Liverpool Pirate Festival
Every year hordes of swashbuckling buccaneers descend on Liverpool’s Albert Dock in a riot of clashing swords, heavy boots, great hats and flagons of rum or perhaps orange juice. They are all sizes and shapes – old and young, male and female, seasoned and unseasoned. They arrive by train, bus, car and galleon. This is the annual Pirate Festival and it’s a great day out for absolutely everyone.
In amongst the giddy children and laughing grown-ups and the displays of swordplay and skulduggery, there is a serious side to the festival. Everyone may be dressed up as pirates and having fun but they are also witnessing history being recreated in the battle of the old ships in the dock, the cannons and gunpowder are real and so are the pistols and some of the swords. Many of the participants are historical societies, re-enactment groups or maritime societies and the event, which involves a lot of organisation, attracts people from all over the world, many of them now friends who make it annual trip. Whilst the visitors may have fashioned their costumes from fancy dress shops or bits and pieces from the dressing-up box at home and their swords may be plastic or wooden or even cardboard, the Liverpool Pirate Brethren, who stage the annual spectacular, and their associates have gone to far more trouble and expense.
One of the organisers, Captain Jack, the official Jack Sparrow for the Brethren, known as Paul Bann in his other life, explained how he sourced items from around the world to get as close to the real clothes worn as possible. The quality of the items from the antique pistols and rum tankard to the thick leather boots and large buckled belts is top notch and it adds to his charisma and presence. For Paul it all began when he helped his daughter with some homework on pirates and became fascinated. Now he teaches it in schools himself and also gives historical tours on the tall ships and talks to clubs and groups or parties. He collects pirate knowledge and in a swashbuckling half an hour I learned more about pirates than I’d known all my life. He is full of stories of derring-do and escape and delivers his facts lightly and with fun.
“Did you know,” he asks, “that a lot of pirates were actually educated men and many more than you think were women, who not left with many choices at home, ran away to sea in disguise.” He teaches everything from pirate songs to map reading and codes, “Especially the Pirate Code, which was very serious.” And he knows about rum “Did you know there are over two hundred different types of rum? My advice to you is never to set sail without rum.”
The Liverpool Maritime Museum is full of displays and information about seafaring in the past and some of their exhibits are fascinating ranging from the Titanic to naval warfare and of course piracy. They also have an underground Wet Dock. Its free entry and there is more than enough to entertain for a few hours.
For the festival, the quayside was lined with stalls displaying nautical antiques and experts to answer questions and show you how things were done in those dark days. It is romantic and thrilling but also shocking to learn how dangerous it was and how young some of the pirates and indeed the legitimate sailors too were.
“Imagine being taken away from home and sent to sea aged nine?” A group of children were asked.
“I’m nearly nine!” said one youngster in a quiet voice, grabbing his mum’s sleeve.”
Indeed it is still dangerous, because those ancient cannons being fired are rather unpredictable, and so is the gunpowder. Sometimes it took several attempts to light them before they were booming loudly across the bay but it didn’t stop all the pirates wanting to have a go.
Sadly the day before the 2015 festival one of the old tall ships due to take part in the battle in the bay sunk in it’s mooring outside the Maritime Museum. It didn’t spoil the day for the visitors as a longboat took over and smoke and cannon fire still clouded the dock as the pirate boats battled it out. Cheers rang out all round, especially when one pirate leapt off the high rigging into the water. It was loud and exciting and it wasn’t just children jumping up and down with excitement. The beautiful submerged ship, The Zebu, has now been lifted from the murky waters and is being restored by experts and volunteers.
As the day ended many headed for the cafes and restaurants that line the dock, all of which participated in the event. The atmosphere was very convivial indeed and could easily have been a scene from the film Pirates of the Caribbean but with more friendly sword fighting and no punching. At Smugglers’ Cove Tavern where the rum tastings are held, Captain Jack is usually seen waving his arms around and mincing through the throng shouting “Now, who has got the rum?” It seems a fitting end to a day as a pirate.
To contact Captain Jack telephone 07550 092073 or 01457 600261, or look at his website www.captjackssavvyschool.com. Information about the tall ship Zebu and the Pirate Festival can be found at www.liverpoolpiratebrethren.org.uk. The latest events at Liverpool Maritime Museum can be found at www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/events.