Pickled Egg, Blade Bone, Swedish Crowns: London pub names in the 19th century

The Green Man and Still c.1870.

George Dodd’s The Food of London is something of an overlooked gem published in 1856. Among many other passages worthy of attention in their own right, there’s a fantastic rundown of the naming of London pubs.

It’s great for three reasons:

  • Where other writers might have skimmed the surface, Dodd provides a detailed list of London pub names with a count of how many there are of each type.
  • It highlights some genuinely bizarre names that we’d have thought were made up if we’d encountered them in fiction.
  • There’s a certain wit and poetry in his writing that makes a list amusing.

First, though, there’s a bit about the sheer volume of pubs in London at this time, in the wake of the 1830 Licensing Act:

In relation to the metropolis only, the number of public-houses is of course enormous — intended, as they are, to supply malt-liquor to two million and a half of drinkers. In London, the licensed victuallers are probably about 4500; while the beer-sellers are somewhat over half this number — very likely 7000 altogether, equal to one in about every 45 houses, or one to 350 inhabitants.

If you’re interested, the full text provides further detail of the numbers of pubs, and pubs per household, for various districts, such as Norton Folgate.

The number of pubs is what drives the variety of names Dodd records – if you’ve only got one pub in the village, The Red Lion will do. If there are ten pubs on the street, you’d better start thinking about a ‘distinctive brand’ that will provide ‘differentiation’.

Because, as we say above, the writing has wit and rhythm, we’ve presented the pub passage presented complete, below, with paragraph breaks and small edits for ease of reading.

Our advice: read it aloud to really catch the poetry of it.

The public-houses of London are as motley an assemblage as can well be imagined — so far as signs are concerned. We find among them about 70 royal dukes – Cambridge, Clarence, Cumberland, Gloucester, Sussex, and York; a few royal duchesses; 60 or 70 Georges and George the Fourths; Victorias and Royal Alberts in great abundance; 80 Crowns and 20 Crown and Anchors; 70 King’s Arms and 90 King’s Heads; 20 Queen’s Arms and 50 Queen’s Hèads.

Next comes a menagerie of extraordinary animals – 30 Green Men, with or without Stills, Bells, and French Horns; 120 Lions – red, white, blue, or black; 25 Black Horses, and 45 White; 70 White Harts; 55 Swans, black or white as the case may be – and so forth.

Then we have a series of couplets – 55 Coach and Horses; 25 Horse and Grooms; 55 Rose and Crowns; and numerous Ships, combined in an extraordinary way with Blue Balls, Blue Coat Boys, Punchbowls,‘Rising Suns, Shears and Shovels.

The system of numeration has been carried out by the licensed victuallers more fully than they themselves, perhaps, are aware; for we shall find One Tun, Two Bells, Three Suns, Four Swans, Five Pipes, Six Cans, Seven Stars, Eight Bells, Nine Elms, Ten Bells, and Twelve Bells: let any enterprising publican hit upon Eleven something – Cricketers, Virgins, or what not – and the duodecimal system will be complete. Some numbers are great favourites, especially number three, which develops itself in all the varieties of Three Brewers and Three Colts; three each of Compasses, Cranes, Cups, Doves, Elms, Foxes, Goats, Hats, Herrings, Horseshoes and Johns; Three Jolly Bakers, Three Jolly Butchers, and Three Jolly Gardeners; Three Kings, Three Loggerheads and Three Lords (three loggerheads between three kings and three lords might appear sarcastic, were not the order of the alphabet alone responsible); three Mariners, Merry Boys, Neats’ Tongues, Nuns, Pigeons, Spies, Sugar-loaves, Stags, Suns, Swedish Crowns and Wheat Sheaves.

A wonderful display of tapsters’ ingenuity occurs in such signs as Blade Bone, Coffee-pot, Essex Serpent, Knave of Clubs, Lilliput Hall, Naked Boy and Woolpack, Old Centurion, Pickled Egg, Prospect of Whitby, Tippling Philosopher, Widow’s Son, Valiant Trooper, Sun in Splendour, Running Footman, Experienced Fowler, Good Man, Kentish Wag and World Turned Upside Down.

Phew!

Can you believe there was ever really a pub called The Pickled Egg? Or The Three Spies? Or the bloody Blade Bone!?

Well, there was a Blade Bone trading in Bethnal Green as recently as 2000, demolished in 2016, according to WhatPub.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was popular with skinheads in the 1970s.

If you tried to name a pub that now, we suspect the licencing authorities would attempt to discourage it.

But we’d be quite excited to drink at The Tippling Philosopher if anyone fancies reviving that.

Main image: Cowcross Street c.1870 via the Survey of London.

5 thoughts on “Pickled Egg, Blade Bone, Swedish Crowns: London pub names in the 19th century”

  1. You can drink in a “The Tippling Philosopher” – in Milborne Port, Somerset. Used it reasonably regularly (though was my least favourite pub of the three then in the village), when it was called the much less interesting Kings Head, in the 1970’s.Changed its name at the end of the century. Claims it’s a revival of its former name used up until 1820; although as with much ‘Pub History’ am not entirely convinced this is not a mixture of romantic illusion, creative ‘folk memory’ and dubious augmentation on what-might-have-been.

  2. There used to be a Tippling Philosopher in Caldicot, Monmouthshire, closed in the last 20 years. Think the name went back to the 1820s at least. The Naked Boy name may have been a chimney sweep?

  3. I used to frequent the Five Bells & Blade Bone on Three Colt Street in Limehouse of a Sunday in the 1980s, walking from my flat near the Royal Oak in Borough across Tower Bridge and along Wapping High Street. It was always a fascinating walk but the particular attraction was the pub’s free Sunday buffet. East End pubs were famous for their Sunday buffets, but the Five Bells & Blade Bone’s was a class apart.

    And I always loved the name. The pub was apparently established in 1803 as the Five Bells. The name was expanded to Five Bells & Bladebone in 1845 when (allegedly) a whalebone recovered from one of the docks was put on display in the pub.

    It was renamed the 5B Urban Bar in 2000, eventually closing in 2018. Though the Google Streetview image capture in April 2019 suggests it might have reöpened.

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