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the guide to historical resources • Issue 9: The Sea •

The Sea

Illustration of L'pl British Working Man's Pub (seafarers)

Sailors in the Liverpool British Working Man's Pub

Image courtesy of PortCities Liverpool

articles > Representations of mariners...

Representations of mariners and maritime communities, c.1750–1850

Andrew Gritt, University of Central Lancashire (1)

English maritime communities of the eighteenth-century were diverse. At one extreme is London, the primary port of the British Empire, home to tens of thousands of mariners and their dependents, and despite its declining share, still handling 28 per cent of British trade in 1751. (2) At the other extreme are the myriad small fishing ports of the East and South coasts. Between these extremes are a host of port towns, some long established, such as Bristol and Newcastle, others declining in importance, with yet others rapidly increasing in both population and tonnage, most notably Liverpool and Whitehaven. Occupationally, port towns were not necessarily dominated by seamen and their families as shipping both depended upon and serviced a wide range of ancillary and service trades: ship builders, carpenters, coopers, anchor smiths, ropers and sail makers built, furnished and repaired vessels; lumpers, coalheavers, pilots, lighter men, barge men, keelmen, carters and general labourers dealt with the lading and unlading of cargo; grocers, victuallers, dealers, butchers and provision merchants provided the ships' stores; a host of merchants, ship owners, lawyers, scriveners, agents, factors, customs officials, brokers, and insurance clerks saw to the financial, organisational and legal aspects of trade; in fishing ports women worked mending nets, salting and packing fish while in all ports there was a substantial service industry comprising mainly public houses and lodging houses. A glance at any eighteenth-century trade directory for a port town will demonstrate the prevalence of these and other trades which, to a greater or lesser extent, directly depended upon the shipping industry. Nevertheless, despite the visible interconnectedness of these and countless other trades to be found within maritime communities, the mariner is often seen to stand aloof from the rest of their community and society in general.

Much of the negative evidence regarding the character of mariners and their communities comes from the larger ports, particularly London and the Tyne ports. Even within these large city ports there were recognisable maritime enclaves that were distinct from the general population. Contemporary descriptions of these places undoubtedly reflect a genuine social and geographical gulf that was both a cause and effect of a mentality manifested in mariners' behaviour. In 1776, Sir John Fielding described Rotherhithe and Wapping as places 'chiefly inhabited by sailors, [where] a man would be apt to suspect himself in another country. Their manner of living, speaking, acting, dressing and behaving, are so very peculiar to themselves'. (3) His half-brother, the novelist Henry Fielding, claimed that mariners at home 'think themselves entirely discharged from the common bonds of humanity, and…seem to glory in the language and behaviour of savages'. (4) Thomas Pennant wrote of Newcastle in 1772 that 'The lower streets and “chares";, or alleys, are extremely narrow, dirty, and in general ill-built; consisting often of brewhouses, malt-houses, granaries, warehouses, and cellars. The keelmen chiefly inhabit the suburb of Sandgate and the north shore, a mutinous race, for which reason the town is always garrisoned'. (5) These sentiments were echoed half a century later by the magistrates of Shields who suggested that 'this harbour never should be without some armed vessel to assist on checking the first appearance of any tumult'. (6) A 'stranger's guide to Newcastle' published in 1828 did not encourage people to visit the courts and alleys around the quayside warning that 'they do not posses any attractions either for the townsman or the stranger'. (7) Such sentiments were not exclusively reserved for London and the Tyne ports. Stationed off the Isle of Man in 1750 a naval captain wrote 'This town of Douglas in appearance seems poor, by reason their buildings are low & straggling; nevertheless contain many inhabitants'. Indeed, the island was said to be a 'common stower of bankrupts, thieves, rebels and murtherers and has of late arrived to the greatest pitch of disaffection to his majesty and contempt of the English nation'. (8) The Isle of Man was heavily involved in smuggling, and many of the individuals so described were in fact mariners. Lieutenant Francis Gibson can hardly have been approving when he wrote of Robin Hood's Bay (Yorkshire) in 1782 'The inhabitants subsist chiefly by fishing and smuggling'. (9)

Mariners lived in distinct and distinctive communities. Physically, small ports were dominated by the waterfront and the layout of the settlement was usually oriented around the harbour. But larger settlements such as London or Newcastle also contained distinct maritime districts. Even the negative imagery of Rotherhithe and Wapping, which stressed the difference between mariners and the rest of the population, shows that mariners were physically and culturally separate – that even within London there were recognisable maritime communities distinct from the rest of the city.

