Pub History – How Your Local Got Its Name

The next time you visit your local, or any pub, take a moment to consider the sign outside.

The name painted there is a window into the past, revealing social and military history both recent and centuries old, as well as trades, sports and pastimes, along with folklore and legend. Behind every pub name is a story.

Back in the late Middle Ages, ninety percent of the population were classed as peasants and very few of them could read.

This meant there was little point in having a written sign outside inns and alehouses, or the pubs of the day. Instead, in common with other tradesmen, early publicans placed a symbol outside their premises.


Early Symbols

Going back to Roman times this would have been a bush, but by the twelfth century the naming of pubs had become popular. With no great imaginative leap, some were simply called ‘The Bush’, still common today.

Because of the widespread illiteracy, these names were displayed as a picture on a sign. Then in 1393 an act was passed that made signs compulsory, so that official tasters could identify ale houses.


The taverns of the time, or at least the land they occupied, often belonged to the local aristocracy – the Lord of the Manor, so their signs showed heraldic symbols which were simply an indication of ownership.

A White Hart signboard: a white hart featured as a badge of King Richard II
A White Hart signboard: a white hart featured as a badge of King Richard II

This led to pub names such as ‘The Kings Arms’, ‘The Feathers’ and ‘The White Hart’ if the landowner was loyal to Richard II, as this was his personal badge.

Other links are not quite so obvious, but if your local’s called ‘The Ostrich’, it may well be because the bird once made up part of his Lordship’s coat of arms.

Pubs For Pilgrims

Many early premises were primarily religious establishments where pilgrims were able to sleep, eat and quench their thirst. Again because of illiteracy, church goers recognised the saints by symbols rather than a written name.

Read More: Uncovering the Fascinating Origins of Rural Place Names

Saint Peter was always shown holding the keys to heaven, while patron saint of sailors and ships, Saint Nicholas was represented by an anchor. So for road weary travellers, these symbols became both a sign of a saint and an inn. Many are still in evidence today, such as ‘The Cross Keys’ and ‘The Lamb’, which Saint John The Baptist is often pictured as holding.

The sign of the Saracen's Head in Broad Street, Bath, England
The sign of the Saracen’s Head in Broad Street, Bath, England

Alongside pilgrims, these religious houses also provided shelter and sustenance for knights on their way to the Holy Land partaking in the Crusades.

Other inns were also regularly used as assembly points for the same purpose giving rise to names such as ‘The Saracen’s Head’ and ‘The Lamb and Flag’ which represents both the saintly emblem and the banner of the crusaders.

Henry VIII

Names with a religious connotation became increasingly popular until the reign of Henry VIII and the Reformation. But with the Dissolution of the Monasteries many pubs were quick to sever any ties to the Catholic Church.

Kiongs arms pub
The Kings Arms is a pub lying by the River Ouse in the city centre of York, in England.

‘The Ark’ might have become ‘The Ship’, but the  smartest amongst the Tudor ale sellers played even safer by changing the name to one that showed their allegiance to Henry, such as the ‘Kings Arms’ or ‘Kings Head’.

Pub names with a religious association are still commonplace today, such as ‘The Mitre’ or ‘The Bell’, but this is usually because the premises are in close proximity to a cathedral or church.

A Glimpse Into The Past

Right up until the mid-nineteenth century, pubs took their names from the picture displayed. Then about that time, this quickly changed around, so that the pub was given a name first and a sign was painted to illustrate it.

Read More: The Harsh Life of the Medieval Commoner 

Today the names of our pubs are a real glimpse into the past. Social and military history are represented, trades and industries are there, some long disappeared. We see  the names of sportsmen, heroes, villains, scientists, literary and theatrical figures. There are clues to transport links; many ‘Railway Taverns’ have survived decades after the closure and demolition of the nearby station.

The most popular pub name is The Red Lion. Without doubt this is heraldic, but it’s exact origin has been lost in the mists of time.

The first of two widely held theories is that it goes back to when James VI of Scotland became James I of England and ordered that all public buildings should display the red lion of Scotland. Other social historians think it more likely stems from the badge of John Of Gaunt, the most powerful man in England for much of the fourteenth century.

Read More: Shire Reeve: You Know Him Today as The Sheriff

Opinions also differ over which is the UK’s second most popular pub name. Some say ‘The Crown’, others opt for ‘The Royal Oak’, which was adopted by many pubs when Charles II became king in 1660 after escaping the roundheads by hiding in an oak tree.

