The Devil's Highway: Victorian Anxieties and Subaltern Cultures in London's Sailortown, 1850-1900

Research output: Book/ReportBook


Between 1850 and 1900, London’s Ratcliffe Highway was the infamous ‘sailor’s playground’. It was a place where sailors longed for while at sea, and a district where the local population worked and was entertained. However, for social investigators, it was a place of fascination and fear as it haboured ‘exotic’ and heathen communities. Sailortowns featured in most international ports in the nineteenth century and were situated at the interface between urban and maritime communities. Sailortowns were transient, cosmopolitan and working class in character and they provide us with an insight into class, race and gendered relations within subaltern communities. This book goes beyond conceptualising sailortown as a global economic hub that entangled sailors into vice and exploitation. It will examine how, by the mid-nineteenth century, anxieties relating to urban modernity encouraged Victorians to re-imagine Ratcliffe Highway as a chaotic and dangerous urban abyss. Certainly, the sailortown population was mixed and varied and engaged in numerous working-class trades connected with the marine and leisure industries such as dockers, stevedores, sailmakers, sex workers and, international seafarers. Sailortowns were contact zones of heightened interaction where multi-ethnic subaltern cultures met, sometimes negotiated and at other times clashed with one another. However, the book argues that despite these challenges sailortown was a distinctive and functional working-class community that was self-regulating and self-moderating. The book uncovers a robust sailortown community in which an urban-maritime culture shaped a sense of themselves and the traditions and conventions that governed subaltern behaviour in the district.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationManchester
PublisherManchester University Press
Publication statusAccepted for publication - 11 Mar 2024

Publication series

NameStudies in Popular Culture
PublisherManchester University Press


  • sailortown
  • working class
  • subaltern
  • urban
  • maritime
  • class
  • race
  • gender
  • London
  • sailor

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