Our History

More than two hundred years ago, a determined group of preachers and laymen pledged to “alleviate the worldly woes” of distressed sailors in London. Their passion for this cause saw the beginnings of the oldest Christian maritime charity in the world.

Click on the buttons below to find out more about Sailors’ Society’s history.

Sailors' Society's fledgling years

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Titanic, the great War and our centenary

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LAGARIE CHILDREN'S HOME, RHU

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SAILORS' SOCIETY IN WORLD WAR II

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The modern era

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  • 1818
  • 1884
  • 1893
  • 1895
  • 1943
  • 1960
  • 1968
  • 1986
  • 1993
  • 2015
  • 2016
  • 2018

1818

Following the Napoleonic Wars, London’s docks were pitched into a period of decline.

Almost overnight, the demand for ships and repairs all but evaporated and although trade and the business of empire kept the wheels of commerce turning, it was simply not enough to protect many sailors’ jobs.

It was a brutal and unforgiving world. By the winter of 1817 - 1818, the economic hardship had reached crisis point as large numbers of unemployed and increasingly desperate seafarers roamed the streets of East London.

This was the world in which sailor-turned-preacher George Charles Smith, pastor of the Octagon Baptist Church in Penzance, cemented his reputation as the Seamen’s Preacher. Provoked by a sign he saw outside a church that proclaimed ‘No Sailors or Prostitutes’, he preached and held itinerant prayer meetings on board ships, signalled by the hoisting of the Bethel flag.

On 18 March 1818, he called a public meeting at the City of London Tavern and the charity was born.

1818

1884

Catherine Gladstone, wife of the then Prime Minister, William Gladstone, opened the Sailors' Bazaar, held at the Town Hall in Kensington on 1 April 1884. His Highness the Khedive of Egypt and many others gave generously to the event. Money raised went towards replenishing the Society's general funds as well as the founding of a special fund to support aged missionaries.

1884

1893

The Society held its 75th annual meeting on 1 May 1893 at its then headquarters Sailors' Institute in East London. Speakers included J. Hutton, Chairman of the London County Council and C. W. Macara, founder of the Saturday Lifeboat Fund.

1893

1895

The Society purchased the old general post office in Dover and transformed it into the Bethel and Seamen's Rest. A memorial stone was laid at the unveiling ceremony which read "The sea is His and He made it."

1895

1943

At the height of World War II, the Society funded a sea ambulance to help injured seafarers. The vessel was 60 foot long and contained a ward equipped to carry 10 stretcher cases and 12 sitting cases.

1943

1960

In 1960, the Society provided some young lads down on their luck with welfare. The Beatles were far from home in Hamburg when they came across the Society at the seafarers' centre and recognised it as the same charity that helped seafarers in their native Liverpool. According to legend, the band even composed some songs on the centre's piano.

1960

1968

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, one of the Society's Patrons, attended the 150th anniversary service at Westminster Abbey. The service was conducted by the Dean of Westminster with a guard of honour provided by pupils from the Society's Prince of Wales Sea Training School in Dover.

1968

1986

Speedy III is launched as a mobile seafarers' centre in the Port of Great Yarmouth. At 32 feet in length, Speedy III was slightly larger than her sister mobile centre Speedy II and had two separate lounges, a radio telephone and a microwave.

1986

1993

The Society's Patron, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II attends the charity's 175th anniversary service at Southampton Docks. The service was filmed by Songs of Praise and saw a flotilla of vessels take part including the Royal Yacht Britannia.

1993

2015

It was a year of firsts. We began the year with the launch of our ground breaking Wellness at Sea programme. In the summer we opened our first Crisis Response Centre in South Africa and in September unveiled our first app, the ShipVisitor-ICMA App.

2015

2016

2016 saw a flurry of activity from the release of our Wellness app to taking part in the Patron’s Lunch to celebrate the Queen’s 90th in June and the launch of our BySea coffee in August.

2016

2018

In April 2018 we celebrated our bicentenary with a special anniversary service at Southwark Cathedral. His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent spoke at the service about his family's long links with the charity.

2018

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