constantly surprising, but usually the name stays. Even if it vanishes for a while it seems to eventually return as authenticity is preferred over the whims of a passing landlord.
One of London’s older pub sites is the ‘Thomas A’ Becket’ in the hinterlands of the Old Kent Road. The road has been important since Roman times, but for over a century it has been London’s run-down shame. The fates of such pubs are decided by their geography; this one gained its name because when Thomas A’ Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral and proclaimed a martyr, the pilgrim procession from London would break its journey at the inn. It later became famous for its boxers and the violence of its drinkers. It remains unloved and unvisited.
Pub signs have pictures on them because drinkers were often illiterate. They were called ‘The Rose & Crown’ to save having to change their titles every time a monarch passed on. ‘The White Hart’ signified pubs on royal hunting ground, the deer being a creature protected for the monarch, as are swans still. ‘The Bull’ often referred to a papal bull, the seal of a monastery (a place of ale-makers) or a now-rare pub game called ‘Ringing The Bull’.
Any pub called ‘The Turk’s Head’ or ‘The Saracen’s Head’ is a reference to the crusades, and any pub with the word ‘Standard’ in it refers to a king’s banner. Pubs with ‘Union’ in the name signify the union of England and Scotland in 1707, or the union of Ireland and England in 1801. ‘The Blue Boy’ or ‘The Black Boy’ is usually a reference to the livery of the postillions on a royal coach that stopped there. ‘The Crown & Two Chairmen’ refers to the royal sedan-carriers who drank there while waiting for their monarch to be painted in a nearby studio. In the right-hand corner of the shot you can see the grey building which I owned and worked in for 25 years. When it was inevitably turned into flats, I saved the gargoyles from its pointed roof.
‘The Snowdrop Inn’ in Lewes was named after an avalanche that killed eight people on its site. Pubs have odd nicknames; ‘The Swan With Two Necks’ has always been known as ‘The Stocks’, after village stocks that stood nearby. ‘The Anchor’ often signifies the phrase ‘We anchor in hope’, the first words uttered at the end of a sea voyage. There are unique pub names with ancient histories, like ‘The Leg of Mutton & Cauliflower’ and one in Mayfair which bears a sign; ‘I Am The Only Running Footman’.
Religious references are often hidden in pub signs. ‘The Cross Keys’ is a reference to St. Peter. When a pub is named ‘The Feathers’ it’s because of the elder brother of Henry VIII, the Prince of Wales. Many pubs were named after the trades that existed there. My parents met in a pub named after the company where they both worked. I live near a pub called ‘The Skinners’ Arms’, and you still find places called ‘The Leather Bottle’ or ‘The Wheatsheaf’.
The ‘Tigh-an-Truish Inn’ in Argyllshire means ‘House of the Trouser’. After the Scottish rebellion of 1745 no Highland soldier was allowed to wear a kilt in the army, but when they went home on furlough they needed to change into kilts again, so the inn became a changing room for them.
Pubs get named after local heroes, too. The ‘Rattlebone Inn’ at Sherston was named after John Rattlebone, who in fighting the Danish invaders was speared in the stomach and kept his guts from falling out with a stone he held over himself, fighting on.
I have several lovely old books on the subject of pubs, one of which is Eric Delderfield’s ‘British Inn Signs’. New pubs are appearing again with the craft ale boom, and their names reflect old histories. In January my new local pub (built from scratch) will be ‘The Lighterman’, named after the barge operators who worked (and still work) outside it.