|Some ten years ago, the landlord of the Bell,
Horndon-on-the-Hill, hung a garland outside his
Inn to commemorate its four hundredth anniversary
as licensed premises. This simple ceremony
carried us back through the centuries to the time
before the first licensing act was passed in the
reign of Edward VI. In those days if you felt
like selling ale, all you had to do was to
display a bush out side your house. The custom
was an ancient one dating back to the Romans, who
employed the method to distinguish their tabernae.
A well known proverb fossilizes the practice.
inn-sign proper evolved gradually and, one might
say, accidentally. When the burden of dispensing
hospitality became too great for the religious
establishments, the overflow of pilgrims and the
tradesmen, whose numbers increased so rapidly in
the 14th century, had to look elsewhere for
accommodation. This was provided by extra hostels
built by the religious bodies, and also by
various members of the aristocracy, from the King
downwards, who, ever-ready to acquire new sources
of income, permitted their bailiffs to use their
mansions to cater for the travellers. Not
unnaturally, these hostels became known by some
distinctive charge of the owner's arms - a white
lion, a blue boar, etc. - which were usually
displayed above the gates, and the religious
hostels by some biblical symbol, such as an Angel
The habit spread and soon hostels, whether
they belonged to King, Lord, Monastery or not,
displayed some easily recognizable sign. Indeed,
so complicated and unsystematic did the practice
become that, at this distance it is extremely
difficult to determine the origin of some of the
signs. For instance, a Crown Inn might have had
royal connections or merely have been built on
Crown land. Again, a display of arms on an inn
might indicate that the premises were formerly
"my lords'", or merely that the
landlord adopted the sign in a burst of local
It so happens that in our Thameside area the
highest symbol in the land is borne by the most
elevated inn - in the physical sense, of course.
The Crown, Langdon Hill, stands near the spot
where once stood Arthur Young when he gave vent
to that remarkable outburst regarding the view*.
The actual sign is unique for the district, being
a gilded crown standing in relief on the facade
of the building. Crowns and other symbols of
Royalty have always been popular as inn-signs.
After the Restoration, more than one wit observed
that although the Kings Head might be
empty, the King's Arms were always full! Grays,
Stanford-le-Hope and Tilbury have their King's
Heads and there is a Queen's in Grays, although
we are not sure what part of her anatomy is
suggested. The Royal Hotel in Purfleet, started
life in humbler circumstances. When the great
chalk quarries in the neighbourhood were being
worked and the customers were the workmen, it was
simply the Bricklayers' Arms, but when the London
actors, actresses, politicians and others
discovered it and made it a weekend rendezvous,
then the more dignified title was assumed. The
older name illustrates another feature of inn-signs.
Landlords bestowed arms on all and sundry,
whether or not they were entitled to bear them.
What the College of Heralds thought of this
practice is unrecorded.
Popular heroes have always featured on inn-signs.
There is a Prince Albert in Aveley and a Prince
of Wales in South Ockendon, although which Prince
the latter refers to is not known. At least we
know that he came after 1828, since the sign is
not recorded in the Alehouse Recognizances before
that date. But sign painters are seldom deterred
by historical accuracy, and the hero changes with
the fashion of the day. It is normal to represent
the King's Head by a painting of Henry VIII - not
Charles I, as is frequently thought - but almost
every King from Henry VIII to recent times has
If the symbols on a sign are in groups of
three - Three Crowns, Rainham - or if the colour
of the animal represented is unknown to
naturalists, then a heraldic origin is indicated.
In this category are the Red Lion and the White
Hart, Grays, and the White Lion**, Fobbing. The
Red Lion was the badge of John of Gaunt, Duke of
Lancaster, who bore the lion of Castille on his
arms as a token of his claim to the throne of
that country, while the White Lion was the badge
of Edward IV, although the Dukes of Norfolk, the
Earls of Surrey and others also displayed the
same animal. The White Hart was the favourite
badge of Richard II, while another Richard, he of
the Lion Heart, displayed the Rising Sun, a sign
found in Grays and in Stanford-le-Hope.
Why do trivial incidents stick longest in the
popular mind - burnt cakes and Boscobel oak, for
example? As far as I know Alfred's carelessness
has given rise to no inn sign, but Charles'
adventure is commemorated in every country in
England. Thurrock has a Royal Oak in South
Ockendon - a finely painted sign, too - and on
the Parade in Grays is the Oak. This is indeed,
an exceptional inn since it has produced an Acorn
on the nearby Fairway Estate!
Of the armigerous families of Thurrock only
three are commemorated by inn signs. The shield
of the Lord Lieutenant of Essex, Sir Francis
Whitmore, is a well known sign in Orsett. The
Whitmore crests in plaster relief are also to be
found on several houses in the village. On the
London road near Wennington is the Lennard Arms.
