England Inn Names (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Inn Names[edit | edit source]

Prior to the spread of literacy tradesmen advertised their businesses by hanging signs indicative of their service outside their shops, for example a large boot, a huge pair of spectacles, or a model of a clock. The few remaining such signs are largely confined to the barber’s striped pole (blood and bandages indicative of the barber’s sideline of letting blood), the pawnbroker’s three balls (stemming from the Medici family of Lombardy), and the many signs denoting specific inns. At first inns would announce the production of a new brewing of ale by hanging a wreath of flowers outside the inn to alert the local ale-taster [early inspector] and potential thirsty customers. There were differences between the services provided by inns, pubs (public houses), hotels, beer houses and taverns, but I refer to them all as inns here. When another drinking establishment opened it became necessary for each to have an individual name, and these often indicate local history, notable families and customs, and as such are interesting clues for the family historian. Some of the many sources from which inns derive their names, and which have interest for the family historian are the following:

  • ŸLocal landowner, his coat of arms, or something associated with the family, especially in closed villages. Thus The Dashwood Arms at Kirtlington, Oxfordshire displays the coat of arms of the local landowner baronets. The Bear and Ragged Staff is a reference to the Earls of Warwick whose arms incorporates this figure. The family historian could well find that the earl had local landholdings, so their ancestors may have worked for him and can be found in the estate’s papers.
  • ŸA nearby crown estate, or simply loyalty to the monarch can be displayed by The King’s/Queen’s Head, The Crown, The Prince of Wales, The Fleur de Lis and so forth.
  • ŸLocally important occupations include The Carpenters Arms, The Jovial Foresters, The Cricketers, The Fruiterers and hundreds more in appropriate locales whose associations or workers may have met there, or perhaps the original publican also carried out that trade. There are unusual ones, such as The Printer’s Devil, named after the nickname for a printer’s apprentice, and situated off Fleet St., London. Sometimes a trade tool is used for the sign as in The Dandy Roll in the city of London, which refers to a wire roll which put the watermark in paper; or The Corner Pin a nickname for a pub in Crayford, Kent, opposite the entrance to the silk printing works, whose skilled craftsmen used the corner pin on a wooden design block to align their work.
  • ŸLocal historical connections, such as The William Caxton at Tenterden, Kent near where this first English printer was born; The Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III, in Bexley, Kent, opposite Hall Place where he lived; and the Nell Gwyn in Chelsea, London where she is credited with the idea of founding the Chelsea Hospital for soldiers.
  • ŸTravelling connections, since major inns were stopping places for The Wool Pack, The Toll House, The Row Barge, The Coach and Horses, or The Royal Mail. My ancestor Joseph Dashwood of the Royal Navy came from Topsham, a small town on the River Exe in Devon, and its former importance as a port is shown by the names of its inns—The Ferry Inn, The Lighter, The Passage Inn and The Steam Packet.
  • ŸConnections with a local religious house, as many inns developed from the guest houses of monasteries or abbeys, are shown by signs like The Cross Keys (emblem of St. Peter), The Mitre, The Angel, and The Black Friar.
  • ŸOne must always be aware, however, that the original name may have become bastardized, as in:
  • The Hospice now called The Ostrich
  • The Swan with Two Nicks (in its beak to denote ownership), is frequently now The Swan with Two Necks
  • The Black Swan now degenerated into The Mucky Duck
  • The Headless Virgin later The Headless Woman and latterly the derogatoryThe Silent Woman

There are many more categories and several interesting books about them, including those by Delderfield and Lamb, whilst the redoubtable Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Evans) discusses many of them.

Some idea of the length of history in a place can be gained from finding that the inn is named The New Inn and is dated in the 14th or 15th century, having replaced a former one on the same site! Inns were the social, administrative, political, intellectual and commercial centres of the neighbourhood and over the centuries have provided not only food, drink and lodging, but rooms for many local events. They have served as sites for such disparate functions as quarter sessions, friendly societies, press gangs, coroners’ inquests, vestry meetings, wedding feasts, smugglers’ rendezvous, auctions, cock fighting, lectures, and also the beginnings of the music halls. Some were posting inns, where horses were changed for the next stage of the journey for coaches or delivery wagons, others were regular stops for the drovers, and many were pick-up points for the Royal Mail. For the real flavour of the coaching era I recommend the book by Cecil Aldin, The Romance of the Road. Family historians who want to recreate the times of their ancestors would be well to observe the clues provided by the names of the local hostelries.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English - Understanding Names in Genealogy offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.