Archives of the Mission to Seafarers (1837 - )

1825 - 1995


Admin History:

The Mission to Seafarers is a society of the Anglican church which cares for the spiritual and practical welfare of all seafarers regardless of nationality or faith. It was founded by John Ashley, an Anglican clergyman who was holidaying near the Bristol Channel in 1835, and discovered that no one ministered to the men aboard ships. He appointed himself the chaplain to these seafarers and established the Bristol Mission in 1837, thus becoming the founder of the Mission to Seamen. Over the next fifteen years Rev. John Ashley visited over 14,000 ships at sea and sold over 5,000 Bibles and prayer books to British seamen. It was on February 28 1856 that the Mission to Seamen was officially founded, followed by a constitution two years later, stating the society's main goal to be "the spiritual welfare of seafaring classes at home and abroad." The society's flag was also designed at this time, and is based on a verse from the Book of Revelation:- "Then I saw another angel flying high overhead, sent to announce the good news of eternity to all who live on earth, every nation, race, language and tribe."

By 1858 the society was represented by 14 stations across England and Ireland, with readers also being sent to Nova Scotia, Madras, and Singapore. During the 1860s ships began to dock at the quayside, so sailors had more time on their hands, and Mission centres catered to their needs by providing such facilities as affordable accomodation, coffee bars, games rooms, canteens and dance halls. The first superintendent of the Mission to Seamen was Rev. Robert Boyer, who played a large part in the Transmission of Wages Scheme. This scheme offered sailors a rail ticket and some expense money, as well as the bulk of their wages being received at home through a money order. Until this programme was introduced, sailors were often the victims of crimping- a scam where food, drink and accomodation were offered to them, only for the price to be inflated once the seamen received their wages a few days later at the shipping company offices. This scheme was also brought into practice overseas at riotous ports such as San Francisco.

During World War One, fifteen chaplains were called for naval service, resulting in some smaller stations being closed down. 27 new stations did open in Britain during this time however, and a further 24 overseas. These new stations helped meet war time emergencies, and appreciation was shown for the Mission's efforts by a letter from the Admiralty, and a cheque for 1,000 guineas. At the close of the war, unemployed seamen who had lost their jobs in the economic depression were also assisted by the Mission to Seamen. The Mission was also involved at the very outbreak of World War Two. In Pollock Dock in Belfast, for example, 4.5 million meals were served during the war, and the dock was staffed entirely by 700 volunteers. Post-war shipping changes resulted in the reorganisation of the society, with some centres being closed down, while others were re-established.

The centenary of the Mission to Seamen was celebrated in 1956, by which time there were centres in 81 ports. The quicker turn-around of ships by the 1960s and 70s lead to the revision of seafarer's needs. There was now less of a need for accomodation as less time was spent ashore. Smaller centres became the norm, with telephone access and a place to relax and stock up on essential items taking precedence. By the 1980s the Mission to Seamen was becoming an increasingly global organisation, as Mission chaplains played a key role in supporting seafarers caught up in the war between Iraq and Iran, by visiting the injured in hospital. During this time two thirds of the world's seafarers now came from developing countries such as India and the Phillipines. This of course lead to ship owners cutting costs by employing crews from low-wage developing countries, resulting in un-trained crews, inadequate wages, and unsafe working environments. Such practices saw the society's appointment of its first chaplain to develop work in the field of justice.

To continue monitoring such practices, a Consultative Forum was formed in 1998, in which meetings are held between representatives from different parts of the world in order to discuss the changing needs of seafarers and any future developments. The year 2000 saw the Mission to Seamen become the Mission to Seafarers, which encompasses all who earn a living at sea, regardless of gender, nationality, or rank. There are currently full time chaplains and/or centres in over 100 ports worldwide, and the Mission is represented in some 200 others by honorary chaplains. The society still faces numerous challenges, such as how best to minister to people of different cultures and faiths, facing ever increasing physical, cultural, and social isolation. This is being overcome largely by developing new communications technologies to reach ships, such as email and the internet. Twenty-four hour phone access has also been introduced in many ports in recent years. More training in justice issues, understanding different cultures and faiths, and establishing relationships with and providing support for seafarers in the brief time their ships are in port are some of the pressing current issues. Even though the shipping industry has dramatically changed over the years, many of the problems seafarers faced during the early years of the mission's establishment still exist today, such as stranded crews, safety issues, living conditions, isolation, and lost lives in shipping casualties.

A Thanksgiving Service was held at Westminster Abbey on March 28 2006 to mark the 150th Anniversary of the Mission to Seafarers.


This collection is currently divided into two main areas:

The first part of the collection (6 linear metres), which has been catalogued, consists of national minute books and letter books for the period 1856-1959 [U DMS/1], and regional records of various local institutions and societies for the period 1825-1990s [U DMS/2]. The collection also includes material about the Mission's overseas activity in Belgium, India, South Africa and Germany [U DMS/3], and in the miscellaneous section [U DMS/4] volumes of newspaper cuttings relating to the Mission for Seafarers.

A second, much more extensive archive (98 linear metres) deposited in 2010, with subsequent additions in 2011, 2012 and 2014 has not yet been catalogued.

This comprises:

Reports and correspondence from ports around the world, c. 1900 - 1990 (c. 60 linear metres) Work is in progress to list these files, which will have have series reference U DMS/D2

Personnel files relating to chaplains, c. 1900 - 1970 (c. 6 linear metres) Work is in progress to list these files, which will have series reference U DMS/E1

Committee minutes, correspondence, reports, publications, press cuttings, material relating to services, photographs, films and other papers,(c. 32 linear metres)

A box list is available and access may be permitted to some material, on a case by case basis.