Guest Post: Unusual London pub signs and names

Three Kings, Clerkenwell, EC1

While the commonest pub names in England aren’t particularly interesting – Lions of various colours (black, white and red), Kings’ and Queens’ Heads and Arms – London does have some very fine pub names indeed. In fact it probably has more than it once did thanks to Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, whose pubs often have names from English literature (the Moon and Sixpence from Somerset Maugham) or celebrating local history (the Crosse Keys in Bishopsgate recalls a coaching in of that name, while the Pommelers Rest commemorates the local leather trade).

Unusual names abound. From Lewis Caroll comes The Walrus and the Carpenter in Lovat Lane; Dickens refers to the Two Chairmen in Dartmouth Street, recalling the days when sedan chairs were used by wealthy citizens, and there’s also a Crown and Two Chairmen in Soho; and the Greencoat Boy in Greencoat Place, is named after the pupils of an old school. The Old Mitre in Ely Place doesn’t have an unusual name, but it’s particularly appropriate, since the pub used to belong to the bishop of Ely who had his palace here.

French horns turn up twice near Covent Garden, perhaps reflecting the closeness of the Royal Opera House and English National Opera orchestras.

But neither the Green Man and French Horn on St Martin’s Lane, nor the Black Lion and French Horn at 5 Pollen Street, remain open as pubs (the Green Man though at least retains its splendid pub frontage.)

The best pub name around Covent Garden? It would have to be the Essex Serpent, named after a monstrous serpent sighted near Saffron Walden in 1669, though it’s not my favourite pub around the area (with The Harp in Chandos Place so close by, no other pub gets a look-in).

The Lamb and Flag in Leadenhall Market and Bleeding Heart (now a restaurant not a pub) in Bleeding Heart Yard, both recall the high Middle Ages when devotional names were common. The Lamb and Flag refers to the sign of the Lamb of God triumphant with its crossed flag, a symbol of the Resurrection, and the Bleeding Heart is the wounded heart of the Virgin Mary pierced by a sword. The Crosse Keys, which I’ve already mentioned, is another religious reference – the two crossed keys are the symbol of St Peter, who was “given the keys of the kingdom of heaven”.

Other pubs recall the great City Livery Companies and trades, such as the Hand and Shears near Smithfield, which shows the armorial bearings of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, or the Butcher’s Hook and Cleaver near Smithfield meat market. Or they have historical associations, like the Crutched Friar and the Blackfriars in the City (the latter one of the most perfect art nouveau pub interiors you’ll ever see).

Some pubs are named after notables of their day – though their names may not mean much now. The Old Doctor Butler’s Head off Moorgate was named after James I’s court physician – Dr William Butler specialised in cures for nervous disorders, but I think Doctor Freud might not have approved of his methods. Dropping people into icy cold water was one of his favourites. He also saved a drug fiend from an opium overdose by slitting a cow open and putting his patient inside its belly – or so it is said.

What worries me is that Doctor Butler was also celebrated for his ‘purging ale’ which included senna pod, scurvy grass and other ingredients. I hope the Old Doctor Butler’s Head provides ale of a less laxative nature these days!

Perhaps of more benefit to the average drinker was John Snow, another doctor with a pub dedicated to him (this time in Soho).

He was the chap who discovered that the London cholera epidemic was caused by infected cholera, and pinpointed a pump just down the road from the pub as its source. Now it’s quite safe to drink the tapwater. There’s also the King of Corsica in Soho, named after a French-educated German by the name of Theodor von Neuhoff who ended up as King of Corsica for a brief period. After he was thrown out, he took refuge in Soho and died penniless in 1756.

The Enterprise in Holborn celebrates not Adam Smith’s economic policies, but the ship that went to search for survivors of Franklin’s ill fated expedition to find the North-West Passage – a polar bear on an ice floe looks at a three-masted ship. It’s rather beautifully executed in a naïve style, definitely one of the better signs in London.

Finally, my favourite pub sign in the entire capital is perhaps the Three Kings in Clerkenwell. You’ll recognise King Henry-the-Eighth-I-Am-I-Am, but the other two Kings are more eclectic – Elvis and Kong. It’s witty, nicely carved and painted and really a rather brilliant pub sign.

For an atmosphere as welcoming as any pub, I recommend the bar at the Chesterfield Mayfair luxury boutique hotel which  has a particularly homely atmosphere.

Written by Andrea Kirkby

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