Monday, 26 November 2012

What do the pub signs mean?

Up and down the country of Britain pubs, or more properly public houses, announce their presence with bright and colourful signs. The history of the pub sign is one of the quintessentially British stories.

The British pub has a long and honoured history. Starting as the local ale house, the pub has developed into more of a social centre for villages and town districts than a simple place for drinking. Pubs have darts teams and football teams, they collect money for charity, they provide places for courting couples to meet and for old men to escape their wives. Everything, in short, that the local resident might need. And the pub provides for travellers and passersby as well with food and drink, toilets, parking for cars and bicycles and sometimes a place to sleep.

The signs advertising the pub today generally follow a set pattern so that a traveller can recognise a pub whatever part of the country they happen to be in, and it was always so. In medieval times an alehouse would hang a small bush outside the front door to show its trade. In towns the bushes were not so readily available so by Tudor times an empty barrel did service.

At about the same time the custom arose of placing easily recognised symbols outside business premises. This enabled a customer to find the premises he was seeking in a busy and crowded street - there being no such thing as house numbers in those days. A candlemaker, for instance, might be found at the sign of the candlestick.

Pubs, for some reason, took to displaying heraldic symbols such as red lions or white harts. Although shops and businesses have largely dropped their signs, the pubs have kept them. A great many retain their heraldic symbols, often showing a knight’s shield on the pub sign as well as the charge itself. In some places the origin of the symbol is obvious. The Onslow Arms in Clandon, Surrey, for instance displays the heraldic arms of the Onslow family, the local large landowners. Others are scarcely less clear, the Bear and Ragged Staff being the symbol of the once powerful Earls of Warwick.

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