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Hair of the Dog

From the Roman taverns of the 1st century AD, through Anglo-Saxon alehouses, to the contemporary public house, the proverbial ‘local’ is a cornerstone of English social culture.

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Hair of the Dog

Samuel Pepys, one of London’s best-know sons and lovers, prolific 17th century diarist and keen tavern-goer, aptly wrote that “the pub is the heart of England.”

From the Roman taverns of the 1st century AD, through Anglo-Saxon alehouses, to the contemporary public house—from which the word pub is derived—the proverbial ‘local’ is a cornerstone of English social culture.

And the sign that hangs above the pub’s door is not only a herald of conviviality, but historically, told a colourful tale of the customs and history of its patrons.

The tradition of pub signs can be traced back to Roman shops that hung vine leaves outside their doors to advertise that they sold wine. This was co-opted by alehouse owners who would display a long pole (the stick used to stir beer during the brewing process) to promote their wares. As drinking establishments proliferated during the Middle Ages so the need grew to identify them by name. But as the majority of the population at that time was illiterate, pictorial signs became a way for people to visually distinguish one pub from another.

The practice was enshrined in law in 1393 when King Richard II decreed that “whoever shall brew ale in the town with the intention of selling must hang a sign.” Although, technically, this was in order to make alehouses easily visible to inspectors and official tasters, it set the precedent for a custom that continues to this day and which is a keen topic for preservationists, collectors and drinking enthusiasts.

The earliest signs, following the Roman tradition, tended to show items associated with the brewing process, such as bunches of hops. Simple natural or religious symbols were also popular (a sun, star or cross), as were farm animals and implements, and even heraldic elements of the lords who owned the land on which the pub stood. Other subjects that lent themselves to being easily understood in visual form included famous battles and military heroes, trades and sports, myth and folklore, and the nobility. In fact, it is said that all pubs granted a licence in 1780 were called The Royal George, to mark the 20th anniversary of King George’s coronation. The most common pub name in the UK, The Red Lion, is derived from King James I of England and VI of Scotland.

And of course, where would emblematic depictions of British life and times be without our trusty canine companions? The most popular doggy-style pub names in the UK are the Greyhound, Fox&Hounds, and Hare&Hounds, which number over 100 establishments each. Here we present to you a selection of London-based poochy pub signs—some traditional, some rather more modern—we’ve come across while wandering, and drinking, in the city.


All images by Amy Freeborn

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