Exhibit of the Week: Crown Tavern pub sign

The Crown Tavern sign which has been in the Scarborough Collections since 1939.
The Crown Tavern sign which has been in the Scarborough Collections since 1939.
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Extensive research – online, not in the actual establishments themselves, sadly – has revealed to us at the Museums Trust that the Crown is either the first or the eighth most popular pub name in the UK.

Which is correct depends on whether you trust CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, which claims that, with 704 landlords swearing allegiance to the throne, the Crown is the most common name; or the British Beer and Pub Association, which puts it in eighth place with a mere 261 instances, behind the Red Lion, Royal Oak, White Hart, Rose and Crown, King’s Head, King’s Arms and Queen’s Head (interestingly, given the thousands of potential names, the top ten all have some royal connection, the Red Lion being linked to James I and the White Hart to Richard II).

The huge disparity is apparently because it’s so difficult to define what a pub is, as opposed to a licensed bar, restaurant or nightclub, and also because of the parlous nature of the pub industry in recent years – so many traditional establishments have closed down, although micropubs and other alternative drinking holes seem to be springing up in their place.

Our exhibit today is an elaborately carved sign from the Crown Tavern, heavy oak with a lavishly carved and painted image. It’s double sided, and the image is identical on the other side, although the paint on the reverse is very faded compared to the vibrant colours you see here, so we assume one side of it was restored for display when it came into the care of the Museums Trust in 1939.

It most probably came from the Crown Tavern which still thrives on the roundabout at the town end of Scalby Road; we’d be interested to hear from any readers who know otherwise.

We can trace the history of our country through our pub signs – they cover many aspects of our collective culture, from the noble art of heraldry, such as the Red Lion (which also lays claim, depending on who you believe, to be the most common pub name in the country) to those named after great works of literature, such as Whitby’s The Moon and Sixpence, from the Somerset Maughan novel, or the Moon under Water – several pubs have taken their name from George Orwell’s essay describing his perfect English pub.

It’s easy to forget that we live in very literate times – these days, it’s unusual to meet an adult who can’t read. But it wasn’t always so. Back in Roman times, ‘tabernae’, from which we derive the word ‘tavern’, would declare their presence with a bunch of leaves on a pole – officially, vine leaves, but one assumes they used anything similar they could get hold of in Roman Britain. Because the pole and leaves loosely resembled a bush, that became one of the earliest pub names in the country – The Bush.

The tradition of having a visual aid to alert people to a drinking house grew organically until 1393 when King Richard I passed an Act which made it a legal requirement for all pubs and inns to have a sign: “Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”

This made them more apparent to a team of official ‘ale tasters’, who would decide the quality of the drink they provided: we suspect we could all think of people who love that job!

The difference between a ‘pub’ and an ‘inn’, by the way, seems to be that the latter offered accommodation.

The Crown Tavern sign is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.