Popular opinion held mariners in very low esteem, a prejudicial view that was deliberately transformed through a cultural recreation on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1830s. (10) In earlier decades, commentators frequently characterised them as beyond respectability and something to be feared. In the early eighteenth century Daniel Defoe claimed ''Tis their way to be violent in all their motions … they swear violently, whore violently, drink punch violently, spend their money when they have it violently … in short they are violent fellows and ought to be encouraged to go to sea'. (11) E. P. Thompson cites an unnamed source from a century later with similar characteristics claiming that the sailors were 'always the first to turn out…whether to fight, to drink, to dance, or to kick up a row'. (12) A redeemed and former sailor said of his former associates that 'His song, his bumper and his sweetheart (perhaps a street-pacing harlot) form his trio of pleasure. He rarely thinks, seldom reads and never prays'. (13) After John Wesley preached to the Newcastle keelmen in May 1742, he noted 'So much drunkenness, cursing and swearing (even from the mouths of little children) so I never remember to have seen or heard before, in so small a compass of time'. (14) In 1814, William Forster blamed 'deceitful' individuals who 'are trying to lead them [mariners] into wantonness and drunkenness' asking, rhetorically, 'Where at the present day, shall we find greater wickedness, and more abominable vice than in some of these places amongst our sailors, and their companions in riotous mirth?' (15)

In isolation, these anecdotes prove nothing but the subjective view of the authors. Nevertheless, it is possible to rationalise these subjective comments. Distinctions need to be made between descriptions of mariners' behaviour on shore, and perceptions of their usefulness at work. The Tyne keelmen, for instance, were described in a Trade Directory as 'a remarkably hardy, robust, and laborious class of men, and are distinguished for their great muscular strength'. Yet, it was also observed that 'They are generally prone to intemperance'. The seamen of the same ports, distinct from the keelmen, were 'a most robust, active, and fearless race of men, who, in time of war, supply the flower and strength of the British navy … these seamen are characterised for intrepidity at sea, and thoughtless prodigality when on shore, they still retain some of those superstitious fears and observances which originated in the remote ages of ignorance'. (16)

Mariners at work were not a threat to society. Indeed, as many commentators admitted, they were doing an unenviable and necessary job preserving national security and facilitating economic growth. As the Lord Bishop of Oxford preached to the governors of the London hospital for mariners and their families in 1754, 'Public wealth and strength consists, partly in the numbers, partly in the usefulness of the people. Now both will bear a near proportion to their morals: on which also the private security and domestick enjoyment of life almost intirely rests'. (17) Yet, returning from voyages after a period of confinement in a small, often exclusively male environment, with money in their pockets and time on their hands, mariners' behaviour and lifestyle was perceived to be a threat to the sensibilities of polite society. It was no doubt the members of polite society that one novelist had in mind when he spoke of the 'sober, virtuous people on shore, who talk of morality and honesty, as if the whole world acknowledged their existence'. (18) A mariner on shore was, by definition, not at work, which further adds to the difference between mariners and the rest of society. It is not insignificant that Defoe believed 'they should be encouraged to go to sea'. Indeed, in a society that defined the majority of the population through their economic value and function, a mariner at home lay outside of society's normal terms of reference. In this respect, maritime communities share characteristics with nineteenth-century hiring fairs, which, for similar reasons, became the focus of attention for a widespread evangelical campaign. (19) Unstructured, unregulated time devoid of economic function was a threat to middle-class mores. This is especially the case when an identifiable but select group of young men with a strong collective identity are perceived to be a threat to the respectability of society at large. In preparing the case to prosecute the ringleaders of a seamen's strike in 1815 the treasury solicitor's office were keen to observe 'the evil example which these men held out to the lower order of the community by their total disregard of the laws of the country'. (20)

Although mariners were not the only group about which such sentiments were expressed, this only serves to emphasise the extent to which authority by the elite was dependent upon conformity to accepted modes of behaviour by the 'lower orders'. Attempts were made to encourage conformity, such as in 1821 when a large number of seamen were said to be wandering the streets of London in want of employment occasioned by their lack of appropriate clothing. A naval Captain wrote to Lord Sidmouth suggesting that the government provide clothing so 'that a most useful body of men would be snatched from the reach of those pernicious doctrines to which they are now constantly exposed – from the temptation of crime – and become bound by still stronger ties of gratitude to the paternal care of His Majesty's Government'. (21) Much was said of the usefulness of mariners, but if an individual is defined by their economic usefulness through work, then seafarers were only of use to society when they were at sea; when they were at home they lost their usefulness and therefore became a threat. Moreover, the economic usefulness of mariners at work was coupled with the social usefulness of keeping mariners occupied and away from home. Commentators who expressed disapproval of mariners' behaviour on shore may have witnessed some of this behaviour, but perceptions of their usefulness at work was largely based on notions of national security or economic theory, and is unlikely to have been witnessed first hand. This intrinsic and inescapable nature of the mariners' way of life perhaps explains why the strike was such a potent force, and much feared by the authorities. It might also explain why sea service was used as an alternative to prison, transportation or death – the discipline on board ship would serve as a corrective to the indiscipline of undesirable behaviour at home.

