There’s perhaps nothing more British than the pub.
Unique to our shores, and usually sporting a colourful hand-painted sign depicting the name thereof.
For a tradition that stems from the Roman times (houses selling food and drink were marked by a Vine branch or Bunch Of Grapes), the iconic hanging sign on the wall of many of our pubs is a nod to the past, a reminder of the history seeped within the walls and floorboards.
The first British pub signs were created in the 12th century and usually depicted a tankard, a barrel of beer or other brewing related items (The Hop Inn) to helpfully inform travellers and people passing by that beer could be purchased within – this was the dark ages, schooling was only for the rich and most of the population were illiterate! People would arrange to meet “at the Sign Of The Angel”, rather than “lets’ meet at the ‘Angel”, as we would now.
In 1393, the then King Richard II passed an act in Parliament which made it compulsory for drinking establishments to bear his emblem – a White Hart – to identify to the Official Ale Taster or Aleconner as it was known (yes, this job did exist) that the quality of the beer should be inspected therein. No coincidence today then, that many pub signs in England still feature a White Hart – the fifth most popular name for a pub.
Shortly after, Richard was deposed in 1399 and pub signs began to change images and names, to differentiate themselves from other drinking establishments in the town.
Often a nod to a nearby local business was alluded to; The Olde Forge, Carpenters Arms, The Wheelwrights.
But Richard wasn’t the only monarch to impact the humble pub sign; for when James I took the throne in 1603 of both England and Scotland, he decreed that the heraldic red lion be displayed on all ‘important buildings, including pubs’. As a result, the Red Lion, closely followed by The Crown are still the two most popular pub names today with 944 and 826 apiece.
When Henry VIII split with the Catholic church, pub signs with religious themes – The Angel, The Lamb & Flag (the lamb representing Christ and the flag, the symbol of the Crusaders) were removed in favour of those depicting royalty.
Important Monarchs continued to enjoy pub sign notoriety throughout history, likewise, famous battles at land and sea captured the imagination of publicans and sign writers alike – Kings, Queens, Dukes, Duchesses, Marquis, Admirals, have all been depicted, likewise sporting themes such as hunting – Greyhound, Fox & Hounds, Hare & Hounds – The Bird In Hand, said to take its name from Henry VIII’s love of falconry.
Today, more modern sporting pastimes are portrayed – The Cricketers, The Jolly Angler, The Bat & Ball to name but a few.
With thousands of pubs now lost, and with them hand-painted reminders of a once industrious town or important historic event, perhaps we should all take a moment to stand and appreciate this ode to history above our heads before we head for our next pint.