What's in a name? The stories behind pub monikers

By Claire Churchard

- Last updated on GMT

The pub name ’George and the Dragon’ became popular under King Edward III
The pub name ’George and the Dragon’ became popular under King Edward III

Related tags Red lion Public houses in the united kingdom Public house

Pub names are part of the social fabric of Britain. But have you ever wondered why your local is called what it is or why its name may have changed over the years? Here, we take a look at the stories behind the names

There’s no such thing as a red lion. Think about it... there isn’t. Yet the Red Lion is the most common pub name in England with a large number of pubs sporting that moniker.

The Red Lion isn’t the only enigmatic pub name in common usage and one reason pub names can be so cryptic is that many of them date back to a time when illiteracy was rife. Pubs used simple images on signs so people could identify them by ‘saying what they could see’. And often the signs came from something that helped identify the building.

“For example, there may have been a large haystack and someone would say I’ll meet you at the pub by the haystack. That morphed into a pub sign with a haystack on it, which people would call the Haystack,” explains Albert Jack, author of the book The Old Dog and Duck: The Secret Meanings of Pub Names.

The number of pub signs increased in 1393 when a law was passed requiring landlords to display them so that royal ale tasters could locate pubs to inspect the ale and collect taxes. Easy-to-identity objects such as the Tabard (a sleeveless jacket), the Star and the Plough became popular.

But that doesn’t explain how the Red Lion came to prominence, why there is a pub called the Drunken Duck or why there are there so many pubs called the Marquis of Granby.

All change

Sometimes a pub’s name is ripe for change whether it is to shed a bad reputation and give the premises a fresh start or because times have changed and the old name is no longer appropriate. What do you need to do to ring in the changes?

■ Practicalities

The licensee needs to return the premises licence to the licensing department of the local council. It should include a covering letter that tells the council what the new name will be. There is a £10.50 fee to reissue the licence in the new name. It is the same flat fee across the country.

■ Other considerations

Emma Ward, associate and solicitor at Nelsons, says that whenever a business launches a new name or branding, there is the potential for it to infringe the intellectual property of a
third party.

“This can be through inadvertently passing off its goods and services as those of another, infringing a registered trade mark or reproducing a brand or logo that is subject to copyright,” she explains.

But this can be avoided by making sure you know the source of any logo you plan to use to ensure it has not been copied from elsewhere. It’s a good idea to conduct Companies House and trademark clearance searches, says Ward.

She adds: “On the flip side, a business should also consider what it can do to protect its new brand. It may want to consider applying to register a trademark for its new name or logo and to also register variations of its website’s domain name.”

Mystical lions

There are a few theories for the prevalence of the Red Lion pub name, according to Jack. But he believes that the name originates in the 14th century with John of Gaunt, the third son of King Edward III. Gaunt was the influential uncle of child-King Richard II and his coat of arms included a red lion which he had adopted when he married a Spanish princess.

When Gaunt left England in 1386 to claim his wife’s Spanish throne, things did not go well for young King Richard at home. Richard’s unpopularity led English tavern owners to start displaying Gaunt’s red lion crest as a show of support for the overseas royal, hence the abundance of Red Lion pubs. Unimpressed, Richard ruled that every landlord near London must display his crest, a White Hart, creating another pub name staple.

In the early 17th century, King James I of Scotland increased the number of Red Lion pubs further by demanding that his coat of arms, also a red lion, was displayed outside all public buildings. These buildings invariably became ‘public houses’ where you could get alcohol. And many of these houses evolved into pubs.

Holy calling

Religion has also had a big influence on pub names. It was the church that set up a network of guest houses across Britain to offer board and sustenance to pilgrims roaming the country. These sites became known for the ale they served, which was supplied by the monasteries. A sign with a dove, the symbol of peace returning to the ark, was commonly used and has become the Dove in modern times.

As the crusades ramped up in the middle ages, these monastic guest houses couldn’t keep up with demand. Enterprising locals set up inns nearby and used religious imagery to entice the pilgrims. That is why we have the Lamb (of god), the Ark (of the covenant) and the self-explanatory Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem.

After the crusades, interest in knights and chivalry increased. King Edward III chose St George as the patron saint of England, making ‘George & the Dragon’ a sought-after name. The king also encouraged his nobles to embrace heraldry. Every family of note had its own coat of arms, so any alehouses or inns on their land were often named after them. Hence the Red Lion, again, the Bear & Ragged Staff, the White Lion and the Rose & Crown.

