Signs of the times – past and present

Do we still need pub signs? - Written by Maggie Chaplin, first appeared in the May 2013 issue of the magazine

A street in a medieval town was noisy, smelly and dusty. Dust in your hair, on your clothes and in your nostrils. Dust you could taste. A long drink to slake your thirst would be really welcome. But where would you find one?

All the buildings lining the street would look pretty much the same and as tradesmen generally worked from home there’d be little to tell the difference between a domestic dwelling and for instance, the cobbler’s or the baker’s until you got inside. Most people had never been taught to read, so even if it did say Mr Sew and Sew the tailor over the door, or Best Beer Here, that was probably little help.

It isn’t clear exactly when communal drinking houses became the norm, but the Romans certainly had something of the sort. In medieval England water sources were of such unreliable purity, that the only predictably safe drink was ale and most households made their own. It was originally of very low alcoholic content and sometimes referred to as small beer, which was just as well because it was not unusual for a manual worker to consume an average of ten pints a day.

In the early Middle Ages most brewsters were women and inevitably some ale wives were better at the job than others and would gain a reputation for producing a superior quality brew. People sought them out and sometimes rather than drink at home chose to drink out in a ‘public’ house, although at that time such places were called alehouses or taverns. The term Public House didn’t come into use till the 19th century.

But how would you find a tavern in a row of houses that all looked pretty much the same, especially if you couldn’t read? A pictorial sign was the answer, but it needed to project outward into the street high above the level of street traffic so it could be picked out at a distance.

Initially just a picture of a bunch of greenery or cereal sufficed (hence pub names such as Ivy Bush, Holly Bush or Wheatsheaf), and then as more people took to selling ale, the drinker had choices, so alehouses began to advertise their speciality to appeal to a particular section of the community.

Whilst the lure of good quality ale may have started the trend for social drinking, the habit developed into something with a much broader purpose. People met in taverns to exchange gossip, to relax after work, to conduct legitimate business or broker shady deals. They congregated to enjoy entertainment and to forget their cares for a while.

Some drinking establishments in a town were favoured by people of a particular trade such as Mason’s Arms, Joiner’s Arms, or Jolly Weavers, so that those who might spend long solitary hours labouring at a loom or bench in their workroom at home could meet with others in a similar situation and let off steam in sympathetic company.

It wasn’t just the working man that enjoyed a pint or two of ale with his mates. A sign outside a tavern depicting a fox and hounds would be intended to attract the hunting fraternity to congregate there, and some taverns provided entertainment, for example the now illegal sport of cock fighting, which attracted followers from all walks of life.

There might be specially constructed cock pits on the tavern premises where regular fights were staged. Much ale would be drunk and wagers would be placed on the outcome of what were often battles to the death; the prospect of winning (or losing) substantial sums of money added to the excitement of this bloodthirsty sport. An illustration outside the tavern of a picture of a pair of cocks preparing to attack made it easy for prospective patrons to make an informed choice.

In market towns like Chipping Norton where there was a regular influx of visitors, all of whom needed rest and refreshment, public houses proliferated. They expanded their services to better meet the needs of the traveller. In addition to providing liquid refreshment some offered accommodation for both people and their animals – they were no longer just ale houses but inns. There would often be stables at the back of the premises to house horses, and stockyards fronting onto the street where sheep could be lodged on their way to or from market.

These days political scheming may be carried out in posh restaurants over dinner, but in the 17th century such clandestine plotting was likely to occur in an inn. If you were conniving to oust a monarch for instance, often the best place to meet was in the back room of an alehouse. Many revolts and rebellions may have been discussed in such surroundings.

Some taverns and inns would use their signs to declare their political affiliation. The symbol of the Red Lion, for example, dates back to the 14th century, and relates to the powerful nobleman, John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III. The red lion rampant is also the heraldic device representing Scotland. In the Four Shires an inn using the name the Blue Boar, declared its allegiance to, and inferred protection by, the Earls of Oxford, the De Vere family. A blue boar featured on their coat of arms.

Today we generally choose to go to a particular pub for a good pint, delicious food, a friendly landlord and a welcoming ambience. Rarely does the name have any influence on our decision, but in the Middle Ages one might have had to be a little more careful where one drank and ate, for fear of finding oneself in the wrong company.

When long distance travel became more common, there was an increased need for refreshment and accommodation, not just in towns but at strategic points along the main roads, so as well as being found in centres like Banbury, coaching inns also opened up at major road junctions. And it wasn’t only road users that needed a break from a long journey. Taverns with names such as the Navigation opened near canals to supply the needs of workers on the barges and along the railways too inns called, for example, the Locomotive or the Station catered to travellers. They all sported illustrated signs that advertised their presence and purpose.

Today we may bemoan the fact that not only have many former inns disappeared, and with them their depictions of coats of arms, animals, birds, trains, monarchs and numerous other splendid illustrations, but that many of the pubs that have stood the test of time have chosen to rename themselves and abandon the pub symbol altogether. This may be to signify that they’ve left the beer and sandwich image of the public house behind and moved up into the classy eatery market. Some establishments have compromised. They’ve kept the traditional name and post supporting a pub sign, but replaced the vibrant traditional design with a tasteful but insipid representation of the old name in fashionable “washed” colours.

We shouldn’t really complain about name changes; they represent just another chapter in our history. This sort of thing was going on in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In Chipping Norton for example, there was a tavern on the Burford road called the Reservoir, because it was where Chipping Norton’s first public water supply was established. When a new landlord took over in 1880 it became the Albion. Today a new housing development occupies the site. Also in the town, the Crown and Cushion had its name changed from the Catherine Wheel sometime in the 18th century, and the Chequers on Spring Street used to be the Blue Anchor.

Whether we like the new style of pub sign or prefer a traditional one, we should perhaps rejoice that we still have so many of them, in such a diverse range of designs that between them give an insight into our way of life from the Middle Ages to the present day.

After all, nowadays we don’t really need inn signs at all. All a pub requires is a name and address like the rest of us. Of course many of them have advertisements and reviews in the Four Shires that can help us make a choice. Pubs are as likely to have a web site and an entry on Facebook, as they are to have an illustrated sign board projecting from the wall, although on the main street of a town like Burford where little taverns are sandwiched amongst the shops and houses, a clear sign, visible from a distance is still very useful.

We can find out all we want to know about different pubs without leaving the house, and with our maps and our sat navs we can generally locate them with ease, but let’s appreciate our inn signs in all their variety. They brighten up the street scene and offer little snippets of history at the same time – they’re worth treasuring for those reasons alone.