Ken Pye: Liverpool Pubs (Book review)


As was reported in Issue 1 of The Merseysider magazine, a frightening number of pubs have disappeared in recent years (the current closure rate is apparently around 30 a week). Fortunately however the centre of Liverpool still boasts many fine hostelries, pubs full of atmosphere, history and colourful characters: the Philharmonic, the Hole In The Wall, the Poste House, the Cornmarket and plenty more.

All of the above are among the pubs featured in Ken Pye’s new book Liverpool Pubs, an excellent guide for locals and tourists alike. Pye is a local historian well known for his books on Liverpool and his appearances on local radio. This latest work is a fascinating and enjoyable read, full of surprising nuggets of information about some of the city’s best known ale houses.

We learn for instance why the Hole In The Wall’s beer is pumped from upstairs rather than from the cellar (it’s built on a graveyard) and that the Cornmarket is an established fixture on the Japanese tourist trail, with over 4,000 Japanese visitors in 2014 alone. We hear also about famous customers: George Formby, who regularly drank in the Lion before catching his train home to Wigan, and Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones and Laurel and Hardy, who all popped into Ma Egerton’s when they were appearing at the Empire (Sinatra said the pub ‘has the best Guinness I’ve ever tasted’).

As a historian Pye is understandably interested in the city’s older pubs. Many of those featured date from the 19th century, and at the beginning of the book there’s an interesting explanation of why so many pubs were built during this period. The governments of the time encouraged the drinking of beer as an alternative to water (which was often contaminated) and to get people away from gin, addiction to which had undesirable social effects. In 1830 the Duke of Wellington introduced the ‘Beer House’ Act, which permitted any householder to buy a licence and sell beer from their own home. Thousands of private beer houses appeared almost overnight, and in the years that followed many were taken over by breweries and became ‘public’ houses.

Pye’s wider historical knowledge is also well to the fore and during the course of the book there are informative digressions on all manner of subjects, including the Battle of the Atlantic, the sinking of the Titanic and Carl Jung’s famous dream about Liverpool being a ‘pool of life’.

One or two newer pubs do make the cut, including the unique Alma de Cuba, which opened as a bar in 2005 but occupies a much older building – the former St Peter’s church in Seel Street. And the book ends with the Casa on Hope Street, opened in 2000 with the help of money raised from the making of Dockers, the film about the mid-1990s Liverpool dock strike that was scripted by a group of dockers assisted by Jimmy McGovern. (Incidentally, the book mistakenly implies the film was directed by Ken Loach. Jimmy McGovern talks about the making of it in the latest issue of The Merseysider magazine.)

The book has five chapters, each covering a different area of central Liverpool (such as the city’s original ‘seven streets’, the Cavern Quarter and in and around Lime Street). There are 25 pubs in total and any chapter could form the basis of an enjoyable evening’s pub crawl (the book has a helpful map). Some foolhardy souls might even be tempted to visit all 25 over the course of a single, no doubt highly memorable, day. (The pubs are close enough for this and I heard recently about a lengthy London pub crawl based on the Monopoly board, so why not a Liverpool equivalent?)

Another attraction of the book is that it has a wealth of colour illustrations, which confirm that many of the pubs have stunning interiors, with wonderful architectural features that have been carefully preserved over the decades.

Liverpool Pubs isn’t aimed at beer connoisseurs: if you’re looking for a CAMRA-style guide to the range and quality of the ales served at these pubs this isn’t really the book for you. And while Pye enjoys considerable popularity as a local historian, he’s perhaps not always inclined to let the truth get in the way of a good story. He confidently asserts not only that Adolf Hitler lived for a time in Liverpool (many people believe this may well be the case) but that he regularly occupied a particular seat in the Poste House on Cumberland Street.

This is presumably legend rather than a known fact, but pubs have of course always thrived on this kind of folklore, passed on by generations of drinkers and no doubt cheerfully endorsed (and occasionally embellished) by successive licensees. There are many such tales in Liverpool Pubs – not surprisingly, several of the pubs have ghosts as well – and it would be a dull world without them. Many of the pubs featured are steeped in myth as much as in real history and this is all part of their charm. Liverpool is lucky to have so many atmospheric watering-holes and Ken Pye is an able guide.

Liverpool Pubs by Ken Pye is published by Amberley Books, priced £14.99