Beer Matters

Mutato nomine

Today’s topic is pub names and changes thereto. As John Eisel’s book (Pubs of Bromyard, Ledbury and East Herefordshire) reminded me, the phenomenon is nothing new, although I do wonder why the 19th century publicans of Bromyard found it necessary to rename their houses quite so often?

I grew up in an era when pub names were fairly static. Then suddenly change was the order of the day among the familiar landmarks of my youth. Every pub on the road from Lymington to Brockenhurst had a new sign within the space of a year or two. The Crown adopted its long-term nickname of the Monkey House (there’s a story behind that but I’ve forgotten what it is), while the equally prosaic Railway became the Snake Catcher (recalling a well-known local character, Brusher Mills), but why the Oddfellows became the Filly, or the New Inn the Hobbler, is a mystery.

In earlier times when most of the population were illiterate and it was customary, not just for innkeepers but also for shopkeepers and tradesmen, to put up a colourful sign advertising their wares, names would have been generally spoken rather than written and inevitably some that were less easy to depict graphically became corrupted over the years, e.g. the Cat and Fiddle (from Catherine la Fidele), Goat and Compasses (God encompasseth us) and Pig and Whistle (peg o’ wassail or wassail bowl).

The recent penchant for silly names may well have been prompted by a 1950’s radio programme in which a certain character used to say he was “just popping out to the Frog and Nightgown” (a real pub of this name later opened in the Old Kent Road and there are now several, including one in Edmonton, Canada). The trend was continued by Dave Bruce’s “Firkin” pubs and probably peaked in the late 80’s when it became almost obligatory for pubs to be called the X and Y, where X is usually an animal that people find inherently amusing, e.g. newt or ferret (surprisingly, that frequent butt of 60’s humour, the gibbon, seems to have escaped), and Y is either a type of cask or another such animal or something equally daft. Actually, concocting preposterous pub names from two incongruous nouns makes quite a good party game – try it some time when you’ve had a few.

Thankfully, in the real world the fad has largely passed and many historic names have been restored. The Wetherspoon chain, having started out labelling its establishments from a small pool of esoteric monikers (J J Moon’s, White Lion of Mortimer etc.) now seems to have settled on an admirable policy of leaving well alone in the case of existing pubs and creating names with local resonance for the newly converted ones. Looking at the current list, I wondered why the Isambard Kingdom Brunel is in Portsmouth rather than, say, Bristol or Paddington (it turns out that the great man was born there). Likewise, the Eric Bartholomew in Morecambe had me puzzled for a moment but the location is a bit of a give-away – it was of course Eric Morecambe’s real name.

To answer my earlier question, it may be partly because innovation was prized in the Victorian era, hence the enormous number of “railway” inns celebrating the new technology. Nowadays the pace of change is such that we tend to be weary and wary of too much innovation. Pubs are among the institutions that we (or at least the more conservative of us – and that probably includes most ringers) prefer to remain timeless and dependable.

You may have gathered that I am not generally in favour of old pubs changing their names, but sometimes the change itself has a story to tell. On a windy hillside at Clee Hill, Shropshire, is a little pub formerly called the Craven Arms although, according to a local in the bar, it was often referred to as the “krem” (crème?) to distinguish it from another Craven Arms in the nearby village of that name. But one day, some twenty-odd years ago, the pub’s juke box, perhaps appalled by the banal popular music of the day, suddenly began blaring out Radio Moscow and would not desist, so the place was renamed the Kremlin. Sadly the rogue machine is no longer there.


Hop Thoughts from Abroad, part 3 (North America) has been put on hold pending further research later in the year.

Maximus Bibendus

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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