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The range of signs which adorn Britain’s pubs are woven into the nation’s history and identity. The name of the establishment is almost invariably accompanied by a design or illustration, often hand crafted. It’s a tradition which is almost unique to the UK, but how did it come about? Here’s a brief overview!
Like many things, the origins of the pub sign can be traced back to the Romans, according to Historic UK. They would hang vine leaves outside a taberna, to show that they sold wine, as often the shop was a part of a house and needed a distinguishing feature. In the UK, evergreen plants were used as a substitute.
If the tavern sold beer as well as wine, then sometimes an ale stake was also hung outside. By the 12th century, inns and taverns all had names to identify them. However, only a small fraction of the population could read, so the sign was accompanied by an illustration which was a literal interpretation of the name—a tradition which still persists today.
In 1393, a law was passed by King Richard II which made it compulsory for all pubs and inns to display a sign, so that they could be identified by the Ale Taster. This was a newly created role which ensured that ales and beers were sold in accordance to trading standards, in terms of volume, ingredients, and quality.
It was an important job because almost everyone drank beer or ale as a substitute for water, which was untreated and represented a health hazard. Even children drank weak fermented beverages, probably no stronger than 1 or 2%.
The Guardian reports that the tradition has recently been revived in the Cheshire town of Congleton, where in 1272, the charter required four official appointments: the debt collector, the mayor, the town crier, and the ale taster. Any publican caught inflating the price of his beer could be put in the stocks!
The names of pubs tended to have royal links, either royal figures or emblems, such as the White Hart or White Lion, or simply The Crown or the King’s Head. These lend themselves to straightforward and easily recognisable images, which were ideal material to provide the basis for a pub sign.
Others were named after famous historical figures such as The Duke of Wellington, or famous battles such as the Trafalgar. The older inns may have had biblical origins to their names, such as the Church House, The Bishop’s Inn, or the Cross Keys. However, many of the religious names were changed after the Reformation of the 16th century.
Now of course, pubs can have all kinds of weird and wonderful names, such as the Slug and Lettuce, or the Drunken Duck, but the tradition of the pub sign remains strong. A unique and well designed and crafted sign is still important to attract customers, and is more memorable and inviting than a text-only sign.
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