Inn Signs and Local History

Speaker: Robert Mee

18 May 2021

Returning after our Easter break, we met once more via Zoom and welcomed Robert Mee from Heanor, Derbyshire, whose subject was “Inn signs and Local History”.
Most villages and towns have pubs or inns; can their signs and names provide clues that are helpful to local historians? Care needs to be taken because the names may just be fanciful and can be changed at the whim of the owner but in some cases they do point to aspects of history that might otherwise be overlooked.
Bars and other drinking establishments have existed since at least Roman times and they have always been identified by signs – not least because most people were unable to read written names. Vines or grapes were common signs on the continent but in Britain an ale-house was often indicated by a holly bush outside the door and the Holly Bush remains quite a common pub name today.
The most popular inn signs are symbols that indicate allegiance to the monarchy, e.g. the Red Lion (James I or John of Gaunt); the White Hart (Richard II); the Royal Oak (Charles II); the Swan (Henry IV-VII); or simply the Crown. At a more local level, heraldic symbols may tell you that the inn formed part of the estate of an aristocratic family. Some are straightforward, e.g. the Cavendish Arms, but others need more interpretation, e.g. the Peacock was an emblem of the Dukes of Rutland and the Snake (from which Derbyshire’s Snake Pass took its name) referred to the crest of the Dukes of Devonshire.
Other innkeepers preferred to reflect village life with names such as the Plough or the Wheatsheaf and such names sometimes point to lost local industries such as the Lime Kiln. Many landlords also had second occupations, which may be indicated by names like the Blacksmith’s Arms or the Baker’s Arms. (They often followed the familiar pattern of adding “Arms” even when no actual coat of arms was involved.) The Chequers suggests that a simple banking service (an exchequer) was once provided there.
When a network of turnpike roads was developed, coaching inns grew up to serve them, with names such as the Horse & Groom or the Gate Inn (where a toll gate would have been located). The Boat Inn may indicate that there was once a canal nearby and there are many surviving Railway Inns and Station Hotels that have outlived the local rail service. Pubs named after famous people (e.g. Lord Nelson) hint at the date of their establishment and the named person sometimes had a local connection.
(The Wetherspoons pub chain is particularly good at maintaining this tradition. For example, their “Lord Keeper of the Great Seal” in Oadby is named after Nathan Wright, who was born in Thurcaston, held that office 1700-5, and later became Oadby’s lord of the manor.)
Even a simple name like the New Inn should prompt research into where the old inn was!