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Sunday, February 23, 2003

STREET ART: UK PUB SIGNS

Hanging, hand-painted pictorial signs have been a common feature of traditional pubs, inns and ale houses for centuries, although more recently, where pubs have been taken over by big leisure corporations, there has been a tendency to invent new pub names and generate signs which suggest history but mock it. Pub sign historians tell us that the pub sign was originally imported by the Romans who introduced the use of relief terracotta signs or tied greenery called 'taberna'to poles to indicate where wine was on sale. This may be where the English word Tavern is derived from. Since the majority of the population were illiterate in the early days, the tradition of a picture with a name for an alehouse goes back to the twelfth and thirteenth century. Swinton is on one of the busy routes out of Manchester to the large industrial town of Bolton, and it is quite surprising just how many pubs are dotted along its route, owned, I may say, by a variety of breweries and some leisure groups. Some like the Golden Lion and the Robin Hood have quite a large section of their pub devoted to family-style restaurant facilities, drawing in extra trade throughout the day and both are owned by leisure groups. The majority of local pubs simply sell drinks and bags of potato crisps, and peanuts or pork 'scratchings' (teeth-crunching roasted pieces of pig skin!) will normally be all that's available at the bar. Of course the salt content of these snacks increases your thirst. There are a large number of takeaways, and typically fast food joints are busiest when the pubs turn out.

I have photographed four signs from my immediate neighbourhood as examples of the genuine pub sign. The Nelson, on Bolton Road, bears the image of Admiral Nelson, a national hero after his historic naval victories, hence a very popular pub name in our country even today.

The Lord Nelson pub is owned by a small family business, Joseph Holts' Brewery which owns, currently, some 127 pubs within a 25 mile radius of the centre of Manchester and was established in 1849. Their beer is brewed in Empire Street in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester at their Derby Brewery site. Holts' is a public limited company but most of the shares are still owned by family members. Holts' is a community-minded brewery and are charitably associated with supporting Manchester's famous Christies Hospital, celebrated for its treatment and care of cancer patients. One of their directors, when she died, bequeathed her company shares, estimated to be worth some seven million pounds, to Christies.

Holts' have preserved most of the original interiors of their pubs and their beers are, in keeping with a long held company policy, some of the cheapest and best value for money around. Typically their pubs are small, often with original deep mahogany bars and furnishings and consist of a softly upholstered 'Lounge' and a livelier 'vault' or public bar . Holts' still deliver in huge 54 gallon 'hogsheads', while modern breweries go for the safer 9 gallon aluminium 'firkins'. Casked Real ale, like Holts' has a shelf life of only three days, but because the beer is good and cheap it doesn't have time to go 'off'! Tom Dempsey, one of the directors boasts that one of his pubs can empty a hogshead in just three hours. A pint of Holts' best bitter is currently a modest 1.10 sterling.

Odd Fellows is typical of a large number of apparently unusual pub names that you'll find around the country but many of them have an interesting history. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, (or Manchester Union) was a kind of social and benevolent society or fellowship formed to support community members financially and materially in times of hardship. Odd Fellows has its roots way back in time when the members of the old trade guilds were persecuted and outlawed and new, non-trades based benevolent societies were a safer option.Odd Fellows history goes back as far a 1745.

The Golden Lion on the same main road illustrates one of the most prolific motifs on pub signs. The White, Red, Black or Golden Lion is one of the most common pub names. This stylised form of the animal is from heraldry. The White Lion was an heraldic reference to King Henry 1 and the Red Lion was the emblem of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster who by the time of his death, 1399, was one of the most powerful men in the realm. It was also the emblem of James 1V of Scotland, who, as James 1, ascended to the English throne in 1603 and apparently insisted that the red lion be put up on our public buildings and this included taverns. Hence its popularity as a pub sign. The White Hart is another common pub name and this animal was the emblem of King Richard 11 who actually made a law obliging London Innkeepers to have their own sign on pain of forfeiting their ale. Pub sign historians explain that early publicans were often former employees of landed gentry and thus showed their allegiance to them by using their heraldic device on their alehouse signs.

Some pub names are simply created from a place name or a local landmark or geographical feature. The Unity Brook pub , right next to Rydal Farm ( now a thriving Equestrian Centre ) on the main road, just down from us in the direction of Bolton, is built in a hollow, behind which there is a small brook or stream. This is an example of a pub sign design with a little comedy in it, again a common feature of pub signs.

WANT TO SEE MORE PUB SIGN PICTURES?

Each of my photographs here is hyperlinked to a different web site featuring high resolution images of hand painted pub signs to illustrate the range of this art genre. There are 323 in total!

Clicking on the Nelson sign will take to a specialist site with photographs and outlines of the historical origins of the pub names of 245 establishment in the midlands area.

Clicking on the Odd Fellows picture takes you to the Green Lion website with 26 examples of the art and there you can access an astonishing private data base of pub names with 60,000 name entries.

Click on the Golden Lion image for 14 pub signs from the Liverpool area.

Click on the Unity Brook image to access 26 pub signs from the business site of a sign writer whose work includes pub sign making.

Click on the Holts' beer mat to access another sign write business website with a further twelve examples of this art form.

johncoxon 7:23 PM -
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john/Male/51-55. Lives in United Kingdom/Engalnd/Salford, speaks English and French. Eye color is brown. I am what my mother calls unique. I am also creative. My interests are photgraphy/local history.
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United Kingdom, Engalnd, Salford, English, French, john, Male, 51-55, photgraphy, local history.