Book Review-‘London’s Sailortown 1600–1800: A social history of Shadwell and Ratcliff, an early modern London riverside suburb’ by D. Morris and K. Cozens

By Brad Beaven, published October 2020


Sailortowns were the districts of merchant and naval ports where sailors visited, often lived and were entertained. It was a distinct area characterized by its public houses, brothels and low entertainment that employed significant numbers of working people. However, sailor-towns the world over have been a much neglected area of analysis by maritime and urban historian alike, as scholars have traditionally focused on the development of merchant ports to illustrate wider histories of international trade and imperial networks. The few historians that have explored sailortown, such as Judith Fingard and Valerie Burton have made significant progress in shedding light on the role of sailortown in supplying labour in the global trade system. Perhaps our lasting image of the generic ‘sailortown’ has been forged by Stan Hugill, a former sailor and historian. He noted that ‘Sailortown was a world in, but not of, that of the landsman. It was a world of sordid pleasure, unlimited vice, and lashings of booze, but a dangerous place too’ (Sailortown, 1967). Likewise in the 1920s Cicely Fox Smith went as far as to write that Ratcliffe Highway was ‘the toughest street in the world’ (Sailor Town Days, 1923). This narrative conveniently fits neatly into the well-rehearsed story that casts the east of London as a place of poverty, depravity and hopelessne…

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Filed under: Other (Early Modern) | Other (Nineteenth C) | Other (location)
Subjects include: Miscellaneous

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