Pub traditions in Britain

I was reading the latest issue of Discover Britain and in it was a very interesting article on painted wooden pub signs as a tradition in the UK, a tradition that nearly died out but which seems to be gaining interest again. The article isn’t online but I can summarize it here for you.

The use of signs can be dated back to the Romans who used branches of evergreens to alert people that the establishment was a refreshment stop. Evergreens were the symbol of Bacchus, who, as we all know, is the god of wine! The branches, stuck to a stake evolved to twigs over time and by the 13th and 14th century, wooden painted signs started to appear. That became law, in order to easily identify a business that should be licensed (and taxed, of course!)

Often the picture on the sign would reflect the badge or symbol of whoever was the monarch at the time. The white hart was popular as it was the emblem of Richard II. The signs for inns also started to have religious overtones because of the numbers of pilgrims increasingly on the roads. You might see a bishop’s mitre or and angel. One of the most common pub names with a corresponding sign is the Red Lion. It was the emblem of James I but it was also popular on coats of arms and heraldic banners.

Signs also commemorated events and people or something relevant to the local area. A smugglers’ pub was called the Bucket of Blood, buildings that have been repurposed were called by their original use, such as Blacksmith’s Arms, and if a pub is near a guild or factory, you might see it reflecting that.

Obviously, there are various styles and types of signs and these days, wood is being replaced by vinyl signs with computer generated graphics but it doesn’t really have the same quality as a painted sign on wood. There has been a recent revival of interest in hand painted signs and that’s a good thing.  It was all very interesting and I’m going to be taking a closer look out for painted pub signs from here on in. There’s a society for sign painters called the Inn Sign Society and the man that was interviewed for the magazine was Andrew Grundon.

I searched through my photos to see if i had any pictures of pub signs and I found a few though mostly they aren’t that good or close up. I’ve included a gallery of the ones I did have. Now I wish I had taken more notice! Of the places I’ve been, the city of York probably had the most old pubs with signs but they’re all over the country. So many cities are making a point to preserve the historic older quarters, including restoring things like signs and windows and doors. I love browsing the narrow, often cobbled streets lined with old, crooked buildings, half beamed and slated roofs. In the countryside and in smaller villages these pubs and inns are often very, very old.

The White Hart was the heraldic emblem of Richard II. Credit: Inn Sign Society/Martin Norman

Also on the magazine website, there’s an article on the 10 most popular pub names and there are some great pictures of painted signs there as well. The Red Lion and the White Hart are two of the most popular, followed by the Royal Oak and the King’s Head (which, by the way, replaced an older tradition of calling a pub the Pope’s Head. After Henry VIII kicked off at the Catholic Church and became head of the Church of England, people decided they didn’t want to be associated with Catholocism and pandered to the King instead!)

Edited to add: A friend of mine, Rosalind Mitchell, sent me this note regarding pub names

I have long held that pub names should be able to have preservation orders slapped on them, because many have an interesting and quirky history. In my teens I was outraged by a pub in a village near me called The Tilbury (because it had a tilbury [carriage] on the grass outside) became the rather bland and twee Inn on the Green (I believe it is now the Tilbury once again). So outraged that I wrote a letter to the local paper, pointing out some other interesting local pub names – the Candlestick, so called because the guv’nor used to go down to the cellar to fetch the beer taking the pub’s only source of light with her and plunging the bar into darkness. The Baron of Beef was once a butcher’s shop with a sideline as an alehouse, run by a man called George Baron. The Steamer, at the top of a steep hill on the Great North Road, once had an innovative steam engine to haul carriages up the hill in order to spare the horses.