All the nice girls?

Portsmouth Harbour was a bit choppy today with the remains of Storm Gareth bidding the country a blowy farewell. It didn’t rain, which was good. Dragging my seedy self out of the house was bad enough without having to do it in water.

Today’s books were mostly about Navy Life. From the rather scathing tone of Ned Ward’s The Wooden World Dissected (his 1703 diatribe about the numerous shortcomings in the British Navy at the time) to Rudyard Kipling’s A Fleet in Being (which details his two voyages with the Channel Squadron in 1897) to a Royal Marine’s PhD thesis recounting his basic training and how he went from civilian to marine in the noughties.

I have to say they were all far more interesting than the previous subject I had to work on. Mind you, it always takes longer when I’m interested because I keep stopping and reading a bit. Or looking at pictures.

One such book today was called Sailortown written by Stan Hugil in 1967. It tells the stories of the places where sailors go when on shore leave. It details the dark and dank as well as the bright and bubbly – a bit more of the former and a lot less of the latter to be honest.

According to the author, a ‘sailortown’ is a dockland area ‘that catered to the transient population of seafarers’ that existed in seaports throughout the world.

Sailortown, Chinese style

There are quite a few drawings similar to the one above, showing the various cultural differences. There is no credit for the illustrator so I can only assume they are the work of Stan as well as the words.

One thing that Stan points out early on in the book is the fact that originally sailors didn’t get shore leave. Because a lot of them had been press ganged into the navy in the first place, they didn’t really want to be there and, had they been allowed ashore, they would probably have never returned.

The majority of these unwilling sailors were from the land (ag-labs mostly) and did not know how to swim…which explains why big square rigged ships would drop anchor a mile off shore rather than dock at a pier.

A little later, when shore leave was in existence, the sailors, having all been cooped up for lengthy periods of time would need to run a bit rampant. And so, of course, in the good old nature of supply and demand, enterprising people created places for them. Shanty type clusters of buildings grew up around docks, catering for all manner of things.

Oddly enough, one of the main things that appeared was a place of worship. Sailors were (maybe still are, I don’t know) incredibly religious. This may have been because they were aware of their own mortality while aboard a creaky old barque and figured protection from above was warranted. It makes sense though it didn’t stop them having a lusty old time when they managed to hit the fleshpots and booze barns on shore.

Printed on the inside cover of Sailortown is a map of the world. Detailed on the map are all the things that various countries are known for – as far as a sailor on leave is concerned, anyway. I was quite amused by the Australian entry.

Not sure why Brisbane and Darwin didn’t make the cut.

A lot of sailors would depend on men called crimps who would, for a sum of money, provide the sailor with everything he could possibly want or need. This could sometimes lead to him being drugged or bashed over the head before being put aboard another ship heading back out to sea.

Stan’s book has been criticised for being a bit obvious and titilating when it needs to be a bit more mature about the subject he describes.

Sailortown was not a contained area which was purposefully created to serve the needs of sailors, as it is so often described. Rather, it was a place where sailors went, but it catered to others, had other purposes, grew, shrank and moved with the fortunes and misfortunes of the area’s patrons or nearby development. The descriptions of sailortown by Hugill…[are] preoccupied with stereotypes of seafarers and the idea of sailortown inhabiting a space with rigid borders and specific clientele.

Maritime History Archive 2011, available online at:, Memorial University, Newfoundland

It seems to me that a dry old tome on the sailortowns would not be as much fun as Stan’s rollicking version. Still, for proper research it’s very good to have both.

Another book I catalogued today was full of funny little anecdotyes, all relating to navy life in one way or another. I just had to include one.

The Clyde submarine base on the Gareloch in western Scotland is set amongst countryside of considerable grandeur and beauty. It also enjoys predictable weather.

The Commanding Officer of a Dutch submarine which had operated from the base for seven weeks was heard to remark on his departure that he had thoroughly enjoyed his visit and was particularly grateful for the fact that it had only rained twice – once for three weeks and once for four.

McLaren, Pat 1994, Hearts of Oak: A Collection of Royal Navy Anecdotes, Fernhurst Books, Leamington Spa

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