The Genealogy of British Pub Signs

Click for the full PDF of the Pub Tree

A little while ago The Dabbler stumbled across this rather extraordinary and wonderful project – a  family tree tracing British pub names and signs.
British pub signs are one of the great features of our cultural landscape and, you might say, our psychogeography (I know one lady who can only navigate, and give directions, by reference to pubs – thus something is never ‘a few miles north of here’ but ‘you get to it by turning left at the Rose and Crown, keeping on til you get to the White Lion, then turn right’…etc).
The pub genealogist himself – graphic designer Jonathan Chadwick – has kindly supplied us with an up-to-date version of the Pub Tree (click the image for the full PDF), and an explanation of the theory behind the project…


Last year I began my MA, in Design and Art Direction at Manchester Metropolitan University. After sixteen years in industry working as a graphic designer I was looking to re-enthuse, re-educate and re-train my brain whilst also shifting my skill set towards those more traditionally attributed to illustrators. I recognised that I needed some kind of framework or context to define my studies and within which to reflect on the critical theories I would be considering.

I found everything I would need in the Great British Pub…

There are many resources available concerning Britain’s pub signs and names that aim to explain what they actually mean or stand for. Sometimes these theories concur, other times they might offer different opinions. Sometimes these suppositions might be based on an element of fact and other times it would seem, on myth. Sometimes, I felt the ‘meaning’ might only represent what I would describe as a ‘convenient truth’. Martyn Cornell wrote a very interesting piece along these lines about the origins of ‘The Red Lion’ on his blog, the Zythophile.

I did however begin to recognise that there were certain patterns developing in the themes behind the names and signs of our pubs and this got me thinking. There is something in the human condition that leads us to attempt to categorise things – to make sense of the world around us. For example you might believe in Genesis, The Big Bang Theory or something completely different, but you will have an opinion on how the world began. This can be categorised as being either a scientific or a faith based belief. Naturally then, I began to categorise the origins of different types of pub names and then the categories of those categories. This developed further into a hierarchy or lineage of pub names and began to take the form of something akin to a family tree.

The current form of this typology as presented here shouldn’t be viewed as a finished or definitive piece of work. Since I first planted the seed it has continued to develop, to evolve and grow organically just as any other kind of tree would. Occasionally third parties come along with additional insight or knowledge and tended to my tree, offering advice that would either prune its branches or nourish its roots. On reflection however I have considered that in view of the subjective nature of why any given pub was assigned a particular name, maybe it’s futile to even attempt to reconcile conflicting opinions. On the other hand however can’t we still appreciate or at least have an opinion about a beautiful tree even if it doesn’t bear fruit?

As part of my studies I read “Think/Classify” from “Species of Spaces and Other Pieces” by Georges Perec. Initially I have to admit to taking Perec’s words personally, almost as if they were a direct criticism of me and my list making actions. Only now, several months down the line am I starting to understand perhaps what his intentions in the text were. That maybe the act of developing my tree as a means of visually understanding where our pub names comes from was as ill considered as if I’d just presented them in a random list? If the conclusion is to be that there is no definitive article, maybe I have been ‘urgently’ producing ‘trivia’? The key, I believe, in understanding Perec’s work and my Pub sign family tree can be found in the following lines from the text:

In every enumeration there are two contradictory temptations. The first is to list everything, the second is to forget something… Thus, between the exhaustive and the incomplete, enumeration seems to me to be, before all thought (and before all classification), the very proof of that need to name and to bring together without which the world (‘life’) would lack any points of reference for us.

I think I owe that man a beer…

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10 thoughts on “The Genealogy of British Pub Signs

    ian russell
    November 17, 2010 at 08:33

    There were no less than three pubs in my home town with the esoteric name, The Case Is Altered, each known locally as The Case. I can’t for the life of me now think what they had on their signs. We also had one called The Seven Balls known locally as The Three And A Half Men.

    Then around the 80s and 90s, a lot of pubs changed their names for no good reason at all…

  2. Worm
    November 17, 2010 at 08:50

    Didn’t they all change their names to frivolously stupid ones in order to capitalise on the marketing success story of the ‘Firkin’ pubs and their ilk?

    Very very interesting post! Many thanks Jonathan, a great wednesday read

    November 17, 2010 at 09:03

    Yes, what happened to those Firkins, are they all bust?

    In the 1990s there were lots of odd names like the ‘Rat and Parrot’ or ‘Artichoke and Sparrow’ springing up, catering to students.

  4. Brit
    November 17, 2010 at 09:09

    The Pub Tree would make a terrific poster. I think it would sell like hotcakes.

  5. Gaw
    November 17, 2010 at 09:16

    What a worthwhile project! I’m fond of pub nicknames – always bestowed with a degree of affection, I think. A couple I’m familiar with are The Dirty Donkey (The Black Horse) and The Crimson Cat (The Red Lion). And, of course, there’s also Oxford’s famous Bird and Babe (The Eagle and Child), the haunt of Tolkien and Lewis.

  6. Brit
    November 17, 2010 at 10:34

    There are two strands here, aren’t there, with separate but intertwined genealogies: the pub name, and the pub sign.

    For example, you could do a whole tree just for Red Lion designs…

    The topic is infinite!

    November 17, 2010 at 11:55

    A subject closer to the hearts and minds of the average Briton than any other, fascinating Jonathan. One can visualise, in say the year 2250, the Uffizi, first Gallery on the left, upstairs, now pan European, Sandro, Sandro, Leonardo, Tap & Spile, Forge Hammer, Bird in the Bush, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Queen Victoria, Caravaggio, Dirty Dicks…..
    Pub naming sometimes has the law on unintended quincequonces applied, in South Shields market square, one side The Suffolk, the other side The Norfolk, we can imagine….Total lack of imagination in the Weald of Kent of course, all called The Bull, saved a fortune on signs, production line techniques used.

    November 17, 2010 at 13:28

    What a lovely idea.. Got me thinking of curious pub names too – The Tickle Arms is one of the more unusual I’ve been to. Where might that come from?! I agree with Brit – this would be brilliant as a poster, on a t-shirt (for sale in pubs) tea towel or a tray. But do it quick before someone else ‘borrows’ your idea…

    November 17, 2010 at 13:49

    To Brit and Susan

    The tree itself is a work in progress and I’m not sure if there will ever be a definitive version of it. It is my intention however when I complete my masters to publish it in whatever form it exists in then, probably as part of (or in support of) a book. I’ve been developing a series of ‘alternative’ sign designs as well as whole load of associated sociological theories so it will probably be a kind of theoretical/anecdotal counterpoint to the traditional ‘Dictionary of Pub Names’ type of product that’s readily available.

    The comments posted so far are certainly encouraging ‘signs’ that there’s an audience out there for it.

    Many thanks, Jc

    November 17, 2010 at 20:07

    The names of pubs are nearly as fascinating as the drinks they sell. Long ago I lived near The Pyrotechnist’s Arms (London SE15) – I believe so-called because there was once a fireworks factory nearby, although there was a story that it was once a drinking den frequented by Guy Fawkes. Now my local is The Old Corner Cupboard Inn (Winchcombe, Gloucestershire), the name of which reputedly comes from the fact that there used to be cupboards in the corners of all the rooms.

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