PortCities London

The welfare of seamen

The Sailors' Home and the seamen's churches

The Destitute Sailors' Asylum

Sailor's Home and the Red Ensign Club.
View full size imageInside the Sailor's Home and Red Ensign Club. © NMM
In 1827 a group of philanthropists founded the Destitute Sailors' Asylum. They used a converted warehouse in Dock Street, north of the London Docks. At first, the Asylum provided shelter and food for shipwrecked and destitute seamen, but it soon became clear that many other seamen in the port needed help.

The Sailors' Home

Sailor's Home and Red Ensign Club.
View full size imageA berth in the Sailor's Home and Red Ensign Club. © NMM

A committee was set up and funds were raised to build a Sailors' Home in nearby Well Street. This opened in 1835. The Home employed agents to meet ships arriving in the ports to persuade seamen to stay there.

The Sailors' Home became a valuable resource for seamen in the port for nearly a century and a half. It closed in 1974. 

The Sailor's Home also housed the London School of Nautical Cookery. This opened in 1893 to train cooks for the Merchant Navy.

The Episcopal Floating Church

The Episcopal Floating Church.
View full size imageThe Episcopal Floating Church. © NMM

The Destitute Sailors' Asylum Committee believed that the religious instruction of seamen was as important as their physical welfare.

It established the Episcopal Floating Church to provide regular Anglican services for seamen visiting the Pool of London. This vessel had formerly been the Royal Navy sloop HMS Brazen (1808).

St Paul's Church

Sailors' chapel, Dock Street.
View full size imageInside the Sailors' chapel, Dock Street. © NMM

By the 1840s the Floating Church was no longer adequate. The Sailor's Home set up a special committee to raise funds for a permanent seamen's church as a replacement.

Prince Albert laid the foundation stone in May 1846, and the church, known as St Paul's, was completed two years later.

Among the facilities the church provided was an Infant Nursery for the children of seamen. This was in nearby Wellclose Square. The building is still standing today. With the decline and closure of the inner London docks and wharves, fewer and fewer seamen used the church. It closed for worship in 1990, but is still used for other purposes.

Joseph Conrad on the Sailors' Home

Sailor's Home and Red Ensign Club, Well Street, London.
View full size imageInside the Sailors' Home and Red Ensign Club. © NMM
The great writer Joseph Conrad, who stayed there many times as the seaman Józef Korzeniowski, was full of quiet praise for the institution:

'I have been in touch with the Sailors’ Home for sixteen years of my life, off and on...  I would say that, for seamen, the Well Street Home was a friendly place.'

'It was essentially just that - quietly, unobtrusively, with a regard for the independence of the men who sought its shelter ashore, and with no other aims besides that effective friendliness.'