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Seamen’s Christian Friend Society

The Seamen’s Christian Friend Society (1848) had its origins in the ‘Thames Revival’ which emerged among common seamen around the Port of London on the final years of the Napoleonic wars.

Bethel Union Society (1819) 

British and Foreign Seamen's Friend Society (1822) 

Thames Waterman's Friend Society (1822) 

Danish-Norwegian Church re-launched as the London Mariners' Church (1825) 

These societies have their origins in the ‘Thames Revival’ which emerged among common seamen around the Port of London in the final years of the Napoleonic wars. They can also be associated, at least initially, with the preaching of the Rev. G.C. ‘Boatswain’ Smith. Smith’s genius was to recognize the needs of the labouring poor in marine industries, and to seek out ways to publicize their cause and create voluntary enterprises to support them. These included religious services, tracts and publications to reflect the sailor’s needs and interests, educational provision, temperance advocacy, and homes and accommodation for sailors and their families, including orphans. 

In quick succession, and with very little adequate organisation and funding, Smith founded the Thames Waterman's Friend Society (1822), the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum for Boys (1823) and The Mariners' Church (1825), which emerged from the former Danish-Norwegian Church. 

Most of these activities were precarious and, in the case of Smith’s work with vulnerable children, liable to charges of exploitation. The children were used as part of Smith’s regular preaching tours. They would be dressed as soldiers and sailors and brought forward to sing hymns prior to appeals for funds. Smith was frequently in debt and was arrested four times for failing to pay salaries or the maintenance of his many charitable enterprises. Parting ways with Smith, the Bethel Union merged with the Port of London Society in 1833 to the rejoicing of pious seamen, including James Cowie (1836).

The Mariners' Church closed in 1845 following the usual financial difficulties that stalked Smith’s many maritime ventures. It was put on a more secure foundation by the Rev. George Teil Hill (b.1818), a former tailor who was a friend of Smith's who decided to found a Society of his own, with more accountability and, hopefully, longevity.

Printed advertisement for the Seamen's Christian Friend Society in 1868

Directory Entry for the Seamen's Christian Friend Society in 1868 (Directory 1868: 37).

Hill led the Seamen’s and Soldier’s Evangelical Friend Society, which first met on 14 January 1846. Two years later it changed its name to the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society (SCFS), and remains active until the present. G.T. Hill was succeeded by his son, Rev. George John Hill, who was secretary for 60 years from 1886 to 1946.

The Society was characterised by its hearty, practical Christianity, which was conducted from its headquarters in the Seamen's Chapel and Free Reading Room, at 215, 216 & 217 St. George's Street, in London's dockland. Their large hall could accomodate 500, in addition to 200 in their 'small' room, and more in the library (Milne 2016: 167). At the twelfth annual meeting in June 1858, the missionary George M. Murphy stated: 'He rejoiced that the sailor had friends; he needed friendship, and in this Society he had the best of all friendship, - the friendship of Christianity (SCFS 1858).'

A significant element of the Society's work involved contact with foreign seamen, who were willing to accept tracts on temperance and other topics, and other marine workers. Hill reported on the range of the Society's activities, which included Bethel services on board ships and in the Seamen's chapel, which were attended by 7,140 seamen, as well as dock labourers, pilots, tide-waiters, boatmen and soldiers. There were visits to lodging houses, boarding houses and sailors homes, where tracts were distributed. Educational outreach included lectures as well as addresses on temperance, Sunday and day schools. 

While never on the same scale as the British and Foreign Sailor Society or the Missions to Seamen, the SCFS slowly expanded, establishing insitutes in regional ports, especially on the west coast. 

Despite the frequent and complex changes of name and orientation, the SCFS has maintained a consistent practical and educational outreach to marine workers and their families across the rivers, seas and ports. Like other charities which trace their origins to the  Rev. G.C. Smith , it was favoured by dissenting Protestants, especially Baptists and Congregationalists, and welcoming to sailors of every nation.




BFSFS 1826. British & Foreign Seamen's Friend Society [BFSFS], and Bethel Union, A Retrospect: or The Seventh Annual Report of the Proceedings of the British & Foreign Seamen's Friend Society, and Bethel Union (London: BFSFS). 

Cowie, James. 1836. Origins of 'Ship Prayer Meetings and Retropsect of an Old Bethel Captain'. The Pilot, 153-156.

Kverndal, Roald. 1986. Seamen's Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth (Passadena, Calif.: William Carey)

Milne, George. 2016. People, Place and Power on the Nineteenth-century Waterfront: Sailortown (ebook: Palgrave).

SCFS 1858. 'Seamen's Christian Friend Society', The British Standard, 1 June 1858.

Directory 1868. The People's Directory to the Charities of London (London: np)


The History of the SCFS. (Accessed 7 November 2023) 

Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Seamen’s Christian Friend Society' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 25 June 2024