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Joseph Walter. Shipping in the Bristol Channel, 1837. BHC1194 National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. 

The Bristol Channel is a hazardous waterway with a mean spring tide of 12.2 metres. In the age of sail, this meant that shipping was forced to wait on wind and tide. While artists found the scene dramatic and picturesque, it was a challenging place to work.


Joseph Walter (1783-1856), Merchant shippping in the Bristol Channel, off the mouth of the Avon, 1837. National Maritime Museum


A mission to the roadsteads of the Bristol Channel was initiated by the Rev. John Ashley while holidaying on the Channel and observing the nearly islands of Steep Holm and Flat Holm. In 1836, he began visiting isolated communities on the Bristol Channel islands, and later extended this work to the seamen afloat in the hundreds of vessels moored at roadsteads waiting for suitable winds. 

From 1839, Ashley was identified as the ‘chaplain of the Channel Mission’, and was preaching regularly to promote the cause of the merchant seamen and to raise funds to acquire a suitable boat to serve as a floating chapel. 

Bristol Channel Mission, 1840-1857 

A formal society was established to support Ashley on the advice of the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol.

By 1840, Ashley and his supporters had raised sufficient funds to commission the building of a missionary cutter, the Eirene (Peace) at Pill. The Eirene was launched, ‘under the sole charge of the captain of the vessel, William Poole’, with Ashley serving as chaplain. In May, the Bristol Mercury reported that, despite its small size (45 tons) it was complete in every way, with a library, space for services, and seaman-like equipment. The Eirene cruised the British Channel in the summer months, regularly mooring in the larger and smaller ports and roadsteads so that the chaplain could distribute bibles and tracts, and hold services. 

An etching of the cutter in full sail.

The Missions to Seamen Cutter. Source: Mary Walrond, Launching out into the Deep (London: SPCK, 1904). 

The one remaining Minute Book of the Bristol Channel Mission indicates that the relationship between Ashley and the Committee was fraught.  Ashley demanded that the captain of the Eirene be replaced, and refused to accept their financial oversight of the mission. As the Society fell into debt, it also failed to secure sufficient funding from voluntary collections to pay the chaplain or the ongoing repairs needed to keep the Eirene afloat. 

Ashley did his best to personally raise funds for the mission, but the need was greater than he was able to support. 

In 1857, a final public meeting declared that the BCM would be merging with a new national Church Society for seamen, the Missions to Seamen.  The Bristol Channel Mission is recognised as one of the two missions who combined to form the Missions to Seamen, the other being the Thames Church Mission. 



Bristol Channel Mission, Minute Book, 1843-1844. Bristol Archives, 12168/18 


Bristol Channel Mission, Bristol Mercury, 6 June 1840 

Bristol Chanel Mission, Bristol Mercury, 30 April 1842 

Bristol Channel Seaman’s Mission, Southampton Herald, 6 December 1851 

Dr Ashley and the Bristol Channel Mission, Southampton Herald, 10 January 1852 

Mission to British Seamen, Morning Chronicle, 11 June 1853 

Bristol Channel Mission, Bristol Mercury, 5 July 1856 

Missions to Seamen, Bristol Mercury, 24 October 1857 

Secondary Sources 

Miller, R.W.H. 2017. Dr Ashley’s Pleasure Yacht: John Ashley, the Bristol Channel Mission and All that followed. (Cambridge,Lutterworth Press).

Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Bristol Channel Mission Society' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 22 February 2024