top of page

Old Pubs and Lost Hostelries

Their History, Strange Names, and Stories
with Richard Churchley - 28 April 2022

A visitor to England may be mystified by the strange names by which we often indentify our pubs and inns. At a fascinating talk on 28 April, Richard Churchley explained all.

The people of Europe – unlike, say, native Americans or Australians – have been drinking alcohol for centuries, and have identified their taverns in various ways: the Romans displayed foliage outside. But it is mainly in England that pubs have particular names – those in Scotland or Ireland are generally identified by the name of their landlords

Town and villages used to have many pubs – Alcester had 35 at one time – but Richard pointed the distinction between the larger inns (which included overnight accommodation and developed into coaching inns) and the smaller pubs. A law in 1830, designed to reduce the consumption of gin, introduced the “beer houses” – private houses which sold just beer or cider, usually brewed on the premises – which became the archetypal pubs.

There are many ways that a pub can get its name:

  • Many are named after the local squire.

  • Many are named after royalty or famous heroes, but this is not always immediately obvious (pubs named “The Boot” are named after the Duke of Wellington, “The Black Boy” may be named after King Charles II, the “Eagle and Child” may be from the crest of the Earl of Derby).

  • With many beer houses, the publican had a “daytime” trade which inspired a name, so pubs can be called “The Fleece” for a shepherd, or “The Horseshoes” for a blacksmith. Many pubs are based on mills: “Crabmill Inn” would have a mill crushing crab apples.

  • Or a pub or inn would be named after its main customers, such as “The Masons’ Arms”, ”The Navigation”, “The Railway”, or the “Coach and Horses”.

  • A pub can be the centre of entertainment – cockfighting, bearbaiting or hunting etc – and take its name from this.

  • Of course, some names are directly related to beer, such as “The Hop Pole”. “The Chequers” takes its name from the chequers tree, whose berries were used to flavour beer before hops; the “Mother Huff Cap” in Great Alne is named after the head on a glass of beer.

  • And, of course, there are some names – even traditional ones – which are hard to explain. The “Wheelbarrow Castle” at Radford may be named after a nearby Iron Age long-barrow used as a site for people to meet (with refreshments!).

Some audience participation was called for when we guessed the most common pub names; “The Red Lion”, “The Crown”, “The Royal Oak”, “The White Hart” “The Swan” and “The Plough”.

Richard gave example where pubs had changed their names over the course of their lives. The “Round of Gras” at Badsey was originally called the “Royal Oak”. The “Pickled Plum” in Pershore was originally called the “Plough”. The “Nevill Arms” in Redditch was originally the “New Inn” and is still at the “New End” of the road.

In olden times, pubs were identified by their signs, which could be very artistic and colourful, and could also change from time to time. The sign at the “Queen’s Head” at Salford Priors has depicted several different queens including – for a time – a playing card.

Nowadays there is a tendency for the picture signs to fall out of use. It is hoped that this trend does not continue.

bottom of page