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A three-tiered Model for Maritime archaeologists: Rethinking Stan Hugill accounts for Sailor-town

If you were a seafarer, where would you dock your ship? Stan Hugill did not actually inform us clearly what constitutes a sailortown, but people studying maritime societies and maritime lives do want to analyze the ecology of sailortown, including maritime archaeologists. Instead of listing out all characteristics of a ‘sailortown’ in a ‘check-box’ fashion, I have regrouped the characteristics of Stan Hugill’s definition of a ‘sailortown’ in a three-tier system – a simple framework that could be referential to maritime archaeologists. 

Image (1): Book cover of Stan Hugill’s Sailortown, 1967.

Tier One: Settlement and Basics

The first tier concerns the basic needs of a sailor when they reached a sailortown. At the beginning of the book, as Hugill (1967) differentiates between a port of docks and a mere port, he suggested that ‘Bristol, even today, is not a port of docks’ even when ‘there exists a Wapping,’ because it was not quite the sailor-infested area of the London Wapping or even that of Liverpool’s wapping’ (34). The author defined Sailortown as a place where many sailors would stay behind with their docked vessels, and they would all come and ‘settle’ on the land – temporarily at least. 

Dockside Facilities 

The construction of dockside facilities for sailors who wish to settle in the sailortown is an essential consideration, and this concept of a port of docks in sailortown can be supplemented by historical-archaeological accounts: in the case of the London Docks, as stated in Derek Morris and Ken Cozens’s ‘London’s Sailortown 1600-1800’, 2014, several Acts were being set to limit the number of carts used in quayside since the ports were developing swiftly and the docked vessels were growing, and that later led to the construction of the London Docks – the duration of the construction gave consideration over the surrounding inhabitants, particularly in its innovative feature of an iron railway connecting to different docks-to-be, and there were two houses built ‘for senior resident dock officials’. These infrastructural augmentations could also be associated with the rising population in sailortown, such as Shadwell, where around 700 houses were recorded to be built from the 1630s to 1640s. 

Image (2): See more about London’s Sailortown here.

Shelters: Physical Accommodation/ Human Tenderness

In another example, Hugill mentioned the ‘true sailortown never emerged…., but the opening of the Queen’s Dock (Old Dock) for the whalers in 1778…..produced a crops of pubs, brothels’ (36). He later also mentioned that ‘Sailortown inns, taverns, pubs, groggeries, gin-palaces, ale-houses, saloons, rum-shops, cantinas, wine-dumps, bier-halls, and café, throughout the world, all bore similar names on their sign-boards…’. The recitations brought us to another layer of ‘needs’ for a sailor within the sailortown: shelter, physically or spiritually.


Physically, it would equate to the houses in which sailors have been living, it could be a tavern, inn, rented flat. Archaeological excavations on the Stepney City Farm in 2011 for the Cross Rail project have uncovered ‘a large medieval and post-medieval manor house, surrounded by a walled moat’. Likewise, there are historical records showing that, for instance, there was a positive relationship between the rising need of housing accommodation and maritime activities after the opening of the East India Company Dock Yard (Morris and Cozens, 2014).

Image (3): House-boats and sing-song girls, Canton, 1860s; sketch made by Stan Hugill in Sailortown, 1967.


Spiritually, as we refer to the Feminist theorist, Lucy Lippard (1976), a man always wishes to go back to their original house, which, in the case of the presumed male-dominated mariners, is to be taken in the most literal sense of the woman’s womb. But are all mariners male? And are they always single? In most cases, we tend to conjecture that they were male, often single, and struggle to survive in such a seasonally driven occupation. How would they ever find the comfort of a woman/man? Such a need for human tenderness or comfort thus explains, from a socio-economical point of view, the thriving business of harlots and brothels. Some, according to Stan Hugill, were ‘fair transaction’ between women and seafarers; but historical records told us that there were instances where it could be involuntary, either in the unfortunate incidents of rape, or as a result of slavery, or what the Chinese called the ‘mui-tsai’– some of these young ‘mui-tsai’ girl ended up in brothels to cover family debts. 

