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Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. PAH8470.  (CC BY-NC-ND)
Port of London
1818
British Sailors
Missions

Port of London Society

The Port of London Society (PLS) was founded in London following a meeting held at the City of London Tavern on Thursday 5 February 1818, ‘to consider the best means for affording religious instruction to British Seamen while in the port of London’.

Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. PAH8470.  (CC BY-NC-ND)

The Port of London Society for Promoting the Religious Instruction of British Seamen (PLS) was founded in London following a meeting held at the City of London Tavern on Thursday 5 February 1818, ?to consider the best means for affording religious instruction to British Seamen while in the port of London?. It was supported by dissenting laypeople, mostly Baptists and Congregationalists, including businesses engaged in maritime commerce in and from the London docks. The lead was taken initially by Robert Humphrey Marten (1763-1839), businessman, friend of William Wilberforce, supporter of the Royal Humane Society, and director of several marine enterprises including the Thames Tunnel, and the East London Water Company. Marten is named as 'founder and treasurer' of the Society in the print illustrated below.

Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. PAH8470.  (CC BY-NC-ND)

Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. PAH8470.  (CC BY-NC-ND)

The PLS was the main institutional reflection of the grass-roots ?Thames Revival? which emerged out of the earlier ?Naval Awakening?. Prayer meetings were led and encouraged by sailors of all ranks, with little apparent elite encouragement. A Methodist layman, Zebedee Rogers (c. 1744-1833), was significant in nurturing the movement from its origins among pious seamen, many serving on colliers in London's Lower Pool. Rogers is also credited with mobilising the movement around the Bethel Flag,

The PLS focused its energy on acquiring and outfitting a suitable vessel to serve as a floating chapel for services and as a symbol of the revival. Following a successful funding campaign, the PLS purchased a former frigate,  HMS Speedy and undertook its refurbishment. On 4 May 1818, the floating chapel was a reality, moored near the Wapping Old Stairs and with space for 700 hearers. Claim and counter claim about who was chiefly responsible for the floating chapel were exchanged between the official PLS Committee (PLS 1829), and the unofficial, but vocal and omnipresent Smith (British Ark). Smith soon severed his connection with the LMS and lost control of its journal, the Sailor?s Magazine which he had founded and edited.  He also fell out with the Bethel Union, which continued to promote shipboard meetings under the Bethel Flag, not just in London but throughout Britain and the world. 

With the departure of Smith, the LMS expanded its work to include a mission to orphaned children of sailors, Sunday School and educational outreach, and attempts to control sailors? dependence on alcohol.  

In 1827, the Port of London and the Bethel Union Societies merged. From 1833, as The British and Foreign Sailor?s Society, it became the dominant vehicle for the expanding missions to seamen movement among dissenting Protestants.  

The Sailor?s Society, based in Southampton, recognizes both the Port of London Society and the Rev. G.C. Smith as founders and precursor of the modern Society.

References

Blake, Richard. 2014. Religion in the British Navy, 1815-1879 (Woodbridge: Boydell)

Kverndal, Roald. 1996. Seamen's Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth (Pasadena: William Carey)

Miller, R. W. H. 2012. One Firm Anchor: The Church and the Merchant Seafarer, An Introductory History (Cambridge: Lutterworth) 

PLS. 1829. An Appeal to the Public, Being an Answer to the Misrepresentations and Calumnies of the Rev. G.C. Smith against the Port of London Society and Bethel Union (London: Frederick Westley & A. H. Davis).

Smith, n.d. The British Ark; Being a Brief Narrative of Facts, Leading, by Divine Providence, to an Attempt to Obtain a Floating Place of Worship for the Use of Religious Seamen in the Port of London. By a Minister of the Everlasting Gospel; Once in the Humble Station of a Cabin Boy (London: Ford Cox).

 

Resources

’Our History’ - Sailors' Society https://sailors-society.org/sailors-societys-fledgling-years (Accessed 11 October 2023). 

Port of London Society for Promoting the Religious Instruction of British Seamen, Minutes, 1818-1828. Sailor Society Archives, Southampton. 

Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Port of London Society' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914, https://mar.ine.rs/stories/port-of-london-society-for-promoting-the-religious-instruction-of-british-seamen/
Retrieved 22 February 2024