Women on the Waterfront
The English artist Thomas Rowlandson was an astute observer of sailors and their women, and his engravings provide a vivid picture of life in the waterfront taverns of London around 1800. The faces of his sailors are gnarled and weather-beaten, and their expressions are drunkenly happy or leery and lustful. They are dressed in short blue jackets, loose white shirts, and either baggy trousers or the distinctive garments known as petticoat-breeches. They have brightly colored handkerchiefs knotted around their necks and curiously shapeless black hats jammed on their heads. In one cartoon, entitled Despatch, or Jack preparing for sea, a sailor sits on the knee of one young woman while he gropes her companion's breast. In his spare hand he has a drink, and he is shouting encouragement to two musicians who stand beside him scraping away on their fiddles. In another cartoon a sailor and his woman dance an energetic hornpipe while their companions drink and smoke and look on with approval. A couple can be seen making love on the floor, and the whole atmosphere of the tavern reeks of tobacco smoke and strong liquor.
The women in Rowlandson's pictures are young and pretty and buxom. They wear little caps with feathers and ribbons on their heads, necklaces around their shapely necks, and low-cut, high-waisted dresses that emphasize their generous figures. Some of the women are barmaids and others are sailors' wives or sweethearts or whores. All of them appear to be having a good time.
These tavern scenes provide a stark contrast with the descriptions of life in London's East End some fifty years later. Bracebridge Hemyng contributeda chapter on sailors' women to Henry Mayhew's great work London Labour and the London Poor, first published in 1851. Among the women Hemyng met during his forays into the sailors' districts of Wapping and Limehouse was China Emma. She was short and rather stout with a pale face and a vacant expression. She lived in Bluegate Fields, a narrow street off the Ratcliffe Highway, and she was looked after by an eccentric Irishwoman who endeavored
to stop her from drinking herself to death. China Emma had acquired her nickname because she lived with a Chinese sailor, but she was not Chinese herself. She was born on Goswell Street to parents who kept a grocery. Her mother died when she was twelve years old and her father took to drink. Within three years he was dead, and Emma went to stay with her sister, who soon went off with a man, leaving Emma to fend for herself. She was unable to get any work and things looked bad until she met a sailor. She moved in with him, and they lived as man and wife for six years. Unhappily, like thousands of other sailors, he contracted yellow fever in the West Indies and died. One of his shipmates gave her the news and brought her back the silver snuffbox that her sailor had kept his tobacco quids in.
China Emma moved from street to street and kept herself going by working as a prostitute. Sometime after she moved to Bluegate Fields, she met a Chinese sailor named Apoo, who became her regular partner. He sent her money when he was away, but by now Emma had become an incurable drunkard.
Apoo had no patience with her drinking and sometimes resorted to drastic measures. He used to tie her arms and legs together and take her outside into the street: "He'd throw me into the gutter, and then he'd throw buckets of water over me till I was wet through; but that didn't cure; I don't believe anything would; I'd die for a drink; I must have it, and I don't care what I does to get it."
Emma sometimes had melancholy fits when she wished she were dead. Several times she attempted suicide by throwing herself into the Thames, but her attempts were always foiled. On one occasion she leapt out of the first-floor window of a waterfront house in Jamaica Place, but a passing boatman fished her out of the water with a boat hook. As she explained to her interviewer, "I've no luck; I never had since I was a child."
China Emma and Rowlandson's buxom wenches represent two stereotypes of sailors' women. The former is a pathetic example of the downtrodden victims who attracted the attention of Victorian clergymen and social reformers; the latter are in the tradition of the charming girls with names like
Pretty Nancy and Sweet Poll of Plymouth who appear in so many sailors' songs and ballads. Both these stereotypes existed and were typical of their times, but they were only the most visible of the sailors' women to be found in every port.
The women we hear least about are the close relatives of sailors and in particular their mothers and sisters. We catch glimpses here and there. Captain John Cremer, more familiarly known as Ramblin' Jack, came from a seafaring family in the East End of London and left a journal describing his adventures at sea. He was born around 1700 on East Lane, Bermondsey, on the south bank of the Thames a mile or so downstream from the Tower of London. His father was master of a merchant ship, and his uncle was a captain in the navy. "As to my mother's family; she was a master ropemaker's daughter, which had three rope-walks joining on the back of East Lane, and called Cantor's Rope-walks to this day." The rope-walks can be seen alongside the adjoining timber yards on old maps of London. They were long, narrow sites where strands of hemp were twisted to form the lengths of rope used for the rigging and anchor cables of ships. Jack's father was captured by the French and died around 1706, leaving his mother a house in Deptford and about £14 a year. We hear nothing more about Jack's
mother beyond the fact that her brother, who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, arranged for Jack to join the crew of his ship, HMS Dover, in 1708.
