Our History

The modern era

The beginning of the 1980s heralded an unwanted statistic – according to Chart & Compass, the first year of the new decade was the worst year for shipping losses since the end of World War II.

Responding to tragedy has always been a key part of the Society’s work, and the late 20th century was no exception.

After P&O liner SS Canberra was requisitioned as a troop ship with the onset of the Falklands War in 1982, P&O asked the charity to pull together contingency plans for notifying the next of kin of crew in the event of loss of life. During the conflict, the Society’s chaplains made more than 400 visits to anxious families.

In March 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized in just 90 seconds after setting sail from Zeebrugge, Belgium en route to Dover, claiming 193 lives.

Sailors’ Society honorary chaplain Bill McCrea supported grieving families affected by the disaster.

Bill said, “I’d dealt with many traumatic incidents in my role as a chaplain, but this sudden tragedy and the enormity of it put my pastoral ministry to the test.”

He spent two weeks in the Seafarers’ Centre providing practical and emotional support, and officiated at four funeral services for the victims. On the first anniversary of the disaster, Bill led a memorial service at the request of the families, which Sailors’ Society has repeated every year since.

Tragedy again struck on 3 June 1993 when the British Trent and her cargo of 24,000 tonnes of petrol ignited following a collision with a bulk-carrier in the English Channel.

Nine crew were lost in the disaster and Sailors’ Society chaplains were once again called upon for support.

In 1993, Her Majesty the Queen led the charity’s 175th anniversary service, which was held at Southampton Docks and broadcast on Songs of Praise. A 3,500-strong congregation, which included Prince Andrew, took part with thousands more taking up vantage points around the docks.

"The sea has always been the lifeblood of our world; it ebbs and flows through every chapter of this island’s history. Those who sail it, whether to trade between nations or to protect others ‘upon their lawful occasions’ are men and women of special skills and fortitude. They are above all people who must have the self-reliance to cope with solitude and the deprivation of family life. Their faith is tested much more than for most of us.”

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In November 2013, an incident happened that was to be the catalyst for the Society’s new programme of work supporting seafaring communities in need.

Typhoon Haiyan - one of the most destructive tropical cyclones ever recorded – hit Southeast Asia, killing more than 7,000 people and leaving an estimated $2.8 billion worth of damage.

Sailors’ Society responded to the disaster by raising £225,000 through an emergency appeal and sending trained chaplains to offer practical and emotional support.

2015 was a year of firsts as Sailors’ Society launched its Wellness at Sea coaching programme and its first Crisis Response Centre in South Africa.

We now have a wider Crisis Response Network, which provides a rapid response trauma care and counselling service for survivors of piracy attacks, natural disasters and crises at sea.

On 18 March 2018 we celebrated our 200th birthday. Chaplains and supporters from around the world shared their celebration videos on the Society’s social media platforms as we prepared for our anniversary service in Southwark Cathedral on 24 April.

More than 500 guests attended the service, including His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent, who said: “The charity has been at the forefront of innovative maritime welfare for two centuries and changed many hundreds of thousands of lives for the better.”


Read more stories from our past by purchasing our book

Delve deeper into our history

Sailors' Society's fledgling years
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Titanic, the great war and our centenary
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Sailors' Society in World War II
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