I LOVE pub signs! From the unimaginative to the incredibly creative, a pub sign gives you a glimpse into what lies behind the door. All across the U.K. pub signs abound. They beckon you to enter, to relax, make yourself comfortable and enjoy a pint. From the U.K. pub signs crossed the Atlantic and made their way to the U.S. and throughout all (of what were and some still are) British territories. How did pubs (or public houses) get such interesting names? Where did these names come from?
Let’s start at the beginning. Public houses (pubs) originated almost 2,000 years ago, during the time of the Roman occupation of Great Britain. To make it easier for their armies to travel across the country, the Romans began building roads and creating infrastructure throughout the land … and people began to travel in greater numbers. Whether walking, on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage, travel was tiring and difficult. A weary traveler needed a place to rest. By the 12th century, monasteries provided travelers with these services, but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, travelers were at a loss. Seeing the opportunity to make a few guineas, enterprising women (of course) opened their homes and welcomed travelers with food, home brewed ale, and often times a place to sleep.
“The Alehouse Door” by Henry Singleton 1790
The literacy rate at this time in Great Britain was very low. Most people couldn’t read. Education was for the upper classes only. To advertise and ‘signify’ their services, tradesmen began to hang pictorial signs outside their shop or home, something that could easily be identified. A blacksmith might hang the sign of an anvil. A joiner (carpenter) might hang a hammer. If a home was open to the “public”, some foliage or a green bush was hung outside the door to signify that ale was served.
Public homes had very distinct categories … an “ale” house served ale and cider. A “tavern” served wine. And if an ale house or tavern also provided sleeping arrangements, they became known as an “inn”. Eventually all public homes, ale houses, taverns and inns melded into being called “pubs”.
In an effort to control what was fast becoming a growing industry, and to make these public “pub” homes more visible, King Richard II ruled in 1393 that outdoor signs were mandatory, stating “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”
A sign for a pub? What kind of sign? Where should the image come from? Simply painted on wooden boards, the first signs came from the inspiration and images of the church … angels, demons, saints. From there, inspiration came from the monarchy and landowners … kings, queens, lords and ladies. Many public house owners paid homage to the monarchy and aristocracy by naming their establishments “The King’s Arms” , “Lord Crewe”, and more.
The king was an avid sportsman so signs began to be created honoring his favorite pastime or his pets … “Fox and Hounds”, “The Dog and Duck”. Sometimes signs were to associate the establishment with a local trades group, such as “The Carpenter’s Arms” where local carpenters would meet in the hopes of finding work, or “The Golden Fleece” for wool traders. The symbol of an ark or a ship became widely popular in coastal communities, not to mention “The Mermaid”.
Along with the church, pubs became the hub of social activity. Villagers would meet to share stories, exchange ideas, relax and enjoy a home-brewed pint. With many people not knowing how to read, you simply mentioned the sign of the public house, such as “The Pig and Fiddle” and it was very easy to find. Lettering on signs didn’t come for quite some time.
Pubs became an outlet for not only sharing the news of the day, but where locals would play and be entertained. Fiddlers sang and games were played … darts, cribbage, and dominoes are as popular today as they were 200 years ago.
By the 16th century, “pubs” were in every village and town. They were so popular, town officials had to pass a law requiring a license in order to operate a “pub” and then they needed to limit the number of licenses that were issued.
There are so many romantic and sometimes frightening stories surrounding pubs from ghosts and highwaymen walking the halls at night to priests hiding in tunnels to avoid the King, objects moving about on their own, even a large black dog who guards the stoop. The 750 year old “Ye Olde Man and Scythe” pub claims the 7th Earl of Derby, who originally owned the public house, causes mayhem at night when the pub is closed. To have a resident ghost just adds to the charm … none of this,of course, keeps pub goers away.
Original pub signs are highly collected works of art, commanding high price tags. But should you want your own personalized pub sign, that’s not a problem at all. Today there are many local artisans who specialize in creating hand-painted, high-quality pub signs.
Meanwhile, should you be walking down the street in any of the big cities or small villages in the U.K., be sure to look up. You’ll get a brief glimpse into Great Britain, and the cultural and historic events of past times. I’m hoping you now have a little better understanding of the significance of these treasures and will grow to LOVE them as I do.