Little Waldingfield History Society was delighted to welcome John Goodhand to the Parish Room, to share his extensive collection of and knowledge about Suffolk pub signs past and present; sadly all too many pubs have closed during this time and some of his photos may be all that now remains. Thirty five members and non members alike thoroughly enjoyed his witty repartee throughout the showing of hundreds of photographs from his collection, which now dates back some years.

This review is a little different to usual because it was simply impossible for me to make notes during the quick fire presentation accompanying each photo, other of the pub/inn name, its location and perhaps some of the interesting facts mentioned. Many of the signs shown were of great beauty, though John did bemoan the modern trend for printing computer images onto plastic (or other materials – see below) which is then stuck onto the backing board; in his experience, traditional hand painted signs should easily last 20 years whereas the stick on plastic variety he often sees begin to peel off within 5 years.

According to the Suffolk Real Ale Guide ( there are 552 real ale pubs in the county, which sounds a lot until you see their total of closed pubs at 2,367, which is nothing short of astonishing; something Little Waldingfield fully appreciates with the current closure of The Swan, our last remaining pub, and the Old White Horse which is now a private residence.

Before we get to the main event, some those glorious pub signs, it is helpful to gain an understanding of where they came from, to which I am indebted to the Inn Sign Society, from where the following material has been taken:

Sign Language

Along their roads the Romans constructed ‘tabernae’ – taverns – originally shops that mainly sold wine, where travellers could obtain food and overnight lodging. The Romans decreed that all taverns should be identifiable by branches of evergreens fixed to the outside of the building to symbolise Bacchus, the Greek god of wine, and which eventually gave rise to one of the earliest pub names – The Bush.

Behind the present-day idyllic image of the English country pub lie centuries of tradition going back to medieval times. The well-to-do would usually stay in local manor houses or perhaps castles, but commoners, who rarely left their home village, slept where they could in barns or under hedgerows. Then, an inn was a place offering ordinary travellers shelter for the night plus something to eat and drink, and many were established by hospitable monks who first set up hospices or hostels.

In 1393 King Richard II decreed that pubs must have signs “Whoever shall brew ale in the town for the intention of selling it, must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”

Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, many hospices became inns run by lay brothers, who were the first innkeepers. Before Henry VIII ordered the breakaway from Rome, The Popes Head (now extinct) was a common name. To stay on the right side of the king, astute innkeepers quickly changed the name to The Kings Head (ubiquitous) which explains why the Tudor monarch’s face is still to be seen on so many pub signs today. Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, by his second wife Anne Boleyn is also much in evidence on signs of The Queens Head.

As villages grew, the function of the inn changed, to become a social centre for the community as well as a lodging place for travellers. Despite rutted roads and the constant threat posed by highwaymen, the comparative luxury of the stage coach provided speedier travel for those able to afford the fare, and many inns, particularly in towns, became coaching inns. The Coach & Horses is a popular, present-day reminder of this heritage . Today, many such inns are recognisable by a large archway leading to a rear courtyard. As coaching days gave way to railways, we now have signs such as The Railway or The Station throughout the land.

Modern signs cover a huge range of subjects; Famous people and places, local stories and interest, many humorous, cartoon,or fashionably stylised.

 Types of Signs & Frames

For many observers, the image on the inn sign is what catches the eye and holds the interest. Should you not share that view, pause next time you pass a sign on your way into the pub, but take a new look at the whole sign; you might well be surprised by the amount of detail that is included.

In times past, most signs were hand-painted and made of wood or metal. Today, signs are increasingly produced by computer-generated graphics on lightweight materials such as aluminium, fibreglass, perspex or similar, whilst other materials used may include sandstone and stained glass.

Styles of Sign

  • Hanging signs are normally fixed to the building and hang from a bracket.
  • Gallows, or beam signs, stretch the width of the road or pavement, though many signs that once spanned the highway have been removed due to the increased size of vehicles. Watch out for the one over the main A140 road to Norwich.
  • Pillory signs are freestanding and often situated away from the pub, often in the car park like our own Swan Inn.
  • Banged-up is a term coined for signs fitted or mounted directly onto the wall of the pub building.

Types of Frames

Like paintings, images may be enhanced by the choice of decorative frame; modern frames tend to be made of wood or metal and most are plain, utilitarian and functional – in other words not particularly attractive. Some subjects are however suitable for intricate wrought-iron work, with many such frames in the past being made by the local blacksmith.

