Photography by Lucy Sparks.
Sunday afternoon at the Old Ship is descending glassy-eyed into evening. Granny dances an old-timey jig while flipping off drag queens. Her children, middle-aged and ruddy, and two grandchildren sit around a corner table throwing back pints, paying no mind. The drag queen on the mic cracks a joke about the dancing old woman’s impending death.
She lurches back, staggers. “Oh, fuck off!” shouts the small, round octogenarian in a lacy, white sundress. She then slides her pink satin panties down to her ankles, bends over, flips her dress up, and moons the stage, cackling like a witch.
Behind the bar, a stone-faced blonde in a pale blue blouse pulls pints between cigarette breaks in the courtyard. A scrawny fellow with a popped collar approaches the old woman to dance. “Fuck you,” she says, laughs, turns around, drops trou again, and moons another drag queen.
Three years ago, this 130-year-old pub in the East End neighborhood of Limehouse nearly sank. Given the state of the pub business in London—and the gay-pub business in particular—the closure would have been unremarkable. Real estate development and skyrocketing rents have forced the closure of a dozen beloved, decades- and centuries-old gay establishments in recent years, including Camden’s The Black Cap (established in the 1700s) and Chelsea’s The Queen’s Head. In Shoreditch alone, a once-gritty neighborhood north of London’s financial district, three popular gay pubs—The Joiners Arms, The George and Dragon, and The Nelsons Head—all closed in 2015, along with the city’s largest gay sauna, Chariots, in 2016 (to make room for a 200-room hotel). This effectively scrubbed the entire neighborhood, in a single year, of its once-vibrant gay nightlife.
But a rare bright spot occurred last year. When the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, in another gay enclave across the Thames, was purchased by a developer, the community banded together in getting the pub national historic landmark status (the venue has hosted cabaret acts since the 1800s). This was a first for a gay establishment in the United Kingdom.
Still, the situation remains generally dire for local pubs, once a mainstay of British society. A 2016 study found that local pubs—usually defined as neighborhood joints offering in-house brewed beer—are shutting their doors at the rate of about 27 per week across the U.K.
The Old Ship lies in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, among the poorest areas of the country, where today the largest ethnic group consists of conservative Bangladeshi Muslims, and racial tensions run high. The Limehouse neighborhood was named for the medieval-era lime kilns used for the production of seafaring pottery. When Tower Hamlets Council, the borough’s governing body, which owned the lease for the building that houses the Old Ship, tried to sell it off, it looked like Granny’s mooning days were numbered. But the pub’s owner, John Fell, came out of retirement to take over the pub and battle the council. He started a petition that in six weeks gathered 2,500 signatures. The gay actors Ian McKellen, who lives in Limehouse, and Michael Cashman wrote letters of support to the council.
“At that time, the pub was like a neglected old lady,” Fell says. “I’d drunk there for 10 years under the old regime, and I knew what had to change.” Ultimately, Fell and the community were victorious in getting the pub’s lease extended for 15 years. “Now it’s unrecognizable from four years ago,” Fell says. “We’ve got two gay football teams, a straight ladies’ dance team, and we raise money for the local hospice and for gay homeless youth.”
With its Tudor facade, floral wallpaper, gaudy chandeliers, stacks of tchotchkes, and hordes of drag queens, the Old Ship feels like a John Waters film set in Middle-earth. But like any great ol’ boozer, particularly in the East End, it’s all about the locals.
“It’s primarily gay, but everyone comes along,” Fell says. “The pub was a place for everyone in the community to come together. Elsewhere, it might have been a problem, but not here in the East End. The actual community is very open to new ideas and taking it all in.”
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