Pub names and inn signs have been an enduring part of British culture for centuries. They are a reminder of the days when people could neither read nor write and trades people used pictorial signs to denote their occupation. Increased education levels brought about an end to this tradition on most shop fronts (with perhaps notable exception such as the barber’s pole), however, the pub sign has been maintained to this day.
Much of the fascination of inn signs lies in the fact they have so often captured aspects of historical traditions and folklore long past, carrying them down the years to serve as a colourful reminder of things and people of bygone times long after their original meanings have been corrupted or lost.
Monarchs, new modes of travel, popular heroes, sports, local traditions – the list of subjects is varied. But whatever the name or theme they reflect, they are all a descendent of Roman times where an ivy bush was placed outside taverns to indicate to travellers liquor and sustenance was available within. Post Romans, ale sellers would set up a stake outside their premises surmounted with greenery and later still, painted signs distinguishing each hostelry – a tradition that remains to this day. Below are some of the examples you will still see in Britain today.
Aside from obvious sea associations, The Anchor has religious significance recalling St. Paul’s words describing hope ‘as the anchor of the soul’. It also has connotations with the Royal Navy, whose sailors were often press-ganged from waterside establishments. Eminent eighteenth century literary types were fond pub goers, with both Samuel Johnson and James Boswell meeting up for a pint in The Crown and Anchor in London’s Strand.
This came from the personal badge of Richard II, who introduced legislation during his reign to ensure taverns displayed a sign outside. The symbol of the White Hart itself is far older, with links to Alexander the Great and Charlemagne although it is unrecorded if they were frequent pub-goers.
Marquis of Granby
A number of pubs display the title of the eighteenth century military leader John Manners. The Marquis set up a number of his wounded soldiers with their own inns which led to a proliferation of his name by grateful recipients and presumably ensuring he had the guarantee of a free pint across the country.
Hops were not introduced to the brewing of beer in this country until the mid-fifteenth century. Before this, the ‘ale’ of Saxon times was brewed from barley without hops. However, today ale and beer are synonymous as hops are essential in the brewing of all beers. Thus they provided inspiration for pubs signs and the pole upon which the hop plant grows.
‘Green’ or ‘wild’ men so called for the way they are decorated in pageants were once popular figures. Part policeman, part reveller, their job was to let off fireworks whilst also maintaining some semblance of order among the jubilant populace. Other interpretations of the Green Man are of a pagan figure, related closely to nature and associated with pre-Christian traditions.