Samui Wining & Dining
Signs of the Times

English pub signs are found all around the world, including here on Samui, but where do the names originate?

English pub signs are found all around the world, including here on Samui, but where do the names originate?No matter where you go in the world, there’s usually a British-owned pub. And they’re most easily identified by their names. There’s no need for Union Jacks. If a bar is called ‘The Red Lion’, ‘The Royal Oak’, or ‘The George and Dragon’; you just know what to expect.

But why such names, and how did they originate? Some are obvious, others relate to historical events, people or places, and in more recent times, some are just downright bizarre. We can trace the placing of names on buildings back to the time of the Romans. They would make stone signs depicting a goat to front a dairy, a mule driving a mill for a bakery and Bacchus (the Roman God) to denote a wine merchant. Unsurprisingly, following the passing of the Romans in Britain, merchants and early tavern owners began to adopt visual signs to advertise their wares to the mainly illiterate population. Initially, they took the form of religious symbols such as ‘The Sun’, ‘The Star’ and ‘The Cross’. Later, they also became influenced by heraldic coats of arms of landowners and local occurrences. Former tradesmen and military personnel who became innkeepers would also reflect their past and allegiances by giving their pubs names, such as: ‘The Bricklayer’s Arms’ or ‘The Ship Inn’.

Undoubtedly, the most common pub name in the UK is ‘The Red Lion’: there were well over 600 at the last count, and countless more have come and gone in the past. Most originate from the reign of James I. He was already James VI of Scotland when he ascended to the English throne, in 1603. He ordered the heraldic Stuart red lion of Scotland to be displayed on all buildings of importance, including taverns. As it was by royal decree, many innkeepers simply changed the name of their tavern.

Other royal-related names have come and gone, too. ‘The White Hart’ and ‘The Horns’ date back to the time of Richard II. ‘Bear and Staff’ appear on the coat of arms of both the Earls of Leicester and Warwick. ‘The Ostrich’ and ‘Plume of Feathers’ feature on the crest of The Prince of Wales. ‘The White Horse’ is the sign of the House of Hanover and is also the emblem of the county of Kent. And fans of the UK soap opera EastEnders will be familiar with ‘The Queen Vic’.

Names starting with the word ‘Three’ are usually based on the coat of arms of London livery companies (trade associations). For example: Three Arrows – The Worshipful Company of Fletchers; Three Castles – The Masons; Three Hammers – The Blacksmiths; and Three Tuns – Brewers and Vintners.

Historic events, particularly battles and wars, are often commemorated. ‘The Saracen’s Head’ and ‘The Turk’s Head’ relate to tales of the Crusades. ‘The Rose and Crown’ pubs are named after the Battle of Bosworth Field in which King Richard III was killed. Henry Tudor, as the victor, proclaimed himself King Henry VII though he had no real claim to the throne. To legitimise it he married Princess Elizabeth of York who was so beautiful she was known as the Rose of York. Hence the ‘Rose’ is for the Princess and ‘Crown’ for Henry VII. History rarely remembers the losers!

After the 1651 Battle of Worcester in the English Civil War, the defeated Prince Charles escaped the scene and climbed an oak tree to evade his pursuers (it’s now known as the Boscobel Oak). After the hunters gave up, Charles escaped to France. On the restoration of the monarchy he became King Charles II and, to celebrate his good fortune, the 29th May (his birthday) was declared Royal Oak Day. Pubs called ‘The Royal Oak’ commemorate this. Royal Naval ships have also carried this name.

Other names derive from famous figures in history. ‘Lord Nelson’, ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Prince of Wales’, ‘Duke of Cambridge’, ‘Cromwell’, ‘Rabbie Burns’ and ‘Sir Barnes Wallis’, to name but a few. The latter used to be called ‘The Railway’ but was renamed in honour of the inventor of the bouncing bomb. Some others are named after the town or city itself. Quite a few have even been named for sporting heroes and sports teams. Cricket has ‘The Cricketers’, ‘Test Match’, ‘Trent Bridge Inn’ and the ‘Larwood and Voce’, two internationally renowned fast-bowlers who played for Nottinghamshire and England between the wars. Pubs near football grounds often carry a reference to the team or former players. ‘Hammers’ is the nickname for West Ham United and is the name of a nearby pub, too. ‘Magpies’ is on Meadow Lane, home of Notts County F.C. Next to Southampton F.C.’s ground is a pub named after former player Matthew Le Tissier. Lester Piggott, the jockey has had ‘The Jockey’ pub in Baughton, Worcestershire named for him, and ‘The Henry Cooper’ in London’s Old Kent Road immortalizes the former champion boxer.

Two old taverns have given rise to a popular saying. In Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, there are pubs called the ‘Cock’ and the ‘Bull’, respectively, and are close neighbours. There was great rivalry between the clientele of the two houses and each would tell increasingly unbelievable stories of their own prowess. The tales were, of course, nonsense. And, as times went by, any stories containing fictitious rubbish became known as cock and bull stories.

Other names describe the actual pub itself. ‘The Glynne Arms’ in Himely, Staffordshire is always known as ‘The Crooked House’. Because of mining on one side of the house, the pub has such a pronounced list that it’s difficult to put a glass down on the table without spilling it. It’s said that after you leave the pub and turn around, if you find that it has miraculously levelled out, you’ve drunk far too much!

Some pubs are named for puns or corruptions of foreign words. ‘Elephant and Castle’ is not only the name of several pubs and bars, but it’s also an area of London. It’s popularly believed amongst residents of this London borough that a 17th century publican named his tavern after a Spanish Princess ‘La Infanta del Castille’, who was betrothed to King Charles I of England. However, the prohibition of this marriage by the church led to a war with Spain, so it would probably not have been a popular name. A more likely explanation is that the name derives from the arms of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers or, perhaps, from the arms of the City of Coventry. Their arms depict an elephant carrying a castle shaped howdah – a seat for two or more people usually found atop elephants and camels. London Underground Railways actually named five of its stations after nearby pubs: ‘Elephant and Castle’, ‘Angel’, ‘Manor House’, ‘Royal Oak’ and ‘Swiss Cottage’.

A couple of others provide handy excuses for husbands when their wives call and ask then where they are. Plymouth, in the south of England, has a bar called ‘Nowhere’, there’s also one called ‘Nowhere Inn Particular’, and quite a few named ‘The Office’.

There are a plethora of others, but one thing you should note, certainly about the ones here on Samui, is that it’s not just great beer and familiar surroundings you’ll encounter. Just about every one of them has earned an excellent reputation for food as well. If a night of home away from home is just what you need, simply look out for the ‘inn-signia’!


Johnny Paterson


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