CURIOUS HISTORY: English Pub (and Inn) Signs
My ancestors were not the most well-behaved bunch. In fact, some were downright scoundrels. My great, great-grandfather Thomas was a decent chap, but apparently spent quite a lot of time at his village pub. One evening, his wife Harriet got so fed up that she stormed down to the pub, wrenched open the door and tossed in his pillow from their bed! Writing family histories often brings these unexpected stories to light and ensures one’s documented past is more than just names, dates and places.
English pubs and inns have a lengthy history. Generally, a public house or ‘pub’ was a place serving a variety of alcoholic beverages (and food) on the premises, run by a ‘publican’. Various similar businesses went by ‘tavern’, ‘alehouse’ or ‘beer house’. Inns were businesses that typically provided food and drink, stables and fresh horses for coach journeys, along with rooms for the weary traveler. Historic pub and inn signs are fascinating and this research has a worldwide following. Some older establishments date back to the fifteenth century (mind your head as you enter, else risk clonking it on the sagging wooden beam of the timber-framed structure built for a much shorter population). In medieval times, there was no clean water supply, so low-alcohol ale was what the population drank. Even children regularly drank ‘small beer’, a low-alcohol beverage (note that life expectancy centuries ago was no more than about thirty-three years of age).
Long before the vast majority of the population was literate, shops put artistic picture signs above their doors and windows to indicate the trade or goods sold inside. Some signs were even three dimensional models. For example, a shoemaker had a boot, a locksmith used a key, and a tailor had a pair of scissors on his sign. The visual had an uncanny knack of immediately signaling what was on offer and it was well-appreciated by people in the vicinity. In fact, some of today’s branding experts could learn a thing or two from the past by aiming for less obscure marketing tactics. My great uncle was a talented artist who painted many wonderful shop and pub signs. Today, we see modern shops with precise, computer-generated signage, digital graphic design instead of a pot of paint, brush and rough just-eyeball-it measurements.
Pub signs in particular, have a long, colorful history. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes: double-sided, painted boards hung above the street or three dimensional representations of the business name. Some even have models of bunches of grapes hung outside depicting the medieval tradition of advertising the type of beverages available for sale. Colorful pub signs, once hand-painted by talented craftsmen, add a great deal of character to a village. Pub names represent many topics. For example, one sees a variety of trades through the years: ‘The Blacksmiths Arms’, ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘The Plough’. It was not uncommon for the pub owner to work a trade during the day and then tend the bar at night. Animals are represented well: ‘The White Horse’, ‘The Stag’, ‘The Black Bull’. Other types referenced military heroes, sport and transport. Royalty is quite popular: ‘The King’s Head’, ‘The Prince of Wales’, ‘White Hart’, and ‘The Royal Oak’. Taking a closer look at ‘The Royal Oak’, those familiar with English history will understand the significant reference. This oak tree was where King Charles the Second hid in 1651 to avoid Oliver Cromwell’s troops before making his desperate escape to France dressed as a woodcutter with shorn hair. In an age where men over six feet tall were unusual, one wonders how on earth the monarch made it clear out of England. In 1660, he made a triumphant return to the white cliffs of Dover to officially claim his glittering crown. Were it not for the sturdy branches of this particular oak tree, English history would be missing its famous Merry Monarch. And to think, all this historical detail is summarized in a pub sign depicting a massive oak protecting a shiny crown. Knowing history means you understand the sign. Most historical pub signs do take their name from some particular event, famous person or trade. Take the time to ask the next time you’re up at the bar: you will often be surprised at what legends and historical facts are shared.
In the 1970s, my grandmother (a marathon cyclist) photographed a series of pub signs she found on her travels within England. A few of these gems are included in this blog post and are now part of our family photo collection. In 1976, dear Grandma even found an English inn called the ‘Rorty Crankle’ (local dialect meaning ‘tipsy nook’ or ‘happy corner’). A popular inn sign originated when public horse-drawn coaches appeared in the eighteenth-century: ‘The Coach & Horses’. Old English inns were venues for court sessions, elections, council meetings, and taxpayer meetings with local government. ‘The Smugglers Inn’ is another popular name for those businesses located in areas where crafty gangs would row in illegal cargoes of brandy, lace and velvet from the European continent, hiding them in village cellars concealed underneath loose floorboards and throw rugs.
Taking a deeper dive into pub history centuries ago, some port towns used to boast dozens of pubs to service thirsty sailors on shore leave from merchant, fishing or military ocean vessels. Old signs continued well into the modern age and today are treasured artefacts from the past. Sadly, many of these glorious signs have now disappeared from the English landscape. Many pubs were knocked down to make way for housing and roads. Consumer habits have also changed, even more so due to the pandemic’s social distancing requirements. Many people are now cocooning at home with their favorite beverage purchased at the town’s off-license supermarket.
Note that there are hundreds of English family history societies, wikis, blogs and local village guidebooks that provide additional helpful information on historical signage. This blog post offers only a brief glimpse into a vast topic. Were your ancestors involved in this industry? If so, you may have some fascinating family history research ahead of you.
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