Our History

Titanic, the Great War and our centenary

With Sailors’ Society’s centenary on the horizon, tragedy struck when Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912.

Sixth officer James Paul Moody was the only junior officer to die in the disaster. Despite repeated invitations to board a lifeboat, he chose to help others and went down with the ship.

Two years later, Europe was engulfed in horror with the beginning of the Great War, and the Society worked tirelessly to support seafarers affected by the conflict.

Unrestricted submarine warfare led to heavy merchant navy losses and in 1917 alone, Sailors’ Society supported 23,000 seafarers from torpedoed vessels.

These included the three survivors of the SS Belgian Prince, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat while travelling from Liverpool to the United States on a trade mission.

The crew were ordered to board the submarine’s deck and told to take off their lifebelts, which were then kicked overboard or destroyed.

The submarine then dived underwater - leaving 38 men on deck to drown.

That same year, the hospital ship Rewa was attacked in the Bristol Channel and one of our workers Reverend James helped organise support efforts for the survivors in Wales.

He said: “This occurrence has emphasised tremendously to the people of this town and district the realities of the dangerous and hazardous occupations of our seafaring men.

“Many onlookers were seen to weep bitterly as the patients were brought through our streets.”

The Chart & Compass archives are full of stories of merchant seafarers paying the ultimate sacrifice to keep supply chains open during times of conflict.

As well as those affected by crises at sea, Sailors’ Society provided food and clothing to seafarers interred at prisoner of war camps.

In 1918, a grateful mother wrote to thank us for sending a parcel to her son who was imprisoned in Germany.

“We are unable to help our boy, so shall leave him in your kind hands. From my heart, I thank you for all the thought and trouble taken on his and our behalf. It is a great consolation.”

In order to provide such widespread welfare support during the conflict, the charity relied upon the generosity of its supporters.

Lipton’s Tea and Bovril advertised in the 1918 edition of Chart & Compass, the latter’s slogan “You are sure of being nourished if you take Bovril” finding its way onto a number of pages in that year’s magazine.

The Great War didn’t stop Sailors’ Society marking its centenary, with services and meetings at Mansion House, the People’s Palace and a Jutland Day celebration at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 May.

Among those who sent us messages of congratulations were King George V, Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

After the anniversary, it was noted in Chart & Compass, “And now the celebrations are over, but the work goes on. In 50 centres the Society may claim to be in the war zone, and our readers may rest assured that all that human hearts can accomplish for the men of the sea shall be done in the coming years.”

In 1918 the Society opened new rests for seamen in Poole, Southampton, Dartmouth, Limehouse, Aberdour, Preston, Ardrossan, Rosyth, Buncrana, Bristol and Gosport.

Five years later, more than a million seafarers were using the Society’s rests and, with global depression hitting the charity’s coffers, the Prince of Wales launched a special appeal to sustain its good work.

The Society had also been using pieces of Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory to raise funds. Copper and wood from the ship’s hull, which had been donated by the Lords of the Admiralty in 1903, was fashioned into busts, plaques and medals and sold.

In 1924, the charity was able to build the Empire Memorial Hostel at Limehouse, which was opened by one of Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, Princess Marie Louise, so that seafarers could have a “clean and airy” place to stay.

Her involvement was just part of a tradition of royal endorsement and support. King George V – the ‘Sailor King’ – had been patron since 1892 and made regular donations. After he died in 1936, King Edward VIII and, on his abdication, King George VI, continued the royal family’s connection and annual subscription to the Society.


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Delve deeper into our history

Sailors' Society's fledgling years
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Sailors' Society in World War II
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The modern era
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