The Old Ship pub in Tower Hamlets fought for its place in the community. ELL spoke to landlord John Fell, who came out of retirement to save the pub.
A gay man, a Muslim, and an army veteran walk into a pub.
What sounds like the beginning of a joke is just another day at the Old Ship, a 130-year-old establishment in Limehouse.
Frequented by locals of all ages and backgrounds on weekdays, on Sundays the pub hosts a weekly cabaret show, popular with gay and straight punters alike.
But the pub’s journey to this point has hardly been plain sailing.
Fell, who has been in the pub industry for 25 years, came out of retirement to take over the Old Ship in June 2012 and worked day and night to refurbish the premises. But one day, casually flipping through the pages of a pub trade magazine, he discovered that his pub, the project he’d enthusiastically embarked on and now called home, was to be sold.
Tower Hamlets council, which owned the lease of the Old Ship and two other pubs in the borough, had announced that it planned to sell them to invest in other fields such as affordable housing. Fell immediately launched a petition to save the pub.
“We had 1,250 people sign the petition in just four weeks,” he says. “The neighbours and people who used to live in this area would come in and say ‘we want to sign this petition because too many pubs have closed down; it’s gone too far.’”
In May, Fell received a letter from the council reversing their decision to sell off the lease. Since then, the Old Ship has re-established itself as a hub of local activity.
“We are a real community pub,” says Fell, who views the pub as a proper pillar of the community: “Say you’ve got a promotion at work. You’re having a baby, you’re getting married, someone leaves, someone dies, you know, you just go to the pub!”
Punter Arthur Hornsey, a military veteran who lives around the corner from the Old Ship, agrees with Fell that the pub’s real value is in its role as a rallying point for the community: “The pub is a meeting place, that’s why you come here.”
That, and the beer.
“If the beer is good, that’s all you really want,” Hornsey says, insisting that the Old Ship’s offerings are best. “You don’t go in the pub if you don’t like the beer.”
William Napier, a retired professional gambler, travels all the way from North London to visit the Old Ship: “[What draws me to this pub] is the change, the architecture, the meeting of the old and the new. It’s a great mix of people – all types,” he says.
And it is precisely the mix of people that Fell said is integral to the nation’s pub culture that’s worth preserving.
“It’s a good leveller. You can be the lord of the manor, you can be a local dustman, you can be a lady, a prostitute, whatever. But when you come to the pub, you all become equal. You’re all treated the same.”
“It’s nice to put smiles on people’s faces,” Fell says. “You know, there’s a lot of misery in this world.”
If, indeed, there is a lot of misery in the world, after watching cheery punters file in to the Old Ship for a post-lunch pint, one would hardly know it.