Click above to Go Back to Front Page
Join the Bilston Online Email Group/Mailing List and become part of the discussion.
Click Here to Join
Richard II made it compulsory for alehouses to display signs, with forfeiture of their beer for defaulters! In a primarily illiterate society, simple symbols were initially chosen, which later the name of the pub itself became. The most ancient of these names was the bush. In Roman times, a bough of greenery signified a tavern, and the English continued this tradition to mark taverns. The name of the Bush Inn, in Wolverhampton Street, was an echo of this custom, as was that of the Vine, from the custom of growing these plants over the doorway to indicate a hostelry. Another organic pub sign was the growing of hops, hence the two Hop Pole pubs in Bilston.
Other symbols were chosen because of their simplicity of illustration, such as, the Bell, White Horse, Black Horse, the Globe, examples of which were all found in Bilston. Some symbols had a religious or Biblical reference. Such as the Noah’s Ark, Samson and Lion, and the Ship and Rainbow- reference to the Great Flood- others were more metaphorical. The Star refers to the Star of Bethlehem, while the Plough was the symbol of the Virgin Mary, who was often depicted with seven stars in her celestial crown, the same as the constellation. The curiously named
Hand and Keys, on Wolverhampton Street, referred to St. Peter, who holds the keys to heaven.
When Henry VIII defied the papal bull of 1538, he incorporated a bull’s head into his coat of arms and the name became popular as a pub sign, indicating loyalty to both the crown and the new Protestant religion. However, the prevalence with Bilston pubs with names including bulls may have a more prosaic origin. Many landlords found that they could not live by brewing and selling beer alone, and often combined tavern- keeping with another trade. Names such as the Bull’s Head, Bull and Mouth, and Round of Beef, indicates that the host was once, or is a butcher.
The names of many Bilston pubs do indicate loyalties to particular figures and dynasties often through the language of heraldry. The White Rosein Church Street, refers to the badge of the House of York, rulers of England until they were ousted by the Tudors of Bosworth. "Similarly, many of Bilston’s pubs depicted heraldic symbols on their signs in the form of an animal. Hence the Leopardis a reference to the Worshipful Company of weavers, the oldest livery company in the land, who featured three leopards on their arms. The Talbot a spotted hunting hound, was the heraldic symbol of the powerful family of the same name, who became the earls of Shrewsbury. The Swan Inn and the Swanbank Tavern locally known as the Stump, (that’s another story) feature a bird favoured by Edward III, and later by Henry VIII, for their own coat of arms. The swan was exclusively the property of the crown until Elizabeth I granted the Worshipful Company of Vintners the privilege of ownership, and with many tavern- keepers being a member of the company, it soon became a traditional name for inns. The White Lionwas associated with Edward IV, the Blue Boar, with Richard, Duke of York, and the Spread Eaglewas an important heraldic device throughout Europe.
Until the 19th century, Bilston was a quiet country town, occupied by the gentry in half- timbered houses such as the Pipe Hall and Stowheath Manor, later both to become pubs themselves under the names of the Pipe Hall Hoteland the Greyhound and Punchbowl.
Hunting would have taken place on the farmland surrounding Bilston; hence such pub names as the Stag, Boars Head Inn, Dog and Partridge, Pheasant, Horse and Jockey, Cross Guns, and the Greyhound and Punchbowl itself, named after the sleek hunting dog of the nobility. As the town became increasingly industrialised in the reign Queen Victoria, there were many collieries, foundries, furnaces, factories and quarries, more pubs began to spring up due to the growing population. Many of these new pubs reflected the trades of clientele including the Miners Arms, Rolling Mill Inn, Blankmakers Arm’s, Japanners’ Arms and the Boatbuilder’s Arms.
Many pub names continued to refer to Bilston’s more rural past, with countrified names such as the Red Cow, Oak and Ivy, Barley Mowand the Cock Inn remain popular. However, many of Bilston’s Inns with seemingly agricultural names actually belie different origins. For instance, the Foresters’ Arms reflected, not an ancient woodland occupation, but the Ancient Order of Foresters, a friendly society that became popular in the Black Country in the Victorian period. The pub may have been so named because the Foresters had a lodge there, as they may also have done at the Robin Hood, named after the Foresters’ hero.
The Hen and Chickensis thought by many not to refer not to the farm yard animals, but possibly to a game popular in Taverns, played with large and small pewter pots dubbed hens and chickens. Even the rural sounding Beehive was actually a clever allusion to the many trades around the town, Bees being a symbol of industry. Many of Bilston’s pub names related to important figures or events. The Himley Armsis a direct reference to the family seat of Earl of Dudley, the most powerful aristocrat in the Black Country, and the reasoning behind other names is just as plain, such as the Shakespeare Inn, Duke of Cambridge, Nelson Inn, General Sir John Moore, Waterloo, and the Wellington Inn. The last four were named in honour of hero’s of the Napoleonic wars, with the Wellington becoming an especially popular name when the Duke past his beer house pact of 1830.
Some pub names are more obscure, including the
who’s name celebrated the future King Charles ll’s salvation from
Parliamentarian troops by hiding in the oak at Boscobel near Shifnal.
The Black Boy, also referred to the same monarch, famed for his swarthy
complexion. The Turk’s Headand the
Red Cross Knight
are both references to the Crusades. The sign of the
Royal George, showed not allegiance to King George, but commemorated
the loss of the ship of the same name in 1782, with the loss of all 800 hands
involved. Many more pub names in Bilston indicate loyalty to the royal family
including the Queen’s Arms, the King’s Head, and the
Prince of Wales.
With the coming of the turnpike roads in the 18th century, Bilston was more accessible, and a number of inns sprang up, especially along the main Oxford Street so to take advantage of the increasing horse drawn traffic more pubs were opened, including the Wagon and Horses, Saddle and Stirrups, and the Three Horseshoes, often indicated to the passing traveller that a smithy was nearby.
Many refer to the main business of the brewing, with names such as the Hand and Bottle, Barrel, Fountain, Malt Shovel, Brown Jug, and the Three Tuns being understandably popular in Bilston. The sign of the Wheatsheaf was also related to ale, being featured in the crest of the brewers company. Some pubs were simply named because of their position in the town, including the Church Inn, Market Tavern, and the Railway Inn, most of the pubs have long since gone, luckily Tommy Downing recorded some of them on maps and with them vital links to our history and social heritage.