If you’ve passed a local hostelry, or even popped in for a quick pint, and ever spent a moment pondering how and why it was given its name, you’re probably not alone. Here, then, is a brief introduction into the wonderful world of British pub names.

The origins of pub names

The naming of pubs is said to stem from the Roman tradition of hanging vine leaves outside tabernae in order to alert passers-by that wine was sold within. It has been suggested that when the Romans came to Britain – and vine leaves being in short supply - they chose to hang bushes outside places where drink could be acquired, thus giving rise to many pubs now called The Bush.

Although in truth the first proper pubs did not appear until centuries later, it’s a good story – and what is undeniable is that medieval British publicans did often distinguish their establishments by hanging objects outside them or naming them for nearby features. This gave rise to names such as the Copper Kettle, the Plough and the Blue Posts.

This practise further gave rise to the creation of pub signs. In the days when most of the working population was illiterate, a painted sign depicting whatever the name of the pub was enabled them to arrange to meet at that location, and was another early form of advertising.

Why are pubs called The Red Lion?

Red Lion pub sign in London.

Like many other pubs, the Red Lion gets its name from one of the most popular symbols found in heraldry on coats of arms. They may have been found on the badges of the local landowners in areas where pubs bore the name; others could have been in honour of John of Gaunt, founder of the House of Lancaster, who featured one on his personal badge; or for the beginning of the reign of the House of Stuart in 1603, as the red lion features on the royal arms of Scotland. Today, it’s a good indicator of it being a typical British pub.

Why are pubs called The Fox and Hounds?

This pub name, together with others such as the Dog and Duck, the Greyhound and the Tally Ho, derives from the fact that the pubs first given these names would have been popular with huntsmen.

Other pub names with blood sports connotations are the Bird in Hand (from falconry), the Hare and Hounds (hare coursing), and the Cock Tavern (from the days of cock fights being popular in pubs).

Why are pubs called The Hope and Anchor?

A demand for places to receive refreshment outside of the village setting grew with the popularity of pilgrimages and crusades to the Holy Lands, and plenty of pubs retain Christian imagery in their names, such as the Hope and Anchor, whose name comes from the biblical Letter to the Hebrews, 6:19 – “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope".

Other common pub names with a Christian theme are the Mitre, named for a bishop’s hat; and the Cross Keys, the sign of heaven’s gatekeeper, St Peter.

Why are pubs called The Crown?

Unsurprisingly, it was never considered a bad thing to display one’s allegiance to the monarch, especially after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541, and after the Restoration of the monarchy just over a century later. Pubs named the King’s Arms, the Queen’s Head and the Prince of Wales also reflect this.

Royal names and titles continue to be popular in the naming of pubs, and the trend was particularly prevalent during the reign of Queen Victoria, which saw the largest growth in the number of public houses in history. 

Why are pubs called The Royal Oak?

The Royal Oak pub in Shrewton, Wiltshire.

Continuing with the regal theme, the inspiration for this common pub name comes from the story of the defeated Prince Charles fleeing from the Battle of Worcester, and hiding from marauding Roundheads in an oak tree in Staffordshire. The Prince later escaped to France, and became King Charles II in 1660.

At that point, his birthday – May 29 – was declared to be Royal Oak Day, in memory of his lucky escape. The pub name reflects this; others that celebrate moments in history include pubs called the Trafalgar and the Alma, commemorating sea and land battles respectively.

Why are pubs called The Black Horse?

Pubs bearing this name are usually remembering the mythical overnight ride from London to York made by Dick Turpin, on his horse Black Bess. The famous journey was supposed to have taken place in 1737, but it was popularised by William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1834 novel Rookwood, which led to a revival of interest in the legendary highwayman that saw a glut of pubs named for his steed.

Why are pubs called The White Hart?

Another pub name that comes from heraldry; a white hart appeared on the livery badge of King Richard II. The name became extremely common – Richard in fact introduced legislation that made pub signs compulsory, which no doubt helped to popularise it.

Why are pubs called The Coach and Horses?

There’s an obvious and fairly straightforward answer to this one – pubs with this name (or Horse and Groom, the Coach House etc.) come from the 18th century, when the population became more mobile and inns and taverns designed to refresh or house travellers began to spring up.

It is claimed that coach travellers coming from London would stop at a pub in Stoney Stratford called the Cock, while those from Birmingham would rest at the pub on the opposite side of the road called the Bull. The two sets of passengers would often exchange news and gossip, which is said to give rise to the phrase ‘a Cock and Bull story’.

Why are pubs called The Railway?

Another obvious explanation for this one – pubs called the Railway (or similar) are to be found near current or former rail lines or stations. Interestingly, five London Underground stations and the districts around them are actually named after nearby pubs – Angel, Royal Oak, Elephant and Castle, Manor House and Swiss Cottage. Furthermore, Bat and Ball mainline rail station in Kent is named after a local pub.

Why are pubs called The Marquis of Granby?

Quite a specific one this, but there are around 30 pubs with this name in the UK – and there were several more in the past. John Manners, Marquis of Granby, was British Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in the 18th century. Concerned about the welfare of his non-commissioned officers in post-war retirement, he furnished them with the funds to buy or set up their own taverns, which were often named in his honour. His largesse would come to hurt him, however, leaving him with many creditors, and he died in significant debt.

Have you wondered about the origin of a pub name? Do you know of any fascinating stories behind pub names? Let us know in the Comments section below.