Regulating sin in the city: the moral geographies of naval port towns in Britain and Germany, c.1860-1914

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Naval towns were regarded as potent symbols of imperial power. Beneath this image however, contemporaries were concerned about the prostitution and heavy drinking which were associated with the sailortowns of naval ports. While historians have analysed merchant ports to explore social structures and economic networks, this study will evaluate how imperial and national discourses created distinct moral geographies which separated sailortown from the more ‘respectable’ urban spaces. We shall argue that while the naval and civic authorities in Portsmouth and Kiel shared the concern that a sailortown culture had the potential to undermine naval effectiveness, they imagined and regulated urban space differently. In imagining, analysing and regulating sailortown, the British authorities and social reformers drew inspiration from colonial missionaries in their Empire. In contrast, their German counterparts focused on national and moral degeneration and followed a more continental European tradition in regulating urban space. Although, historians have prioritised economic forces in shaping urban space, this article will argue that imperial and national cultural discourses were critical in how contemporaries imagined and regulated moral geographical boundaries in the nineteenth-century city.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)27–46
Number of pages20
JournalBritain and the World
Issue number1
Early online date7 Feb 2020
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2020


  • urban
  • moral geography
  • prostitution
  • navy
  • health
  • empire


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