The Pig and Whistle

As many Merchant Navy sailors will know, especially those of us who have served in British Flag ships, the crew bar is usually referred to as “The Pig” – short for “Pig and Whistle.”
I wonder how many of us know why that is so?
The name “Pig and Whistle” is said to have various derivations, but the one most widely reported is the combination of two old English words, Piggin and Wassail.
A Piggin was a wooden or earthenware bowl or drinking vessel. Wassail was the name of a spiced ale that was drunk on Twelfth Night. It is mentioned in Shakespeare’s 1606 play, “Macbeth.” “Wassail!” was also a Saxon toast to a person’s health.
It is thought that alehouses that were associated with regularly serving spiced ale from Piggins, became known overtime as “Piggin Wassail” and eventually “Pig and Whistle.”
So much for the name.
There are now, of course, many “Pig and Whistles” in Britain and elsewhere, so how did that name come to be applied to the crew bars in British ships?
The answer, apparently, lies with the “Pig and Whistle” on the corner of Chapel Street and Covent Garden in Liverpool.
Built originally as a private dwelling in the late 18th century, the premises served as both boarding house and brothel before becoming a licensed public house, named the “Pig and Whistle”, in 1875.
In those days it was the closest pub to the original Pier Head docks and was, therefore, a favourite watering hole for thirsty sailors and dockers. Aboard the large passenger liners of the Cunard, White Star and other shipping lines that berthed at Pier Head, the crew recreation space was often nicknamed the “Pig and Whistle” (or just “The Pig” for short) in fond memory of the well-frequented pub close to Pier Head. The name is then thought to have spread across the British Merchant Navy.
The old Pier Head docks have disappeared beneath Liverpool’s Three Graces (the Liver, Cunard and Port Authority buildings) but the “Pig and Whistle” lives on.
During the Second World War, the Liverpool Docks were extensively bombed. The “Pig and Whistle” now stands alone at the edge of a carpark that marks Liverpool’s last undeveloped bomb site. Many close by buildings were destroyed, including the old church of St Nicholas (the “Sailors’ Church”) at the foot of Chapel Street that was hit in December 1940. Less than 100 yards away, in Rumsford Street, was Derby House the fortified basement of which housed Western Approaches Command, from where Admiral Sir Max Horton directed the Battle of the Atlantic. Derby House must have been a tempting target for the Luftwaffe and one can imagine the sailors and WRENS emerging from its basement on the morning after an air raid, cheered by the stoic survival of the “Pig and Whistle” amidst the destruction.
More recently the pub suffered bankruptcy and receivership, but reopened in mid-2019.

It’s not the most glamorous pub in Liverpool, nor is it included on the Beatles Trail, but it must certainly be one of the most historic. I enjoyed a quiet early evening pint there in September amongst office workers enjoying an after-hour’s drink. Not a seaman or docker in sight, apart from one former ship’s officer, myself. The walls of the main bar are decorated with photographs and other shipping memorabilia, while a pair of guitars in the corner attests to a livelier scene later in the evening. A group of sea shanty singers also occasionally performs there.

The side bar contains a stunning mural that features many of Liverpool’s most famous landmarks and symbols: including both the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals,  the Mersey, the Albert Docks, the rebuilt Sailors’ Church, St John’s Beacon (the Radio City Tower), the Yellow Submarine and the Beatles striding across the pedestrian crossing on Abbey Road.
There is also the prominent figure of a woman dressed in green clutching what appears to be a red flower.
Who is she and what is she doing there?
She is the Royal de Luxe’s Little Giantess.

The Royal de Luxe first brought its giant marionettes to Liverpool in 2012, as part of the events staged to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the “Titanic.” In her green dress, and clutching a red lollipop, the Little Giantess searched the streets of Liverpool for her uncle, a deep-sea diver who had been exploring the wreck. Passing many famous landmarks, including the White Star Line building, the Little Giantess finally found her uncle at King’s Dock.
In October 2018, the Royal de Luxe retired the giant marionettes after a farewell performance in Liverpool, in which the Little Giantess once again walked the city’s streets.
So, if you want to enjoy a drink in one of Liverpool’s most historic and interesting pubs, one that has been intimately connected with seafaring and which is commemorated every time a sailor hoists a jar in their ship’s “Pig”, then I recommend the “Pig and Whistle.”
I’ll leave the last word to Ken Smith, a Liverpool born sailor whose poem, “The Pig and Whistle” was published in his autobiographical memoir, “Mr Merch and Other Stories.”

The Pig, the Pig, the jolly old Pig
Where the Stewards have sorrowed and sinned
and none gave a hoot in the old Swine and Flute
when their heads were three sheets to the wind.

The Pig served a brew to a thirsty crew
as they sang of `The Brothers Malone`
and they spoke about Kings, and all manner of things
and the beautiful women they`d known.

The Pig, the Pig, the jolly old Pig
Where a Sailor sat popping his cork
Where he paid a high price as he threw Crappy Dice
as the ship took a trip to New York.

The Pig was a bar in the grand CPR
where the tankards were dripping with foam
and the Pig to some wrecks, with no arse in their keks
was a bloody good home from home.

With acknowledgments to the “Liverpool Echo”, “Liverpool Pubs” by Ken Pye, “The Atlantic” ( and “Mr Merch and Other Stories” by Ken Smith (published A Country Publication, Birkenhead, ISBN 0907768199, available from the Liverpool Maritime Museum).


Popular Posts