Inn is out as locals favour Bar and Tap for new pub names

·5 min read

Inn is out. Bar, on the other hand, is very much in. Traditional pub names are on the decline, a reflection of the problems facing licensees and the success of the craft brewing boom.

Data from the Food Standards Agency shows there were 103 fewer licensed establishments with “Inn” in the name in 2022 compared with 2020 – the biggest faller. “Arms” was also down by 49, while “Bar” was up by 119 and “Tap” up by 48.

Analysis of more than 51,000 licences over the two-year period, collected by GetTheData.com, an open source data website, reveals that words associated with traditional names were most on the decline: Royal, Crown, Lord, Prince, Greyhound, Horse, Coach and Duke.

A few traditional names are bucking the trend. Red Lion has been the most popular pub name for generations, and 11 were added to the list this year to make 500. Plough, Head and Cock have also risen.

But the decline in Royal Oaks and Coach and Horses is the result of traditional pubs shutting down while craft brewers’ taprooms are on the rise, according to James Watson, pub protection adviser for the Campaign for Pubs.

“We stopped building new pubs in any significant number in the 1970s,” he said. “The new premises tend to be former shops or industrial premises that can be converted – the micropubs that started in Kent about 20 years ago in old butchers’ shops and bakers. No one is setting up a micropub selling craft beer and calling it The Royal Oak.”

Britain had about 55,000 pubs in the 1980s, according to the Campaign for Real Ale, but that figure has fallen to 47,500.

The village pub is often empty because the villages have become dormitories for commuters. In southern towns and cities, there is more money to be made from turning a pub into apartments than serving beer – although, occasionally, a planning inspector will order a pub to be rebuilt, brick by brick, as with the Carlton Tavern in west London.

A few pubs do also change their names, with a trend since the 1990s towards novelties such as the Frog and Radiator, the Muppet Inn or the Jackdaw and Stump.

The Jackdaw in east London was originally the Spread Eagle, founded in 1752, but with a change of ownership came a new name. It became the Jackdaw and Star, but then in 2017 it was taken over by Luke McLoughlin and Meriel Armitage, who wanted to set up London’s first entirely vegan pub.

People sitting inside the Spread Eagle pub-restaurant
The Spread Eagle in east London was founded in 1752 but has changed its name several times, returning to its current one in 2017 when the pub became vegan. Photograph: Karen Robinson/The Observer

“We changed it back to the Spread Eagle,” said McLoughlin. “We wanted to bring some authenticity back. It’s a juxtaposition between the heritage of being an old English pub, but we’re also the first vegan pub as well. We wanted to blend the old with the new.”

Pubs date back to the tabernae built by the Romans after they invaded Britannia in 43AD. Wine was substituted for ale, and the tavern was born. Eventually a distinction was drawn between taverns, for the well-off, alehouses for the workers, and inns with stables and bedrooms for travellers, Watson said.

With high levels of illiteracy, pub signs were important identifiers, according to Dr Patrick Chaplin, the outgoing chairman of the Pub History Society. Ploughs, Butchers and Blacksmiths were an indication of the landlord’s day job.

“Names like Angel or Seven Stars were related to religion,” Chaplin said. “The King’s Head or the Queen’s Head shows loyalty to a particular king or queen.”

The White Hart was Richard II’s emblem. The future Charles II hid in a Royal Oak during the English civil war, while the Rose and Crown may have been used to show allegiance to Henry VII or John of Gaunt.

Henry VIII’s split with Rome provoked more change. Most pubs known as the Pope’s Head were renamed, according to Sam Cullen, the co-author of What’s in a London Pub Name? English military victories provided the inspiration for a flurry of Duke of Wellingtons and Lord Nelsons.

By Victorian times, pubs had become gin palaces – “opulent, beautiful buildings with marble, stained glass, polished floors, metal bar tops and big sweeping staircases”, said Watson. “Fantastic things, but very expensive to build.” The Victorian obsession with class meant that pubs such as the Prince Alfred in Maida Vale were divided into as many as seven different rooms, with separate entrances from the street so that bosses had no fear of mixing with their managers or the workers, Watson said.

Interwar pubs, similar to the Rovers Return or the Queen Vic, maintained some division of class with a saloon bar and a public bar. By the 1960s, the estate pub had appeared.

The new wave of micropubs, born after the advent of mass media and advertising, has brought with it some more inventive names, such as the One Over the Ait at Kew Bridge (a pun on the small islands in the Thames nearby) and the Buff in Orpington. Others refer to local history, such as Gilpin’s Bell in Edmonton and the Sun & 13 Cantons in Soho.

The new popularity of “Tap” – traditionally where customers could buy pints straight from the brewery – is explained by the boom in microbreweries serving craft ales.

More sports clubs are now licensed than in 2020. There were 36 more licences granted to cricket clubs, and smaller rises for football and rugby clubs – possibly indicating that sports clubs have looked to sustain their revenues amid falling participation.

Related: A hub for the village: how locals are buying up pubs at risk of closure

Yet whatever landlords decide to paint on their signs, it is the regulars who always decide what a pub is called.

In the former mining village of Whitwick in Leicestershire, the three main pubs have dual names. The Three Horseshoes is known as Polly’s, after the former landlady Polly Burton, and the Fox and Hounds is called Mary’s House.

“Round the corner, there’s a strange pub called The Man Within Compass,” Watson said. “But everyone refers to it as the Rag and Mop.”

Why do they call it that? “I don’t know,” Watson replied. “But everybody does.”

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