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Public-house Signs


Much of a nation’s history, and more of its manners and feelings, may be gleaned from its public-house signs. A very large number of them are selected out of compliment to the lord of the manor, either because he is the “great man” of the neighbourhood, or because the proprietor is some servant whom “it delighted the lord to honour;” thus we have the Earl of March, in compliment to the Duke of Richmond: the Green Man or game-keeper, married and promoted “to a public.” When the name and titles of the lord have been exhausted, we get his cognisance or his favourite pursuit, as the Bear and Ragged Staff, the Fox and Hounds. As the object of the sign is to speak to the feelings and attract, another fruitful source is either some national hero or great battle; thus we get the Marquis of Granby and the Duke of Wellington, the Waterloo and the Alma. The proverbial loyalty of our nation has naturally shown itself in our tavern signs, giving us the Victoria, Prince of Wales, the Albert, the Crown, and so on. Some signs indicate a speciality of the house, as the Bowling Green, the Skittles; some a political bias, as the Royal Oak; some are an attempt at wit, as the Five Alls; and some are purely fanciful. The following list will serve to exemplify the subject:—


The Angel. In allusion to the angel that saluted the Virgin Mary.

The Bag oʹNails. A corruption of the “Bacchanals.”

The Bear. From the popular sport of bear-baiting.

The Bear and Bacchus, in High Street, Warwick. A corruption of Bear and Baculusi.e. Bear and Ragged Staff, the badge of the Earl of Warwick.

The Bear and Ragged Staff. The cognisance of the Earl of Warwick, the Earl of Leicester, etc.

The Bell. In allusion to races, a silver bell having been the winner’s prize up to the reign of Charles II.

La Belle Sauvage. (See Bell Savage.)

The Blue Boar. The cognisance of Richard III.

The Blue Pig (Bevis Marks). A corruption of the Blue Boar. (See above.)

The Boar’s Head. The cognisance of the Gordons, etc.

The Bolt-in-Tun. The punning heraldic badge of Prior Bolton, last of the clerical rulers of Bartholomew’s, previous to the Reformation.

Bosom’s Inn. A public-house sign in St. Lawrence Lane, London; a corruption of Blossom’s Inn, as it is now called, in allusion to the hawthorn blossoms surrounding the effigy of St. Lawrence on the sign.

The Bowling Green. Signifying that there are arrangements on the premises for playing bowls.

The Bull. The cognisance of Richard, Duke of York. The Black Bull is the cognisance of the house of Clare.

The Bull’s Head. The cognisance of Henry VIII.

The Bully Ruffian. A corruption of the Bellerophon (a ship).

The Castle. This, being the arms of Spain, symbolises that Spanish wines are to be obtained within. In some cases, without doubt, it is a complimentary sign of the manor castle.

The Cat and Fiddle. A corruption of Caton Fidèlei.e. Caton, the faithful governor of Calais. In Farringdon (Devon) is the sign of La Chatte Fidèle, in commemoration of a faithful cat. Without scanning the phrase so nicely, it may simply indicate that the game of cat (trap-ball) and a fiddle for dancing are provided for customers.

The Cat and Mutton, Hackney, which gives name to the Cat and Mutton Fields.

The Cat and Wheel. A corruption of “St. Catherine’s Wheel;” or an announcement that cat and balance-wheels are provided for the amusement of customers.

The Chequers. (1) In honour of the Stuarts, whose shield was “checky,” like a Scotch plaid. (2) In commemoration of the licence granted by the Earls of Arundel or Lords Warrenne. (3) An intimation that a room is set apart for merchants and accountants, where they can be private and make up their accounts, or use their “chequers” undisturbed. (See Lattice.)

The Coach and Horses. This sign signifies that it is a posting-house, a stage-coach house, or both.

The Cock and Bottle. A corruption of the “Cork and Bottle,” meaning that wine is sold there in bottles. Probably in some cases it may indicate that the house provides poultry, eggs, and wine.

The Cow and Skittles. The cow is the real sign, and alludes to the dairy of the hostess, or some noted dairy in the neighbourhood. Skittles is added to indicate that there is a skittle ground on the premises.

The Cross Keys. Common in the mediæval ages, and in allusion to St. Peter, or one of the bishops whose cognisance it is—probably the lord of the manor or the patron saint of the parish church. The cross keys are emblems of the papacy, St. Peter, the Bishop of Gloucester, St. Servatus, St. Hippolʹytus, St. Geneviève, St. Petronilla, St. Osyth, St. Martha, and St. Germaʹnus.

The Devil. A public-house sign two doors from Temple Bar, Fleet Street. The sign represents St. Dunstan seizing the devil by the nose. (See under Devil, Proverbial Phrases.)

The Dog and Duck. Tea gardens at Lambeth (suppressed); to signify that the sport so called could be seen there. A duck was put into water, and a dog set to hunt it; the fun was to see the duck diving and the dog following it under water.

The Red Dragon. The cognisance of Henry VII. or the principality of Wales.

The Spread Eagle. The arms of Germany; to indicate that German wines may be obtained within.

The Fox and Goose. To signify that there are arrangements within for playing the royal game of Fox and Goose.

St. George and the Dragon. In compliment to the patron saint of England, and his combat with the dragon. The legend is still stamped upon our gold coin.