Sudbury & Surrounding Area

The first local pub is the Cock & Bell in Long Melford, and three generations of pub sign are shown covering a remarkably short space of time. Note that the oldest appears to show three eggs inside the bell, but the golden coloured one is actually the bell clapper. John believes the name possibly came from the merger of two previous pubs.

                                   In 2008                                                                           In  2011                                                                     In 2015

The Grover & Allen shows how pubs can change when under new management, particularly nationwide chains such as Wetherspoons. This chain tends to divide opinion but personally I am in favour, because it keeps a pub and provides really great value; however, John advised that they don’t always keep the pub sign.

John particularly mentioned the Half Moon sign because it does represent what it says, apparently many such named pub signs simply show a crescent moon.


The Three Horseshoes in Bures shows a nice blacksmith type creation, in this case made mostly from horseshoes, which is a nice touch. The sign itself is a symbolic reference back to St Dunstan and one of his meetings with the devil – two shoes for the devil’s cloven hooves and one above your front door to keep the devil away (i.e. to bring good luck to the household).

Ipswich & Surrounding Area

The Gardeners Arms is seemingly unusual in actually showing a pair of arms rather than a man leaning on a spade or fork, and is now sadly closed.

The Maypole was on the old Norwich Road, also now gone; John mentioned that it was a particularly nice image.

The Mermaid seems to be one of John’s favourite establishments – “A superb carvery with two for a tenner”. Unusually she is seen “swimming and wearing a bra”, rather than half naked on a rock.

The Compasses shows a compass resting on a map, not just any old map, but that taken from the novel Treasure island.


                                         Compasses and a map                                                           Seen tp be a map of Treasure Island


The Great White Horse hotel in Ipswich was made famous by Dickens in his novel ‘The Pickwick Papers’. In 1834, he stayed in Ipswich for the first time, at the Great White Horse Hotel in Tavern Street, mentioning the hotel in his novel:

“In the main street of Ipswich, on the left-hand side of the way, a short distance after you have passed through the open space fronting the Town Hall, stands an inn known far and wide by the appellation of The Great White Horse, rendered the more conspicuous by a stone statue of some rampacious animal with flowing mane and tail, distantly resembling an insane cart-horse, which is elevated above the principal door. The Great White Horse is famous in the neighbourhood, in the same degree as a prize ox, or county paper-chronicled turnip, or unwieldy pig – for its enormous size. Never were such labyrinths of uncarpeted passages,  such clusters of mouldy, ill-lighted rooms, such huge numbers of small dens for eating or sleeping in, beneath any one roof, as are collected together between the four walls of the Great White Horse at Ipswich.”

In the story Mr Pickwick inadvertently strays into a lady’s bedroom and, having extricated himself from an awkward situation, gets disorientated in the maze of the hotel’s dimly lit corridors. He has to rely on his servant, Sam Weller, to guide him back to his own room.

The Shannon was a 38-gun Leda-class frigate of the Royal Navy launched in 1806 which served in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. She won a noteworthy naval victory on 1 June 1813 when she captured the American Navy’s USS Chesapeake in a singularly bloody battle.

Felixstowe & Surrounding Area

The Three Mariners has undergone a number of recent incarnations, beginning with a superb image of three vessels surrounded by sea serpents and accompanied by Neptune. The pub then became the Mariners Inn, before becoming Mariners Free House (third image).


                                                                         Three Mariners in 2011                                                                   Three Mariners in 2013        

I cannot track down an image  of The Shipwreck pub sign, so have instead shown their sign upon a beached buoy.


According to John, the sign for the Hand in Hand is most unusual, with a farmer and a sailor shaking hands.

John believes the word Dooley is a reference to a hospital in India, which I believe is nearly right. An airline volunteer programme was conceived in 1961 by Dooley Intermed’, ten president and founder in support of humanitarian projects in Asia, including India, with Pan Am providing transport to and from the volunteer sites. There may also be a reference to ‘doolally’, an unkind word for someone a bit mad.

Felsto appears to be a shorthand for Felixstowe, so perhaps they should have had a larger pub sign.

