Skip to main content
Port of London
1782 – 1863
Biographies

Rev. George Charles ‘Boatswain’ Smith

A profile of G.C. Smith, known as ‘Boatswain’ Smith, the most celebrated of all pioneer marine missionaries.

Rev. G.C. Smith of Penzance. Mezzotint by Abraham Wivell, 1819. NPG D4265 National Portrait Gallery. Creative Common Licence. 

The Rev. George Charles Smith, known as 'Boatswain' Smith, was born in London in 1782. Famous in his own day, Kverndal (2004, 2012) and Boase (1898; 1976) have celebrated his life, though without critical reflection on his strengths and weaknesses for the marine mission movement.

Smith was a remarkable man, though possibly no more so than others who lived through the French wars and subsequently entered the dissenting ministry. In 1796, Smith was pressed into the royal navy while serving as apprentice on an American vessel. The rise and fall of Napoleon created opportunities for ordinary seamen, and Smith became first midshipman, then master's mate and served in Nelson's navy at the battle of Copenhagen (1801). As master’s mate, Smith was responsible to the master for the navigation of the ship, and therefore had the dignity of a senior petty officer with wardroom rank (Lavery 1989: 10).

Mezzotint of Rev. G.C. Smith of Penzance by Abraham Wivell, 1819, from the National Portrait Gallery

Rev. G.C. Smith of Penzance. Mezzotint by Abraham Wivell, 1819. NPG D4265 National Portrait Gallery. Creative Common Licence. 

On leaving the navy in 1803 and experiencing a religious conversion, Smith trained for the Baptist ministry with the Rev. Isaiah Birt (1758-1837) and began itinerant preaching to sailors in the Devon port towns of Plymouth, Dartmouth and Brixham. After his ordination in 1807, he moved to Cornwall where he built an independent Baptist circuit of six chapels in and around Penzance. From 1803 to 1825, and 1848 to 1863, he was minister of the Jordan Baptist Chapel in Penzance (Boase 1898), though his return in 1848 was violently resisted by some members of the congregation (Boase 1976: 73).

Smith supplemented his shore-based ministry with itineracy, including open-air, preaching. In 1814, he travelled with the army in Spain as a voluntary chaplain. The same year, Smith was attracted to opportunities for dissenting ministry in London, where a grass roots revival was taking place among sailors and other marine industry workers on the Thames.

Smith was not an effective organiser, was imprisoned for debt on more than one occasion, and did relatively little to sustain the many marine enterprises which were claimed by him or attributed to him by others. He was a very effective publicist, and his main contribution to many causes was to build enthusiasm and donations based on his charismatic preaching. His less credible activities included the co-option of children, dressed as sailors and soldiers, whom he used to support his preaching and fund-raising tours (Boase 1976: 72-73). Perhaps uncritically, Kverndal (2004 and 2012) clears him of every suspicion that he was motivated by personal gain. Boase (1976: 71) states that 'he never made any money or saved any money', while giving Smith the benefit of the doubt that his creative fund raising was entirely without self-interest. Yet Smith’s appeal on behalf of the Isles of Scilly (Smith 1828), was the first of many accusations of misappropriation or mismanagement of funds which hovered over almost over his many ventures.

Smith's genius was to recognise the need and opportunity for philanthropic support for sailors and their families, separate from those targeted more generally at the 'deserving poor'. Sailors were different, Smith argued, because they had earned the respect and generosity of the British people through their service in time of war and peace.

The first floating chapel was organised and funded by the Port of London Society, not by Smith, who soon fell out with them over this issue and control of the Sailor's Magazine, which Smith edited (PLS 1829). Smith declared this entirely sensible action a malicious act intended to injure himself and his family (Smith 1827). Smith was successful in generating enthusiasm for floating chapels in other ports, though again he did little to make them a reality or keep them afloat. These include floating chapels in Hull, created by the Port of Hull Society, and similar projects in Belfast, Bristol, Liverpool and elsewhere, some led by dissenters, others by the established church.

Besides the floating chapels, Boase (1898) and Kverndal (2004) gives credit to Smith with founding the Bethel Union Society (1819) and the Liverpool Seamen's Friend Society and Bethel Union (1821); the Thames Waterman's Friend Society (1822); the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum for Boys (1823); the Shipwrecked and Distressed Sailors' Family Fund, now the Shipwrecked Mariners' and Fishermen's Society (1824, a destitute sailors' asylum in Dock Street (1828), a sailor's home in Well Street (1829), and a Maritime Penitent Young Woman's Refuge (1830). In London, he re-named the Danish Church, Wellclose Square, founding the London Mariners’ Church (1825) as well as pioneering temperance work among soldiers and sailors.

