Old beer barrels stacked up

Feature: The Inn Crowd

From urban ‘boozers’ to snug country inns, there are 50,000 pubs in Britain – Marc Zakian uncovers their history



The first recorded English alehouse was called Hell. Was it named for serving the devil’s brew, or as a refuge for spouses who’d been told where to go? We will never know, but the most likely explanation is that it was a beer cellar in an era when anything below ground was seen as Lucifer’s domain. Alehouses were at the heart of early English life. Medieval streets were made up of homes, shops, workplaces and the brewhouse. With no taps at home, it was the only place where thirsty workers could safely get a drink – a bucket of local well water might come with a fatal dose of cholera. Brewhouses often took their names from the tradesmen who worked nearby, The Tanners Tap or The Weavers Arms. Some were named for a recognisable landmark – The Holly Bush or The Red Door – while others used heraldic devices to draw in clients – The Castle, The Griffin or The Three Lions.

The medieval mind loved a pun and pub signs often featured word plays. So, an alehouse called The Cock had less to do with poultry and more to do with the stopcock on the barrel. The Butt Inn was not an impudent interruption but, like The Three Tuns, it referenced the barrel. Pubs called The Hoop refer to the hoop around the barrel and The Coopers Arms celebrated people who made that barrel. Modern pubs continue the tradition, so The Overdraft in Southampton is located in a former bank, while The Half Crown in Benfleet was just The Crown until the building was partly demolished by a lorry. At least that’s what the bloke in the corner of the pub will tell you.



The tippler helped turn the neighbourhood brewhouse into the alehouse or ‘local’. They first appeared 700 years ago; rather than brewing and trading from the same premises, the tippler bought ale wholesale and sold it in taverns, street fairs and markets. They were replaced by licensed landlords and publicans, but their legacy lives on in the word ‘tipple’, meaning ‘a favourite drink’.By the 1600s there was one alehouse for every 200 people in England (today it’s around one for every 1,000). Such a thriving business was never going to avoid the attention of the king’s purse and in1690 a tax was levied on alcohol content. The problem was how to measure this. The solution was a ‘trial by fire’. Beer was poured onto a small heap of gunpowder; if it was impossible to light, the spirit was too watery, if it burned a steady blue flame the content was correct, if it was too strong there was a crackle and pop, a yellow flame shot up and you might be in need of a new ale tester. Gunpowder was replaced by the safer, but far less exciting, hydrometer.

Sketch of a brewery in the 1600s


The term ‘public house’ was first used in the 17th century. Ironically it was cheap gin that fuelled the pub craze. Consumption of English gin was encouraged by landowning politicians who profited from grain it was distilled from. By the early 18th century there were 7,000 dramshops in London and the gin epidemic was destroying working-class communities. In 1751, the government restricted gin sales, encouraging the public to drink the “more wholesome and temperate beverage” beer. The pub as we know it was born: a purpose-built drinking establishment with club rooms, smoke rooms, music, games, and urinals rather than a bucket. When Prime Minister Duke of Wellington removed the duty from beer and liberalised licensing laws a veritable beer rush began. 53 grateful pubs still bear the duke’s name


The Regency period was the golden age of the stagecoach. Traveling the country in stages – hence the name – horses and passengers needed rest, food and somewhere to sleep overnight. So the coaching inn was born. There were hundreds of them across the country and often the coach was named for its point of departure: the Duke of Wellington Coach from the Duke of Wellington Inn in Minehead. Not surprisingly, nearly every corner of Britain has a pub called the Coach and Horses.

Historical sketch of a ale barrels in a pub basement


The Duke of Wellington’s Beer Act was a high point for free-drinking Britons. Governments spent the next century trying to put the pint back into the pot. The 1868 Wine and Beerhouse Act ruled that landlords had to provide evidence of good character and keep an orderly house, free from prostitutes and thieves. This resulted in 6,000 pubs losing their licenses. The 1881 Closing Act meant no pub could open in Wales on Sundays and at the outbreak of the First World Warthe Defence of the Realm Act made sure that alcohol consumption would not interfere with the war effort –restricting opening hours to luncheon(12 to 2:30pm) and supper (6:30 to 9:30pm). Thankfully drinking laws are now less restricted, with most pubs open from 11am until 11pm and some holding 24-hour licenses. It is increasingly hard for many publicans to make a living and some are closing, but history is behind them and over the last thousand years pubs have always been at the centre of British life



Q: Which is the oldest pub in England? Here are the runners.


In Stow-on-the-Wold stakes, its claim as it is attached to the Porch Hotel, which claims to be England’s oldest inn dating from 947  AD. It’s a good job there was no medieval Trip Advisor as the hotel began as a home for lepers. The inn has a tunnel that leads from the bar to the church across the street and the pub has evidence of witches’marks and a bear pit. Bear baiting has given way to a pub quiz. Pub history fundamentalists disqualify the Eagle and Child’s claim as there was a 16 year period when it stopped trading.

The Eagle and Child pub in Stow-on-the-Wold

The Eagle and Child pub in Stow-on-the-Wold


Near Beaconsfield claims to be some 900 years old, originating as a Saxon alehouse run by the family of King Harold II. It took its name after the future King Charles II allegedly hid in the rafters when on the run following his defeat at the battle of Worcester in the 17th century Civil War. Charles must have been on quite a pub crawl as there are over 100 Royal Oak pubs across the country all named after the ancient tree where the escaping king supposedly hid.



