Nobody needs to read an article about the cultural significance of public houses in British culture as every high street in every town, village and city in Britain on a Friday night will do the talking for you, as will most Stella fuelled people on them. Yet despite the hours we spend in them and the crucial role they play in local British life, we rarely spare a thought for their often obscure names, which hold such social significance.
Pubs have been a staple of our culture in some form nearly as long as people have drunk. The naming of meeting and drinking places is believed to have begun when Romans invaded Britain. They hung vine leaves outside the doors of inns to mark them out. As Britain’s drinking culture entered the middle ages, publicans would leave distinctive objects (not just cigarette butts and smashed glasses) outside to allow passers bys to identify them. This is where names such as The Plough and The Bell originate from. It was not until an Act was passed by King Richard II in 1393 that it became compulsory for pubs and Inns to officially identify themselves. Following this many landlords decided it would be wise to show their loyalty and sycophantically named themselves The Crown or The Kings Arms. Others took their names from saints and biblical stories, though not many survived the Reformation and Henry VIII’s 16th century dissolution of the monasteries. Those that did, such as The Angel, are most likely to be found in close proximity to a church.
Many popular pub names are shared with people of historical, often military significance in a local area. Our much beloved Marquis of Granby – in dangerous eyeshot of and tempting proximity to the Goldsmiths library – is named after John Manners the Marquess of Granby, an 18th Century army general. Sadly, Manners does not appear to have had much in common with the average Goldsmiths student, other than perhaps his notorious fondness for drinking. He was an Eton and Cambridge educated son of a Duke who had a lengthy and bloody military career, mostly fighting the French during the mid-century Seven Years War and rising to become Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Horse Guards in 1766. The Marquis was not, however, popular with officials thanks to a lenient attitude to military discipline. Although he was forced to resign in 1770 and died a pauper the same year, his reputation did earn him the affection of many Londoners. Although not a great leader, the general was popular with civilians because of his placid command and drinking habits. Though somewhat popular with the lower classes it was most likely that his practice of setting up retired soldiers as landlords led many publicans to dedicate their houses to his honour. As a result, The Marquis of Granby is a reasonably common pub name, found in Fitzrovia, Westminster and many other sites across the country.
Often at the other end of the social scale, local trades also provided the names for pubs. The Bricklayers’ Arms (there’s one down the Old Kent Road), is where bricklayers and construction workers would meet. Pubs named after trades and craftsmen are particularly revealing of local history as they reflect the local industry, giving an insight into the working lives of local people. The Golden Fleece, for example, is a popular name in sheep farming areas due to its association with the wool trade.
Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly, though. It may not come as a surprise to you that The Fat Walrus, conveniently next door neighbour to the Richard Hoggart building, is not evidence of local trading in corpulent marine animals but an example of a pub changing name and burying local history. Prior to its rebranding in 2016 the pub was called The Old Haberdasher, in homage to South East London’s rich textile industry, a haberdasher being a person or business that sells sewing equipment or fabric. New Cross specifically was a home to a number of textile factories and their workers; this is because what is now Lewisham Tesco was, from 1824 until the early 20th century, a Silk Mill. It was predominantly because of this mill that New Cross and much of South East London played such an important role in England’s widely celebrated textile industry. The significance of New Cross in the textile industry is also reflected by the name of the local secondary school Haberdasher’s Aske’s Hatcham College.
The origin and rebranding of The Fat Walrus is a prime example of why pub names are so important to local history and, in my own opinion, why they should not be changed. Like a number of people reading this and drinking in these pubs, I didn’t live in New Cross before 2016 and, were it not for the lonely Guinness I had in there last Tuesday that made me ponder the unusual name, I would have never known about the significance of New Cross in London’s textile industry. Therefore, I believe keeping pubs original names is hugely important as many people would not question its obscure name and perhaps regularly visit the watering hole with no idea that someone once sold sewing equipment on the site.
As a history student I believe that it is important to have a good understanding of one’s surroundings, and local history is a crucial part of that. The widespread appreciation of pubs makes them an ideal starting point for delving deeper into how an area came to be as it is today – in the most British, least scholarly way possible.