Researching the history of pubs, inns and hotels

The old Red Lion at Greenwich by Thomas Rowlandson In the medieval period alehouses were ordinary dwellings where the householder served home-brewed ale and beer. If lodging for travellers was offered, this might be no more than bedding on the floor in the kitchen, or in a barn. Inns by contrast were generally purpose-built to accommodate travellers. They needed more bedrooms than the average house and substantial stabling. Some of the earliest great inns were built by monasteries in centres of pilgrimage. Taverns sold wine. Since wine was far more expensive than ale or beer, taverns catered to richer patrons who could afford it. They were restricted to towns and hugely outnumbered by alehouses. All three were social centres, but the larger inns had more scope for events. The type built with galleries around a courtyard provided an arena for plays or cockfights.

In common with other tradesmen of the time, inns, taverns and alehouses advertised their business with a sign hanging outside. A pole above the door, garlanded with foliage, signified an alehouse. From the 14th century inns and taverns hung out a pictorial sign by which they could be identified in this illiterate age. In the 16th century many alehouses followed suit. The tradition has continued for licensed premises, since they were exempt from the Georgian restrictions on hanging signs. The earliest signs used motifs drawn from heraldry, but by Georgian times there was greater variety.

By the mid-18th century larger alehouses were becoming common, while inns beside the major highways grew in grandeur and new ones sprang up in this coaching era. The term alehouse was gradually replaced by public house during the 18th century. Taverns meanwhile were being replaced by or converted into coffee-houses as social centres for the wealthier classes. The first English hotel was built in Exeter in 1768, but the term was rare before 1800.

From the 1810s we find purpose-built public houses, starting in London and the larger provincial towns. The number of pubs grew with the population. The late Victorian era saw the creation of flamboyant pub interiors, notable for their sumptuously decorated mirrors, tiled walls and etched glass.

With the coming of the railways, a number of hotels were built close to railway stations. Some of the grandest were beside the great London terminuses, such as the Midland Grand Hotel (1874), St Pancras Station, Euston Road, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) in the Gothic Revival style. Coaching inns declined, though some were able to mutate into public houses or hotels, which flourished in the later 20th century along with the motor car. So much modernisation has taken place over the last half-century that only some 200 pub interiors in Britain survive intact from any earlier era.

So many romantic legends have been woven around inns and pubs that the researcher needs to be especially wary. Ghosts, highwaymen, royal connections and tunnels are all popular elements in the mythology. Believe nothing that cannot be substantiated from primary sources.

Studies and gazetteers

Primary sources

Since pubs/inns/hotels are generally also dwellings, see also houses. And see business records.