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British Sailors

During the 1800s, British sailors, along with many European sailors from Scandinavia and the Baltic, were essential to Britain's marine industries. Despite facing dangerous working conditions, language and cultural challenges, these seafarers significantly contributed to Britain's maritime dominance in a time of booming coastal and global trade and exploration.

Source: Henry Herbert La Thangue, A Mission to Seamen (1891), Nottingham City Museums & Galleries. 

Britain emerged as the world’s leading maritime empire in the late eighteenth century. The Royal Navy and the Merchant Marine were integral to its imperial supremacy. The Royal Navy employed British seamen who provided invaluable service in conquering territory, securing new markets, safeguarding trade routes, and constructing a national and imperial identity. Merchant seamen, who worked in the commercial fleet of cargo and passenger ships, were a vital resource for their role in putting the policies of mercantilism and free trade into operation and enriching the empire.

Historians have acknowledged that these seamen’s impact on British imperialism extended beyond defence. As historian Stephen Gray (2018) has argued, they influenced ‘labour forces, indigenous societies, imperial networks, and imaginations of empire.’ These seamen constituted a wide variety of professionals such as mates, midshipmen, quartermasters, boatswains, able and ordinary sailors, apprentices, surgeons, stewards, cooks, carpenters, sailmakers, engineers, firemen, and stokers, not to mention ship commanders and officers, and even fishing professionals.

In spite of their important role, seamen were poorly paid and had the reputation of being rootless, often violent, promiscuous, and dipsomaniac. Their wild and noncommittal character entrenched itself so deeply in popular imagination that many accounts of maritime life, fictional and nonfictional, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries described them as inveterate troublemakers. Usually conscripted at a young age from working class households, forced into the hostile environment of ships and unknown regions, and given irregular wages and low-quality food, the sailor was an endangered and often disgruntled person.

This strand will examine the role of maritime religious missions and charities who sought to improve the moral and material wellbeing of British seamen and their families. Its primary focus will be the work of charitable institutions in Bristol, Hull, Liverpool and London in the nineteenth century.


Gray, Steven. 2018. Introduction. In: Steam Power and Sea Power: Coal, the Royal Navy, and the British Empire, c. 1870-1914 (London: Palgrave Macmillan). 

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

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

Citation for this article

Manikarnika Dutta, 'British Sailors' 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.