Above: An ordinary pub in Hoxton High Street with an unusual name.
London is rapidly losing its pubs. They say that pubs are closing at an average rate of three every week. This is matched by the rest of Britain where the closure rate is about the same, if not higher. Within the last three or four decades, a large number of really interesting pub names have simply vanished. Pubs are rather like churches – both are indicative of a large community. No church was ever built where there was no congregation and, similarly, there is no point in opening a pub if nobody comes to buy the beer.
Pub names have been great for making people in the area aware of its history. For example, the Black Prince pub at Kennington is a reminder of its one-time famous resident who lived at Kennington Palace. The Elephant and Castle pub – at, well, Elephant and Castle – has given the locality a name. Similarly with the New Cross pub – at, er, New Cross.
In short, districts are well served by historic pub names and districts are sometimes named after a pub that caught the attention of earlier generations. Then there are pubs whose names are really quite unusual in their own right. In earlier times, when exotic animals were very rare indeed, how did a pub like the ’Tiger’s Head’ acquire its name. The pub at Lee Green has had that name for over 200 years.
Above: Close-up of the unicorn who holds a blank shield.
Even more mysterious is the pub name in Hoxton – the Unicorn. How did a down-to-earth place like Hoxton come to have a pub of that name? The sign derives from a fabulous animal known to the ancients a ‘monoceros’ or ‘unicorn’ which has a documented mention going back to 400 BC.
Of course, the lion and the unicorn are the two heraldic supporters of the Royal Coat of Arms. They are also to be found in the City of London on the arms of the Wax Chandlers’ Company, the Goldsmiths’ Company and the Apothecaries’ Company.
The pub, first mentioned as the ‘Unicorn Tavern’ goes back to around 1809–27 [Lillywhite 15588 p611] and there seems little reason why such a name should be chosen for a hostelry in Hoxton High Street. In a world of modern pub chains – like ‘Slug and Lettuce’ and ‘All Bar One’ – which contribute nothing to the history of an area or to making it feel unique – it is refreshing to come across an unusual pub name like the one shown here.
London is in danger of ‘killing the goose that laid the golden egg’ as more and more corporate names invade the high street. The ‘uniqueness’ of each area is being eroded. It means that each shopping area is becoming the same as everywhere else. In London, Kentish Town has a pub by the same name, making only two such pubs with this name to be left in London. Long may these unusual pub names continue to flourish!