Friday, February 19, 2010

Gone To Rack And Ruin

We are coming to the end of "Save the British Pub Week" here on News From Nowhere. Today I thought I might share the stories behind three popular pub names as these always provide a fascinating insight into social history. The three names are chosen for no other reason than I wanted to know their origins so decided to try and trace the stories. I have to confess that, of the three, the only one I have ever regularly drunk  in was a "Marquis of Granby" which stood opposite my place of work thirty-odd years ago.

The Swan With Two Necks:
By tradition, the reigning monarch owns all swans in Britain (don't ask me why, it is just one of those quaint/silly British traditions). The only exception to this general rule is that of two London Guilds (the Dyers' Company and the Vintners' Company) who were granted the right to own a limited number of swans back in the 15th century. So people knew whose swans were whose,  swans would be marked with a cut or nick in the lower mandible of the poor creature. Those of the Dyers' Company had one nick, those of the Vintners' had two nicks, whilst the rest were unmarked and belonged to the monarch. The sign of the swan with two nicks became a popular symbol of vintners (wine sellers) and was eventually corrupted into the pub name - The Swan With Two Necks.

The Marquis Of Granby :
John Manners, the Marquis of Granby, had a successful career as a soldier and later a politician in the eighteenth century. He served as a Colonel in the guards during the Seven Year War and was later promoted to the position of Lieutenant-General. When he left the army he became a politician and served in several of the governments of the mid-eighteenth century. One particular cause he devoted a significant amount of time to was in providing help to disabled ex-soldiers and he funded a scheme which encouraged disabled non-commissioned officers to take up the trade of publicans. It would appear that in grateful thanks, many of those who benefited from the scheme named their inns and taverns after their benefactor.

The Pig And Whistle :
There are two theories as to the origin of this particular name. The first is that it is a corruption of two old drinking terms - "peg" and "wassail". A peg was a measure in a drinking vessel designed to ensure that the drinker obtained full and proper measure, whilst "wassail" was a popular drinking salutation (you would raise your glass and say "wassail" and your drinking partner would raise theirs and reply "drinkhail"). Peg and Wessail soon became corrupted into Pig and Whistle. The second theory is that "pig and whistle" was a popular 17th century phrase meaning odds and ends of little consequence. To "to go to pig and whistle" meant to go to rack and ruin. 

Come to think of it, Rack and Ruin would be quite a good name for a pub. Wassail all.


  1. Yes, I think you should conteract all these pub closings with opening Alan's Rack and Ruin Pub.

    I did know the word "wassail" from the Christmas Carol. (I said proudly)

  2. Anonymous1:41 PM

    Hmmm...the Pig and Whistle factors into some of the British mystery books I've read. Too, Martha Grimes' Richard Jury novels all used Pub names for the titles( tho' I'm not sure which are fictional ). And if memory serves me correct..the Queen Mum did bequeath one swan for each member lost, when the USS THRESHER sank with a loss of all hands( back in 1968 ). Some of the descendants are still living along the banks of the Thames river in New London, CT.

  3. The Pig & Whistle was also the name of the bar on British vessels.

  4. Anonymous1:43 PM

    Sorry Alan; that should read 1963...

  5. I would be on the first plane out for the grand opening of the Rack and Ruin!!

  6. I agree with previous commenters on some of your other posts: this needs to be a book.

    phismond: noun: small hill or gnoll designated for male passersby to urinate on

  7. Leah, save me a seat!

    Alan, We had a t.v. show here in the 70s, entitled, "The Pig and Whistle". It was a live variety show taped at a pub in a nearby town. One of my facebook friends is the daughter of a fellow who was on the show.

    As for the swans with one or two nicks, how did they get close enough to determine which was which?


  8. This is really interesting!

  9. These were interesting, and would have earned 8 points in the 'Pub Legs Game' we always used to play with the kids on long journeys. Do you know it? You each take a pub in turn and earn points depending on how many legs are in the name. They would have tried to claim 6 for 'The Marquis of Granby' because there's a picture of a horse, but it's only the name that counts. We always wanted to find a pub called 'The Eight Octopuses' but never did.

  10. You have such great names for your pubs. We have bars and they open and close quickly depending on how many tv sets that they have in them. Location is the prime factor for success over here, and the strip malls have bars in them now and they are all sports bars. No intellectual anything going on in our bars.

  11. nothing quite like names for british pubs!

    reflecting on names for drinking establishments is fun, in the u.s. you probably would never encounter a place called "the pig and whistle" but one might very well encounter a bar called the whistling pig....just around the corner from my house is a neighborhood bar called 'the screaming rooster' - not a pub in the british style but a nice establishment to have a drink and hear some live music.

  12. I love the English pub names. Great story about the swans too. We had a Pig and Whistle near us but it was turned into a reception centre so now our local is the Mean Fiddler!


If It Wasn't For The Trees In-Between

This photograph must have been taken some time around 1972. Friends were visiting from "down south" and being shown Halifax - and ...