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Stan Hugill describes Sailortown

Sailortown, Stan Hugill, Shanties, sailors, sailing ships, sea songs, sex, religion, drink, cape horn, paradise street, ratcliffe highway, sex, religion, drink

Sailortown is Stan Hugill’s book describing the sailor’s life when on land. A great shanty scholar, he felt driven to write it following publication of his important work Shanties from the Seven Seas; his motive was to explain how it comes to be that while the shore sea song writer uses many ‘bounding billows’ , ‘flowing seas’ and ‘raging mains’, genuine sailors’ songs concentrate instead on the delights and often dangers of being a sailor ashore.

These two quotations from come from the preface to Sailortown. The first answer’s Hugill’s purpose in writing the book:

‘The shantyman, being by nature somewhat of a philosopher, realized that the arduous labour of ship-board work and the terrors of the inclement weather were things too real and monotonous to be sung about. He preferred to conjure up the shore delights of chasing a bit o’skirt, with stuns’ls flying alow and aloft, down Liverpool’s Paradise Street, or those of knocking back the hard stuff in a tippling house, in tow with dubious frilly company, somewhere along the Ratcliffe Highway. that was sure-firedĀ  stuff guaranteed to appeal to a half-frozen, underfed, and sex-starved bunch of foremast hands… “Give us the one about Madame Gashee!” would be the shout, and the shantyman would, in a hurricane stanza, take them to the dives and delights of Callao.

The second describes a place more like a kind of hell than a heaven:

‘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. The pseudo-sailor songs singing of the sailor being ‘snug and safe ashore’ or ‘safe at last, the bar is past’ were wrong, you know. A sailor ashore was anything but safe. He was far safer at sea, hanging on by his eyebrows and toenails to an upper tops’l yard, reefing sail in a Cape Horn snifter, than he was in Sailortown, where every boarding-house master, harpy, pub hanger-on, and wharf-rat was awaiting to skin or slug him, and where his useless corpse was often to be found, knife between the shoulder-blades, lying sprawled in some dark, dank alley, or coiled obscenely around a tide-washed barnacled pile.

‘Sailors in the old days were of an adventurous disposition. Foot-loose men, bachelors by choice, shore likers, women-likers, booze-likers, they were wonderful men at sea, who often deteriorated ashore. And, strangely enough, as Alan Villiers has pointed out, they were God-fearing men. On my first voyage as a boy I sat down to eat my hash with my hat on. An aged, hawk-faced, slightly hump-backed Horn-toughened Irish shellback sent my hat a-flying, following its removal with a hefty clout around my earhole, and remarking at the same time, ‘Doff your hat sonny an’ ‘onour yer Maker!’ And expression I have never forgotten.

Geoffrey Robertshaw’s stunning photos from the last days of sailing ships


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Geoffrey Robertshaw’s photos of ships’ crews in the the final days of cargo-carrying sailing ships. Click on any of the images for much larger photos

Over 70 years ago Geoffrey Robertshaw kept a personal log and took many remarkable photos of life on-board cargo-carrying sailing ships travelling between Australia and Falmouth.

The photographs were taken on a Kodak No. 2 Box Brownie camera but their quality is remarkable; they were issued by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall to promote a lunchtime talk given by Elvin Carter a little earlier this month at the NMMC in connection with the Farewell to Sails exhibition. However, life caught up with me a little and I apologise for failing to post them in time to publicise the event. Hopefully we’ll still be able to draw attention to the exhibition itself!

Some of Robertshaw’s diary entries are as striking as the photos. One reads:

‘Day 127, Friday June 29th 1934. At 4am this morning we are dead opposite the Lizard Point. I can plainly pick out the villages of Cadgwith, and Coverack and the dangerous Manacle rocks.

‘It may have been hell at times, we have been short of food, fresh water and cigarettes, we have had fights, we have been wet through and hungry and thoroughly worn out with continuous work. But it has been worth it.

‘I love the sea and what is more I love the old sailing ships and without doubt Cape Horn will call me back again, and I shall not refuse.’

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