What shall we do with the drunken sailor? Seamen in 19th century Gloucester

Gloucester Docks, 1842 (ancestryimages.com)

Gloucester Docks, 1842 (ancestryimages.com)

The first story in my latest book, Gloucester Murder & Crime, is about a French sailor who in 1873 was fatally stabbed by a ship’s carpenter from Dantzic, outside the Barley Mow public house in Lower Southgate Street. For decades before this incident, sailors and seamen from many parts of the world had become a common sight in the city, as their vessels came into the docks to unload their cargoes. Unsurprisingly, men such as these who were away from home and had plenty of free time on their hands frequently got into drink-fuelled fights, either with each other or with the locals, although it was rare for such disagreements to end in a fatality.

In February 1858, the Gloucester Journal printed a letter from “A Citizen of Gloucester”, which bemoaned the increase of vice in the city, with not even Sunday being respected. The writer felt that visiting seamen were largely to blame, describing how “bodies of intoxicated sailors sally out of some low saloon or public-house, and disturb the congregations at the different chapels and churches in the city with their obscene songs and swearing, under the very noses of the police.” He had also witnessed a scene one Wednesday night, outside the “Ramping Cat” in Northgate Street, in which a crowd gathered to watch a sailor drag a prostitute by her hair down Hare Lane.

The fact that sailors coming onshore frequently carried knives was a cause of particular concern in Gloucester. In January 1858, four Greek sailors were charged with assaulting some women and creating a disturbance in Commercial Street. When some bystanders intervened, one of the sailors drew a large dagger, but he was pinioned by a policeman who came up behind him. In October 1862, two young men from the country came to the mop fair in Gloucester, and fell into company with two “ladies”, who invited them back to their lodgings. As they walked down Worcester Street, they met with two American sailors, with whom the girls had been drinking earlier, and a fight started. One of the sailors pulled out a knife and cut the face of one of the young men.

By the mid-1870s, the types of blade which sailors were carrying was causing alarm throughout the country, and the Pall Mall Gazette reported in March 1877 that at the annual meeting of the directors of the Gloucester Sailors’ Home in Ladybellegate Street, several of these new types of weapon were exhibited. One in particular, known as a “rib tickler” had such a sharp point that it needed a metal-tipped sheath to ensure that the wearer was not wounded by it. It was pointed out that no seaman need a knife as sharp as this for his work, so there was no need for him to carry such a weapon.

Establishments such as the Sailors’ Home and the Mariners Church at the docks provided much-needed spiritual, and often practical, support to visiting seamen, but the temptations faced by men who came onshore after being at sea for a long period could never be completely eradicated. The captain of a foreign vessel who was asked to interpret for two of his crew, who found themselves before the city petty sessions in 1899 after becoming involved in a fracas in Bristol Road, put the dilemma of his charges in simple terms, which were repeated in The Citizen:

“The captain said the men were safe at sea, but were quite spoiled when they got hold of some whiskey, and did not know ‘what’s why’.”

A defence which could have been applied to many of the seamen who found themselves in a bit of trouble after a visit to Gloucester in the nineteenth century.


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