Another glimpse of a sailor's family of this period is provided by Ned Ward, a London publican and journalist, whose best-known and least reliable work is a satirical pamphlet about life in the Royal Navy entitled The Wooden World Dissected. He also published his observations on London life
in a series of articles in The London Spy, which came out in book form in 1703. Unlike the navy, of which he had no firsthand experience, he had an intimate knowledge of London's streets, taverns, fairs, and customs. On one occasion around Christmastime, he and a friend took a stroll along the north bank of the Thames to Wapping, where they ventured into a public house to refresh themselves with a bowl of punch.
"The first figure that accosted us at our entrance was a female Wappineer, whose crimson countenance and double chin, contain'd within the borders of a white calico hood, and her fiery-face look, in my fancy, was like a red-hot iron glowing in a silver chafing dish." The woman was the landlady of the pub and the mother of two sailors. One of her sons was sitting glumly in the corner smoking a short pipe of stinking tobacco. After she had served Ward and his friend, she subjected her son to a torrent of abuse for his idleness. She complained that she worked as hard as any woman in the parish but could not afford to support him, and urged him to get off his backside and sign on to one of several ships that were bound for the West Indies. He agreed to do so and had no sooner left the pub than in walked his sailor brother, Bartholomew, with a hat full of money clutched under his arm. He explained that he had been paid off when his ship reached the Downs and had made his way around to the Thames on a local vessel. He
greeted his loud and corpulent mother with enthusiasm.
"Sure never any seafaring son of a whore had ever such a good mother upon shore as I have. 'Ounds, mother, let me have a bucket full of punch, that we may swim and toss in an ocean of good liquor, like a couple of little pinks in the Bay of Biscay." The mother and her favorite son had been drinking for a while when the sailor's sister, Betty, entered the tavern, "and there was such a wonderful mess of slip-slop licked up between brother Bat and sister Bet that no two friends, met by accident in a foreign
plantation, could have expressed more joy in their greeting."
The Wapping landlady was one of many sailors' women who earned a living in the taverns along the Thames, and in other British seaports. In the eighteenth century, as today, alehouses were often run by families. In most cases the landlord was formally in charge, but it was the landlady and her daughters who did much of the work and who set the tone for the establishment. We see them in numerous engravings doling out drink for the sailors, and joining in their noisy celebrations as the men savored their precious few weeks ashore before returning to their ships. There were women licensees of alehouses, but they were a minority and were usually the widows of former landlords. According to the 1796 directory for Liverpool, no less than 27 percent of licensed victuallers were female, but in most
places the proportion was much lower.
The sailors' women who were most in evidence in the East End of London were not landladies or sailors' mothers but the women described by Ward as strumpets or trulls. They were to be found plying their trade in the brothels that centered around the Ratcliffe Highway. This street lay to the north of the wharves on the riverfront at Wapping. It was described in 1600 by John Stow as "a continual street, or filthy straight passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages builded, inhabited by sailors and
victuallers." Most sailors were young and unmarried, and every tide brought them flocking ashore from the hundreds of ships moored in serried ranks in the Pool of London. They were looking for women and drink, and the establishments along the Ratcliffe Highway provided for their needs. During the course of the seventeenth century, the neighborhood attracted prostitutes of several nationalities, including an influx of Flemish women who had a reputation for their sexual expertise and Venetian courtesans who
were too expensive for ordinary seamen and were patronized by aristocrats and members of the court.
The most notorious of the local women in the 1650s and 1660s was Damaris Page, who was described by Samuel Pepys as "the great bawd of the seamen." She was born in Stepney around 1620, became a prostitute in her teens, and married a man named William Baker in 1640. During the course of the next
fifteen years, she moved on from prostitution to operating brothels. She had one on the Ratcliffe Highway that catered to ordinary seamen and dockworkers, and she also managed one on Rosemary Lane for naval officers and those who could afford the prices of the classier prostitutes. In 1653,
she married a second husband, and two years later she was brought before the magistrates at Clerkenwell. The first charge of bigamy was dismissed on the grounds that her first marriage had not been sanctified, but the second charge was more serious. Accused of killing Eleanor Pooley while attempting to carry out an abortion with a two-pronged fork, she was charged with manslaughter and sentenced to be hanged. She was fortunate to be pregnant herself, however, and after being examined by a panel of matrons, she escaped the death sentence and spent three years in Newgate prison instead. On her release, she resumed her career as a madam and died a wealthy woman
in her house on the Ratcliffe Highway in 1669.
The steady growth in London's maritime trade during the course of the eighteenth century brought more and more ships to the wharves and quays below London Bridge. A report published in 1800 estimated that there were 8,000 vessels and boats of all kinds in the port of London at any one time, and with the ships came the sailors. Inevitably there was an increase in the supply of prostitutes to meet the demand. Some of these were girls who were forced into prostitution by sheer poverty. Others were young women who decided that they would rather sell their bodies than work sixteen hours a day as laundresses or seamstresses. According to the observations of Daniel Defoe in 1725, many prostitutes came from the huge army of young maidservants in London and took to prostitution to support themselves on the frequent occasions when they found themselves out of work: "This is the reason why our streets are swarming with strumpets. Thus many of them rove from place to place, from bawdy-house to service, and from service to bawdy-house again."
Excerpted from Seafaring Women by David Cordingly. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.