Crimping/ Shanghaiing

Also, the issue of crimps could be thought about – this was the process of tactical removal of the money from sailors through providing food, lodging, drink, and sex, which then often forced sailors to sign up for another risky sea voyage. Sea songs are full of unfortunate sailors getting robbed or fleeced in the sailortown preventing them from leaving seafaring life and going home.

Image (4): Crimping, drawing published in Stan Hugill’s Sailortown, 1967.

Drinking and Feeding Repertoire

The remaining part of this tier is that of ‘ale-houses’. It is not difficult to imagine mariners, being away from the land and stocks on deck were often scarce. Hugill recounted many alcohol houses and pubs that were once located in England’s sailortown in his book. A more relevant question before we move on to tier-two is: were these alcohol-drinking mariners simply yearn for the taste of ale when they go to the pubs? Or are they, as the author argues, looking to feed since these ale-houses often serve food? This, on the other hand, could also bring us towards thinking of whether this aspect of the sailortown was/is a ‘western’ phenomenon in Hugill’s projection– this may not be applicable to seafarers who don’t drink (such as Muslims) or who take other intoxicants (such as tea) and who may therefore yearn for different things as part of their self-feeding repertoire. 

Tier Two: Social Engagement

Sailortown is not just a town for sailors – they shared the social space with people and animals on land, with the ‘townfolk of all sorts’. Pawn-shops could have taken up a more important position because, as suggested in the concept of sailortown, some sailors would have to exchange their valuable items for local currencies for further social engagements, such as purchasing equipment for its vessel, or to pay his/her rent. Despite the absence of a definitive archaeological finding that directly proof such a concept, there is a high possibility that excavated sites that resembles a pawnshop in sailortown would have unearthed an array of unorganized, unrelated treasures – as we imagine sailors of all Seven Seas brought to the pawnshop the most valuable and somewhat ‘foreign’ objects for cashing out local currency.

Ship chandlers?

Image (5): Sea Chandlers, from Museum of London.

Hugill’s ‘warehouse’, ‘ships chandlers’, and perhaps also a counting house, could be grouped here. The concept of a sailortown positioned sailors as someone who would participate in loading goods in warehouses, and that they will also need to maintain their ships when docked, such as repairmen and equipment modification, and thus in turn engage with ropework shops, rug shops, nail shops, and so on. When we correlate such conception with the archaeological finding, there had been some archaeological excavations in Bermondsey and Rotherhithe that ‘discovered foreshore sites which were used for shipbuilding, ship repairs, and finally ship breaking, the latter reflecting the re-use of timbers still in good condition’.
Some successful merchant sailors, even when they are not the major representation of the majority of the sailor community at sailortown, were also collating their fortune and fame by partaking in social activities, such as purchasing land, marriage to mariner families, and pay taxes and insurances – these are also reflected in historical records.

Social Space for Mariners?

One unexpected point raised by Hugill that intrigues me is the importance of the pub – which moves beyond mere consumption of ale. Ale-houses could sometimes transform into an educational centre, or a ‘museum’, such as ‘Museum of Anatomy’ in Liverpool, ‘Museum of Horrors’ in San Francisco or even the ‘museum of the history of brothels’ that displayed exotic and occasionally horrific works of exotic species, body parts, bones, or curious items that somewhat resembled those made by the postmodernist-artist, Damien Hirst. Apart from that, the social value of alcohol-houses could also be linked to job search and general community bonding/ knowledge-exchange circles. Coffee houses, too, are key institutions in the development of maritime insurance (Lloyd’s of London started in a coffee house) and in the process of finding cargoes for ships.  However, applying this to the archaeological perspectives would mean that there will hardly be a definitive evidence to attest such interpretative behaviour. 

