Ale Pole or “ale stake” was a rudimentary sign used in England in the medieval period to indicate that a household had brewed a fresh batch of ale. In drawings from the period, it is usually depicted sticking out of a window or hanging from a house like a flagpole. In those days all beer-making was domestic, but houses that built a reputation for the quality of their brews might invite the people of the village to come in and drink, becoming an “alehouse.”
The practice began in early medieval times and lasted until the Renaissance. It is believed that the ale pole followed the Roman legacy of shop signs that denoted the trades practiced within. A popular inn sign still in use in Britain is the Chequers, which stems from the Roman sign of a chequer board indicating that wine was on sale and money could be exchanged.
Legislation in the 14th and 15th centuries to control the quality of food and drink sold to consumers had an impact on alehouses. An official known as the “ale-conner” had to verify the quality of the beer made on the premises.
The use of the ale pole went into decline as inns and taverns began to display more elaborate signs. Some signs had religious connections, such as the Cross Keys and the Lamb, while others reflected medieval trade guilds or associations as can be seen in the Elephant and Castle, the sign of the Cutlers’ Company. But the ale pole and bush has not entirely disappeared. There are many pubs today called “The Bush.” The Bull & Bush in north London achieved fame during the time of the Victorian music hall with the popular song “Down at the old Bull & Bush.”