As this is the season when nearly all of us will be raising a glass or two, and the subject of pub names was raised over luncheon last week – in a pub, of course - I have decided to point out the origin of a selection of pub names. Thus if the beer or wine fails to entertain, you might have something to talk about.
Although it may seem odd, the inn sign pre-dates the first recognisable inns in this country by a significant period of time. Once upon a time every family brewed their own ale. It made sense as the water could rarely be trusted to be safe to drink and the boiling part of the brewing process effectively sterilises the liquid sufficiently to ensure it is safe to drink.
In order to earn a copper or two, some settlements would offer some of the brew to travellers on the road. Such refreshment, perhaps accompanied by a hunk of bread and pottage or similar, brought much-needed revenue to the household. We are not talking about the larger communities where the main road ran straight through the village but more isolated communities.
Yet these services would have to be advertised as any well-worn path was unlikely to run past the front door. Hence to draw attention to the home brew a sheaf of barley would be tied to a prominent tree. The bole of a large tree with its lower branches removed with be noticeable enough. With a sheaf of barley tied at or just above eye level, they would be guaranteed to receive a thirsty guest or two before long. These marked and still-living trees were known as ale stakes and are easy to see as the forerunner of the modern pub sign. This is how the logical order of pub – name – sign was, in reality, quite the reverse.
In later years landlords and owners were quick to realise the sign was the equivalent of advertising hoarding of its day. Just as modern advertisers use humour and eye-catching imagery to give their product any edge over the competition, so early inns employed every trick they could think of to bring in the customers. There was one big difference, however. Today we read the name, yet literacy is a fairly modern development and our forefathers will have had to recognise the image on the sign and be able read the message it contained.
Red Lion - At its peak there were more pubs known as the Red Lion in England than any other. Numbers once exceeded six hundred but in the twenty-first century this has fallen. For such a common name the name has only been seen since the seventeenth century and, rather ironically, the most common pub name in England is representative of the monarchy of Scotland.
It began as a device on the coat of arms of the most powerful man in England in the fourteenth century, John of Gaunt. His vast riches would, in today’s money, be worth in excess of £100 billion, making him one of the twenty wealthiest people in history. His successors went on to become kings of England through lines resulting in Henry IV and Henry VII and, of course, their descendants. While few pub names can be traced to the fourteenth century and directly to John of Gaunt himself, his red lion symbol did come to England through a more circuitous route. Of his fifteen named children, four with Katherine Swynford were later legitimised by royal decree, taking the surname Beaufort. Their descendants thereafter became every ruler in Scotland from 1437 and, following the accession of the House of Stuart in 1603, every monarch of England.
Royal Oak - One of the three most common pub names in England this was unheard of before the middle of the seventeenth century, for it remembers one of the best known narratives in the history of our islands. The oak tree in question is the Boscobel Oak, a large specimen in Shifnal, Shropshire and where Charles II and his aide Colonel Carless hid from noon to nightfall to escape the Parliamentarian soldiers. Following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, King Charles was aided by a number of his supporters as he attempted to flee the country. After a number of close shaves he was smuggled to France by members of the Pendrell family disguised as a woodman, complete with a severe haircut and stained face and arms to make it look as if he was used to working outside. Nine years later at the Restoration of the Monarchy the 29th of May, the date of the king's birthday, being chosen as the official date and thereafter was known as Royal Oak Day.
The present tree is not the original, this was destroyed by souvenir hunters in the 17th and 18th centuries who removed pieces of bark and even whole branches. A second tree, from an acorn of the first, known as the Son of the Royal Oak grew until it was badly damaged by a storm in 2000. A third tree was planted as a sapling by Prince Charles in 2001, this had been grown from an acorn taken from the 'Son' and is thus 'the grandson'. Modern-day souvenir hunters can still acquire a piece of the history, for other grandchildren of the Boscobel Oak are on sale here. Buyers receive their small oak along with a certificate of authenticity.
Stewponey – A pub in Staffordshire which should correctly be the Stewponey and Foley Arms, for the family who made their fortune from iron. This pub near Stourbridge earned its first name when a British soldier came to run the pub after seeing action during the Peninsular Wars in Spain.
His military career now over, he brought with him his new wife, a Spanish woman born in Estepona. It was his intention to add the name of her place of birth to the sign but, as none of the locals were fluent Spanish speakers, it acquired the name of Stewponey.
Sun and Slipper – The local at Mamble in Shropshire was first recorded as an inn in 1642, when it was known as the Sun. This device found on the coat of arms of the Blount family. This coaching inn once offered a maintenance service for the coaches, including changing the brake of ‘slipper’ which was soon added to the name. During the twentieth century the name was changed to the Dog and Duck but, after a veritable outcry from patrons, quickly reverted to its original name.
Tame Otter - The river has not only given a name to the town of Tamworth in Staffordshire but also this pub in nearby Hopwas. For a time this was known as the Chequers, although in recent years it has reverted to its original name of the Tame Otter. As expected the sign-painter depicts the animal Lutra lutra, once hunted for its fur and in danger of extinction the European otter is now making a comeback. Yet the engaging creature has not given its name to the pub, this comes from a simple rowing boat. Shallow, blunt-ended and for just one man, this particular vessel is rarely found away from the Trent and its tributaries. It is possible the boat, used by fishermen, was named from the water mammal but there is no evidence to confirm or refute this.
I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you. Merry Christmas!