I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The Swan with Two Necks, the World Turned Upside Down, and The Three-Legged Mare are just three of the names given to British pubs. Let’s explore the origins of these names and others.
Writing for Britain Express, Elaine Saunders says that pub names evolved out of the Roman Occupation, 2,000 years ago. It had been the habit of Romans to hang vine leaves outside places called tabernae where wine was sold. Such a delicate plant could not survive Britain’s sometimes foul climate so they used bushes instead; a practice that is commemorated today in pubs called the Bush Inn or the Bull and Bush.
Then, landlords started planting objects outside establishments to advertise the pleasures to be had within. A copper kettle, a flower pot, a wheelbarrow, and other devices morphed into the painted signs so common today.
Saunders writes that “It would be centuries before the first recognizable pubs opened. Religious houses ran the earliest true inns to cater for pilgrims and knights on their way to the Crusades in the Holy Land.
The oldest pub in England still in existence hails from this period; carved into the sandstone rock beneath Nottingham Castle, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem dates back to 1189. It was originally called The Pilgrim and has been built out to accommodate those with a thirst to quench.
Other frequently seen pub names relating to the Crusades are the Saracen’s Head, the Turk’s Head, and the Lamb and Flag―the lamb standing in for Christ and the flag for the sign under which the warriors marched to destroy what they called infidels.
Support for Monarchy Shown in Pub Names
According to the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) the three most popular pub names in the United Kingdom all relate to the monarchy. The Crown Inn, of which there are 704 examples, has been around as a name for at least 600 years.
The Red Lion (668 examples) takes the name from John of Gaunt’s coat of arms. “However, the proliferation of the name,” says CAMRA “is mainly due to King James I, a Scot who acceded to the throne of England in 1603. A Royal Decree was sent around that all public buildings should display the Red Lion of Scotland.”
Number three in the rankings come the 541 Royal Oak pubs. They trace their name to Charles II who, in 1651, tried to escape Oliver Cromwell’s troops by hiding in an oak tree. He dodged the Roundheads for another six weeks before escaping to France.
The fourth and fifth most popular names also have royal connections. The Swan and the White Hart are both named for heraldic devices commonly used by the monarchy. And then, there are scores of King’s Arms, Queen’s Head, and Prince of Wales pubs.
Corruption of Names Used by Pubs
The English language is famous for pinching words from other tongues and making them their own, and pub landlords have been adept at the skill of twisting a foreign or English word or two into a name for their hostelries.
The Elephant and Castle, of which there are many examples, is said to be an anglicized pronunciation of “the Infanta of Castile,” a Spanish princess who was engaged to marry Charles I. Although Michael Quinion at World Wide Words throws cold beer on this popular belief by writing that the Elephant and Castle name is derived from the emblem used by “the Cutlers’ Company, a London craft guild founded in the 13th century, which represented workers who made knives, scissors, surgical instruments, and the like.”
The Dog and Bacon pub in Horsham, Sussex seems to be an odd combination of things until the name’s origin is explained by the Horsham Pub Guide: the “pub name comes from the ‘Dorking Beacon’ which, apparently, was a bonfire on the site of Horsham common.”
In Ancient Rome, drunken festivals called bacchanals were held to honour the god of wine, Bacchus. So the landlord of a pub in Bristol, England tortured the word “bacchanals’ until he got Bag o’ Nails.
There are several pubs called Swan with Two Necks and the name dates from the time of Elizabeth I. She gave some swans away as a favour and their new owners cut a couple of small nicks in their beaks to identify them. “Nicks” became corrupted into necks.
Strange Pub Names
The World Turned Upside Down might describe how a patron felt leaving the place, but it used to be a pub on the Old Kent Road in south London. It was boarded up in 2008 in a long-term trend of pub closings in the U.K.
A local website says the pub was already 200 years old when mentioned in a history of the area published in 1878. The website says Edward Walford’s history “reports the name as originating either from the discovery of Australia, Van Diemen’s Land, or Terra del Fuego, or from the practice of inn sign makers to depict ‘things the opposite of what is natural and usual.’ ”
Irony is also a popular theme, so there are pubs called the Honest Lawyer, the Honest Politician, the Jolly Taxpayer, and the politically incorrect Quiet Woman.
Some Gruesome Pub Names
The Hung Drawn and Quartered is on London’s Tower Hill where executions used to take place. Never mind the grammatical error of “Hung” rather than “Hanged” or lack of punctuation; it’s the beer and conviviality that matters.
The Bucket of Blood in Hayle, Cornwall continues the sanguinary theme. It gets its name from a story about the landlord going to the well and pulling up a bucket of―you guessed it. Apparently, a body had been stuffed down there. “A little local well water in your Scotch, Sir?”
Near Oldham, Lancashire there used to be a pub called Help the Poor Struggler. In the 1940s, its landlord was Albert Pierrepoint, whose part-time job when he wasn’t serving pints was as Britain’s official hangman. In 1950, Pierrepoint executed James Corbitt, a convicted murderer. In a strange twist, Corbitt was one of the Struggler’s customers with whom the pub landlord would often sing duets on Saturday nights. But, that’s another story.
The Three-Legged Mare in York celebrates the gallows at Tyburn, London. It was a triangular structure from which as many as 24 felons could be hanged at the same time. Today, the pub boasts “… over 15 televisions and two giant projection screens.” What a terrible way to kill the social interaction that is one of the central characteristics of the British pub.
- It seems the pub with the longest name is The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Corps Inn in Stalybridge, Cheshire. Imagine a well-lubricated patron calling for a taxi to take him home and trying to tell the dispatcher where he is.
- Historic U.K. tells us that “By 1577 it is estimated that there were some 17,000 alehouses, 2,000 inns and 400 taverns throughout England and Wales.” Given the size of the country’s population at the time there would have been one pub for every 200 people.
- Oh! The horror! Pubs are closing all over Britain and have been doing so for several years. Foodandwine.com said in 2019 an average of 14 pubs a week were closing their doors for good. Beer lovers are blaming the high taxes on their favourite beverages for the closures.
- “Signs from The Spirit World.” Elaine Saunders, Britain Express, undated.
“Britain’s Strangest Pub Names.” The Telegraph, February 15, 2016.
- “The Great British Pub.” Ben Johnson, Historic U.K., undated.
- Campaign for Real Ale.
- “Old Kent Road Pubs.” Marcia Road, undated.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Travel-Wise on April 04, 2017:
This is fascinating! It's a shame, as you mentioned, that the social interaction is dying in these pubs - among other places. Thanks for sharing!
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 30, 2017:
Oh that's interesting Robert. I didn't know the fishing vessels were called Smacks. That's something I've learned. Thankyou.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on March 30, 2017:
A very interesting read. These names have earned their niches in the history and culture of their people.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 29, 2017:
Back when the earth was still flat I lived on the Essex coast and there were plenty of fishing vessels called smacks. Yarmouth had a lot of these sailing boats that caught mackerel off the beaches. But why the name of a London borough was attached is a mystery to me.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 29, 2017:
There's a pub in my town called The Barking Smack. No idea where they got that name from. I like it though.
Glen Rix from UK on March 29, 2017:
Our culture is enriched by pubs signs. I love them. I didn't know that in early times inn keepers placed objects outside their premises. I know the Trip to Jerusalem well - one of my stamping grounds in younger days and in recent years I drove past it regularly on my journey to work. Thanks for the memories.