Soon, when the destruction of Belhus is complete,
this inn will be our sole physical link with the
ancient family. Down the Old High Street in Grays
is the Theobald Arms where once that family had a
brewery. The great number of inns found in this
street in the latter half of the nineteenth
century moved William Palin, the historian, to
anger. (There are still a great number). Pilgrim
inns were another matter; beer shops he could not
The question of pilgrim hostels
in Thurrock is a thorny one. There is little
direct evidence, but, I for one believe that
there is a great deal of indirect evidence which
suggests that along the river there were a number
of hostels catering for the medieval pilgrim. It
has been suggested that the Bull Inn, Corringham,
was such a place, a suggestion which merits
careful consideration. True, the sign is to be
expected in farming districts, and it is remotely
possible that it is a corruption of Boleyn or
Bullen, which famous family held land in the
neighbourhood. Stranger corruptions are known.
But the most feasible suggestion is that "Bull"
is a corruption of bulla, a licence giving
certain houses the right to accommodate pilgrims.
Near the inn - the church; and beyond the marshes
- the river and Kent, where lay Canterbury, the
goal of the pilgrims.
The Crosskeys in Chadwell St.
Mary, is also a religious sign, in this case the
insignia of the Holy See. This is an old and
popular sign, but it is surprising that such a
"tainted" symbol should have survived
the Reformation. Was it perhaps because many
English Sees also bore the ancient charge on
Bell inns, too, are usually found near the
church. This is not surprising. The one at
Horndon-on-the-Hill is no exception. Nowadays, it
is difficult for us to realise what an important
part bells played in the lives of our forbears.
Bells announced their christening; bells pealed
their marriage; bells tolled their death.
Throughout the day, bells marked the passing
hours. The sign-board of the Horndon Bell states
VIVO VOCO ; MORTUOS PLANGO ; FULGURA FRANGO
(I call the living ; I mourn the dead ; I shiver
Certain signs are common to most of the
Counties of England. Many of the preceding, for
example, are as popular in Durham or Cornwall as
they are in Essex. Other signs, however, are more
local and usually reflect certain features of the
locality. In Thurrock, for example, the farm and
the river are well represented since these were
the main occupations when so many of our inns
were established. There is a Plough in South
Ockendon, and a Harrow in Bulvan. Outside the
latter swings a miniature harrow. Bulls are to be
found in Corringham, Little Thurrock and in Grays.
(The alternative explanation must not be
forgotten). Orsett has the Cock and Horndon-on-the-Hill
its Swan. This latter might be the badge of the
de Bohuns or of the de Mandevilles, onetime Earls
of Essex. Did the fondness of the bird for liquid
account for its popularity as a sign?
The less serious side of rural life is
represented by many aspects of the chase. There
is a Greyhound on Orsett Heath, a Foxhound in
Orsett, a Fox and Hounds on Orsett Heath, and a
Dog and Partridge in both North Stifford and
Orsett. And in West Thurrock are Rabbits -
perhaps the only ones left in Thurrock!
Of the signs associated with the sea it would
seem that the Ship (Little Thurrock, Aveley and
East Tilbury) would be the most obvious symbol,
but a study of the distribution of this popular
sign in Essex gives room for doubt! Many an Essex
Ship is as high and dry as Noah's Ark on Ararat,
and miles from the sea. Although it must be
granted that Ship inns standing near the sea are
open to the obvious interpretation, the most
likely explanation of inland ships is that the
word is our Essex pronunciation of sheep. No such
alternative explanation is to be found for the
Anchor (Tilbury) or the Blue Anchor. West Tilbury.
The Anchor and Hope is somewhat puzzling and
could epitomise the end of every sailor's voyage.
Most probably, however, the 'Hope' refers to
those familiar stretches of the Thames. Aveley's
Crown and Anchor refers to the emblem of the
Royal Navy and not to that Navy's favourite game.
The reason for the sign of the Wharf Hotel, West
Thurrock, is obvious, but it is not generally
known that some of the first cement made in Grays
was loaded from the Wharf that gave the inn its
Besides farming and the sea, brick-making has
also been undertaken in Thurrock. As we have
already noted, the Royal Hotel, Purfleet, was
once the Bricklayers' Arms. The same sign is
still to be found in Little Thurrock and is a
link with the days when bricks were made where
now we find Grays' Park.
Of the miscellaneous inns of Thurrock, perhaps
the George and Dragon, East Tilbury, and the
`World's End', West Tilbury, are the most
interesting. George, with or without the beast,
has been a popular subject for inn signs for
centuries. Why the son of a Cappadocian pig-drover
should have been adopted as England's patron
Saint is another story, but since the Order
bearing his name was founded on St. George's Day,
1344, his Englishness has never been questioned.
The sign of the World's End seems to puzzle many
people. They should take a look at the Ordnance
Survey Map of the area for the year 1801. Where
now stands Tilbury Town stood no building save
one tiny milk-house, right in the middle of the
marshes. At the river's edge, remote and lonely,
stood an inn seemingly at the World's End ...
*Arthur Youngs outburst regarding the
view from Langdon Hills, 1767:
Horndon , on the summit of a vast hill, one of
the most astonishing prospects to be beheld,
breaks almost at once upon one of the dark lanes.
Such a prodigious valley, everywhere painted with
the finest verdure, and intersected with
numberless hedges and woods, appears beneath you,
that it is past description; the Thames winding
thro it, full of ships and bounded by the
hills of Kent. Nothing can exceed it
** The White Lion inn sign has the following
lines beneath the coat of arms:
Oh what avail the plough or sail, or life ,
or land, if freedom fail.