The inn is out. The bar, on the other hand, is very fashionable. Traditional pub names are in decline, reflecting the problems faced by licensees and the success of the craft brewery boom.
Data from the Food Standards Agency shows there were 103 fewer approved establishments with ‘Inn’ in the name in 2022 compared to 2020 – the biggest drop. “Arms” also dropped by 49, while “Bar” rose by 119 and “Tap” by 48.
Analysis of more than 51,000 licenses over the two-year period, collected by GetTheData.com, an open source data website, reveals that words associated with traditional names were the most in decline: Royal, Crown, Lord, Prince, Greyhound, Horse, Trainer and Duke.
A few traditional names buck the trend. Red Lion has been the most popular pub name for generations, and 11 have been added to the list this year to make it 500. Plow, Head and Cock have also increased.
But the decline of Royal Oaks and Coach and Horses is the result of traditional pubs closing while craft brewer tasting rooms are on the rise, according to James Watson, pub protection adviser for the Campaign for Pubs.
“We stopped building new pubs in significant numbers in the 1970s,” he said. “The new premises are usually converted shops or industrial premises – the micropubs that sprung up in Kent about 20 years ago in former butchers and bakeries. No one is setting up a micropub selling craft beer and calling it The Royal Oak.
Britain had around 55,000 pubs in the 1980s, according to the Real Ale Campaign, but that figure has fallen to 47,500.
The village pub is often empty as the villages have become sleeping quarters for commuters. In southern towns there is more money to be made by turning a pub into flats than by serving beer – although sometimes a town planning inspector will order a pub to be rebuilt, brick by brick, as with the Carlton Tavern in West London. .
A few pubs are also changing names, with a trend since the 1990s towards novelties such as the Frog and Radiator, the Muppet Inn or the Jackdaw and Stump.
The Jackdaw in east London was originally the Spread Eagle, founded in 1752, but with a change in ownership came a new name. It became the Jackdaw and Star, but in 2017 it was taken over by Luke McLoughlin and Meriel Armitage, who wanted to create London’s first all-vegan pub.
“We changed it to the Spread Eagle,” McLoughlin said. “We wanted to bring back some authenticity. It’s a juxtaposition between the heritage of being an old English pub, but we’re also the first vegan pub. We wanted to mix the old with the new.
The ads date back to tabernacle built by the Romans after they invaded Britannia in AD 43. Wine replaced beer and the tavern was born. Eventually a distinction was drawn between taverns, for the well-to-do, taverns for the working class, and inns with stables and rooms for travellers, Watson said.
With high levels of illiteracy, pub signs were important identifiers, according to Dr. Patrick Chaplin, outgoing president of the Pub History Society. Plows, butchers and blacksmiths were an indication of the daily work of the owner.
“Names like Angel or Seven Stars were linked to religion,” Chaplin said. “The king’s head or the queen’s head shows loyalty to a particular king or queen.”
The White Hart was the emblem of Richard II. The future Charles II hid in a Royal Oak during the English Civil War, while the Rose and Crown may have been used to show allegiance to Henry VII or John of Gaunt.
Henry VIII’s split with Rome brought about more changes. Most of the pubs known as Pope’s Head have been renamed, according to Sam Cullen, co-author of What’s in a London pub name? English military victories inspired a wave of Dukes of Wellington and Lord Nelsons.
By Victorian times, pubs had become gin palaces – “beautiful, opulent buildings with marble, stained glass, polished floors, metal bar tops and grand, stately staircases,” Watson said. “Fantastic things, but very expensive to build.” The Victorian obsession with class meant that pubs such as the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale were divided into seven different rooms, with separate entrances from the street so patrons weren’t afraid to mingle with their managers or workers, Watson said.
Interwar pubs, similar to Rovers Return or Queen Vic, maintained a certain class divide with a saloon bar and a public bar. By the 1960s, the estate pub had appeared.
The new wave of micropubs, born after the advent of mass media and advertising, brought with it more inventive names, such as One Over the Ait at Kew Bridge (pun on the small islands in the nearby Thames) and the Buff at Orpington. Others reference local history, such as Gilpin’s Bell in Edmonton and the Sun & 13 Townships in Soho.
The newfound popularity of “Tap” – traditionally where customers could buy pints directly from the brewery – is driven by the rise of microbreweries serving craft beers.
More sports clubs are now licensed than in 2020. There were 36 additional licenses granted to cricket clubs, and smaller increases for football and rugby clubs – perhaps indicating that sports clubs have sought to maintain their income in a context of declining participation.
Yet whatever the owners decide to paint on their signs, it’s always the regulars who decide on a pub’s name.
In the former mining village of Whitwick in Leicestershire, the three main pubs have two names. The Three Horseshoes is known as Polly’s, named after former owner Polly Burton, and the Fox and Hounds is called Mary’s House.
“Round the corner there’s a weird pub called The Man Within Compass,” Watson said. “But everyone calls it the Rag and Mop.”
Why do they call it that? “I don’t know,” Watson replied. “But everyone does.”