Heritage: Pub signs told stories when people could not read

The Plough, Gallows Corner, was gutted by fire and replaced with a KFC. Picture: John Hercock

The Plough, Gallows Corner, was gutted by fire and replaced with a KFC. Picture: John Hercock - Credit: Archant

What do Havering’s pub names tell us about our area? Prof Ged Martin explains

In 17th century England, when few people could read, businesses used pictorial signs to identify themselves. The tradition continued with public houses.

Sadly, none survive locally, although there are some modern replacements. The Thatcher's Arms at Warley Street showed the craftsman with his labourer.

One side read, "Says the thatcher to his man Tom what does thou think, Can we raise the ladder. Yes Master first let us drink."

The story continued on the reverse, "Says Tom to his Master the Ladder's raised high I must have some Ale I'm always a-dry."

A miserable brewery scrapped the sign a century ago.

Local pub names remind us that Havering was agricultural country. Some probably used redundant farm implements as symbols - like the Harrow in Hornchurch, the Plough at Gallows Corner (now replaced by a KFC) and the Drill in Gidea Park.

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Nowadays The Drill has a sign showing a Guardsman barking at squaddies.

North Essex flourished on the wool trade, but it was less important in our area. Romford's Woolpack became a nightclub in the 1980s: the boarded-up building stands at the corner of Angel Way. Brook Street near Brentwood still has a Golden Fleece.

The Ship is a popular pub sign (ours is in Gidea Park). Maybe it's a mistake. There's a theory that "sheep" and "ship" were both pronounced "shep" in the Essex dialect. Perhaps the Ship was bleating, not sailing.

Heraldic symbols made convenient signs. These include Romford's Golden Lion (probably the Red Lion mentioned in 1553), and at least five White Harts, all now closed - in Romford, Hornchurch, Hacton, Hare Street (Gidea Park) and Collier Row, remembered in White Hart Lane.

Some symbols were over-used. Two pubs called the Crown, in London Road, Romford and near Roneo Corner, are barely a mile apart.

The smartest heraldic sign was the King's Arms. There was one in Romford Market, ironically a dosshouse so awful that it lost its licence in 1889.

Pubs gradually adopted the names of local landowners, such as the Headley Arms at Great Warley. The Tower Arms at South Weald (recently closed) was originally the Spread Eagle: two stone raptors decorate the gate pillars. It was renamed in the nineteenth century after Squire Tower. John Laurie tried to develop Romford in the 1840s: the Laurie Arms in Waterloo Road lasted until demolition in 1972.

But the "Arms" pubs became a bit silly. Romford had a Drover's Arms and even a Romford Arms. Hornchurch had a Foundry Arms. The Durham Arms in Brentwood Road and the Spencer Arms at Ardleigh Green (now the Ardleigh) are complete mysteries.

Another popular name was the King's Head, which some say refers to Charles I, who lost his. Romford's King's Head relocated from the Market to the Liberty Shopping Centre in 1971, but later closed. The Hornchurch King's Head became a restaurant in 2007.

Havering had two other "Head" pubs. Our Prussian allies saved the Duke of Wellington at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. By 1822, Romford had a Blucher's Head, in honour of their general. In 1915, with the Prussians now our enemies, it was renamed the Duke of Wellington. It lasted until 1967.

The Squirrels Head was an echo of the days when Gidea Park was called Squirrels Heath. Later called just The Squirrels, it was replaced by housing in 2014.

Some pubs are named after mythical creatures, like the Unicorn in Gidea Park, which existed by 1658. The Phoenix at Rainham can be traced back to at least 1719: in 1740, the parish "ofsers" (officers) spent five shillings (25p) at "the fenix at Raynham". The phoenix was a legendary bird that rose from the ashes of a fire. The pub burned down in 1891, so the name seems appropriate.

It's said The Good Intent in South Hornchurch was started by a landlord who'd failed in other careers. This time he aimed to do better!