Military Connections

There are numerous connections to the military evident in the names of pubs, including references to battles and heroic individuals. Some are obvious such as ‘The Rifleman’s Arms’, ‘The Wellington’ and ‘The Trafalgar’.

Others are a little more cryptic, as people and events become forgotten over time and names get corrupted. The list of Admirals who have had pubs named after them is impressive. Though now closed and demolished, there was an ‘Admiral Blake’ on the corner of Ladbroke Grove and Barnby Road in London.

How many of its regulars I wonder would have known that it was named after a seventeenth century puritan who had a distinguished military career, first in the civil war and then at sea.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

The same applies to Cambridge pub ‘The Admiral Vernon’, who became a national hero in 1739 when he took Porto Bello in Panama from the Spaniards. Generals are also well represented and there has been more than one ‘Recruiting Sergeant’, although this was a job title, rather than an individual.

Recruiting sergeants would travel the country, setting up in taverns where they would try to enlist men into the army.

The contract was sealed with the exchange of a king’s shilling and once a potential recruit had accepted this, there was no going back. It is widely believed that devious sergeants would slip the shilling into a man’s ale.

When the tankard was drained and the victim saw the shilling and retrieved it, he had signed up. This led to tankards with glass bottoms, so it was easy for a drinker to check if he was being duped.

Trades And Professions

Traditionally pubs have been the refuge of the working man, so its not surprising that many names are related  to a trade or profession. This may have been because it was where the workers simply went to drink or as regularly happened, they used private rooms for work related meetings.

As well as being associated with heraldry, many ‘Arms’ signs denote a profession, such as ‘The Railwaymans Arms’ or ‘The Carpenters Arms’.

The three compasses emblem of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters
The three compasses emblem of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters

If a pub name begins with a ‘Three’ its a big clue to trade associations, as the signs are often based on the emblems of London Livery Companies or Trade Guilds. No prizes for guessing that ‘Three Fishes’ symbolises The Worshipful Company Of Fishmongers or that The Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths is represented by ‘Three Hammers’.

But what about ‘Three Goat’s Heads’? It’s nothing to do with farming or shepherding, but the symbol of The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, who were workers in fine leather. Cordwain being a white leather produced from goat skin in Cordova, Spain.

Unusual Pub Names

Some of the more unusual pub names can be the most interesting, such as ‘The Crooked House’ near Himley in Staffordshire.

Originally a farmhouse, local mining in the 1800s caused one side of the building to subside and you can now watch a marble roll uphill before even a drop of alcohol has passed your lips.

Or what about ‘The Dirty Habit’? A name given to more than one inn used by monks making pilgrimages, who arrived covered in dust from their travels.

Read More: The Mighty Medieval Tithe Barns

In 1960s Coulsdon, when a pub was being built on a local hill and a well was discovered in the back garden, the premises virtually named itself as ‘The Jack And Jill’. A name that’s generally recognised as one of the UK’s quirkiest is ‘The Bucket Of Blood’.

In Cornwall, it’s origins are macabre to say the least. A landlord two centuries ago supposedly drew up a bucket of water from the well outside to find it coloured red.

The crooked house pub
The Crooked House was built in 1765 and was originally a farmhouse. During the early 19th century, mining in the area caused one side of the building to begin gradually sinking. Sadly it ‘burnt’ down last year

Further investigation revealed a body that had been thrown down into the depths the previous night. Some say it was a smuggler who had fallen out with the rest of his gang. Others relate the story with it being a Revenue Officer who’d stumbled on something he shouldn’t have. Either way and probably not surprisingly, the pub has a reputation for being haunted.

Royalist Support

A controversial pub name is The Black Boy – More recently because of the racist connotations and some have been renamed as a result. Others still survive, but over the years the real disagreement has been on the subject of the name’s origins.

One theory links it to jobs such as mining and sweeping chimneys, where the very nature of the work blackens the skin.

Other say it’s a reference to King Charles II. His dark hair and complexion prompted his mother to nickname him Black Boy and this was taken up by his supporters when fighting for the restoration of the monarchy. Inns bearing the name Black Boy could have been showing Royalist support.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the name was popular for coffee houses as well as inns and is thought to have derived from the fashion of the wealthy having black page boys as servants.

Their uniforms usually featured a stripe design, so they were also known as ‘Tigers’. Although some may be forgotten, there’s a story behind every pub name and it will be relevant to the times. Although at the time of writing he has not yet been crowned, there is already a sign hanging proudly outside a pub in Norfolk called the ‘King Charles III’.