This page attempts to explain the significance and meaning behind the Inn Signs of England. Research is augmented with photographs of pub signs

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Introduction

I have been taking photographs of inn signs for some years. I was fascinated by them long before I started delving into the histories of public houses. Now, of course, they are an important component of the pub's history so I never miss an opportunity to capture the inn sign on my travels. In fact, I cannot travel anywhere without keeping one eye peeled for a good inn sign. I have noticed that signs are slowly being changed from traditional hand-painted boards to computer-generated stick-on images so if you have any interest in this area I urge you to take photographs of the old painted signs before they disappear forever.

In studying or researching an inn sign that I have captured on a photograph, I have learned many historical facts that I would perhaps not have necessarily gone out of my way to discover - and many of the stories unearthed can, amazingly, make for a good dinner conversation or a bit of waffle over a pint down the pub. For example, everyone knows who first clambered up to the summit of Everest, but I didn't realise that the measurements of the mountain changed in 1999. And if you didn't know yourself have a look at the sign's entry for more details. Of course, I wouldn't bore the pants off everyone in the bar - I would make some sort of claim that I'd have climbed the mountain myself in the past but now I cannot be bothered with that extra seven foot. I mean, I would have to pack an extra Kendal Mint Cake.

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The study of inn signs can be a satisfying hobby. Indeed, it can be most informative because the name of a pub can reveal something about its past. Some pub names often enjoyed their period of vogue and some in particular will give hints or clues as to the pub's history. For example, if you stumbled across a pub called The Yew Tree - and there seem to be quite a few of them - then it could be that the pub originates from [or shortly after] the period when Henry V was on the throne. The tree was of particular significance in that it was used to make bows. An Act was passed during the reign of Henry V to protect the tree and it was subsequently planted in churchyards to act as an evergreen symbol of immortality. This is perhaps the most common place to see a yew tree nowadays.

However, you have to tread carefully with pub names as they can sometimes be misleading - a pub named The Yew Tree may have existed before such an Act was passed and changed its name accordingly. Or the pub could be quite recent, say Victorian, and it was named simply because a magnificent example of a Yew Tree stands near the pub. It all adds to the fun and mystery of our wonderful inn signs.

It was the Romans who introduced inn signs to Great Britain and three modern signs can be traced back to their occupation of England. A branch of greenery tied to a pole and placed outside a building would identify it as a taberna and the sign was called an alestake or a bush - hence perhaps the oldest pub name, The Bush. The Romans also used the Chequers as a sign for a pub. It would indicate that, in addition to a good knees-up, games like chess and draughts could be played there - along with a bit of gambling of course! The third sign used by the Romans was more pictorial. A vintner was advertised using a picture of two slaves carrying an amphora of wine suspended on a pole between them. The modern day version shows Two Brewers or draymen delivering beer and carrying a cask between them, again slung from a pole. Up until recent times, there were still seventeen pubs in London with the name The Two Brewers. Most are probably called something like the Frog and Spanner Wrench now as corporate identity and marketing plonkers have done for many of our interesting pub names.

It was during the middle ages that pub signs of unique character really emerged. Perhaps it was due to the increasing number of inns that drove landlords to try to attract customers with a grand sign. As most people were illiterate, there was little point in displaying a name so a picture would be used. The pub, in most cases, would have been named after the sign because people would have spoke of being at the sign of The Bush [or whatever name] rather than being at a pub called The Bush. Of course, it wasn't just pubs that used such sign language - most businesses erected signs to advertise their trade. At one time pub landlords had no option but to erect a sign. In 1393 King Richard II decreed that pubs must have signs. He stated that ""Whosoever shall brew ale in the town [London] with the intention of selling it must hang out a sign; otherwise he shall forfeit his ale." Since that day pubs and their signs became synonymous. And no other country proudly displays its history on their pub signs like Great Britain. We are certainly the richer for this. So, if you enjoy looking at a bit of history, take a virtual journey with me around the inn signs of the Midlands and beyond.

