Let me say from the start that I have never been a great one for celebrating New Year. To me there seems to be a lot of phoney emotion around at this time and for quite a few people it’s just an excuse to drink too much. However, it is a good time for families and friends to get together.
New Year and the festive season can be lonely times for seafarers who find themselves in distant countries far away from their loved ones and friends.
Today ships spend little time in port because of the swift turnarounds introduced more than 30 years ago with the arrival of containers carrying cargoes. Few seafarers have opportunities to sample port life. In the past, however, ships often spent several says or even weeks in port. For many mariners, life in port – especially overseas – was one of the main attractions of going to sea and made up for whatever privations there were on board ship.
All seafarers look forward to reaching their destination, particularly after a long and stormy voyage. Ports all over the world - including Liverpool - had sleazy sailor town districts near the waterfront. Many seafarers headed straight for these areas.
Sometimes life in port turned out to be even more dangerous than life at sea. In the early 1800s, press gangs wandered the streets of British ports forcibly recruiting seamen for the Royal Navy. In the 1900s crimps made money by delivering drunken or drugged seamen to ships in need of hands.
From the early 19th century, sailors’ charities saved many mariners from the clutches of the land sharks by providing them with safe havens in port – work which is still carried out today. For example, the Mersey Mission to Seamen has been operating since 1865 (more on them on the Port Cities website).
Floating churches, seamen’s missions and sailor’s homes were established in ports all over the world.
A display at Merseyside Maritime Museum has exhibits reflecting life in port. There is a sailor’s trophy from the 1950s – a red head-dress worn by the waitresses at the Moulin Rouge Club in Recife, Brazil. These were much-favoured trophies among seafarers visiting the club.
There are membership and introduction cards from sailor town clubs around the world in the 1950s.
An amusing decorative earthenware plaque from about 1780 (shown here) depicts Jack on a Cruise while ashore. The smartly-dressed sailor sports a plumed hat, striped trousers and a sword as he swaggers in the wake of a pretty girl dressed to the nines and carrying a furled parasol.
A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).