The Mission to Seafarers was founded in 1856 and celebrated its 150th anniversary at a special service of thanksgiving at Westminster Abbey on 28th March 2006.
Although this service was formal recognition of the Mission’s foundation, it first came into existence in 1835. It was then that the Reverend John Ashley, a young Anglican priest, began visiting ships at anchor in the Bristol Channel. The realisation that no one from the Church took any notice of sailors in ships had been brought home to him by his daughter who, when walking on the cliffs and seeing the ships at anchor, had asked her father, with the innocent wisdom of a child, “Daddy, where do sailors go to church?”. With his interest aroused by this simple question he soon discovered that not only the majority of them never did, but also that no one from the ministry ever went to visit them.
He was so moved by their isolation and need he gave up a secure living to devote his life to serving those who served at sea. John Ashley’s work soon inspired other ministers in other ports and it was decided in 1856 to coordinate and expand this mission. It was called The Missions to Seamen and in the same year adopted a flying angel as its sign, inspired by a verse from the Book of Revelation, “Then I saw an angel flying in midheaven with an eternal-gospel to proclaim to those on earth, to every nation and tribe, language and people “.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Mission was involved from the first day. The ss Athenia, of the Donaldson Atlantic Line which had just left Liverpool for Montreal, carrying more than 1,400 people, was torpedoed off the fish coast with the loss of 112 lives. Survivors were visited in hospital by the Glasgow chaplain, and from then on the Mission was heavily committed to providing accommodation, food and support for thousands of sailors. After the end of hostilities, in appreciation of the way the Mission had looked after seafarers, the Admiralty made a gift to the society of 1,000 guineas.
The 1950’s saw the beginning of enormous changes in the shipping industry. One of these changes, containerisation, brought larger ships and smaller crews. It also led to quicker turnaround times and the practice of flying crews to their ships. This cut the lengthy waiting periods in ports and there was less need for accommodation. So the big clubs in port centres were phased out and the Mission opened smaller, more accessible clubs. Today it has a network of chaplains, staff and volunteers in 230 ports worldwide, reaching out to visit seafarers onboard their ships and offering a welcome when they arrive in port.
It became known as The Mission to Seafarers in 2000, to reflect more accurately what in reality it had always been, namely a missionary society of the Anglican Church which cares for the spiritual and practical welfare of all seafarers regardless of gender, nationality or faith.
Today, the Society is led by the Revd Tom Heffer who assumed the role of Secretary General in June 2009. He says: “A cursory glance through the many research papers carried out on life at sea shows that, whilst many seafarers are happy with their employment, there are elements to a life on the ocean wave that are truly depressing: Months away from families and friends; the loneliness felt when onboard a multinational and multi-lingual vessel when English isn’t your first language; or being employed by an irresponsible owner who leaves you abandoned and unpaid in a port miles from home – all of these impact regularly on the minds of crewmembers that our chaplains and volunteers meet on a daily basis. In short, I believe that our ministry – in all its forms from our large centres to our fight for seafarers’ rights – is needed as much now as it ever was in providing support for those living this most demanding and perilous way of life.”
To address these problems in Dubai the Mission has built the world’s first floating seafarers’ centre. This purpose built 27 metre boat, based on the design of a pilot boat, was named mv Flying Angel by The Prince of Wales at a ceremony in Dubai on 28th February 2007. It is designed to serve seafarers whose ships use the east coast anchorage of the United Arab Emirates, the second largest bunkering anchorage in the world, with 100 to 150 ships there at anyone time. At present, as many as 2,000 seafarers who crew these ships are unable to go ashore to contact their families. They spend many months on their vessels, 3 to 13 miles offshore in an area covering 240 square miles. Since the boat commissioned at the end of March, seafarers have been able to enjoy the facilities onboard which include an internet cafe, telephones, a medical clinic and a paramedic, and a book and DVD library. Manned by a captain and a crew of four, the Mission’s two Dubai chaplains each spend a week onboard operating around the anchorage five days a week during daylight.
In paying tribute to the work of The Mission to Seafarers at its world conference in October last year, the Mission’s president, The Princess Royal, said “If the Mission did not exist, someone would have to invent a similar organisation”.
Thanks to John Ashley’s foresight and dedication, over a century and half ago, there is no need.
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - August 2010 Issue
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