What's in a name?

Louise Crane digs into the curious history of some of Britain’s traditional pub names


From the Red Lion to the Bhurtpore Inn and everything in between, a pub’s moniker is more than just a name. Inn signs depict everything from battles to inventions, from sporting heroes to royalty, commemorating the fallen and the heroic. Some are weird, many are hilarious, but all tell a story…


In the 12th century, pubs were plentiful, and needed names to distinguish themselves from their neighbour. Simple problem, simple solution, with just one minor drawback: the vast majority of the population could not read or write. In 1393, King Richard II (whose own emblem, the ‘White Hart’, was a popular choice) passed an Act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to have a sign in order to identify them to the official Ale Taster (an officer appointed yearly to ensure the quality of ale, and beer, as well as regulating the measures in which they are sold and their prices). Ever since then, inn names and signs have reflected, and followed, British life at that time.


The Bartholomew Fair was one of London’s pre-eminent summer Charter fairs, located at the south-east side of what is now Smithfield roundabout, and was originally a cloth fair. The night before the fair, tailors would gather in the namesake of the City’s modern Hand and Shears pub, waving their shears, announcing that the fair should begin.


A very common name; London has more than 30 Green Men (Green Mans?) out of approximately 600 pubs in total. That’s 5% of all London pubs. Conjuring the idea of a court jester character dressed head to toe in vermillion – or simply a member of the Blue Man Group who put his suit in the wrong wash – the name originally comes from images in churches, of a face peering through, or made of, leaves and petals. More recently, the name is associated with Robin Hood and his merry men, dressed in Lincoln green cloth.


Say this name with the right intonation and it sounds like something you might get the morning after overdoing it on the pints. It’s actually the name of a pub in Aston, near Nantwich, Cheshire and commemorates the Siege of Bharatpur in Rajasthan, India in 1826. The land on which the inn stands used to be part of Lord Combermere’s estates, the guy who was commander of the British forces during the seige.


Who among us hasn’t sunk a pint or two in a pub called The Red Lion? This most common of pub names is all down to James I and VI of Scotland, who became king when he united the crowns of England and Scotland in 1603. So important was the heraldic red lion of Scotland to him, he ordered it to be displayed on all important buildings, including pubs. For further coloured-animal-named pubs, see the White Lion, which dates from Edward IV, and Richard III’s White Boar emblem.


Now for one of the more bizarre and truly unique pub names, The Bucket of Blood in Hayle, Cornwall, is the only pub in Britain with this rather grizzly soubriquet. Two hundred years ago, the pub was not the friendly local it is now, but rather a regular meeting place for local smugglers and other unsavoury types. One morning the landlord went out to the well for a bucket of water only to discover a body laying at the bottom of the well. Naturally, his bucket came up filled with blood. Apparently the corpse was that of a Revenue officer who had fallen foul of the pub’s clientele. Of course, the pub is now rumoured to be haunted, with ghostly figures appearing opposite, gazing at the establishment, and some sources say it’s one of the most-haunted pubs in Britain.


This pair of pubs in Stalybridge, on the outskirts of Manchester, have two opposing records. The Q Inn has the entry in The Guinness Book of Records for the shortest pub name in the United Kingdom, though why it is so called is a mystery. The other pub, much more of a mouthful, is often shortened to The Rifleman Inn, which is a lot easier to say at the end of the night. Both are commemorated with a blue plaque outside the premises.


There’s a pub in Hampton Bishop, Hereford, named after a collection of root vegetables. Not because it’s near an allotment, or a particularly proliferous wild root veg patch, but because apparently there is a rock formation nearby that resembles a bunch of carrots. And, by the way, the landlord boasts that it’s the only pub in Britain with the word ‘carrots’ in the name.

We at Ferment are unsurprised.

And finally...


You may have heard that the Queen owns all swans in the country, and although this is largely true, she typically only exercises her right to own all swans on the Thames and its tributaries. She does have the power to give them away to new owners, and this is exactly what Elizabeth I apparently did back in the 16th century, and the new owners marked the swans with two “nicks” on their feet as a symbol of their ownership. Over time “nicks” got corrupted to “necks,” giving rise to several pubs bearing the modern name and some seriously freaky-looking signage.

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