Port Cities

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Port Cities: Leisure, health and housing - The welfare of seamen
PortCities London

The welfare of seamen

Dangers in the port

Temptations on shore

Jack Jolly steering down Wapping in Ballast trim (caricature)
View full size imageJack Jolly steering down Wapping in Ballast trim. © NMM
After long months at sea, sailors looked forward to a stay in port. For many, it was like a holiday. After receiving their pay, they could enjoy their free time any way they chose.

With plenty of cash in their pockets, they always had plenty of friends. Many sailors off duty set out to have a good time, usually involving alcohol and women.

Jack got safe into Port with his Prize.
View full size imageJack got safe into Port with his Prize. © NMM
The dosshouses, pubs and brothels of the port districts offered all sorts of services to the visiting seaman – but at a price.

At best, seamen could simply blow their hard-earned wages in a drunken binge, and the friends would disappear as quickly as the money. At worst, they could be cheated, robbed or even murdered.




'Fair game'

Writing in the 1850s, Augustus Sala described the perils faced by seamen in the port:

Jack in a White Squall, Amongst Breakers - on the Lee Shore of St. Catherines (caricature).
View full size imageJack in a White Squall, Amongst Breakers - on the Lee Shore of St. Catherines. © NMM
'He no sooner lands than he becomes the prey of the infamous harpies who infest maritime London. He is robbed by outfitters... he is robbed by the tavern-keepers, the crimps, and the boarding-masters. He is robbed by his associates, robbed in business, robbed in amusement. 'Jack' is fair game to everybody.'


The situation was far worse for foreign seamen. Any seaman unable to speak English was even more vulnerable, while non-white sailors had to face blatant racism.