However, the ruling classes didn’t have it all their own way. The leaders of the failed peasants revolt of 1381 are commemorated by pubs named after them. Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead, London, refers to a cart of hay that Jack climbed up on to address his supporters. The cart was labelled Jack’s ‘castle’ as it was the closest he or any peasant would get to owning one. Fellow insurgent Wat Tyler also has a pub named after him in Dartford, Kent.

A little subversion

A more subversive way to show dissent was to name your pub after the outlaw Robin Hood, the anti-hero who robbed from the rich to give to the poor. “To call your hostelry after him was thumbing your nose at the noble families that owned most of England and consequently most of England’s pubs,” explains Jack in his book.

There is a great tradition of recognising heroic military figures in pub names. In the north-east, there are lots of pubs called the Admiral Collingwood, says Jack, although many people will have no idea who he is. “Collingwood was second in command to Admiral Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar. So when Nelson got shot in the first five minutes of battle, Collingwood took control and won it because Nelson was already dead.”

Pubs with a Marquis of Granby sign are named after a fearless lieutenant general that led cavalry soldiers against the French during the seven years’ war (1756-63). But it wasn’t his heroics on the battlefield that gained him public acclaim, it was his compassion for his soldiers. The story goes that when he left the military, he helped a number of his former comrades in arms to set up as innkeepers. These landlords honoured him by naming their premises after him.

Crime and controversy

But not all names have such a wholesome back story. One such tale involves Cornish smugglers and an unfortunate customs officer. The officer visited Cornwall and clashed with the smugglers, they cut off his head and threw it down the well of the local inn. When the landlord came to draw up water the next morning, the bucket came up full of blood with the official’s head in it. The inn became known as the Bucket of Blood.

And what if you buy a pub that prompts a sharp intake of breath when you tell people the name? When Barons Pub Company took on the Black Boy in Shinfield, Berkshire, managing director Clive Price says: “People would ask what it was called, we’d tell them, then they’d turn their noses up.” Although he adds: “They weren’t from the local area.”

Before changing it, he wanted to find out what the locals thought, so Price took to the pub’s well-established Facebook page to announce what they were thinking.

“We got over 100 responses within a few hours. The resounding response was that the name was part of local history and a local landmark.”

The story behind the name is not entirely clear. One common explanation was that it dated from the time of Charles II. Apparently, he was an avid hunter who developed a swarthy complexion from being outside all day.

Other locals suggested that the name was a reference to chimney sweeps or a boy who rescued someone from a nearby lake.

“Once we heard the strength of feeling in favour of keeping the name, we felt we could not change it,” says Price.

However, to avoid further controversy, and because there were so many different explanations for the moniker, the pub sign now has no image, just plain text.

Not all names have a serious history, there are a few ‘comedy’ examples such as the ‘Dew Drop Inn’ (do drop in) and a few pubs called the Office – the joke being that people can ring their other half from the pub and say ‘I’m still at the office’ and not be lying.

Tall tales

There are also tall tales, like the Drunken Duck, the title of a pub in the Lake District. It apparently came about in the Victorian era when the landlady is said to have found her ducks dead in the road. Rather than waste them, she plucked them for dinner.

However, the drowsy ducks proceeded to come round and it trans-
pired that they were simply drunk after eating feed soaked in beer that had leaked from a barrel. The landlady felt so guilty that she supposedly knitted the ducks waistcoats to wear until their feathers grew back.

More contemporary names have been inspired by popular crazes. The Panton Arms, Anglesey, Wales, changed its name to the Pokémon Arms in one such jape.

Inspired by the craze for the virtual reality game Pokémon Go, licensee Ed Griffiths decided to change the name when he saw a large number of people visiting various Pokémon Go sites near his pub.

“Changing the name started as a joke but then we thought ‘let’s do it!’. We got a cheap sign made and screwed it up for three or four weeks. It certainly generated more trade.”

However, not all the locals were amused. Griffiths says that he did get comments like ‘I hope it’s only temporary’ from some of the locals. But when he and his staff reassured them that it was, there was no opposition.

“We’re only a little place in north Wales, so my niece who lives in London thought it was hilarious when she saw us in the Metro newspaper because of the sign.”

Whether it is a nod to history, a landmark or the product of a rib-tickling tale, people are often very attached to the name of their local pub, it pays to think carefully before you change it.      

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