The George and Cannon. A corruption of “George Canning.”

The Globe. The cognisance of Alfonso, King of Portugal; and intimating that Portuguese wines may be obtained within.

The Goat in Golden Boots. A corruption of the Dutch Goed in der Gouden Boots (the god Mercury in his golden sandals).

The Goat and Compasses. A Puritan sign, a corrupt hieroglyphic reading of “God encompasses us.”

The Black Goats. A public-house sign, High Bridge, Lincoln, formerly The Three Goats—i.e. three gowts (gutters or drains), by which the water from the Swan Pool (a large lake that formerly existed to the west of the city) was conducted into the bed of the Witham.

The Golden Cross. This refers to the ensigns carried by the Crusaders.

The Grecian Stairs. A corruption of “The Greesen or Stairs” (Greesen is gree, a step, our dc-gree). The allusion is to a flight of steps from the New Road to the MinsterYard. In Wickliffe’s Bible, Acts xxi. 40 is rendered—“Poul stood on the greezen.”

Let me speak like yourself, and lay a sentence

Which, like a grize or step, may help these lovers

Into your favour.”

The Green Man. The late game-keeper of the lord of the manor turned publican. At one time these servants were dressed in green.

The Green Man and Stilli.e. the herbalist bringing his herbs to be distilled.

The Hare and Hounds. In compliment to the sporting squire or lord of the manor.

The Hole-in-the-Wall (London). So called because it was approached by a passage or “hole” in the wall of the house standing in front of the tavern.

The Iron Devil. A corruption of “Hirondelle” (the swallow). There are numerous public-house signs referring to birds; as, the Blackbird, the Thrush, the Peacock, the Martin, the Bird-in-the-Hand, etc. etc.

The Three Kings. A public-house sign of the mediæval ages, in allusion to the three kings of Cologne, the Magi who presented offerings to the infant Jesus. Very many public-house signs of the mediæval period had a reference to ecclesiastical matters, either because their landlords were ecclesiastics, or else from a superstitious reverence for “saints” and “holy things.”

The Man Laden with Mischief. A public-house sign, Oxford Street, nearly opposite to Hanway Yard. The sign is said to have been painted by Hogarth, and represents a man carrying a woman and a good many other creatures on his back.

The Marquis of Granby (London, etc.). In compliment to John Manners, eldest son of John, third Duke of Rutland—a bluff, brave soldier, generous, and greatly beloved by his men.

“What conquest now will Britain boast.

Or where display her banners?

Alas! in Granby she has lost

True courage and good Manners.”

The Packhorse. To signify that packhorses could be hired there.

The Palgrave’s Head. A public-house sign near Temple Bar, in honour of Frederick, Palgrave of the Rhine.

The Pig and Tinder Box. A corrupt rendering of The Elephant and Castle; the “pig” is really an elephant, and the “tinder-box” the castle on its back.

The Pig and Whistle. Wassail is made of apples, sugar, and ale.

The Plum and Feathers. A public-house sign near Stoken Church Hill, Oxford. A corruption of the “Plume of Feathers,” meaning that of the Prince of Wales.

The Queen of Bohemia. In honour of Lady Elizabeth Stuart. (See Bohemia.)

The Queer Door. A corruption of Cœur Doré (Golden Heart).

The Rose. A symbol of England, as the Thistle is of Scotland, and the Shamrock of Ireland.

The Red Rose. The badge of the Lancastrians in the Civil War of the Roses.

The White Rose. The badge of the Yorkists in the Civil War of the Roses.

The Rose of the Quarter Sessions. A corruption of La Rose des Quatre Saisons.

The Salutation and Cat. The “Salutation” (which refers to the angel saluting the Virgin Mary) is the sign of the house, and the “Cat” is added to signify that arrangements are made for playing cat or tipcat.


The Saracen’s Head. In allusion to what are preposterously termed “The Holy Wars;” adopted probably by some Crusader after his return home, or at any rate to flatter the natural sympathy for these Quixotic expeditions.

The Ship, near Temple Bar, and opposite The Palgrave’s Head; in honour of Sir Francis Drake, the circumnavigator.

The Ship and Shovel. Referring to Sir Cloudesley Shovel, a favourite admiral in Queen Anne’s reign.

The Seven Stars. An astrological sign of the mediæval ages.

The Three Suns. The cognisance of Edward IV.

The Sun and the Rose. The cognisance of the House of York.

The Swan with Three Necks. A public-house sign in Lad Lane, etc.; a corruption of “three nicks” (on the bill)

The Swan and Antelope. The cognisance of Henry V.

The Talbot [a hound]. The arms of the Talbot family.

The Turk’s Head Alluding to the Holy Wars, when the Crusaders fought against the Turks.

The Unicorn. The Scottish supporter in the royal arms of Great Britain.

The White Hart. The cognisance of Richard II.; the White Lion, of Edward IV., as Earl of March; the White Swan, of Henry IV. and Edward III.


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Entry taken from Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, edited by the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. and revised in 1895.

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Psalm cv. 28
Psalter of Tara (The)
Psaphon’s Birds (Psaphonis aves)
Psycarpax [granary thief]
Psyche [Syke]
Ptolemaic System
Public-house Signs
Publicans of the New Testament
Pucelle (La)
Puck or Robin Goodfellow
Puffed Up