inn names and signs

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In an illiterate age each tradesman found it necessary to advertise his business by hanging a sign outside his premises. Most of these have long since been abandoned, though the barber's pole and the three balls of the pawnbroker are remembered. Inns and even the lowliest pub have retained their signs and their distinctive names to allow for easy differentiation. Many of these names are medieval in origin, though they remained popular and were used by much later premises. Inn names have sometimes been changed, not just in recent years; the commercial and trade directories of the late 18th and 19th centuries are useful for checking old names.

Many names are taken from the local landowner or from a badge or crest taken from his coat of arms. In the Peak District, for example, the family at Haddon Hall is commemorated by the inn names Duke of Rutland, Marquis of Granby (the title of the eldest son), and The Peacock, while the family at Chatsworth is linked to inns with such names as the Duke of Devonshire, the Cavendish Arms, and The Snake. Across the county boundary, the territory of another landowner is immediately signalled by the nine pubs in Sheffield that bear the name Duke of Norfolk. Elsewhere, the King's Arms, the Queen's Head, The Crown, the Prince of Wales, etc. may signify a crown estate or simply loyalty to the monarch.

Many pubs have the names of particular occupations, e.g. the Blacksmith's Arms, The Woolpack, or The Plough, or are connected with travel, e.g. the Coach and Horses. Some names have changed over time through a later misunderstanding of local speech, e.g. the Sheep Inn might have become The Ship. One local explanation of the strange name Flouch Inn on the South Yorkshire Pennines is that the sign proclaiming The Plough lost part of its first and fifth letters and the jocular literal pronunciation stuck. Some other inn names refer to legends, notably those concerning Robin Hood, or to such pagan figures as the Green Man. See Barrie Cox, English Inn and Tavern Names (1994), and George Redmonds, Names and History: People, Places and Things (2004), ch. 8.

Subjects: History.

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