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Although charities and almshouses for distressed sailors have existed since the middle ages in British ports, marine missions expanded rapidly in the 19th century in line with the growth of Britain's marine workforce.  Dissenters led the way but all churches developed missions that provided moral and temporal support for sailors ashore and afloat.

Philanthropic organisations for sailors were a regular feature of ports and harbours well before the nineteenth century. The movement to create national institutions to cater specifically for their physical and spiritual needs was one outcome of the 'Thames Revival' which began in 1814.

Dissenting preachers and pious laymen around the port of London held the first meetings, eventually coalescing around two rival groups. The Port of London Society (PLS) launched the first floating chapel, while the Bethel flag united the many organisations associated with the Rev. G.S. Smith. Both groups merged to form the British and Foreign Sailor's Society (BFSS) in July 1833. This society aimed to enhance the spiritual and moral well-being of sailors, helping them navigate the moral complexities and isolation of seafaring life.

The Church of England was slower to act, though by 1825 the Episcopal Floating Chapel was moored on The Thames. The Bristol Channel Mission and the Thames Church Mission were incorporated into the Missions to Seamen (MTS) in 1856. The MTS provided religious services to sailors afloat, later extended to port-based chaplaincies around the world. It also advocated for improved safety standards and fair treatment, shaping early maritime labour laws.

Others marine missions followed. The Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, established in 1881, focused specifically on the welfare of fishermen working in hazardous conditions in the North Sea and beyond. The Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners' Royal Benevolent Society, established in 1839, provided critical support to shipwreck survivors and offered assistance to the families of those lost at sea.

Catholic services were slowest to develop, though the St Vincent de Paul Society began visiting Catholic seamen in the ports of Bristol, Sunderland and Tyneside in 1901.

These organisations together significantly contributed to maritime welfare during the 19th century. Their collective legacy endures today in continued efforts to support the wellbeing of seafarers.


Atkinson,  Justine. 2020. '‘On Their Own Element’: Nineteenth-Century Seamen’s Missions and Merchant Seamen’s Mobility', in Empire and Mobility in the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. by David Lambert and Peter Merriman (Manchester: Manchester University Press).

Kennerley, Alston. 1989. 'British Seamen's Missions and Sailors Homes 1815 to 1970: Voluntary Welfare Provision for Serving Seafarers' (unpublished dissertation: University of Plymouth).

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

Citation for this article

Hilary Carey, 'Missions' Mariners: Race, Religion and Empire in British Ports 1801-1914,
Retrieved 25 June 2024

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Hasaam Latif explores adverse conditions faced by lascars in British ports and depections of the 'Shivering Lascar'.

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

1782 - 1863

Marine missions and charities in relation to Bristol's floating harbour 

1800 - 1899
Rev. John Ashley (1801-1886)

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

1801 - 1886

William Henry Giles Kingson, who published as W.H.G. Kingston, was a successful writer of novels and adventure stories for boys promoting Christian hardiness. He was the main motivating force behind the creation of the first national church mission to seamen, the Anglican Missions to Seamen, now the Mission to Seafarers. 

1814 - 1880

The Merchant Seamen's Bible Society was founded in 1818 to supply British merchant ships with copies of scripture.

1818 - 1832
Source: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. PAH8470.  (CC BY-NC-ND)

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’.


Joseph Salter was one of the most prolific missionaries and writers to address ‘Asiatics’ in nineteenth-century Britain.

1822 - 1899

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.

Episcopal Floating Church, London.  

The Episcopal Floating Chapel Society was the first attempt by the Church of England to provide a maritime church in the Port of London. 

1829 - 1846
Hull seaman and orphan asylum

Working seamen lived dangerous and peripatetic lives which left families and dependants unprotected. Orphanages were created to provide opportunities for those left behind.


The Sailors' Home was established in 1837 to protect British seamen from crimping and local drinks that the colonial authorities considered pernicious for European constitution, and to 'civilise' them so that they would not destablise the ideology of white racial superiority that underpinned British colonialism.

Maharajah Duleep Bassi dressed for a State function, c. 1875, oil painting by Capt. Goldingham of London.

Duleep Singh was the last Maharaja of the Sikh empire. He lived in England for most of his life and provided financial support for the Stranger's Home for Asiatics, Africans and Soutsea Islanders. 

1838 - 1893

The Wesleyan Seamen's Mission opened in 1843. It was succeeded by the grand Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest in 1902.


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.


The Liverpool Sailors' Home operated in Canning Place from December 1850. This establishment provided board and food, and carried out additional responsibilities such as medical assistance, religious instruction, and moral, intellectual and professional improvement opportunities.


The foundation stone for The Strangers’ Home for Asiatics, Africans and South Sea Islanders was laid by Prince Albert on 31 May 1856.

The Mission to Seafarers logo

Mission to Seafarers was established in 1856 as a national Society, incorporating the Bristol Channel Mission and the Thames Church Mission. The Society provided chaplains to serve vessels and seamen afloat and ashore.  


A guide to all the sailors' homes in England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland based on a parliamentary return in 1860.


St Andrew's Waterside Church Mission was a high church mission at Gravesend catering not just for seamen but fishermen and emigrants.

1864 - 1939

The prevalence of drunken seamen had far-reaching social consequences in nineteenth-century Liverpool. The annual reports of the Sailors Home state many seamen signed the temperance pledge but the figure never crossed 20 percent.


The Liverpool Seamen’s Orphan Institute was established in August 1869 in a temporary accommodation in Duke Street. Supported by leading shipowners and philanthropists it provided protection and education for the mercantile marine’s orphaned children.



In 1900, a mission room for lascars was established at Morpeth Docks, liverpool. It was known as 'The Birkenhead Mission to Asiatic Seamen'.


In 1903, a new Japanese Seamen's Home was opened by the Bishop of Osaka at 31 Elizabeth Street, North Woolwich, near the Royal Albert Docks.

1903 - 1920

A Lascar Institute in Birkenhead is mentioned in the annual general meeting minutes of the Mersey Mission to Seamen, held at the Liverpool Record Office. This appears to be a continuation of The Birkenhead Mission to Asiatic Seamen. The minutes first mention the Institute from 1910 and continue up into the 1920s, when a new building was constructed.

1910 - 1923
Finished garments for sailors. Source: Ladies Work for Sailors.

Women have contributed in many significant ways to the work of missions to seafarers. Marine industries were and are isolating and dangerous, and the risks were endured by families at home as well as those at sea. Women and children were associated with marine missions initially as subjects of charity, but by the 20th century they were playing a more assertive role.