In St Albans, Hertfordshire is an early Tudor building dating from 1485. It is, however, in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest pub in England, as an 11th-century building on an 8th-century site. Oliver Cromwell is reputed to have stayed here. Presumably, the local minstrels were given the night off while the Puritan general was in the house.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub in St Albans

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks pub in St Albans



In Nottingham is built into the rock face under the castle. Documents show a castle brewhouse occupied the site before 1189. Trip originally meant resting place and the pub purports to be a travel lodge where crusaders drew breath before heading off to slay Saracens. The earliest parts of the pub building date from around 1650, but it is attached to several 12th-century caves carved inside the soft sandstone under the castle – presumably full of lost punters who took the wrong door at closing time.

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham

Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham



In Bolton was given a makeover as recently as 1636, following its first recorded appearance as a pub in 1251. The cellar goes back to this date. The grim-research name comes from the pub’s symbol which may allude to the execution of the Earl of Derby. This took place outside the pub in 1651 and the Man & Scythe houses a chair that the Earl supposedly sat on before being taken outside to be beheaded. The more prosaic explanation is that the symbol derives from the symbol of the local Pilkington family.



in Pilleyoutside Lymington is mentioned in the Domesday Book and claims that it served its first ale in 1086. There is a list of landlords by the entrance going to back to 1498 and the inn features in Conan Doyle’s novel The white company. With its mossy, thatched roof, it has all the characteristics of an ancient country inn.



The Bingley Arms in Bardsey near Leeds in Yorkshire

The Bingley Arms

in Bardsey near Leeds in Yorkshire dates from 1780 but is first recorded as a pub in 905. Previously known as The Priest’sInn, it was used as the local court with offenders being taken outside to the pillory, a space now reserved for exiled smokers. The chimney has two priest holes dating back to 1539 and is home to several ghosts, including a cavalier and a mysterious dog.





in Abergavenny is the oldest pub in Wales. Dating back to 1110, the current building is from the 1600s. According to legend, the inn was used to hang criminals, with rope markings still visible on various beams around the pub. The ghost of the judge who dished out the death sentences is said to roam the premises to this day.



Of the 3,500 or so pubs in London, some have achieved literary fame, some are known for history or politics, while others are just plain notorious.



Up and down the City road In and out the Eagle. That’s the way the money goes, Pop! goes the weasel. The words to this classic nursery rhyme are written on a board hanging outside this Islington pub on the edge of the City of London. But what does it all mean? It’s probably a reference to hand-to-mouth lives of working-class Londoners: ‘Weasel and stoat’ is cockney rhyming slang for coat and ‘popping’ meant exchanging it in the pawn shop – presumably after spending all your money in the pub.



Legend tells that the original ‘blind beggar’was Henry de Montfort, a medieval nobleman who was left disfigured in battle and reduced to begging on the streets. The Whitechapel pub gained notoriety in 1966 when East End gangster Ronnie Kray shot and murdered George Cornell, an associate of a rival gang, as he was sitting at the bar.



There has been a pub on this Fleet Street site since 1538. The current version was built to quench dry palates immediately after the Great Fire of London scorched its predecessor. Its location at the heart of the newspaper district turned it into the most literary pub in London: Mark Twain, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse and Dr Johnson were all visitors. Charles Dickens was a regular and alluded to The Cheese in A Tale of Two Cities. A brothel operated from one of the rooms during the 1700s and Polly, the pub parrot achieved notoriety for her ability to speak obscenities. On her death in 1926, 200 newspapers across the world carried her obituary.



claims to be London’s oldest riverside pub, dating back to 1520. During the 1600s it was known as the Devil’s Tavern, a meeting place for sailors, smugglers and cut-throats. In the 17th century it was the local of ‘Hanging’Judge Jeffreys, scourge of the participants in the ill-fated Monmouth rebellion. He lived nearby and a replica gallows and noose hangs by the pub’s Thameside window. Criminals would be tied to riverside posts at low tide and left there to drown when the tide came in, though Execution Dock was actually by Wapping Old Stairs and was generally used to punish pirates. The writers Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys were regulars.

The Prospect of Whitby pub in London

The Prospect of Whitby pub in London


in is another legendary Thameside pub. In 1820, the young Charles Dickens (an enthusiastic pub-goer, it is clear!) visited his godfather in Limehouse and The Grapes appears, scarcely disguised, in the opening chapter of Our Mutual Friend. When the landlady– a former Playboy ‘Bunny Girl’ –retired in 2012 the pub was bought by a local resident who was concerned that it would be sold for redevelopment: Sir Ian McKellen. Famous for portraying Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films, his wizard’s staff hangs behind the bar, along with a stuffed cat presented to McKellen by fellow thespian knight, Sir Patrick Stewart. The balcony overlooks a riverside statue by Antony Gormley, creator of the iconic Angel of the North.



is a classic Victorian pub with ornate ceilings, hand-etched frosted glass windows, and wrought-iron balconies. The pub’s vicinity to the palace of Westminster means it has a division Bell that would ring eight minutes before the deadline for casting a vote – presumably followed by the sight of MPs and peers charging down Victoria Street to make it back to the house of Parliament. The pub also features a mini-gallery of portraits and signed photos of former Prime Ministers, most of whom have visited the Albert.

The Albert pub in Westminster, London

The Albert, Westminster

Click here to discover more about the history of pubs with a Blue Badge Guide