This is the story of how it all began, and some of what happened along the way…
This is the history of the Seamen's Christian Friend Society, originally written by Frank M Trumble, revised by Michael J Wilson.
The early days of the Society are linked with two men who, under God, did great work among the seamen and who laid foundations upon which others have built which were, and I believe still are, very sound indeed. Our Society is one of which we can be truly proud, and whose good name we should always be ready to defend and uphold. We may look about us today and see other societies working in this field and perhaps feel that they are so much larger than we are, but I think we can safely say we were there long before many of them. Our history goes back a very long time indeed.
The First of the two men I wish to refer to is the Rev George Charles Smith, more commonly known as Bo'sun Smith. He was born in 1782 in Castle Street, off Leicester Square in London. At the age of fourteen his mother, being a widow, had him apprentices to an American Captain. Later that same year, 1796, he was in the West Indies when he was caught by the press-gang and pressed into the British Navy. He served as a seaman for a year and then, through the good offices of a friend on shore, he was installed as a midshipman on board the Agamemnon and joined the North Sea Fleet. For some years he served first under Duncan and then under Nelson and in 1801 he was in man-of-war at the Battle of Copenhagen. We next meet him in 1803, of all places in Reading. Why he was there I do not know; history does not relate, but what we do know is that he came under the sound of the gospel at a chapel in Reading and was converted.
In 1804 he began training for the ministry. His teacher was the Rev Isaiah Birt, a Baptist minister of Devonport. For four years he studied, and during that time preached extensively to sailors and fishermen at Plymouth. He then became Minister of a chapel at Penzance and it was here in this chapel that he began his life's work among seamen. He Corresponded with seamen all over the world and would write to any man he thought would be bettered by Bo'sun Smith's Christian advice. 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. To get some idea of this man's energy, during the years 1812 to 1816 not only did he run his letter service but also his chapel and actually built six other chapels in and around Penzance and trained and educated the men to minister in them. He carried on his open-air preaching in Devon and Cornwall and helped to found the Home Missionary Society.
In 1819 he took the first big step in his organisation of the work among sailors by opening a floating chapel for sailors on the River Thames. Later he opened many other floating chapels in Liverpool, Bristol, Hull and many other ports. He had begun his great work of founding societies. New societies seemed to sprout up from his labours. In 1822 he founded the Thames Waterman's Friend Society. This was to "instruct watermen and bargemen in religion," and was carried on for many years. In 1823 he started the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum for boys. In 1824 he really excelled himself by starting no less than three new organisations all of which still exist today in one form or another.
The terrible storms of that year led to many men perishing at sea and in order to help their widow and children Bo'sun Smith, with some others, set up a relief fund out of which there grew up the Shipwrecked Mariners and Fishermen's Society with which, in many places we as a Society still have close connections. He also started the City Mission Society, the object of which was to labour in courts, lanes and alleys through various parts of London. The Society also arranged to visit workhouses and prisons and much preaching in the open air. It still goes on today. More important, from our point of view, was his third undertaking. He was the prime mover in taking over the disused Danish Church in Wellclose Square, by the London Docks, and it was opened as the Mariner's Church, the very first church of any kind on land especially for sailors. It was the first place where religious and philanthropic work for seamen and their families was carried on.
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. There is in existence a description of him written by the other man we will talk about presently.
"I can picture him now as he walked down the Ratcliff Highway where he founded the first seamen's chapel. He was a man of tremendous physique; tall, broad, deep chested, with great biceps. He looked what he was, a strong man. He had the most powerful voice I ever heard and when he spoke in the old chapel he made the floorboards vibrate under our feet. It was his strong voice that earned him the nickname Bo'sun. He used to walk the roughest quarters in all London's maze of docks and was never harmed, not because of his powerful build, but because his personality made him popular among all classes."
He was also a man of some wit and on occasions tact although, as we shall see presently, not always very tactful.
There is a story told of him which illustrates both his wit and tact. He used to preach at the open-air fair in Bristol. He used to stand in front of St James's Church where most of the stalls and shows were situated, and where the greatest crowd would gather. They were very noisy gatherings. On this occasion the Town Magistrate had charged a constable to stop his preaching. His open air work was very much opposed by the authorities and he was often in trouble with the police. He took his stand at the times he said he would and the constable told him that he was not to preach. "Well," he said, "will you allow me to tell the people why I cannot preach?" To this the constable agreed.
Bo'sun Smith began. "My friends, I came here intending to preach to you from these solemn words, 'Flee from the wrath to come.' I meant to have told you whose wrath you should flee from. But my friend here says I must not. I meant to have told you why you should flee from this wrath to come. But I am forbidden by the constable, and I obey orders. I meant to have told to whom you should flee from this wrath to come even to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of poor lost sinners. But I cannot do what I would for the constable says No!" In this way he managed to preach the entire sermon! And when he had finished he said, "Now, Mr Constable, you will not, I am sure, object to my properly dismissing these people."
"Oh dear me no; certainly not Sir."
"Then," said the Bo'sun, "Let us sing, Praise God from whom all blessings flow." When this had been well and truly sung by the crowd he offered up a brief but impressive prayer and with a smile full of meaning, he received the thanks of the constable for being so good as to comply with his instructions without giving any trouble.
The list of the things that this man did, not to his own glory, but to the glory of God, is very long indeed. In 1828 he opened an asylum for destitute and starving sailors. Later that same year he opened the very first temperance society in England. When the Brunswick Theatre fell down he spent all day organising the rescue of the wounded and the recovery of the dead – many died in that disaster – and he said that while he stood there in the midst of that horror God put it into his heart to buy the site on which the theatre had stood, and the plan formed then in his mind to found there the first ever Sailors' Home. During the next year he raised £3,000 and the first home was built. It was from that home that all other homes have sprung.
