Welcome to Port Towns and Urban Cultures at the University of Portsmouth’s School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature.

We are going to enter the world of sickly slums and sailortowns where you’ll explore slum life, learn to speak like a sailor and make your own sailor tattoo - ready to take a virtual tour of Sailortown!

What is a ‘Sailortown’? 

To begin our exploration let’s start with sailortowns. Sailortown areas are found in cities that have ports like Portsmouth. They were often found between the water’s edge and the slum areas of the cities and ports. The area was called a sailortown simply as it was a part of the city-port. 

When sailor’s ships landed in harbour it was to sailortown they went. Many sailors lived here with their wives and children, but it was also the place where young, unmarried sailors could go to find somewhere to spend the night. 

Britain’s most famous sailortown areas are London and Liverpool but Portsmouth is the most famous naval town.

There were two types of sailortown in Portsmouth – Portsea was full of naval sailors and Portsmouth Town was full of sailors that transported goods from brick, wine and oysters! At any one time across the 19th century there were between 1000 – 6000 sailors in this area.

Sailortown areas were filled with lots of different places to drink and lots of lodging houses – like very cheap hotels. In Portsmouth in 1881, of the 420 known pubs, 335 of them were in the sailortown area.

The area at the bottom of the circle was the most famous area for sailors in the late 1700s and early 1800s – known as Portsmouth Point. 

This is how one artist saw Portsmouth Point! Can you imagine being there to see this? Click around the image to see what’s going on.

So now you know what sailortown was, and what it looked like – time to take a look at where the sailors and the poorer people of Portsmouth lived.

Sickly Slums

A “slum” is a dirty, squalid and overcrowded street or district in a town or city. It is usually lived in by the poorest people, many of whom have to earn their money by doing menial jobs or turning to crime.

Portsmouth had its own slum area located in the heart of Portsea. If you visit the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth, look out for remnants of the city’s Horrible History.

The Victorians were very conscious about cleanliness and the health of the population. However, there were not the funds, nor the systems in place to be able to tackle the issue. There was no welfare system and no National Health Service.

Over 160 years ago Robert Rawlinson, a Government Health Inspector, described Portsmouth as “one huge cesspool” due to the ill-paved and unclean streets. He added that the toilet facilities in the crowded houses and courts were unsanitary and exposed large dung heaps and cess-pools.

In the mid-Victorian era the town of Portsea was enclosed in a wall and the gates would be shut for security at night. This meant that the stinking night wagons that came to take away the waste and were loaded with human excrement would sometimes be stuck within the walls.

Even in the 1920s and ‘30s some parts of Portsea were still rife with sewage and the Town Council would have to send men with long rubber boots to clean and fumigate the outside toilets and pick up the dead dogs from the streets.

So, bearing this information in mind ... Here is a quiz to see how much you know about the Sickly Slums. We will give you some more ‘Horrid Facts’ about it along the way.

Interactive ‘Sickly Slums’ Quiz

Learn to speak like a sailor

Now you know the area, why don’t we have a go at speaking the lingo? ‘Jackspeak’ was a sailor slang used by sailors for over 400 years. A common nickname for sailors was ‘Jack’ and Jackspeak was used by sailors on ships and in and around sailortown.

Speak like a Sailor! Match the Jackspeak words with their meaning:

Sailors and Tattoos

Tattoos became popularised for sailors in the late 1700s and by the 19th Century were very prevalent. Sailors carried needles so that they could repair their garments while onboard ship. Gunpowder, soot, and even urine was used as ink.

Sailor tattoo designs were very important to those who wore them. They showed love, loss, superstition and marks of their identity such as religious faith or patriotic pride. Click through the images to see some examples, and hover your mouse over the image to learn what each one represents.

Make your own Sailor Tattoo

What you need:

  • A ‘pop sock’ or one leg of pair of tights cut to the length of your forearm
  • Scissors (take care when using scissors)
  • A piece of card as wide as your arm
  • Sharpie pens - black, blue and any other colours you like!

What you do:

  • Think about your design- what is important to you?
  • Carefully cut the toe section of the pop sock/tights off so that you have a tube of material
  • Design your tattoo on the cardboard to act as a template
  • Place the cardboard inside the tube of fabric (this way you stretch the fabric and also do not damage your tables with ink!)
  • Start with the outline of the tattoo. You may find you want to use a dot or dabbing action as the fabric may wrinkle up. Fill in the detail of the tattoo with shading
  • Let the ink to dry for a few minutes then take out the cardboard.
  • Put your arm into the tube and swagger around like a sailor! Aye, aye Captain!

Share your tattoo design

Tell us why you chose it. Snap a photo on your phone, scan the QR code and upload your photo (please try not to get anyone’s face in the photo). Or, if you’re doing this activity in school, perhaps your teacher can upload a photo of some of the class designs.

Take a virtual walk around Sailortown

Now you know a little about the history of Portsmouth’s Sailortown, have got some Sailor lingo and have your own sailor tattoo...it’s time to take a virtual walk of Portsmouth’s Sailortown.

Use the link below to open the Virtual map of Sailortown in a new browser tab. Select “Portsea Sailortown” from the Featured Walks Menu and zoom in to click the yellow marker to start your virtual tour.

As you move through Sailortown, you can learn more about each location by clicking on the markers.

See if you can answer these questions as you make your way around Sailortown:

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