But if sailors were commonly perceived to live outside of society there still an acute awareness of their centrality to British economic growth and prosperity, and also to the security of the nation. In a sermon to the Corporation of Trinity House in 1699, George Stanhope explained that:
If this island enjoys the benefits of its happy situation, it is because that sea, which God hath made our rampart and entrenchment, hath been stoutly defended by our Navies. Without these, the nation must be so far from rich and prosperous, that it could not so much as be safe. And that which renders us so useful to our friends, so formidable to our enemies, and so secure from foreign invasions, is not so much our numbers, or our home-growth, or our wall of waters; as the advantages of our commerce abroad, and the invincible valour of our fleets at home. (22)

Undoubtedly, despite the poor reputation of mariners and their communities, they were also credited with repeatedly preserving national security. These enduring sentiments have resonated through to the present day, and remain part of British national consciousness. Nevertheless, the reputation of the seafarer remains dichotomous. Disentangling the myths from reality, deconstructing their reputation and reconstructing the mental, physical, emotional and economic world they occupied, is not an easy task. A further challenge is presented by the extent to which the contradictory reputation outlined above impacted upon the mariners' identity and behaviour, prolonging and reinforcing the stereotype.


1. Andrew Gritt is currently writing a book about mariners for the National Archives, and is Director of the Institute of Local and Family History (please see www.localandfamilyhistory.com for more information).

2. M. Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750 (Cambridge, 1987), p. 42.

3. Sir John Fielding cited in Peter Earle, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen, 1650–1775 (1998), p. 4. See also Philip Rawlings, 'Fielding, Sir John (1721–1780)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford), 2004.

4. Cited in Anthea Trodd, 'Collaborating in Open Boats: Dickens, Collins, Franklin, and Bligh', Victorian Studies, 42.2 (1999), pp. 201–25.

5. Thomas Pennant, A tour in Scotland and voyage to the Hebrides, 1772 (Edinburgh, 1998 edn., ed. Andrew Simmons), p. 646.

6. Durham University Library, Add. MS. 1074/1 (1816).

7. Wm. Parson and Wm. White, History, directory and gazetteer of the Counties of Durham and Northumberland (2 vols, Newcastle, 1828), i. cxxxix.

8. The National Archives of the U.K.: Public Record Office (hereafter TNA), T 1/342/98–99.

9. TNA, MPH 1/229.

10. Anthea Trodd, 'Collaborating in Open Boats: Dickens, Collins, Franklin, and Bligh', Victorian Studies, 42.2 (1999), 201–25.

11. Daniel Defoe cited in Peter Earle, Sailors, p. 13.

12. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), p. 663.

13. Joshua Marsden, Sketches in the early life of a sailor (Hull, n.d. [1812]), cited in E. P. Thompson, Making of the English Working Class, p. 62.

14. Cited in Eric Forster, The Keelmen (Newcastle, 1970), p. 13.

15. William Forster, A Christian exhortation to sailors and persons engaged in a seafaring life (1814), pp. 9–10.

16. Wm. Parson and Wm. White, History, directory and gazetteer, ii. 51.

17. Thomas Lord Bishop of Oxford, A sermon preached before the governors of the London Hospital, or infirmary, for the relief of sick and diseased persons, especially manufacturers, and seamen in merchant service, at the parish church of St Lawrence-Jewry, Wednesday, February 20, 1754 (1754), pp. 19–20.

18. Capt. Frederick Chamier, R.N., The Life of a Sailor (1850), p. 27.

19. Gary Moses, '"Rustic and rude": hiring fairs and their critics in East Yorkshire, c.1850–75', Rural History, 7.2 (1996), 151–175; Gary Moses, 'Reshaping rural culture? The Church of England and hiring fairs in the East Riding of Yorkshire c.1850–1880', Rural History, 13.1 (2002), 61–84.

20. TNA, TS 11/836/2822.

21. TNA, HO 44/7/129.

22. George Stanhope, The sea-man's obligations to gratitude and a good life: a sermon preach'd in the parish Church of Deptford, in Kent, June 5 1699 before the corporation of the Trinity House, at their annual meeting on Trinity Monday (1699), pp. 16–7. See also Anon., The sailors advocate. First printed in 1727–8, to which is now prefixed, some strictures, drawn from the statutes and records, relating to the pretended right of taking away men by force, under the name of pressing seamen (8th edn., 1777), p. 1.

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