10 Weird London Pub Names With A Story Behind Them
Along with Street Names, I always find that pubs have a canny way of hinting at London’s past. Here’s a selection of my favourite weird London pub names, each with an intriguing story behind them.
1. Salmon and Ball, Bethnal Green
There’s been a pub on the corner of Bethnal Green Road since 1733, but try and search for the reason behind the name ‘Salmon and Ball’ and you’ll have a tricky time finding anything.
It was a prominent enough location to be chosen as the execution spot for two rioters hanged in 1771. Their names were John Doyle and John Valine, arrested for conspiring to push up their silk weaver wages. They protested their innocence until the end, claiming money had been paid for false witness statements.
But back to the name, it has a weaving connections too. Last time I was in the pub I asked the barmen where it came from. He answered that the pub was in between Billingsgate Fish Market (Salmon) and Threadneedle Street (cloth markets, hence ball of yarn). Now, if you look at a map Bethnal Green is a bit North to be that convenient – especially if he meant the original pre-Canary Wharf Billingsgate location, but perhaps it was the location for traders to meet up on their way back home to East London?
UPDATE – Recently I heard from an East End local who lived in the area in 1964. Mary informed me that the salmon referred to the fish-shaped weaving shuttle and the ball to a ball of silk thread. Perhaps that’s a more convincing reason for the name?
2. Laughing Gravy, Southwark
This cosy pub on Blackfriars Bridge Road receives glowing reviews of its Sunday lunches, but I was mainly curious about its name.
It’s a reference to a 1931 Laurel and Hardy film, where – on a cold Winter’s night – the comedy duo unsuccessfully try to hide their dog called Laughing Gravy from their Landlord. The pub had this name before the current owners took over so it’s unclear whether there’s a Southwark connection or if he was just a fan of their work.
3. George and Vulture, The City of London
Down a narrow street off Cornhill in The City you’ll fined a chop house with an unusual name. The premises started life as a tavern called the George Inn from 1470s but it was destroyed in the Great fire, like most businesses in this area. Post-fire, encapsulating the entrepreneurial spirit of London, owners of the George partnered with a nearby local wine merchant who’d also lost his property to form a new premises.
However, the wine merchant had a unique selling point in the shape of a live vulture he tethered over the entrance way. After a while of the bird flapping, squawking and generally scaring customers, they came to an agreement to lose the impractical prop and just call the new business the George and Vulture instead.
Explore more hidden gems and secrets of The City on my ‘Power and Sacrifice’ walking tour. Read more about it here.
4. The Widow’s Son, Bromley-by-Bow
Not the most cheerful name for an East London Boozer, but this pub nevertheless keeps up a delightful (and weird) tradition.
Her house was later demolished to make way for the pub, and a store of these buns were discovered. Under the former owners, hundreds of these varnished buns hung in a net over the bar and every year a new one – with the date baked into the top – is added by a serving member of the Navy.
Image from last year’s Easter ‘Bun Day’ celebration. To see more pictures and read the post, click here.
5. The Bishop’s Finger
A favourite local for Smithfield Market traders and customers, the Bishop’s Finger is named after the popular strong ale produced by Shepherd Neame Brewery. It has EU protected geographical indication and is one of the UK’s oldest bottled beers, in production since 1958.
But the name itself goes back a lot further.
The Ruby-coloured Kent classic is named after the finger-shaped signs that pointed Medieval pilgrims in the right direction to Canterbury Cathedral where they’d find the shrine of Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170.
6. Boot and Flogger, Southwark
The Southwark gem tucked down Redcross Way is unique. It’s the only UK premises allowed to sell alcohol without a license. The privilege comes because the owner, John Davy, is ‘Free Vintner’ – a freeman of The City and member of The Worshipful Company of Vintners (wine-makers). Referenced as earlier as 1321, the Vintners received their royal charter in 1567.
In the year 2000 it was proposed to modernise legislation and abolish this archaic exemption, but there was no information available as to whether this actually happened.
The name refers to a corking method; a leather boot holds the bottle still while the cork is ‘flogged’ in.
7. Mad Bishop and Bear, Paddington Station
Found on the mezzanine floor of Paddington Station, this Fuller’s pub name dates back to the very beginnings of the railway.
The Great Western Railway wanted to buy the land for the station site, but it had been owned by the Abbey of Westminster since Saxon times. When they approached the church to acquire the land they were gritting their teeth at the thought of the cost, but instead the church gave them the land for virtually nothing. I suppose “Mad Bishop” had a better ring to it than “Generous Bishop”.
The bear – of course – is Paddington, our immigrant Peruvian friend who has a hankering for marmalade.
If you haven’t ever seen the statue of Paddington himself, you can find him at platform 1.
8. Dirty Dicks, Liverpool Street
Most people don’t realise that the congestion around Liverpool Street has nothing to do with hoards of tube and rail passengers. It’s actually caused by childish passersby (including me) taking photos of this naughtily-named pub. Probably.
The name comes from Nathaniel Bentley – for some reason he was known as Richard, so Dick – who owned a shop on this street in the 1700s, but after his wife-to-be died on their wedding day he never recovered. Festering in his own filth (and among many dead cats) he became something of a tourist attraction until the pub was demolished and rebuilt in 1870.
Discover more behind-the-scenes history of Spitalfields on my East End walking tour here.
9. Doggett’s, Blackfriars Bridge
If you say Boat Race, most people associated the phrase with a rowing match between Oxford and Cambridge University.
But there’s another London boat race that takes place every August and predates the Oxbridge one by 114 years! The Doggetts’ Coat and Badge is a race between the Watermen and Lightermen Companies of London, the traditional water taxis that carried goods and Londoners across the River Thames. And it’s where this pub by Blackfriars Bridge gets its name.
The competition started when a Mr Thomas Dogett MP was desperate for a ride home. There being a considerable lack of ubers or black cabs in 18th century London, there was only one plucky young lad who offered to take him across the river. From then on he only used that boy and when people asked, he stated he was the fittest and fastest of all the wherrymen.
Wanting to knock this youth off his perch, a wager was established around 3 months later with Doggett betting no one could beat him in a race from Swan Pier (London Bridge) to The Swan Pub (Chelsea). The young man won the race and was given a new scarlet uniform as a prize.
The race between newly qualified watermen and lightermen still takes place each year and there are no rules. Huge sums of money are bet against people and foul play (including dropping stones of bridges onto boats!) is rife.
10. The Fat Walrus, New Cross
Walking past this New Cross pub, I could help but feel a pang of curiosity. It only opened in January 2016 and its website states it’s on previous site of The Old Haberdasher Pub on Lewisham Way.
The friendly owners indulged my inquiry, explaining that The Fat Walrus name comes from an early desire to buy a site in Forest Hill, near the fabulous Horniman Museum.
For those that have never visited (and you should immediately!) The museum’s most famous resident is a stuffed walrus. So while it’s not as relevant to the current pub’s site, it’s a great name nonetheless!
(In case you weren’t sure what a large stuffed walrus would look like…)
Anymore for anymore? Of the hundreds of pubs in London there must be some others that have got you wondering about their origins. Let me know if there’s any more I should add to this list!
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