London loves its pubs. We even name suburbs after them – Elephant & Castle, Angel and Swiss Cottage being three that readily spring to mind (although it’s worth noting that rarely does the original building that gives the place its name still exist – the Angel in Islington and Ye Olde Swiss Cottage are both relatively modern pubs). And there’s no shortage of tourist tat shops that sell reproductions of supposed London pub signs.
So why do pubs in Britain have such weird names? Whither the Elephant & Castle, the Lamb & Flag, the King’s Head? One theory I’ve read is that pubs would put a young tree in a pot outside to indicate that their newest batch of beer was ready. I disagree, and I have a theory of my own. See, “pub”, as you probably know, is short for “public house”. That is to say, like a house, only public. And this is where my theory comes in.
You see, for a long time, it wasn’t just pubs that had funny names. Most buildings did. Houses weren’t numbered, so the way to make your house distinctive was to give it a name. Of course, that wasn’t much use if you wanted to find the place. You can be pretty sure that Number 22 will be somewhere near Number 23, but where the heck can you expect to find Labour-In-Vain or The Cat and Fiddle? So, to make the buildings really stand out, people took to affixing signs visible right down the street. In Lombard Street in Central London, several of these signs survive. As a matter of fact, in several rural towns there still exist houses that look a heck of a lot like pubs (Labour-in-Vain, to return to an earlier example, is in St Ives in Cornwall).
My guess, and here I run out of actual evidence to back myself up, is that as the custom of naming houses fell out of fashion, pubs found it convenient to keep the signs – after all, they still wanted to be noticed.
So, where did the odd names come from? Well, there are as many theories as there are names (actually, probably not). Sometimes it’s fairly obviously a reference to a monarch or similar grand high muck-a-muck. The King’s Head is a good name to indicate loyalty. Red Lions, White Harts and Rose and Crowns might refer to a monarch’s emblem. Sometimes they come from a trade, as in the case of the aforementioned Elephant & Castle (named after the Cutlers, who used ivory in their craft). Sometimes it’s a corruption – the Cat & Fiddle has been suggested to derive from a knight named Caton le Fidele, or Caton the Faithful. Sometimes it’s religious, as with the Angel. Sometimes it’s from a sentiment, as with the Rising Sun (symbolising optimism) or the Hope and Anchor (symbolising faith).
So there you have it.