At the start of the 19th century, London was the largest city in Europe. It was at the heart of a vast Empire and was rapidly expanding.
The city’s infrastructure was strained, with air pollution and unsanitary conditions by-products of its major urbanisation.
While there were pockets of great wealth within the capital, there were many more areas of unimaginable poverty and squalor – including the docklands.
The Napoleonic Wars, which raged between 1803 and 1815, resulted in the loss of more than 90,000 men from the British navy. When the wars ended, another casualty was London’s docks, which were plunged into decline. The need for ships dwindled and jobless seafarers faced great uncertainty.
By 1817, with desperate seafarers roaming the streets of East London, sailor-turned-preacher George Charles ‘Bosun’ Smith responded by calling a public meeting at the City of London Tavern in Bishopsgate.
The tavern is steeped in history – both the RNLI and Middlesex Cricket Club were formed there.
But before they were conceived, at Smith’s public meeting on 18 March 1818, Sailors’ Society was born, with a mission to alleviate the worldly woes of sailors in the city by promoting their religious instruction, moral reformation and eternal happiness.
Around 45,000 seafarers were visiting the Port of London annually at this time, and the Society set out to serve them with a floating chapel, known as the Ark. By 1820, reports were emerging that Christian ministries on the river had been so successful that publicans were complaining of hard times.
News of the charity spread – social reformer Elizabeth Fry asked it to send books for her to pass on to the men of the lonely coastguard stations and the First Lord of the Treasury, Robert Peel, made a grant of £500 to help.
Globally, the 1830s were a period of innovation and expansion, with steamboats starting to make the long voyage across the Atlantic.
Sailors’ Society was not to be left behind. In 1834, it appointed its first full-time chaplain, Benjamin Prynn, as its Thames missionary, followed by a full-time missionary in Cape Town.
Prynn, who spoke to 50,000 seafarers in his first year alone, knew the adverse conditions they faced, having gone to sea himself aged just nine.
It was a brutal and unforgiving job – statistics from later that century show that one in every 50 seafarers perished at sea.
The Society launched its Chart & Compass magazine in 1879. It was filled with stories of patronage from not only the British royal family but also further afield, including Czar Alexander III of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.
The Italian connection was well established by the this time – Genoa was home to a busy and active Sailors’ Rest and Institute that had been set up in 1871 with the support of Giuseppe Garibaldi, a former sailor and the architect of the reunification of Italy.
Providing welfare and education opportunities have been key tenets for Sailors’ Society throughout its history.
In 1902, the charity founded the King Edward VII Nautical School for ‘hardy and heroic sons of the sea’.
In the next blog, read about one of the school’s former pupils, who was lost in the tragic sinking of Titanic.