The pitfalls of being a newly arrived sailor in Victorian London

Sailors' Home, Well Street, London Docks

The Sailors’ Home, Penny Illustrated Paper, (29 August 1868).

London was the world’s largest and busiest port in the Victorian period, and ships and sailors from all over the globe traveled to and from it. Merchant seamen were generally paid off when they arrived in port, getting their money from the Mercantile Marine Office that was situated in the Minories, close to the borders of East London and the City.

After weeks or months at sea many sailors simply blew their hard earned cash in a  matter of days or even hours on drink or women or both. Others fell victim to thieves. These were often the prostitutes that picked them up in the many pubs and lodging houses along the Ratcliffe Highway.

As a result (either of criminality or their own carelessness and profligacy) many sailors found themselves destitute and in danger of falling into crime themselves, especially if they couldn’t quickly find another ship to take service on. In 1827 the Destitute Sailor’s Asylum was founded in Dock Street but welcome as it was it soon became inadequate to the needs of the hundreds of seaman that required its help. In 1835 a second institution opened its doors: the Sailors’ Home in Well Street.

The Home also helped sailors avoid some of the dangers associated with being a fresh face (and a potential meal ticket) for unscrupulous locals in the dock area. They did this by sending agents or arranging for others to meet sailors at the Marine Office and escort them to safety at the Home. We can see this in operation in a case that reached the Mansion House Police Court in 1868.

On the 19 August a  sailor presented himself at the Marine Office to collect his wages of £6. He wanted to get home to Liverpool as soon as possible and was worried about getting distracted or robbed  and so he asked if an agent could escort him to the Sailors’ Home.

John Williams, who was employed by the Marine Office as a messenger, was directed to accompany the seams through the throng of ‘loose characters waiting outside’. However, ‘the moment they got into the streets they were mobbed by a number of crimps, touters, and lodging-house keepers’. The sailor was bundled into a waiting cab and driven away.

One of the crowd of vultures was identified as William Lee and he was later arrested and brought before Alderman Causton at Mansion House on a summons.  The justice fully convicted him of using ‘threatening and abusive language’ towards the Marine Office messenger and condemned the fleecing of newly arrived sailors. He told Lee that these ‘poor fellows who received their money after long and severe labour should be protected’ and he fined the lodging-house keeper 40s and made him enter into a recognisance of £10 to keep the peace for six months.

It is unlikely that it would have done much good however, the sailor was probably already parted from his £6 and if he made it to Liverpool there were just as many ‘crimps and touters’ there to exploit him. Lee would have chalked it off to bad luck at getting caught, I doubt it would have altered his behaviour much. The Ratcliffe Highway was a notorious area for crime and prostitution and a magnet for discharged seamen throughout the 1800s and beyond. The Sailors’ Home itself only closed its doors in 1974, more than 100 years later.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 27, 1868]

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