Whenever I'm thinking of the role of the pub in a historical context, my mind goes to a relatively isolated pub on the Liverpool dockside. Due to the decline of the docks in the post war period, The Baltic Fleet pub that stands proudly on Wapping, always looked lonely. It was difficult to envisage what a bustling hive of activity the pub, and the area immediately around it, would have been as the 20th Century rolled closer. When searching for 'The Baltic Fleet' on Google images, the disappearance of neighbouring buildings is evident and, next to the images of Russia's naval 'Baltic Fleet', I hope you agree, that it is the pub that looks both more formidable and graceful than its namesake. Its positioning and its historic role speaks to an era where the role of the pub was so important to the city's inhabitants.
Firstly, the focus wasn't on beer. In a bleak and windswept dockside, the primary role of the pub was to provide a safe haven for sailors and dockworkers alike. The public house needed thick walls, raging fires, warm food and ales that were drank to avoid disease carried by the local water supply. Providing shelter and sustenance, the draw of the dockside pubs was also critical to the employment of many men down the docks. In the days where men suffered the uncertainty and humiliation of standing in pens each morning waiting to be picked out by the foreman, the pub provided a place to mingle, build alliances, share stories, jokes and sing songs. Being able to hold court in the pub was essential to thrive in this tough, hand to mouth environment. In short, the pub was an effective version of Centrelink.
However, as much as the pubs provided a safe haven for the working men, if you sank pints a little too long, you may have found yourself witness or victim to the sinister edge to dockside that preyed on those who had imbibed too much fine ale. Like many pubs in the industrial heartlands, The Baltic Fleet has very strong links to this bygone underworld and reportedly has two tunnels running from the pub. One to the docks, making it perfect for covertly press ganging men in the early hours, and one leading to Cornhill, the city's 19th Century red light district. It would seem that the landlord would literally dig through clay for his customers. Modern landlords/ladies please take note!
As Liverpool's only brewpub, housing the Wapping Brewery, The Baltic Fleet has enjoyed a resurgence in the 21st Century and is no longer the hang out for crews of tipstaff and militia to ensnare men for the long voyage to the East Indies. Nor can the 'tunnel of love' be used to conveniently partake in other late night mischief. The pub is now surrounded by modern flats, hotels and is a stone's throw from the modern Liverpool One retail development. But satisfyingly, like many of Liverpool's historic boozers, it maintains an unpretentious, no nonsense, bare-bones honest feel. Hopefully it can survive the modernisation of the city as there is something very special about a pub where the walls can talk as much as the customers.
NB: I've only ever drank in The Baltic Fleet on two occasions so I'll make sure I revisit when returning to Liverpool.
The first picture is of Winston Churchill addressing the dockworkers in Liverpool in 1941. The dockers and the Merchant Navy were crucial to the war effort.
The second picture is of 'Liverpool from Wapping' 1875, John A Grimshaw, Philadelphia Museum of Art. A print of the picture was hung in our house when growing up. As a child I couldn't decide whether to be scared or comforted by it. I still haven't decided.
The Baltic Fleet is just visible behind the horse and cart in this excellent picture by John Newburn 1929:
Guide to The Baltic Fleet, Liverpool: