Old sailortown, or Bluetown, by the docks at Sheerness. An interesting place where you can still get a sense of what life there was like long ago – yet the row of officers’ houses and the burnt-out but once very elegant church is just yards away from what I sure was often noisy debauchery… That music hall looks cool too.
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-fired 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.‘