The Bucket Of Blood in Hayle, Cornwall earned its grisly title from an incident dating back 200 years when the inn landlord, while pulling water from the local well, found the pail to be filled with blood, leading to the subsequent discovery of a mutilated body – according to some accounts the recently disposed of corpse of a local tax collector. The years following the discovery have seen its legend gather weight, bulked up by the inevitable tales of unexplained noises and mysterious silent figures that constitute a classic pub haunting – all good for business, without doubt.
A couple of counties to the East (although the pub itself is no longer there), the Quiet Woman referred to the story of the martyrdom of St. Juthware who lived in Halstock, Dorset over a thousand years ago. Her step-mother Goneril, angered by Juthware’s piety and habit of offering shelter and refreshment to passing pilgrims, deceived her son Bana (Juthware’s step-brother) into believing that Juthware had given birth to a child and killed it in the woods. The lies culminated in the young Christian woman being decapitated by her step-brother’s sword, but legend has it that Juthware’s headless body rose from the floor, collected her head and carried it through the village to offer at the church altar. Each year on All Saint’s Day the headless ghost of St. Juthware is said to make the same journey through the village to the church, holding her head in her hands.
These are two rather macabre examples but they are indicative of the rich seam of history and folklore that can often be seen beautifully illustrated in Britain’s pub signs. Dating back to the middle-ages when early tavern keepers used to hang pictorial signs in order to advertise to a largely illiterate public, the pub sign tradition has often been inspired by religion, royalty, heroes, legend and scandal. The signs themselves can be of an exceptional artistic standard and provide valuable insight into the pub’s customers both past and present, along with the local area traditions and history.
For a less obscure example the Royal Oak stems back to the English civil war when King Charles II, on the run from Oliver Cromwell’s army, climbed and took shelter in the branches of an oak tree for a day while his pursuers searched the forest floor below. Following his restoration to the throne the story became increasingly popular leading to many landlords adopting the name. And the Red Lion’s popularity is often said to have derived from the reign of James I (already James VI of Scotland when he took the English throne in 1603) who, it is claimed, declared the heraldic red lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance, including taverns. However, the red lion is a common heraldic symbol across the United Kingdom so there are no doubt a number of explanations for its popularity.