Newspaper Articles

"The painted pub sign, one of the oldest popular visual arts traditions in Britain, is locked in decline. That is the fear of conservationists who hope to alert pub chains and breweries to a 'catastrophic' loss of the traditional skills involved and a failure to preserve a heritage that dates back to Roman times. The growing corporate ownership of public houses across the British Isles has led to the standardisation of what is on offer, both inside and outside the bar. The situation has worsened in the past five years because of the increasing number of pub closures. Figures compiled by the Campaign for Real Ale show that an average of 57 pubs shut permanently every month.

Campaigning groups such as the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which once lobbied vigorously on behalf of this dying art, have been taken by surprise by the rate of decline. Only the small Inn Signs Society has charted the sharp fall in newly commissioned painted signs. The society, which has fewer than 400 members, aims to win a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to establish an online archive of material before the tradition disappears. "Like the pub, the inn sign is classless and central to British culture," argues Tim Minogue in the latest edition of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings' monthly magazine. "And like the pub, it is acutely vulnerable. Inn signs vary wildly in artistic merit, have no official status or protection, are constantly exposed to the elements and are at risk of theft and vandalism."

Only the 30 independent pub chains and breweries in Britain are still ordering individually painted signs. The St. Austell Brewery in Cornwall has a full-time sign painter and the Donnington Brewery at Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire is hanging painted signs at its 16 tied pubs. Whitbread ran a sign-painting studio in Cheltenham until 1991, but has given up brewing and now runs pub restaurant chains such as Brewer's Fayre.

Inn and tavern names are often of historic significance to an area and yet corporate takeovers have led to the replacement of many with new brand names such as The Rat and Parrot, All Bar One, Pitcher and Piano, or Slug and Lettuce. The first signs outside inns appeared after the Roman invasion when most people were unable to read. A wreath of vine leaves on a pole was the recognised symbol for a hostelry, and this led to images of shrubbery and pub names such as The Bush or The Bunch of Grapes. During the medieval era heraldry and religious symbolism took over: Cross Keys is a reference to St. Peter, and the Red Lion may come from the insignia of John of Gaunt, the most prominent public figure in 14th century England.

Minogue looks back nostalgically at the last moment of glory for painted pub signs : in November 1936 the first and last Inn Signs Exhibition was held in London, and 260 iron and timber signs were seen by 18,000 visitors. He quotes too the words of the 61-year-old artist Rob Rowland, who has painted more than 1,000 inn signs in his time. "What is happening is a great shame," he says. "These corporate identities obliterate the historical significance of pubs and detach people from their roots. There are many reasons for the loss of inn signs, but it is all part of a general decline of cultural sensibility."

Signs of the times - the earliest 'pub sign' was a wreath of vine leaves, an idea that arrived with the Romans. But as vines are not native, they were replaced by evergreens, trees and shrubs, and eventually painted signs such as The Bush and The Yew Tree. In 1393 King Richard II passed a law making it compulsory for inns to have a sign in order to identify them to the official Ale Taster. The Cheshire Cat at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, is said to be the first to refer to such a creature. It is not clear whether the cheese and dairy products of the area were thought to keep its felines happy. The name of The Mother Shipton, in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, comes from the tale of a local woman born in a cave in the 15th century who supposedly foretold the death of Cardinal Wolsey, the Gunpowder Plot, and the invention of aircraft. The Victoria in St Werburgh's, Bristol replaced its image of Queen Victoria in 2002 with one of Victoria Beckham - which was then changed to Little Britain's Vicky Pollard."

"Plea to Save Vanishing Art of the Pub Sign"
by Vanessa Thorpe
The Guardian : September 21st 2008

Pub Signs

Midlands Inn Signs

Non-Midlands Inn Signs

Inn Sign of the King Arthur at Dudley [1989]

Inn Sign of The King of the Road at Newtown Birmingham [1975]

Related Websites

The Inn Sign Society

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Quotation

William Shakespeare

"I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety."
William Shakespeare