Posted: 21st February 2021
The Polar Bear Pub has been a key cultural hub in Hull since the late 19th century. Back in 1895, the pub’s location on Spring Bank placed it directly opposite the Hull Zoological Gardens, an often-forgotten part of Hull’s history. This was a prime location and provided the inspiration for the pub’s name because of the popularity of the polar bears in the zoo, which were brought back by Hull’s whalers sailing to the arctic. The pub has an intriguing history, not only associated with LGBTQ+ communities, but with multiple licensees and stories of taxidermy, a museum in the back room and even its own shooting gallery.
The pub is also of architectural significance, following its 1922 extension, which included a domed ceiling, stained-glass top light and an orchestral area for small recitals. Over time this has become its infamous dancefloor and stage area, used for ‘The Sesh’ to provide local indie musicians with a platform. This dancefloor has also long been popular with the LGBTQ+ community, for dancing and enjoying themselves in a safe space for all, surrounded by social and architectural history. One of the key architectural structures of historical significance is the original ceramic bar countertop, one of only ten remaining in the UK, which creates the perfect atmosphere for those enjoying themselves in the historic venue.
The 1970s colour painted sign for the pub, which is held in Hull Museums’ collections, would have sat beneath the original carved stone pediment bearing the name of the pub. To passers-by it provided a visible link to the city’s rich-maritime history, which is now widely celebrated. Such links make this pub sign a key part of our social history.
The pub’s link with the cultural scene and LGBTQ+ communities of Hull is one of the key reasons that the venue has gained such popularity in more recent years. The bar became home to young and LGBTQ+ people in a way that no other pub had in the city. Previously, they had to travel to surrounding cities for what the pub has to offer; a place where they could feel comfortable and have the opportunity to sit, drink and catch up, or where they could dance freely under the 19th century original stained-glass sky light. It has been this way for many years, and the 2019 renovation gave it a new life among these communities once again.
Having locations like this, beyond the city centre, has opened up the local ‘gay scene’ and allowed LGBTQ+ communities to play a crucial part in Hull’s cultural resurgence. This is especially the case with Pride in Hull as the venue is a key part of the huge celebrations that rival national events around the country, and which anyone can attend for free. They both celebrate and show support for Hull’s vibrant LGBTQ+ community.
Written by University of Hull student Ellie Hayes.
I am currently studying for a History MA at the University of Hull, with a special interest in women’s history. Being born and raised in Hull, I have a deep passion for the culture and heritage of the city; writing about the Polar Bear Pub has been a pleasure as it is a venue that is close to my heart. Researching this blog has provided me with the opportunity to learn about its rich history and association with the LGBTQ+ community, which has been enlightening.
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