Most of these activities were short-lived in the form devised by Smith, and were soon taken over by other, more organised administrators. Smith generated enthusiasm for the mariner's cause through his numerous publications, which capture what Kverndal (2012) called his 'breezy, briny style'. Of his more than eighty publications, Boase (1878) notes that almost all are tracts and small books, while his most significant outlet was the Sailor's Magazine which he edited from 1820 to 1827, until the copyright was wrested from him. Undaunted, he launched the New Sailor's Magazine which continued from 1827 to 1863.. He wrote effectively on the themes of temperance, religious revival, the national importance of the merchant marine, and the need to support marine families on shore as well as the sailor afloat. He also wrote relentlessly against those who intervened to rescue his ventures, especially the Port of London Society, which took over the copyright of the Sailor's Magazine, which he founded, as well as the Port of London Floating Chapel, which he consistently claimed, falsely, to have founded.

Relatively few of Smith's letters have survived, but on 19 August 1835, he wrote to Thomas Chalmers, advising him to 'devote your attention to the state of the poorest, the meanest, and the vilest of the Population of Edinburgh, remembering how much your Divine Master sought out the poor, preached to the poor, and dispensed mercy to the most depraved.' (Smith 1835). This gives a flavour for Smith’s sympathies and his courage in advocating for those in the lowest rank of society. It is probably also significant that Chalmers does not appear to have bothered to reply.

Smith had the capacity to inspire great affection from his admirers, friends and family. His energy, even in old age, was prodigious. In 1861, at the age of eighty he undertook a preaching tour to America, visiting New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Salem (Boase 1898). Although always in need of funds, he did much to elevate the mission to the poor sailor both locally and globally. He died in poverty in Penzance in 1863; thousands attended his funeral.

References

Boase, G.C. 1976. Reminiscences of Penzance by George Clement Boase (1829-1897). Reprinted from the 'Cornishman' newspaper, Penzance, 1883-84 (Penzance: Penzance Old Cornwall Society) Link 

Boase, G.C. 1878. Collectanea cornubiensia: a collection of biographical and topographical notes relating to the county of Cornwall, vol. 2. (London, 1878), pp. 664-669. Internet archive [Bibliography of Smith’s publications] 

Boase, G.C. 1898. 'Smith, George (1831-1895)', in Dictionary of National Biography (London: Smith Elder)

Kverndall, Roald. 1986. Seamen's Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth (Pasadena, California: William Carey). 

Kverndal, Roald. 2012. George Charles Smith of Penzance: From Nelson sailor to mission pioneer (Pasadena, Calilfornia: William Carey)

Kverndal, Roald.  2004. 'Smith, George Charles [called Boatswain Smith] (1782–1863)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 

Lavery, Brian. 1989. Nelson's Navy: the Ships, Men and Organisation (Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press)

Port of London Society [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, parts i. and ii,  (PLS: London). 

Smith. G.C. 1827. Injustice and cruelty or a brief history of the Sailor’s Magazine and a statement of the proceedings of the Port of London and Bethel Union Society in wresting the copyright from the late editor and withholding the payment of £100 to the great injury of himself and family (London: Wakefield) 

Smith, G.C. 1819. The prose and poetical works of the Rev. G. C. Smith. (Cox: London) [Collection of 21 tracts, originally printed separately] 

Smith, G.C. 1820. Tarbucket, or the humble petition of the Bethel Union society in the year 1820 and the dignified reply of the Port of London society to that prayer. By Capsicum, [pseud, i,e, G. C. Smith]. (Wakefield: London). 

Smith, G.C. 1828. The Scilly Islands, and the Famine occasioned by the legal prevention of smuggling with France. (London: np) Google Books

Smith, G.C. 1835. 'Edinburgh's Guilty Avenues: To the Reverend Dr. Chalmers’, 19 August 1835. CHA 4.243.5, New College Edinburgh. New College Librarian  

Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Rev. George Charles ‘Boatswain’ Smith' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914, https://mar.ine.rs/stories/rev-george-charles-boatswain-smith-1782-1863/
Retrieved 22 February 2024