Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Secrets behind pub names

On a beautiful, albeit chilly day, yesterday, I was unchained from my writing desk to go for a walk on Dartmoor. After a bracing few miles, we adjourned to the pub - The Elephant's Nest. Naturally, the question was raised about the unusual name, especially as the Ordnance Survey map recorded it as The New Inn. 

The story goes, that in the 1950s, the landlord at the time, a particularly large individual had a habit of sitting on a stool behind the bar and 'swivelling' to pull a pint or dispense an optic. One day a local said to him that he looked like an elephant sitting on a nest. The landlord was amused by the comment and the new name was adopted, as you can see from the sign hanging outside when you approach the pub. 

It was 1393 when the law was passed that drinking establishments should hang a sign outside their premises. Useful for those looking for refreshment but even more useful for the royal ale-tasters to test the brew and - surprise, surprise - demand payment of the relevant taxes. 

The Elephant's Nest is a relatively new pub name but of course, many traditional names go back centuries. Many a noble family's coat of arms would inspire the name of the local, such as The Red Lion or The White Hart. With the turmoil of Henry VIII turning his back on Catholicism, many pubs were quick to change their name from one which might be misconstrued as 'popish', to something altogether more loyal sounding, such as The Kings Arms. Other pubs have been named after famous people in history - The Lord Nelson, The Duke of York, The Duke of Wellington.

But what of those weird and wonderful names such as The Elephant and Castle, The Goat and Compass or The Flying Bedstead? Albert Jack's book, The Old Dog and Duck - The secret meanings of pub names - reveals the fascinating stories behind more than 120 pub names. 

The Prospect of Whitby, the well known pub in Wapping, which I know, was originally known as the Devil's Tavern, due to its reputation as a den of thieves and smugglers. The notorious 'Hanging' Judge Jeffreys (1645-89), who acquired his 'title' during the trials associated with the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, would allegedly stand on the balcony of the pub overlooking Execution Dock and watch the hangings. The bodies would be left on the gibbet for the tide to wash over them (usually three times) before being removed. It was customary at that time, to allow condemned prisoners to drink a quart of ale at a public house on the way to the gallows, so the Devil's Tavern was ideally located for the purpose. 

The pub burned down in the late 18th or early 19th century and when it was rebuilt, it was named after a three-masted ship which regularly moored nearby on the banks of the Thames. Perhaps the landlord thought a new name would better for business.

We have only come across one publican so far amongst our ancestors. James Sawyer was recorded on the marriage certificate of his daughter Susannah, as an Inn Keeper, in Danbury in Essex.

If you have any landlords in your family, the Pub History website had a wealth of information where you can search by county.


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