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In the Kentish town/Highgate area are two pubs, The Bull and Last and The Bull and Gate.

What might such pub names be references to?

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  • Try looking up the many meanings of last.
    – DJohnson
    Jun 10, 2023 at 23:53
  • 2
    Not really sure what you may be alluding to. Jun 11, 2023 at 0:26
  • 1
    You really should unaccept my answer and accept Sven's instead. It's far better than mine :) Jun 11, 2023 at 13:06
  • 1
    I'm reminded of the Bull & Finch in Boston, MA. This was the inspiration for the tv show Cheers. Jun 11, 2023 at 20:26
  • 3
    Uh-oh—now you're going to have to unaccept my answer and accept JEL's astonishing tour de force instead.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 12, 2023 at 23:51

3 Answers 3

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From Joe Swiers, "The fascinating story of the Bull & Last" (November 27, 2020), on the Kentishtowner website:

The Bull & Last was first mentioned in court documents in 1721 and was originally licensed as ‘Ye Last’. It was rebuilt in 1883 after a fire burned down the original building (a coaching inn). You can now see the dates scattered around the exterior of the pub.

We’re asked where the unusual name comes from so often that it’s now the opening paragraph of our staff manual, so that new recruits don’t find themselves in an embarrassing situation on a shift. Locals have heard us explain it so much that when they hear people at the bar discussing the pub’s name they share the story too.

It’s all, apparently, thanks to a charismatic coachman, who – in the nineteenth century – used to shout ‘the bull!’, and then belted out ‘last!’, as it was the last stop. The establishment was then the most northern inn on the road as you left London. Pubs with ‘Bull’ in their name are in the masses, especially within a two-mile radius of our place, but thankfully, due to this historical anecdote, there is only one ‘Bull & Last’.

This account strikes me as highly dubious. If we accept the the venue was originally (as of 1721) licensed as "Ye Last," it is difficult to see why a nineteenth-century coachman should get credit for naming it "last!" on account of its being the northernmost inn on his route. Also unexplained is why he would shout out "the bull!" unless that was already its name.


As for "Bull & Gate," Joanne Scott, "The Bull and Gate, Kentish Town," an undated page of the Layers of London website offers this brief account:

HISTORY: The Bull and Gate was rebuilt in 1871 on the site of an C18 pub, when it was apparently known as the 'Boulogne Gate' at this important 'pick-up-and-set-down' point for travellers in and out of London via the north.

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, second edition (1938) has this brief entry for a slang expression that links bull and gate:

bull at a (five-barred) gate, like a. Furiously ; impetuously ; clumsily : coll[oquial] : late C. 19–20, coll.

I see no reason to suppose that the inn's name was chosen to echo that usage, however.

Whether "Boulogne Gate" is a more plausible source of "Bull and Gate" I leave to the reader's judgment. Definitions.net asserts that "Boulogne Gate" might have made sense as a historical marker:

Bull and Gate An inn sign, corrupted from "Boulogne Gate," touching the siege of Boulogne and its harbour by Henry VIII. in 1544.

This assertion notwithstanding, the only mention of "Boulogne Gate" in the Early English Books Online database is from Joshua Barnes, The history of that most victorius monarch, Edward IIId, King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland, and first founder of the most noble Order of the Garter (1688):

All these being come on Horseback in great silence to the Gate that respects Boulogne, the Gates were presently set open, and they all issued forth in good Order of Battle. When the Frenchmen saw them come forth against them, and heard them cry "a Manny, a Manny to the Rescue; they saw well the Lombard had betray'd them, and began to be in some Confusion. ...

...

And perhaps here and there did meet with some resistance, till their Partners having clear'd their hands by this time, came up to their Reinforcement: But that the King himself, his Son, and the Lord Manny, fought all the while in the Field by Boulogne-Gate, where the main stress of the whole business lay.

The events described by Barnes occurred in late December 1349, but what's another couple of centuries when you're christening a pub to commemorate an English victory?

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    Just a hop and a skip from Boulogne Gate to Boulogne Last (where last means Kentish district). Jun 11, 2023 at 3:39
  • The Dictionary of Pub Names by Dunkling and Wright gives the 'coachman' explanation (qualified by 'it is claimed') - but says that it was the last stop before reaching central London, not the northernmost one on the way out. Jun 11, 2023 at 7:53
  • Certainly seems like a dubious account if it was already called "The Last" in 1721. Maybe it was simply named for a shoemaker's/cobbler's last?
    – Showsni
    Jun 11, 2023 at 19:34
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Duty binds me to address the question asked by our esteemed correspondent, Seeking answers, as generalized in the body of their question as well as specified (apparently) in the title: so,

What might such pub names [sc. The Bull and Last and The Bull and Gate] be references to?

