Book review: Green Men & White Swans

Summer holidays when I was a lad meant the long haul down to Devon in the back of a Ford Escort. Annoying my sister kept be busy until Birmingham (and toast at Frankley services). The I-Spy Book Of The Motorway occupied me down the M5 to junction 31. And then it was time for a game of pub sign cricket. Spot a pub sign, score runs for every leg mentioned. The Cock Inn? Two runs. The Fox? Four runs. No legs? No runs. Arms or legs instead? You're out.

And that's where my interest in pub names first started. Nowadays, when I'm sat outside having a pint, I'm prone to wandering why there's a ubiquity of Royal Oak's, who was Sir John Borlase Warren or what a Bucket of Blood has to do with beer. There's now a book newly out in paperback that answers some of those questions.

Only some, mind you; that's because 'Green Men & White Swans' has a focus on folklore names. Author Jacqueline Simpson is a longstanding member of the Folklore Society and finds the "most fascinating" names to be those drawn directly from British lore. The result is an A-Z of over four hundred pub names with succinct and insightful explanations of their origins.Whether its the commonplace (Red Lion) or the unique (Flitch of Bacon) Simpson delves into legend, ballad and song to illuminate the sometimes not-so-obvious background.

Clear typeset is interspersed with etchings related to the subjects rather than illustrations of the signs themselves, giving greater clarity to the prose. Several mini-essays flesh out the story of particular themes, such as "Puzzling Pairs". The index includes placenames too so you can find unusual examples within a particular location.

It proves to be a great book to dip in and out of, especially at the pub. I now know more about Royal Oak Day and may suggest the celebration to the landlord of my local. Two pubs I'd previously visited  - The Case Is Altered and The Quiet Woman - are included and have descriptions that fit in perfectly with my earlier research. As for the Bucket of Blood - well, I get the feeling that the decapitation of a revenueman in a Cornish smuggler's inn may be a tale that just keeps getting taller.

It's one of those books that never fails to amuse and amaze. What's more, not only do I now know how the Seven Sisters pub got its name, but I know where I can score fourteen runs if I ever get to play pub sign cricket down south.

Green Men & White Swans is published by Arrow and can be bought from

If the style of the cover illustration seems beery familiar, it's because it's by the illustrator Chris Wormell who produced the 'Beer From The Coast' series for Adnams.

And if you really want to lose yourself in the history of pub signs, you can download 'History Of Signboards', the 1907 revision by Larwood and Hotten, from


  1. Sounds great! I'm currently reading Albert Jack's The Old Dog and Duck which is similar and about the history of pub names. Fascinating!

  2. I've just bought The Old Dog And Duck - for a penny on Amazon! - and will review that soon. Different approaches, both really interesting.