Why was the work of these women so important in Portsmouth?
We need to bear in mind that in the 1860s & 1870s, Portsmouth was one of England’s main ports. With the country frequently at war, or displaying our strength, somewhere in the world – Crimea, South Africa, India, Egypt – there was a constant stream of troopships and naval vessels in and out of port. These floods of servicemen were seen as disruptive, only welcomed by those who saw their wages as easy pickings eg the publicans.
In a letter to Sarah Robinson, at The Soldiers’ Institute she established in Portsmouth, one soldier, a staff-sergeant of the 6th West Yorks Militia, described the scene on his arrival back from Abyssinia:
Immediately we disembarked, and before getting into quarters, we were beset by keepers of gin-shops and worse, hundreds of unfortunates in gay attire, and professional music-saloon harpies, all determined to allure the unsuspecting soldier into their meshes … The consequence was that, in the absence of any counteracting influence whatever, we ran riot through the town, completely demoralised species of humanity, drinking spirits like water, giving ourselves up to all manner of wickedness, regardless of all orders relating to conduct or sobriety. it was no uncommon thing for a man to go out with £10 or £15, and within a few hours be brought to the Main Guard minus boots, cap, belt, and money, having been relieved of these superfluities by the friends who had enticed him into their houses
No wonder there was a need for someone or some organisation to provide a moral compass for these hapless young men.
Yet it was 2 matronly women, first Sarah and later Agnes, who addressed this need. Their practical efforts, campaigning zeal and steadfast faith changed lives. The culture within the Army and Navy began to change, the welfare of their men taken more seriously. Of course there were other organisations involved in welfare work for soldiers and sailors but none which addressed the issue of alcohol abuse with the same directness.
I shall be giving a talk in Portsmouth on Friday 22nd May