The Seamen’s Christian Friend Society (SCFS) has been offering the hand of friendship to the seafaring community and to all those involved in maritime industries, trades and activities since 1846. Our missionaries go on board ships when they come in to harbour and spend time with the sailors, talking to them about spiritual issues and helping to address their physical and emotional welfare to the best of their ability. The story of how our Society came about, and how it has been sustained for over 170 years, is one of tremendous faith, courage and energy.
The early days of the Society are linked with two men who did great work among seamen and who laid foundations upon which others have built. The first of them was the Rev George Charles Smith, more commonly known as Bo'sun Smith. He was born in London in 1782 and at the age of only 14, he was caught by the press-gang and pressed into the British Navy. However, Smith’s life was turned around in 1803, when attended a chapel in Reading and was converted. A year later he began training for the ministry.
A man of devotion and power
Smith’s drive and achievements are impressive. He was a man of tremendous devotion and power whose driving influence was his love of the Lord Jesus Christ and his deep concern for the spiritual welfare of seamen. His life's work among seamen began when he became Minister of a chapel at Penzance. He started corresponding with seamen all over the world and through this letter writing service he was able to keep in touch with hundreds of seamen and their families and to help in a great many ways. In fact, from 1812 to 1816, he not only ran his chapel and his letter service but also built six other chapels in and around Penzance and trained and educated the men to minister in them.
Smith’s first big step towards working with sailors came in 1819 when he opened a floating chapel for sailors on the River Thames. In 1822 he founded the Thames Waterman's Friend Society and a year later he started the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum for boys. 1824 was an active year too, which saw him start the Mariners' Church in Wellclose Square - it was here that the Seamen's Christian Friend Society began to take shape.
The early days
The Mariner's Church was the very first land-based church especially for sailors and their families. In 1845 financial pressures caused the Mariners' Church to close and Smith withdrew from the work and from our story. But the Society which he had founded pressed on and continued its work in a disused sugar warehouse in the Ratcliff Highway.
It’s at this point that the second man who did so much to lay the foundations of our Society enters the picture. George Hill (b.1818) a tailor who came to the faith after attending a revival meeting and studied for the ministry. After finishing his training, he took his family to live in London. Before long he met Bo'sun Smith and began working with him among seamen.
And so it begins
When the Mariners' Church closed in 1845, Hill became the first leader of the new body, called Seamen's and Soldiers' Evangelical Friend Society. The first minute book for the Society contains a record of the meeting held on 14th January 1846. Two years later on the 20th June 1848 the name was changed once again to the Seamen's Christian Friend Society and so it has remained ever since.
King George V Seamen's Memorial Hospital
The Society took on the responsibility for the King George V Seamen's Memorial Hospital in Malta after it was opened in 1921. The hospital was intended chiefly to serve the needs of merchant seamen, but it also cared for the personnel of the Royal Navy and their families, as well as residents and visitors to the island. It was severely damaged in April 1942 by enemy action during the Second World War (1939-1945) but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1948.
The King George V Seamen's Memorial Hospital was a great place of Christian witness and many seamen who came into its wards heard the gospel preached. However, when Malta gained independence in 1964 and the British Navy left, the hospital placed a major strain on the Society’s finances and it finally closed in 1967.
Responding to challenges
By 1965, SCFS was reduced to five operating coast stations at Appledore, Ardrossan, Workington, Ramsey and Cork. However, in 1989 the SCFS assumed responsibility for the work previously undertaken by the Merchant Navy Christian Fellowship. This has strengthened our ability to keep in touch with Christians at sea through regular correspondence. Today the Society has Port Chaplains in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Australia, Philippines, St. Lucia and at other ports around the world. We have many SCFS representatives throughout the world and also work in association with other seafaring organisations.
Our Patron, Her Majesty The Queen
Members of the Royal Family have links with hundreds of charities, military associations, professional bodies and public service organisations. Here at the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society, we are deeply honoured to have Her Majesty The Queen as our Royal patron
Those involved with the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society work in a very discrete field of charitable endeavour. Together we carry the Christian message of unconditional love and support to thousands of seamen of all nationalities, who toil across all of the world’s oceans. So it is with a profound sense of pride and gratitude that we acknowledge Her Majesty as the Royal Patron for our organisation.
Moreover, we are enormously grateful for all that Her Majesty’s support does for our charity in terms of public exposure. While we have many loyal supporters across the globe, we benefit greatly from the oxygen of publicity that Her patronage generates and the subsequent financial, practical and moral support that we accrue.
Still carrying the message
As we move into the twenty-first century, it is interesting to reflect that this work had its origins in Bo'sun Smith's letter writing in the early part of the nineteenth century. During a span of almost two hundred years, the seaman's need for spiritual challenge and encouragement has changed little.
The Seamen's Christian Friend Society is financed by the voluntary donations and we thank God that He has provided for us in this way for over 170 years.