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Sailors’ Homes

London Sailors' Home

The London Sailors’ Home was the first short-stay, purpose-built home for sailors, and it set the model for scores of others that followed in British and colonial port cities.

The Sailors’ Home of 1830-35, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

The London Sailors' Home in Well Street, London Docks, initially known as the Brunswick Maritime Establishment, was founded in 1828 at the instigation of pious naval officers, led by Captain Robert James Elliott (1790-1849), Admiral G.C. Gambier and Lt. R. Justice. The Home was a new idea, that of providing serviceable accommodation for working sailors of all nations, freeing them from predations of crimps and pimps who kept the sailor in debt, in drink and unable to advance in their profession. The prevailing ethos was Evangelical and Anglican, but from the beginning it was open to sailors of all convictions.

The Home was built on the site of the Royal Brunswick Theatre in Well Street which collapsed in February 1828, killing thirteen people. At a meeting in January 1829, it was reported that sufficient funds had been raised to purchase the freehold of the site, and to begin planning for a new institution which might include an employment registry, a distressed sailors’ refuge, and even what was called a 'sea boys rendezvous'. Among other speakers, the Rev. G.C. Smith (1762-1863), expressed the need for the Home in stark terms,  detailing ‘the various hardships, trials, temptations and systematic robbery, to which poor sailors are universally subject on their landing from a voyage, & mixing [with] the crimps, thieves, and prostitutes, who are continually on the look-out for them on their coming ashore.' Outright destitution was also an ongoing problem in the wake of the ending of the French wars, as well as the needs of shipwrecked sailors, and their wives and families (Morning Chronicle, 9 January 1829). Smith's (1828) account of the disaster gives extended and exagerrated importance to his own leadership of the rescue and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Sailors’ Home of 1830-35, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives.

The Home was  designed by architect  Philip Hardwick and opened in 1835 with accommodation for 100 seamen. Over the next fifty years, it was enlarged several times, eventually filling the entire block from Well Street to Dock Street. It included a branch office for the payment of wages by shipping companies, which displaced the crimping system, a savings bank, religious and medical services. Another important service was a post office, so that sailors whether abroad or at home could have an address to which their mail might be forwarded.  

Religious services were integral to the Home, as specified in the first anniversary report (1830). This proposed that 'the men should be subjected to as little restraint as possible', while also requiring attendance at morning and evening prayers, no swearing or inebrity, improper language, or quarreling, and that 'no spirits would be allowed to enter the doors'. Religious services would be 'according to the doctrines of the Church of England', with one evening a week set aside for preaching. Whether attendance was complied with is uncertain but daily prayers were conducted in the Mission Hall at 7:30 am and 9:30 pm, special prayer sessions and addresses on Tuesday and Friday evenings at 7 o'clock, and divine service at the Episcopal Floating Chapel, and later in St Paul’s Church for Seamen (1846), another project of Captain Robert Elliot. These religious activities and services were aimed at providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the sailors residing at or associated with the Sailors' Home. For those who believed differently, there were alternatives, including the dissenting chapel and sailors' home built by the philanthropist George Green at 133 East India Dock Road. 


Advertisement for Annual Meeting of the Sailors’ Home, Destitute Sailors’ Asylum and Episcopal Floating Church, Navy & Military Gazette, 15 May 1841, p. 16.


The Home was primarily intended for short-term stay by able seamen between voyages, but it was just one of a network of institutions in the Well Street and Dock Street area. Those unable to work could find food and limited accommodation at the Destitute Sailors’ Asylum (1827) in Dock Street, and all could attend divine service. None were racially segregated, though coloured seamen were less likely to be able to afford to stay at the Home.  As the reputation of the Home grew, annual boarder numbers increased significantly from 528 in the first year to 3,833 in 1842 and 8,617 in 1861. It accommodated sailors of various origins, with most being of British or North American descent. However, by 1862, there were 544 boarders from Africa. It attracted more than 10,000 boarders annually. While the Sailors' Home provided ale, there was no bar on the premises. Rooted in a moderate Christian foundation, it aspired to encourage habits of decorum, economy, and self-cultivation among the sailors. It aimed to contribute to the education of seamen as missionaries of commerce to different parts of the world. This reflected the institution's commitment to not only providing physical shelter but also nurturing the personal and professional development of the sailors under its care. 

