The Secret Histories Of Pubs

Great Britain


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.

Thomas A Becket

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.

18 comments on “The Secret Histories Of Pubs”

  1. Dave Skinner says:

    Believeth-not ye advertizinge hype. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem isn’t even the oldest pub in Nottingham, provided you accept that an establishment needs to “sell alcohol to the public for consumption on the premises” in order to qualify as a pub. The building is certainly very old and characterful, but it was still a brewery when at least two other Nottingham pubs, still in business today, were established.

    (Baldrick covered it once. Search YouTube for if you’ve got forty minutes to kill).

  2. Dave Skinner says:

    Ah, my angle brackets seem to have confused things. The YouTube search should be for [time team history hunters nottingham]

  3. Andy says:

    Ah ‘The Skinners Arms’ frequented that lovable couple Steptoe & Son !

  4. admin says:

    Funnily enough that was the one pub I researched online instead of from one of my books….a message there I think!

  5. Roger says:

    The Marqios of Granby is still commemmorated in pub names because of his generosity to old soldiers down on their luck. He gave them licences to open pubs. The grateful recipients often named their pubs after him.

    A lot of pubs are still named “The Marquess of Granby” because of the eighteenth century marquess who used to give old soldiers down on their luck licences to open pubs. The grateful recipients often named their pubs after him. He’s also said to be the origin of the phrase “to go at it bald-headed”. He was half-dressed (at least by the standards of eighteenth century noblemen) when he saw an opportunity for decisive action in a battle and leapt on his horse and ordered a charge without waiting for his wig or hat.

  6. John Griffin says:

    You used to be able to walk from pub to pub in Nottingham underground in some places as much of the town is riddled with sandstone caves, which were used for storage of beer, amongst other things. There are still tours of the Castle Rock which forms part of the substance of the ‘Trip’. I think the Royal Children was older, and used to have a whale’s scapula over one door.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Whenever I see “Ye Olde” in an establishment’s name I know that someone has been mucking about. The Y is actually a letter which we don’t use anymore and which was called (?) a thorn? Not sure but it represented the “th” sound. The character was used for a long time but disappeared somewhere in the 17th century I believe. The silent e goes back to the same time.
    Nice to learn about the Marquis of Granby, all of them, but what is the background of “I am the Only Running Footman”. I’ve wondered since reading the Martha Grimes of the same name. I can find out about running footmen in general but not the story behind the pub.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and what did you do with the gargoyles?

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    I love pubs,me.
    In my neck of the north we have a number of pubs with names like ‘The Alum House’, ‘The Alkali’, ‘The White Lead’ or ‘The Magnesia Bank’ which all reflect the chemical industries on the Tyne long before heavy shipbuilding was established. Also a Newcastle pub (now sadly demolished) called ‘The Egypt Cottage’ named because the area was once covered with sand hills of ballast from sailing ships and known as ‘Little Egypt’.
    Sadly they are all closing down and disappearing; another strand of history cut off.

  10. jan says:

    Strangely enough the title of the first pub “Trip to Jerusalem” might not have stemmed from the travelling Knights of St John but rather from the name of a maze at or close to this site which probably as the place turned into a pub started serving ale and food to would be pilgrims who not being able to afford the aforementioned “Trip to Jerusalem” made their penances and upped their brownie points with the Christian church by crawling through the maze on hand and knees the poor mans equivalent to pilgramage. Interesting eh? Notttinghams a very interesting spot with the amount of the city being underground and accessed at various points throughout the remaining medieval city. No shortage of bomb shelters in the 2nd world war as lots of access to natural and man made cave spaces

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I’d never thought of Nottingham in connection with caves until I heard about this pub. I like the idea of the maze as a substitute for pilgrimage. It would be particularly powerful since everyone I’ve spoken with who has walked one of the full size patterns says that they feel very different and calm afterwards. I think it must have something to do with the number of directional changes and the deliberate pace, although I wonder about doing it on all fours.
    In Old Monkland (outside Glasgow) there was an inn called, I think, The Canalman. It was red brick and right next to where the canal that carried the coal originally ran. When we were there it was for sale but I don’t know if a license went with it. It was just around the corner from the mining museum and I would have loved to have had the money to have restored it. Still think it would have been a good idea.

  12. Vivienne says:

    I used to pass the Thomas A Beckett pub often when driving down to Kent to see family. It has a presence and I do mean to brave its doors one day. I think it closed for a time which was worrying, so maybe I should hurry up.

    Helen is quite right about Ye Olde, and Ye would have just been pronounced the. Other letters were named after trees I think, like H for ash – still pronounced like that in French. Yew? Not sure. However Ye Olde pubs are useful if you are on an alphabetical pub crawl – I sort of do this when out walking, not all on one occasion but one walk patronise an A pub, and B next time, etc. This is slightly mad, but makes me go to places I wouldn’t otherwise and takes choice out of it. It does also make me notice pub names and their variety.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Love the alphabetical pub choices. True that “H” is pronounced as “ash” in French but would the tree be called that?

  14. admin says:

    An interesting thread, this. Don’t worry, Helen, the gargoyles live on my terrace walls.

  15. C Falconer says:

    Right, dragging up my memories of Old English from (ahem) years ago : Anglo-Saxon incorporated 5 (I think) runes into the alphabet :
    ash (an elided ae)
    thorn and eth which were respectively ‘th’ sounds for the front of words, and mid or end word *
    yogh (for yer sounds – looked like a g)
    wynn (for wer sounds – looked like a w)
    and I think there was one more but I can’t remember.

    * thorn looked like a lower case b but with an extra descender (so b+p). Over time, laziness and printing the ascender got lost and round bit opened out so it looked like a y. But as above it was still pronounced as ‘the’
    eth looked like a hunched over d with a line through the ascender

    Anglo Saxon lacked k, q, z and the i and j were interchangeable. Initial c’s were usually hard so cwean = queen

    Here endeth the lesson!

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Ah, thank you, C Falconer, I knew there would be someone out there who took Anglo Saxon – I only got as far back as Middle English or something. I have a terrible feeling that my memory of the thorn comes from Tolkien’s elvish. I suppose that is a respectable source, though.

  17. Charles (another one) says:

    On a tour of the main Nottingham cemetery, magnificent by the way, we were told of a recent (?) injury to one of the grave diggers when he fell through the bottom of a grave he was digging and into the caves below. I am sure there is the making of a story there, or perhaps it’s just an old episode of Buffy!

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Falling through a grave into a cave! What a wonderful episode it would make! If you saw Coast Australia there was a bit from the Limestone Coast of subsidence holes where whole bits of field drop into water filled caves beneath. The whole topic of caves has immense possibilities.

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