Investigating this question thoroughly leads to historical theories attempting to account for public-house names both identical with and similar to the names mentioned by Seeking answers. The origin processes hypothesized, broadly, are corruption and accretionary distinction. Another process by which public-house names are said to originate is the rebus ("spec[ifically] an ornamental device, often of heraldic appearance, associated with a person to whose name it punningly alludes", OED).

For a fine description of the proposed (and often assumed) corruption process of public-house name origination, see Cassell's Illustrated History of England (next); for elucidation of the accretionary distinction process and the associated rebus process, see the correspondence in Notes and Queries (following), and particularly the contributions of CLARRY. In the N & Q exchange the corruption process is also promoted, and vehemently contested.

First, in Cassell's Illustrated History of England (p 620, col 2, last paragraph; 1865), the interesting theory of corruption is expounded in detail:

The shopkeepers of London, in their eagerness for trade, had so completely obstructed the streets, and almost shut out the light, by their huge signs stretched across from one side of the road to another, that they were compelled, in the reign of George II., to take them down, and place them against their own walls. Many of these signs had grand pictures of particular animals upon them, and some of them have become corrupted now into very ludicrous ones. The motto, "God encompasses us," is now changed into "The Goat and Compasses;" "The Bologne, or Boleyn Blouth," into "The Bull and Mouth;" "The Boleyn Lass"—adopted when Henry VIII. was become enamoured of Anne Boleyn—into "The Bull and Last;" "The Satyr and Bacchanals" into "Satan and Bag of Nails," &c.

Not long after, the 5th series, volume 9 (1878) of Notes and Queries presents a long-running exchange initiated by the correspondent H.N.'s curiosity about the subject of an article in the Cardiff Times.

The precipitating query in Notes and Queries begins on p 127 (col 2, bottom; Feb 16, 1878) of the series:

THE "COW AND SNUFFERS."—Near Llandaff, in Glamorganshire, there is an old roadside inn rejoicing in the name of the "Cow and Snuffers." I have frequently wearied myself in endeavouring to trace the possible origin of the name. However, a short time since I read, in the Cardiff Times:—

"The 'Cow and Snuffers' was so named by the late Sir Robert Blosse, of Gabalva, father of the present Dean of Llandaff, and its odd nomenclature has often exercised the ingenuity of antiquarians, but no satisfactory solution of the problem of its origin has as yet been forthcoming."

Can any reader of "N. & Q." throw any light on the subject? I may add that the old signboard is quite a curiosity. On it a cow is depicted carefully inspecting a pair of snuffers lying on the ground before her.   H. N.

The exchange continues on p 174 (col 2, penultimate; Mar 2):

THE "COW AND SNUFFERS" (5th S. ix. 127)—May not the origin of this singular public-house sign be an English corruption of the Keltic? We know that the "Goat and Compasses" is corrupted from "God encompasses Us," that "Pig and Whistle" was originally the Saxon "Piga and Wassail," equivalent to "a lass and a glass" or "Venus and Bacchus," and that "Bull and Mouth" signified Boulogne Mouth or Harbour. The Kymric branch of the Keltic language supplies no words that commence with the consonants sn; but the Gaelic branch affords "coin," dogs, and "snamhair" (pronounced snavair), a swimmer, and "snamhach" (snavach), swimming. If this be the derivation of "Cow and Snuffers," the sign would signify "The Swimming Dogs," a name given in some parts of the country to otters. "Coinsnamhair" pronounced by a Keltic speaker would sound very like "cow and snuffers" to an Anglosaxon or English ear.   CHARLES MACKAY.
 Reform Club.

"In a play of George Colman, entitled the Review; or, the Wags of Windsor, the following lines occur:—

'Judy's a darling; my kisses she suffers;
 She's an heiress, that's clear,
 For her father sells beer—
He keeps the sign of the Cow and the Snuffers.'

The same song also occurs in the Irishman in London; or, the Happy African. At Llandaff the sign is represented by a cow standing near a ditch full of reeds and grasses, with a pair of snuffers placed as if they had fallen from the cow's mouth. The oddity of the combination in all probability pleased a publican who had heard the song, and adopted it forthwith as his sign, leaving the arrangement of the objects to the taste of the sign-painter."—Larwood and Hotten's Hist. of Signboards, pp.444-5.
  ST. SWITHIN.

I should imagine that the sign was invented for the sake of the rhyme.
  S. L.