Aldeburgh & Surrounding Area

The Froize has an interesting image of a pair of ducks, with the pub possibly built on land once belonging to the now ruined Butley Priory. Froize itself is a term for a kind of savoury pancake.

The Vulcan Arms is perhaps my favourite sign, and is a winner of the Inn Sign Society’s ‘sign of the year, competition per John. It depicts Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, along with the famous tv/cinema Vulcan Spock, and my favourite ever military aircraft the Vulcan Vee bomber.


Southwold & Surrounding Area

John noted that parrots feature quite often on pub signs, but that the Parrot & Punchbowl was a curious, and colourful, combination. John also suggested a possible reason, being that Whigs generally drank punch and Tories wine, hence the images of grapes alongside the punchbowl.

The Sole Bay Inn commemorates the famous battle between the British and the Dutch off Sole Bay.

John noted that Dunwich under the sea was a ‘rotten borough’, like Old Sarum, though this is not apparent in the pub sign for The Ship.


Lowestoft & Surrounding Area

The landlord of The Royal Oak in Laxfield was previously at the Fox and Hounds in Chelsea, which John surmises is the reason for the change of their sign to incorporate a Chelsea Pensioner alongside King Charles.

A reasonable likeness of the explorer David Livingstone adorns the sign at Livingstones

Woodbridge & Surrounding Area

John told us that the Green Man reference is very old, and associated with signs referencing the Wild Man, Jack in the Green and Puk. There is a Wild Man pub at Sproughton, but the photo is too poor to include here unfortunately.

The sign for the Red Lion at Martlesham is that of a ship’s figure head attached to an external wall, and most striking it is too.

The image for The Oyster Inn is most striking, complete with fishing boats, an oyster and an oyster catcher.


The Chequers is a very common name per John, and is a reference back to the chequer or checker tree – one of Europe’s most valuable hardwoods, being fine grained, dense and with good bending strength. The fruits, called “chequers”, are eaten by many birds and a few mammals, making the tree ecologically important; they are also edible to humans, apparently tasting similar to dates though now rarely collected for food. Before the introduction of hops, the fruit was used to flavour beer, which may be related to the ancient symbol of pubs being called the chequer board; the name “chequers” may also have been derived from the spotted pattern of the fruit, or possibly from the pattern of the bark on old trees.

The Elephant and Castle refers to the animal and its Howdah, the carriage on its back for carrying goods or people; interestingly Claudius the Roman Emperor brought at least one elephant into the country as part of his invasion of Britain.


Stowmarket & Surrounding Area

The sign for the Magpie, formerly the Pie Inn, straddles the main road between a pair of gallows supports for the beam across the road. According to John this type of pub sign was very popular, until that is when one sadly collapsed and killed a person.

The Pickerell surname is derived from the Middle English word “pykerell”, meaning “young pike”, and thought to have evolved from a nickname for a sharp and aggressive person, or possibly as an occupational name for someone who caught or sold these fish. They certainly make for interesting images.


                                                            In 2008                                                             More colourful in 2018

Bury St Edmunds & Surrounding Area

The Crown and Castle is a most interesting sign as it references the Suffolk Regiment who are based at the Gibraltar Barracks in the town, hence the mention of Gibraltar and the image of a castle gate and its keys.

There are many pubs called the Black Boy, which usually depict a chimney sweep; the later sign shows Charles II, who was known as the black boy because of his swarthy complexion, though presumably never to his face.

The signs for the Five Bells and the Six Bells interestingly depict different types of bells, being hand bells and church bells respectively.

The Pykkerell depicts the middle English word for young pike, as noted above.


To conclude this review, John brought great passion, humour and warmth to a subject on which most people have probably given little thought to; his talk was a hop, skip and a jump through English pub history, much enjoyed by everyone present, who left with the words “Look Up when next passing a pub” ringing in their ears.

Our next events will be at 7.30 in The Parish Room on:

20th March: To relieve need and distress by Sarah Doig

The fascinating story of East Anglian almshouses.

17th April: The Amazing Story of Rev’d. John Heigham Steggall, the Suffolk Gypsy

Around 1800 this son of a parson ran away to live with gypsies. In a remarkable life, he was a surgeon, sailor, soldier and parish priest at Great Ashfield.

Both events are going to be great, and we very much look forward to welcoming guests both new and old to the Parish Room in Little Waldingfield.