'Portsmouth is an English Seaport Town principally remarkable for mud, Jews and sailors', wrote Charles Dickens in 1838.((The Letters of Charles Dickens, Ed. M. House and G. Storey, (Oxford 1965) vol. 1,423.)) Since most English towns were dirty, the mud would not have attracted particular attention. But discovering Jews and sailors together seems to demand fuller explanation. I hope to show in this unlikely association an overlooked aspect of the social life of British seamen: their relationship with tradesmen ashore during the classic age of the Royal Navy's achievements. Its significance to the early economic development of the poor Ashkenazi Jews is that it was in the naval towns that they were first able in any recognizable numbers outside London to set up in business, however small. Significantly, out of the eleven earliest Jewish provincial communities, eight were seaports of various size and importance, including the three main naval towns of Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chat? ham. ((Dr C. Roth, The Rise of Provincial Jewry (1950) states Birmingham (possibly 1730), Fal mouth (1740), Penzanee (possibly 1740), Ips? wich (possibly 1741), Portsmouth (1746), King's Lynn (1747), Liverpool (1750), Norwich (about 1750), Chatham (about 1750), Ply? mouth (1752), Bristol (before 1753).)) It is worth remembering that the oldest surviving Ashkenazi synagogue in the English-speaking world is to be found at Plymouth in the West Country.
In 1740, or thereabouts, the first Jewish settlers arrived in Portsmouth and Plymouth, coinciding with the commencement of the War of Austrian Succession, when the British Fleet of 228 sailing warships was manned by 35,000 seamen and marines.((Schmberg Isaac, A Naval Chronology, IV (1802) 25 and Clowes W. L., The Royal Navy 1900 III, p. 5.)) The trading potential was recognized by the small number of Jewish immigrant silversmiths, jewellers, clothesmen and petty chapmen, who were fortuitously able to supply simple seamen with just the goods they delighted in. Why should they peddle their wares about the country when a more or less captive customer was to be found in the men-of-war lying at Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Sheerness? Only the most trusted seamen were allowed ashore, for fear of mass desertion. So to ease this restriction on the freedom of crews, traders were from long usage allowed to board the warships. Traders were even encouraged to enter this market by legal exemption from the annual licence fee of ?4.0.0., under the Hawkers and Pedlars Act. But by 1813 this concession was withdrawn. The number of warship traders was then thought to have reached 2500.((Hampshire Courier, 7 December 1812.))
Discipline on pay day was relaxed to allow women aboard, and with smuggled drink flowing, between decks was soon no place for the prudish. Here also were traders with goods to please the seamen-gold watches and seals, watch-chains, rings, fancy shoes, scarlet and blue silk handkerchiefs, clay pipes and fresh food of every description.((For descriptions of pay day aboard a man-of-war see Captain Marryat, Peter Simple (London 1834), Chap. 11; W. Robinson, Jack Nastyface. The Memoirs of a Seaman (Wayland Publishers