My best guess, in interpreting the typography of the Mar 2 exchange in N & Q, is that it represents the responses of three different correspondents, Charles Mackay, St. Swithin, and S. L.

Interestingly, the work quoted by St. Swithin (saints within?), The History of Signboards, offers support in the form of corroboration of the proposal that "Last" in public-house names refers to the shoemaker's last. As The History of Signboards (1866 edition, p 105) puts it,

The CROWN AND LAST originated with shoemakers, but the gentle craft having the reputation of being thirsty souls, it was also adopted as an alehouse sign:—we find it as such in 1718.

On Mar 30, pp 257-8, again three different correspondents weigh in on the subject:

PUBLIC-HOUSE SIGNS (5th S. ix. 127, 174.)—Is it proved historically—for conjecture is often misleading—that the tavern sign, "Goat and Compasses," is a corruption of the words, "God encompasses us," and that this latter sentence was ever used as the sign of an inn? It seems to me unlikely, and I doubt the derivation. But, if proved, will it help to the origin of the "Salmon and Compasses," the sign of an inn near the Agricultural Hall, Islington? There used to be a curious sign on the Quay at Exeter, viz. the "Anchor and Bodices," the connexion between the two not being obvious, unless, indeed, they are both regarded as stays.   CROWDOWN.

DR. MACKAY explains the "Pig and Whistle" as standing for "Piga and Wassail," which he says are the Saxon equivalents of "a lass and a glass." May I point out that this explanation is unsupported by one atom of evidence, and is absolutely untenable? A.-S. piga = "a lass" is of doubtful authority. Bosworth queries the word; there is no instance of it in this sense in old English writers. It is common enough in the Scandinavian languages, but according to Mr. Vigfusson it is a late word, occurring for the first time in Norway about 1400 A.D.   A. L. MAYHEW.
 Oxford.

The Sign, "Who'd a thought it?" appears over the door of a public-house in Radnor Street in this city. Is it a corruption, or merely a modern invention?   W. SLATER.
 Manchester.

On Apr 13, p 293, another correspondent in N & Q takes up the question, at length:

PUBLIC-HOUSE SIGNS (5th S. ix. 127, 174, 257.)—The tenacity with which mankind cling to a plausible idea or a favourite crotchet is most remarkable. More than thirty years ago I heard that the sign of the "Goat and Compasses" was a corruption of "God encompasseth us." I hear so now, and I suppose I shall hear it again thirty years hence, if I live so long, unless "N. & Q." will aid in stamping such nonsense out [evidently not; take CLARRY's "thirty years hence" and add a hundred and fifteen — ed.]. I said then what I now repeat — that signs were used because nine-tenths of the people could not read; and to suppose, under these circumstances, that a sign would take the place of a legend, is the most preposterous suggestion that was ever propounded. These signs were primarily heraldic in honour of the lord of the soil or the patron; hence the unlettered world was favoured with directions and sign-posts portrayed by chromatic illustrations of lions, dragons, bulls, stags, horses, goats, &c. Then, in addition there were the cognizances of guilds, trades, and handicrafts. There is, or was, in Bermondsey, a public-house known by the sign of the "Three Compasses, the House of Call for Carpenters." Are we therefore to infer by a parity of reasoning that this sign was a corruption of the "Trinity encompasseth us"? There is one house in London bearing the sign of the "Goat and Star," and two that of the "Goat in Boots." Would any one dare to affirm that the star of the former alludes to Bethlehem? And I am very much afraid we should be obliged to make an irreverent interpretation of the "Goat in Boots." What, then, is the common-sense view of the case? The Carpenters' Company was incorporated in 1476, and its arms were a chevron engrailed between three compasses sable. The company never appears to have had a crest. A publican who had already the sign of the "Goat," in honour perhaps of the house of Russell, may have been desirous of attracting the custom of the carpenters, and he added the arms of that guild; the sign would soon then fall into the "Goat and Compasses." Or, what is more probable, he of the "Goat," being a Freemason, would append the emblems of the craft, the square and compasses —they may be seen on most public-houses now. And what could be more easy than for the goat and compasses to be combined in the sign, without the aid of a black-letter legend to lead the way and be corrupted?
 At the back of Guy's Hospital, in Southwark, is the sign of the "Ship and Shovel," an hostelry that for generations and generations has been much affected and patronized by the medical students. Now would the sapient conjecturer who published the dogma about "God encompasseth us" (I call it dogma because it has become an article of faith with an unreasoning majority) have asserted that this sign, seeing its association with medical students, was a corruption of "Shape your scalpel," which is quite as near and as logical a conclusion as the conversion of the goat? No; the simple solution is that the public-house being near the wharves and granaries in Tooley Street, where the corn-meters and corn-porters most did congregate, the founder of the institution to obtain their custom doubtless hoisted the emblems of their employment. Good beer and skittles subsequently attracted the alumni of St. Thomas's and Guy's, and not an aphorism of any famed operator.
 In conclusion, permit me to say that to endeavour to find a profound, a mythical, or a religious interpretation for any sign that the humour or ingenuity of a Boniface may have set up by which to advertise his calling or to attract his thirsty customers, appears idle, absurd, and an evidence of a perverted ingenuity.   CLARRY

