The White Lion, named after King Edward IV (reigned 1442-1483)
British pubs are famous the world over for their beer, their quirky looks and traditions (think last orders), their history and funny names, their atmosphere, their food, and the fact that most of them are still very family friendly.
When you ask for directions in the UK it will invariably include something like: “turn left at the Slug & Lettuce, continue on that road and then take a right at the Rose & Crown”. Pubs are an intrinsic part of the UK and its culture and people.
Each pub has its own history and every one is different, however, the names are not always unique. The most popular top 4 pub names in the UK are the Red Lion, Crown, Royal Oak, and White Hart; and there is a good reason for this, but first, why are there pub signs in the first place in the UK?
The Keys pub in the grounds of the Tower of London for the use of Yeoman Warders only
This all goes back to, yes, you guessed it, the Romans! Roman wine sellers used to hang vine leaves outside to show that they sold wine. When they came to Britain, that was no longer an option thanks to the British climate, so they used small evergreen bushes instead. Those who also sold beer would hang an ale stake out as well.
In the 12th century naming of inns and pubs became common, and as the majority of the population could neither read nor write, pub/inn signs were used instead. King Richard II passed an act in 1393 making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign in order to identify them to the official Ale Tester, who would inspect the alcohol being sold at the establishment (apparently Ale Testers were paid in beer).
The Wellington, named after the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo in 1815
Since then pubs and inns have been named after monarchs, battles, prominent figures or some other local obscurity.
Red Lion pubs are said to be named after the badge used by John of Gaunt, who in the 14th century was the Duke of Lancaster and the 4th son of King Edward III and was, for a time, the most influential and powerful man in the country. However, there is another story that says Red Lion pubs are so-called because James VI of Scotland, on becoming James I of England, ordered that the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance, including pubs, so that his English subjects could be reminded that the Scots now held power in the South. One could also say that Red Lion pubs could be named after their local nobel family, as the red lion was part of many an English noble family’s coats of arms.
The Crown pubs are simply named thus to show their support of the monarchy, whichever that might be at any given time.
The Royal Oak pub name is derived from a true tale of a king on the run. Prince Charles was defeated in 1651 at the Battle of Worcester in the English Civil War and fled the scene with Cromwell’s troops hot on his heels. He reached Bishops Wood in Staffordshire, and climbed, what is now dubbed the Boscobel Oak, to hide in the tree for a day until his pursuers moved on. Charles then escaped to France and later returned as Charles II on the Restoration in 1660.
The White Hart is a rare pale/white red deer and was the heraldic badge of King Richard II (reigned 1377-1399) and is usually depicted with a chain and a golden collar or a crown around its neck.
Most pubs these days are tied to a brewery or pub company, which will dictate which beers can be sold in its pubs. Those without any ties are called Free Houses and can decide which brew they want to offer their clientele.
While I was in London earlier this year I came across a lot of these pub signs, some of which were less common than others.
This pub is funnily enough nowhere near the Bank of England. It sits on Fleet Street, next to the Royal Courts of Justice.
The Old Bell Tavern, also on Fleet Street, has a long history, having been a licensed tavern for more than 300 years. Built by Sir Christopher Wren, it housed his masons who were rebuilding St Bride’s Church after the Great Fire. Originally the tavern could only be reached via an alleyway from Fleet Street, known originally for being the street housing printing services and later the home of the UK press (although most of them have now moved). One of the first printing presses operated here around 1500.
Another Fleet Street pub which was rebuilt shortly after the Great Fire of London in 1666. We actually stopped here for a drink and I can confirm that the interior is very dark, old looking and tiny. The pub is associated with literary figures Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, P. G. Wodehouse and Dr. Johnson, who are all said to have been ‘regulars’.
The tavern was opened in 1869 to celebrate the opening of the Holborn Viaduct. Opposite used to stand the notorious Newgate Prison, today the Old Bailey (the UK’s Central Criminal Court) stands in its place. It is said that the tavern’s cellar used to house 5 prison cells used by Newgate Prison.
On Ludgate Hill near St Paul’s Cathedral is this 18th century pub. It stands on the site of an old London Coffee House where all the leading people of the time would meet to debate all the new scientific and philosophical theories of the day, including Joseph Priestley and Benjamin Franklin.
This name is likely a pun and could mean a horse or a nagging woman.
On Villiers Street, near Charing Cross, this pub remembers the Queen that never was. The Princess of Wales was King George IV’s secret first wife. When still Prince Regent, he secretly married Catholic widow Maria Fitzherbert in 1785. The marriage was declared illegal at his father’s behest, because George would have been ineligible to reign with a Catholic wife.
The Walrus and The Carpenter takes its name from a poem by Lewis Carroll. The verse is recited by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in ‘Through The Looking Glass’. The pub stands in the shadow of history, in view of The Monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London.