THE INN SIGNS OF THURROCK (Text as published in 1953; photos by Derek Austin in 2001.)

   By Glyn Morgan
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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.

The 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 or Crosskeys.

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 patriotism.

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 King’s 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 been delineated.


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 condone.

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 their arms?

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 this briefly:
(I call the living ; I mourn the dead ; I shiver the lightening).

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 name.

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 Young’s outburst regarding the view from Langdon Hills, 1767: “…near 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.”


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