Illustration of Goat In Boots from plate XVI of The History of Signboards, 1884 edition:

Goat in Boots, by Morland

On May 4, p 353, yet another N & Q correspondent enters the field and, by chance I'm sure (ruling out precognition), directly addresses the public-house signs queried by our esteemed correspondent, Seeking answers:

PUBLIC-HOUSE SIGNS (5th S. ix. 127, 174, 257, 293.)—Some doubts have occurred to my mind while reading CLARRY'S interesting and valuable communication. I would invite his consideration of such signs as "The Bull and Mouth," "The Bull and Bush," "The Bull and Gate," and "The Bull and Last." These incongruous combinations, not to be accounted for by any principle of heraldry with which I am acquainted, I have always referred to Henry VIII.'s expedition to France. Doesn't Butler in Hudibras make his knight wear

    "Breeches of woollen
 That had been at the siege of Boullen" (Boulogne)?

I take it that Boulogne was considered by the English the gate or mouth (Fr. bouche) of France. Thus the first three signs mean the same thing, "The Boulogne Mouth," "La Boulogne Bouche," and "The Boulogne Gate." The derivation of the fourth seems less apparent, but we have only to remember that there is a village near Paris which gives name to the celebrated wood in that vicinity, and which is legally known as Boulogne l'Est, in contradistinction to Boulogne-sur-Mer, which of course, is l'Ouest, to detect the derivation at once. Some innkeeper with a superficial knowledge of European topography I conceive to have started the title, in contradistinction to the numerous Bulls or Boulognes of his competitors; or, even discarding our hypothesis, which may perhaps be considered by some fanciful, Boulogne l'Ouest itself might serve as the basis of the corruption. Anyhow, I should like CLARRY to explain whether he holds that this sign (actually that of a public-house at Kentish Town) has anything to do with that article to which we are proverbially told it is the cordwainer's [= shoemaker's, ed.] duty to adhere.   S. P.

May 18, p 391-2, CLARRY replies at length, as is his wont:

PUBLIC-HOUSE SIGNS (5th S. ix. 127, 174, 257, 293, 353.)—I hasten to reply to the appeal of S. P. I ought to have added to my former letter that the rebus, another means of communicating with the illiterate, was a source of inn signs.
 The "Bolt in Tun," which formerly existed in Fleet Street, from the rebus of Bolton, with which every antiquary is acquainted, is an illustration.
 I do not hesitate to express my firm belief that the "Bull and Last" was a sign to claim the adherence of cordwainers. It must be borne in mind that the benefit clubs attached to trades have always been held at public-houses, and nothing could be more simple than a sign to attract the wayfarers of a particular class. I cannot for a moment believe that any innkeeper could ever be inspired by "a superficial knowledge of topography" to erect a sign, especially in those times when they were adopted for the obvious purpose of attracting those who could not read.
 The bush was the primitive sign of a public-house, hence the old adage which S. P. must remember.

 "An anonymous head by Hollar of a monopolizer of sweet wines; near him are three barrels, over which is the word 'Medium'; he holds another small one under his arm. Sign of the Bell and Bush; over the sign is inscribed 'Good wine needs no bush nor a Bell.' The sign of the Bell and a capital A near it is evidently a rebus upon this man's name, which was Abel."—See Granger's Biographical History, temp. Charles I., vol. ii. p 406.

 I have seen in country towns a real bush put on a sign-post; the last one I noticed was at Pershore. The addition of the bull to distinguish one inn from another was a very easy process. The "Bull and Gate" admits of a like explanation.
 If S. P. had ever noticed the illustration of the "Bull and Mouth," in Aldersgate Street, he would have been puzzled to refer it back to the bouche of France. Had the siege of Boulogne produced a strong national or political feeling or sentiment, there would have been a more general illustration of it, as in the numerous "Royal Oaks" that are to be found all over the country. One "Bull and Mouth," or one "Bull and Bush," is a very poor proof of "the basis of the corruption."
 If S. P. will look at the London Directory he will see forty-four signs of the "Ship"; then follow eight signs with something added for a distinction. The same will be found with regard to "King's Heads," "Bull's Heads," "Mitres," "Green Man," "Horns," &c.
 In conclusion, let me ask S.P., or any other correspondent who "has doubts," to exercise his ingenuity in conjecturing, or, what would be better, give the slightest evidence, how the following signs, all of which exist in Lond, could be identified with Boulogne, either through the medium of "breeches that had been worn at the siege," or any other association that would give a clue to their origin: the "Bull and Anchor," the "Bull and Bell," the "Bull and Butcher," the "Bull in the Pound," the "Bull and Pump," and the "Bull and Ram."   CLARRY

