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Rev. John Ashley (1801-1886)
Port of Bristol
1801 – 1886

Rev. John Ashley (1801-1886)

Pioneer marine missionary and founding figure for the Bristol Channel Mission and Missions to Seafarers.

Source: Mary L. Walrond. Launching out into the Deep  (London, 1904).

Rev. John Ashley (1801-1886)

Image: Rev. John Ashley (1801-1886), pioneer marine missionary and founding figure for the Bristol Channel Mission.

Early life 

John Ashley was born in Jamaica in 1801 and educated at Dr Maginn's school in Cork, prior to entering Trinity College Dublin in 1820 where he took degrees in Arts and Law, first a BA in 1823, then LLB and LLD in 1832. 

The family enjoyed substantial wealth from their estates in Jamaica exploited by slave labour. While his eldest son was studying law (ordination and ministry came later), John Ashley senior was registered as the owner of the Exeter estate in Jamaica in 1831-33, which in 1836 had 208 enslaved for which the then owner received £3695 11s 2d compensation. As the oldest son, the Rev John Ashley was involved in managing this bequest to the extent that he sought to limit any liability which might arise from the family's emancipated slaves. Under his father's will of 1850 and 'on the request of my sons', he asked to 'release them from any demands … including all claims in respect of the late slaves on the Manningfield Estate and compensation received thereof'. From the 1830s, the family lived in and around Bristol, Bath and Wells, and the west country. 

Shortly after graduating, Ashley married Catherine Ward, third daughter of the late Charles Ward of Merrion Square Dublin and Holly Mount in Queen's County, Ireland. Ashley was ordained in the diocese of Wells, and in December 1828 was working as a curate in Croscombe near Wells. The family kept up their Irish connections, and Ashley accepted a curacy in Killarney. There he worked courageously through the cholera epidemic of 1832-33. On his departure, he was presented with a highly flattering address thanking him for service to the community. 

On his return from Ireland, Ashley moved with his family to Clifton, where his son was born on 30 April 1833. Tragically, his wife died in 1834. He remarried and in 1837 was holidaying in Portishead overlooking the Bristol Channel. From this vantage point he became aware of the isolated communities living on Steep Holm and Flat Holm, and the sailors mooring in the Channel's various roadsteads. Up to 200 or 300 vessels might be seen lying at Pennarth Roads, off Cardiff, or the Mumbles in Swansea Bay, where they might wait many weeks for winds to take them on their way. 

Roadstead mission 

Beginning in 1836, Ashley began an entirely novel mission to seamen waiting on board vessels in the Bristol Channel. Initially he travelled by any available means, but soon decided he needed a vessel to serve as a floating chapel and means of transport. In 1839, he began actively preaching and raising funds through sermons in the towns and cities of Devon and Gloucestershire. On the advice of the bishop of Gloucester and Bristol, the Bristol Channel Mission Society was created to support Ashley's work. Following successful fundraising, Ashley was able to commission the building of a missionary cutter, the Eirene, which was built at Pill and launched in 1841. 

Bristol Channel Mission 

From 1841, Ashley continued as Chaplain to the Bristol Channel Mission, touring with the Eirene, preaching and raising funds for the benefit of merchant seamen. In association with the Merchant Seaman's Bible Society, he distributed bibles and prayer books. He celebrated services on board the Eirene, while promoting the cause of church missions to seamen. Over the next decade or so, Ashley is said to have sold more than 5,000 Bibles and prayer books and visited over 14,000 ships.  

After an energetic start, Ashley's mission, and his relationship with the Bristol Channel Mission Committee, began to unravel. The main issue was that of debt, but also Ashley's inability to work with the Committee, and support the increasing demands for service to seamen beyond the Bristol Channel. In 1851, Ashley embarked on a private fund-raising tour, preaching and accepting funds for the Bristol Channel Mission. This culminated in London, where in July 1853, Ashley spoke for three hours at a meeting chaired by Lord Shaftesbury.  

Unfortunately for Ashley, it was not possible to sustain the mission he had founded without a strong and financially viable organisation behind him. Following painful exchanges about the ownership of the Eirene, and his salary, the Bristol Channel Mission accepted Ashley's resignation. The mission was then absorbed in a new national missionary society, the Anglican Missions to Seamen, founded in 1856. 

Ashley died in 1886 and continues to be remembered as a founder of the Missions to Seamen (now Seafarers).  


Bristol Channel Mission Committee Book, Bristol Archives. 

Bath Chronicle; Bristol Mercury and Daily Post; Limerick Chronicle, 9 August 1834. 

Missions to Seafarers Archives, Hull History Centre.

Miller, R.W.H. 2017. Dr Ashley's Pleasure Yacht: John Ashley, the Bristol Channel mission and all that followed (London).

Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Rev. John Ashley (1801-1886)' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 25 June 2024