‘Obliged in self-defence to retaliate’. Violent sailors in nineteenth-century Bristol

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This article is a study of merchant sailors in Bristol between 1850–1914. There is a stereotypical perception of the sailor as being a drunken, promiscuous, violent nuisance on the streets of a port town. This perception has been fashioned through popular imagery and imagination but also through an historiography that has largely investigated sailors in maritime and nautical contexts. Here I take a different approach and investigate one aspect of working-class culture, namely a man’s propensity for violence, in the context of Bristol’s urban, working-class culture. It will be argued that in their use of violence sailors were not the perceived breed apart but were an integrated presence in Bristol’s wider working-class culture. The reasons for violence, the methods used and the chosen victims of it were not the product of any maritime identity but were constructed from an urban one. Naturally, many sailors continued to display the stereotypical behavioural traits of sailors but there were also those who were aligned to a more respectable way of living. Cultural forces towards masculine respectability tempered some of sailors’ violent behaviours, as did the space available for violence, and consequently places sailors firmly within working-class culture.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCoastal Studies and Society
Early online date9 May 2024
Publication statusEarly online - 9 May 2024


  • sailor
  • Bristol
  • violence
  • working class
  • respectability

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