Illustrations of Bull And Mouth from plate VIII of The History of Signboards, 1884 edition:

Bull And Mouth 1800

Bull And Mouth 1835

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  • "I should imagine that the sign was invented for the sake of the rhyme." IDK this person's guess is better than anyone else's just because it was written a long time ago, when it's a guess about something that's significantly older than that. Jun 12, 2023 at 19:49
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    A.L. Mayhew rightly objects to Charles MacKay’s hypothesis about the Pig and Whistle (although Mayhew is incorrect about the Norse word – the lenited form with /g/ is later, but píka is well-attested even in early Old Norse). One might also add that MacKay’s derivation of the Cow and Snuffers is impossible: while coin snamhair might realistically sound a bit like ‘cow and snuffer’ if said by a southern Irish speaker, it is not actual Irish. Snámhair is not a word (‘swimmer’ is snámhóir) and snámhach means ‘floating, buoyant’ (or indeed ‘sneaky, slithery’), rather than ‘swimming’. → Jun 12, 2023 at 20:20
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    → Additionally, if you put together coin and snámhóir, the latter would be in the genitive, snámhóra, and it would have to be lenited, so the phrase would be coin shnámhóra – which would not only be pronounced very differently, approximately /kənʲ ˈ(h)nɑːβoːɾə/ (if said by the same southern speaker), but would also mean ‘a swimmer’s dogs’, not ‘swimming dogs’ (that would be coin ag snámh or – more commonly, even back then – cúnna ag snámh). Jun 12, 2023 at 20:23
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I assume this is a coincidence that these share the bull element; pub names often include such randomly-paired pieces. If the London area has a zillion pubs, at least two of them are bound to have some overlap.

Wikipedia says:

Common enough today, the pairing of words in the name of an inn or tavern was rare before the mid-17th century, but by 1708 had become frequent enough for a pamphlet to complain of 'the variety and contradictory language of the signs', citing absurdities such as 'Bull and Mouth', 'Whale and Cow', and 'Shovel and Boot'. Two years later an essay in the Spectator echoed this complaint, deriding among others such contemporary paired names as 'Bell and Neat's Tongue', though accepting 'Cat and Fiddle'. A possible explanation for doubling of names is the combining of businesses, for example when a landlord of one pub moved to another premises. Fashion, as in the rise of intentionally amusing paired names like 'Slug and Lettuce' and 'Frog and Firkin' (see Puns, Jokes and Corruptions below) in the late 20th century, is responsible for many more recent pub names.

(Perhaps there is a story there, but I doubt that there is. Props to whoever finds one.)

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  • 1
    What do bull, last, and gate refer to here? An OED search for last yields: “A Kentish administrative district,” among many other definitions. The entries for bull are too numerous to assert that we’re talking bovine. etc. This is the meat of the question. Jun 11, 2023 at 1:17
  • The “Bull and Gate” may refer to the expression “go at it like a bull at a gate”. Or it may refer to the gate as an escape from the bull, or the way to be accidentally caught in the field with it.
    – Peter
    Jun 11, 2023 at 2:36
  • I believe some wag styled their pub 'The Dalek and Bofors Gun', wryly employing the traditional binomial formula. Jun 11, 2023 at 14:05
  • @EdwinAshworth You are gonna need to explain that one. Never having had the pleasure of wetting my moustaches in the froth of a pint of room-temperature brew freshly pulled in a pub with a name like a Dan Brown cipher, I wonder, are the names supposed to relate, or are they random? So how do Daleks (Dr. Who fan here) and Bofors 40 mm guns relate? I suspect it is an obscure reference to an episode that they don't show in my geography. (They cut off BBC here like 6 years ago,) Jun 11, 2023 at 17:14
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    @ Cascabel I'm assuming it's just an impressively improbable pairing of NPs. I came across a list of improbable pub names once. Oldham, once famous for the number of its pubs, boasted 'The Filho' and the 'Doctor Syntax' (named after rival racehorses). Jun 11, 2023 at 19:21

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