In 1923 the author, Cicely Fox Smith described Ratcliffe Highway as ‘one of the toughest Streets in the World’. Its reputation was largely made in the 1850s when the Highway was the principal sailortown of London and an international hub for foreign sailors. Commentators feared that foreign sailors had introduced knife-fighting customs alien to the traditional ‘English fair fight.’ This article will explore the cultural contexts that gave rise to this narrative and demonstrate that serious male on male knife assaults heard at the Old Bailey were relatively rare in London between 1850 and 1880. The customs that upheld masculinity were important in self-regulating male violence in working-class communities. It will be argued that foreign sailors proved adept in recognizing the different customs of upholding masculinity in densely populated working-class districts. Furthermore, transient sailors, as individuals and collectively, were important agents in re-producing masculine cultures and negotiating existing ones in a multi-ethnic urban environment. Finally, within a broader context, the continuation of informally regulated violence in Ratcliffe Highway raises the question of how successful the English justice system was in ‘civilising’ a traditional brutal street culture in the nineteenth century.
- working class
- nineteenth century