Above: The Elephant and Castle pub at Vauxhall Cross. The sign has a ’twist’ to it in that the castle on the elephant’s back is in shape of one found on chess board.
Although it sounds like a strange name for a pub, it is a very well-known name in London. The pub name has been used for at least 15 hostelries in Inner London and also in other parts of England.
The ancient pub that used to stand at the very large traffic interchange in Southwark was removed many years ago to be replaced by a modern ugly building. On top of the large Victorian building was an equally large sign – an elephant with what looks like a ‘castle’ on its back. For the record, the original sign stands outside the ugly 1960s shopping precinct which is soon to be demolished. Hopefully the authorities have designated a new ‘home’ for the famous sign.
Just ‘down the road’ so to speak, at Vauxhall Cross was another pub with the same name. The premises closed as a pub some years back and are now in use by Starbucks as a coffee shop. The Victorian building remains and on top are actually two very similar signs. The pub at Vauxhall was first mentioned in the 1780s when it was described as being beside the Vauxhall Turnpike Gate. (Lillywhite n6265 p173).
What has always fascinated Londoners is how the name arose – particularly in the case of the pub at Southwark. If we knew the definitive answer to that question we would be getting somewhere. People have puzzled over the origins of the name for centuries and, along the way, some very odd derivations have emerged. Putting aside some of the more bizarre ideas, there are basically three derivations that should be mentioned.
(1) Starting with the most unlikely – which is also the one that most people like to quote – it is said that the name ‘elephant and castle’ is a corruption of the name ‘Infanta of Castile’ or, more correctly, ‘Infanta de Castilla’. This would have been a reference to Spanish princesses such as Eleanor of Castile and María, the daughter of Philip III of Spain. However, Eleanor of Castile was not an infanta because the term only appeared in English about 1600. María has a strong British connection because she was once controversially engaged to Charles I, but she had no connection with Castile. It would seem that ‘Infanta de Castilla’ therefore seems to be a mixture of two Iberian royals separated by 300 years. Since there is no record that either of the two ladies just mentioned either visited the area or had any connection with it we can safely dismiss this derivation completely. However, no matter how many times we explain the point, the erroneous derivation will continue to be ‘trotted out’ by the locals and by ignorant guides in the locality.
(2) In London, the elephant and castle is also found on the arms of the African Company (later called Royal African Company), incorporated 1588 by Elizabeth I. That theory has some credence but there is no record of the African Company being connected with the land where either of the two pubs stand.
Above: One of two ‘Elephant and Castle’ signs on the old pub building at Vauxhall.
(3) It should be pointed out that the actual derivation for ‘elephant and castle’ is not known for certain but this third theory is considered to be the most likely. By about 1760 the property that became a pub in Southwark was in use as a smithy. Around that date it became an inn taking the sign of the Elephant and Castle. The name is generally accepted to be derived from the sign of the Cutlers’ Company who held property nearby. The first appearance of the sign is believed to have been in the 1770s. In 1622 the Cutlers’ crest, of the elephant’s head, was superseded by that of the elephant and castle. If you are wondering why the cutlers would adopt an elephant’s head for their sign the answer is simple – it was the elephant tusks that were used to make ivory handles for knives.
The name ‘elephant and castle’ was probably the everyday interpretation of the castle-like howdah that were to be seen on the backs of elephants. London can boast some of the more unusual pub names and it is a shame that, as the pubs close, many of the more unusual names are gradually being lost.