Henry Mayhew provided a detailed description of the Home in a letter for the Morning Chronicle, first published on Thursday, 11 April 1850. Many of the dormitories were donated by the merchants and shipowners, but also 'benevolent persons unconnected with the trade’, including Queen Adelaide, the late Queen Dowager, who had given £420 for this purpose. The atmosphere, according to Mayhew, was one of friendship and homeliness, with nothing that resembled naval discipline or rank. It was naturally spotlessly clean. For board and lodging, each man paid 2s. per day or 14s. per week, while boys paid 12s a week, for the same food. The chaplain, the Rev. Charles Besley Gribble (1807-1878)  provided a card to every apprentice with this message: "I entreat you, my dear young friends, to use the means for improvement which are now within your touch. Do not laugh at them; do not neglect them. By using them rightly you will be useful, honoured, and blessed; and in godliness, temperance, and purity, you will find peace, happiness, and honour. - Your faithful friend and pastor, C. B. GRIBBLE." (Mayhew 1850). Gribble’s kindness and concern for the young sailor was reflected in a life of remarkable adventurousness and Christian service (Peach ODNB). Gribble’s father had served as a captain in the East India Company and throughout China and the South Seas. Gribble studied at Christ’s College Cambridge, then served as a missionary with the SPG in the diocese of Toronto. Besides his chaplaincy at the Sailors’ Home, Gribble  was the first minister of St Paul’s Church for Seamen, from 1847 to 1858. He was subsequently Embassy Chaplain in Constantinople.

Shipwrecked sailors could also find shelter at the Home. In 1849, Gribble himself made an appeal on behalf of two Islanders, who had been kidnapped by a South Sea whaler in 1846 to 1847 and, after forcing them to work, abandoned them without pay or provisions on a remote island (Daily Southern Cross 1849). At the Sailors’ Home, Gribble seems to have taken responsibility for trying to ensure they were not returned home empty handed. The ship's owner had at least agreed to take them as far as New Zealand. It is possibly one of these visitors who was recalled by the Secretary of the Home, referring to the saloon which included a small book shelf which contained Scriptures in ‘almost every known languages'. 'Not long since,' the Secretary told Mayhew, 'a New Zealander might be seen sitting by the fire there, reading the New Testament in his native tongue.'  (Mayhew 1850)


The Sailors' Home, Well Street, & Dock Street. Source: UCL Survey of London. 


The Sailors' Home was fully integrated into the London maritime labour exchange, and soon largely replaced the informal crimping system. From 1851 to 1873, the Mercantile Marine Office was in the Sailors’ Home itself, and from 1895 it was in the building next door. The Home also facilitated the examination and granting of Certificates of Competency as Mate and Master by the London Local Marine Board. It was in this capacity that the novelist Joseph Conrad visited the Sailors' Home in Well Street, and other Homes across the world (Kennerley 2008).

Sailors' institutions in the Dock Street to Wellclose Square area. Source: Kennerley 2008, fig.2.


The continued usefulness of the Home idea is reflected in the very long-term use of the site, which continues to provide hostel accommodation today. The Victorian buildings have long since been demolished but show the way that Sailors' Homes served the itinerant working community of London’s docks, and the needs of marine industry for almost 200 years.





Daily Southern Cross 5.248 (13 November 1849), p. 2. LInk

Davies, John. 1968. Sailor’s Homes: Their Origin and Progress (London: Savill, Edwards & Co.). 

Kennerley, Alston. 2008. 'Joseph Conrad at the London Sailors’ Home', The Conradian, 33, 69-102.

Mayhew, Henry. 1850. Letter XLVII, The Morning Chronicle, 11 April. Dictionary of Victorian London

Morning Chronicle, 9 January 1829. LInk

Peach, Annette. 2004. ‘Elliot, Robert James’. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.)  2004. (accessed 22 Nov. 2023).

Report read at the meeting of the Sailors' home, or Brunswick Maritime Establishment, held at the Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street. On Tuesday, May the 18th, 1830. London, 1830. Google Books

Smith, G.C. 1828. Dreadful Catastrophe: Desturciton of the Brunswick Theatre (London: Robins) 


'East India Dock Road, North side: Nos 1-301 (and Nos 2-50)' in Survey of London: Volumes 43 and 44, Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London), pp. 127-147. British History Online

St George-in-the-East Church (Accessed 21 November 2023)

UCL Survey of London, 19 April 2019.

Citation for this article

Manikarnika Dutta, Hilary Carey, 'London Sailors' Home' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 22 February 2024