What's Inn a Name?

on Wednesday, 16 July 2014. Posted in Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire Places

Some of the most popular talks I give are those dealing with the meaning of inn and pub names. Currently we don’t have a great variety of pub names in Wiltshire but we do still have some interesting ones. The Green Dragon at Alderbury was used by Charles Dickens in Martin Chuzzlewitt, as he was staying nearby while writing this novel. Dickens used many hostelries in his books and in this case he renamed it the Blue Dragon; perhaps the sign was somewhat faded to a pale blue and he misinterpreted it as it would have been unlikely that the name was on the building.

The green dragon came from the earls of Pembroke and many of the early names used the badges of great families. The red lion of John of Gaunt, the black bear of the earls of Warwick and the white hart of Richard II are still common today. From the 18th century the full coat of arms was often used so that in Fovant we have the Pembroke Arms. The association with the badge or coat of arms often indicated that the family owned the property or were the chief landowners in the area.

We do have some unique names in Wiltshire. Sally Pussey’s Inn commemorates a former landlady, Sally Pursey, of the Wheatsheaf at Wootton Bassett, which was renamed in the later 20th century. The Rattlebone at Sherston recalls the local hero John Rattlebone who is said to have fought for Edmund Ironside against King Canute in 1016, while the Moonraker at Devizes reminds us of the Wiltshire Moonrakers at the Crammer who wuzn’t so vulish as they Excise volk thought.

Another name unique to Wiltshire is the Lion and Fiddle at Hilperton. Perhaps some earlier owner with feelings of grandeur felt that the Cat and Fiddle was too commonplace for him or maybe a sign painter produced a very regal cat on one occasion. The name Cat and Fiddle comes from the nursery rhyme where the cow jumps over the moon, although some books will suggest it is from Catherine la Fidele and mention women such as Catherine, the wife of Peter the Great of Russia. In pub names the simplest explanation is normally the right one!

If you are interested in pub names do have a look at Pub Names of Britain by Leslie Dunkling and Gordon Wright - we have a copy here at the History Centre (J.M. Dent, 2nd edition 1994). It contains over 10,000 names.

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