Tier Three: Power and Conflict

The last layer concerns the power and conflict faced by sailors in sailortown, which was only inferred through Stan Hugill’s conception of a sailortown when he mentioned wars, riots and conflicts. In tier-two of this essay, we propose how seafarers would marry merchant mariners under the framing that seamen do partake in social activities on land. But here, we add on a new layer of ‘power’ to the same case of marriage, where seafarers would also make use of marriage to strengthen their social and financial influences. The Rainborowe Family will be a good reference point for this augmentation of maritime influence through marriage. Another more relevant note on the cultivation of power in sailortown is, of course, trade. Trade of goods being bought from foreign seas, olive oil, ceramics, wood, silk, opium, and all kinds of materialistic consumables – there has been many a lot of archaeological findings, normally in shipwrecks. The Thames River Police Force, for example, is the oldest police force in England and was specifically set up to tackle theft and looting from ships anchored in the Port of London in 1798. It was funded by the merchants who were losing goods to this – West Indian Planters Committees and merchants so there are links to the funds for this coming from slavery.

Image (6): Lady Ivie’s border dispute case in Shadwell. The land within the red line was obtained by Lady Ivie. 

Legal Borders in maritime societies

One interesting conflict on the issue of defining border in a sailortown, which could constitute the factor of conflict within sailortown, can be seen in the case of Lady Ivie’s 1684 Trial, where she claimed that the ownership of land is difficult to determine due to changing borders from changing watercourses, changing names of the owner, and building of new houses in sailortown (see Plucknett, 1930). Also, Hugill mentioned that ‘in 1775, and again in 1801, “alarming riots by sailors on account of their wages” occurred’ after flooding amount of emigrates from Ireland came to England. There were conflicts between the poorer and the wealthier in Shadwell and Ratcliff, where the problems on water supply, security, flooding, sewers and other social-related issues were mentioned in historical records. 

Church’s power 

In a sailortown, there seems to be a shared social burden, such as if there are murders on the run, or riots, and the need to fulfil taxation, and even epidemics, such as the recorded pandemic in New Orleans Port. Another interesting angle here is the moral backlash against the seedy nature of life in these areas. The growth of churches in these areas and sailors missions and temperance houses are a good example of this. It’s dressed up as saving sailors souls but it’s also a discourse of power!

Issues with the Concept of Sailortown in Archaeological Usage

The first and foremost issue related to the usage of the sailortown conception in archaeological records is there simply is no definitive archaeological proof for social constructs or intangible cultures– most proposals in Stan Hugill’s conception are very difficult to pin down tangibly, such as the operation of brothel, the offences taken by mariners when being called beachcomber (i.e. identity), or the native tattoos, shanties, types of ‘fertility dance’and many more propositions that is hardly traceable, if not inaccessible, to maritime archaeologists – because most of them are either intangible cultures, or that they are social constructs.

Image (7): The ‘fertile dance’ in a ‘foreign country’, drawing by Stan Hugill in Sailortown, 1967.

Also, even if we admit Stan Hugill’s accounts as the Last Shantyman, or that of Marco Polo’s diary on his voyages, as part of the archaeological records, since they partook in the actual maritime activities – how do we quantify the reliability or rate its credibility? The author knows for a fact that there is never a definitive proof in archaeology, and so as any other disciplines, but if we cannot even anticipate sections of which there might be fragmentation, over/under-statements, or misrepresentation – how do we let archaeologists build their theories and interpretations thereafter concretely?
Another issue, that could be both beneficial and troubling, is that the application of the concept in maritime archaeology opens the discipline to a whole range of cross-disciplinary endeavours. For instance, Morris and Cozens, 2014, in their ten years-long research, they dug deep into mariners’ wills, insurance and tax records, as well as other written narratives.

'No longer can an archaeologist simply learn to dive, as half a century ago, and be considered competent to excavate an ancient ship. Today’s graduate students can take seminars on pre-classical, classical, medieval, post-medieval, and Far Eastern seafaring, learning the histories of naval warfare and of maritime commerce, sometimes studying palaeography so they can conduct their own archival research' (Bass, 2012).

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