At the age of over eighty, in 1861, he went to the USA. He arrived there on the 10th May and in July of the same year he was presented with a medal by the Friends of Seamen in the port of New York.
I do not know what happened to him after his return to England. It is no doubt written somewhere but I have not come across it. My next knowledge of him is at the end of his life. He had left London and moved back to the West of England and was living in a little cottage completely penniless. When he was found, by some friends from Penzance, he was on the verge of starvation and, had he not been found, there is little doubt but that he would have died. He was taken by these friends back to Penzance where, a few months later in January 1863, he did die. He had given all his life to the work among seamen and had taken nothing for himself. He gave all to the work of the gospel and was one of our foundation stones. A great man, used of God whose work lives after him.
You will recall that I said the most important of the three undertakings he started in 1824 was the Mariners' Church in Wellclose Square, because it was here that we began to take shape as the Seamen's Christian Friend Society. Some years were to go by before we got our present name but it all began for us here. In 1819 Smith began a Society whose object was the holding of prayer meetings on board ships in all ports, foreign correspondence with seamen and the publication of a seamen's magazine – but trouble came when he proposed to the Committee that the old Danish Church should be bought and opened as a chapel for seamen.
Bo'sun Smith was not a committee man and his personal relationships with those with whom he worked were not always so happy. He was an individualist, not a committee man! – and his forcible personality set high standards of energy. Sometimes friendships broke under the strain. He was determined to open the chapel and would allow nothing to stand in his way. He put forward the most cogent arguments. In this area he wrote, "The press-gang had picked up more than 2,000 sailors for the Navy in three months." He wanted another press-gang in the Ratcliff Highway for a far nobler service (long before the Salvation Army had been formed he had the idea of a Salvation Navy).
"The Headquarters," he said, "would be the great rendezvous of the lost and guilty, where the officers of the Captain of Salvation may, under his orders, invite, persuade and impress those poor wretched wanderers who pass by, and graciously compel them to enter the receiving ship of his church universal, from whence they may be drafted to the several cruisers in the glorious service of his Celestial Majesty and in which, according to telegraphic orders, they may war a good warfare against the Lord's enemies and theirs." His pleading failed and, being the man he was, he parted company with his Committee and went ahead alone.
He did not want to sever his connections with the Bethel Union – the body he had parted company with – entirely and so he gathered together a few friends and they formed the Mariners' Church Society and recognised the Bethel Union as the Parent Body. Bo'sun Smith had hoped that the Bethel Union would use the church and so help with the running costs, but in this he was disappointed and eventually the heavy financial commitments he had personally undertaken proved too much for him and, in 1845, the Mariners' Church had to close. But the Society which he had founded decided to keep the work going and they took a disused sugar warehouse in the Ratcliff Highway to continue the work there as best they could. Bo'sun Smith, however, withdrew from the venture as far as his direct personal activities were concerned, and the whole work was reorganised.
We now look at the second man who did so much to lay the foundations of our our Society.
The first record we have is an entry in the parish register of Little Risington for the 12th March 1818. It reads, "George, son of George and Sarah Hill, baptised at Little Risington by the Rev R W Ford, Rector." This boy grew up to be a tailor and eventually he set up in business with a Master Jennings, in Burford in Oxfordshire. Both these men went to a revival meeting which was being held in the town some miles away, and at that meeting they were both convicted and converted. It is reported that they were so moved that when the collecting plate came round, they both emptied their pockets of all the money they had, and then had to walk home. This was the first of many hardships they were to face.
They both left the business and went off to be trained for the ministry. For the Hill family it meant separation and not too easy times. George Hill set off for Glasgow to do his training and his wife and a young child went to live in Cheltenham. When his training was finished he took his family and went to live in London and before long he met Bo'sun Smith and became a fellow-worker with him, among seamen. It was this Mr Hill who, when Bo'sun Smith withdrew, took a leading part in the reorganisation and became the first leader of the work. The new body was 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. It reads:
That in consequence of Mr G C Smith having relinquished his connection with the Seamen's and Soldiers' Church, St George Street, Ratcliff Highway, and the missionaries therewith, and thereby placed the missionaries in a position which renders the aid of pious and respectable persons essentially necessary to the continued existence and well-being of this department of the missionary operations among our seamen and soldiers and the carrying out these operations with order and effect, we this day in the name and strength of God form ourselves into a regularly organised body to be henceforth called, denominated and known as the Seamen's & Soldiers' Evangelical Friend Society.
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. The object of the Society's work are set out in a Foundation Resolution which reads:
That in order to guard against any misunderstanding, the Society shall be engaged in missions to ships etc. in the Port of London and in the sea coasts, to barracks, prisons and the poor in general as heretofore having purely for its objects the moral and spiritual welfare of our sailors and soldiers and the poor; and be considered as having grown out of the operations of a Society established in the year 1819 and now constituted and under the management of a new Committee whose business shall be to govern and direct the financial department and see that the missionary operations are effectually carried out proportionately to its pecuniary support.
Here then was the final establishment, in the form in which it has lasted and this the origin of our Society. We have endured all these years and under God we are still alive today.
George Teil Hill (he took the name Teil from an uncle) remained Secretary of the Society until 1886 and in September of that year he resigned due to ill health and his son became Secretary in his stead and for the next sixty years held that office. Under his leadership the Society began to grow and by the end of the century there were nineteen Mission Stations each with its own Port Missionary and Local Committee. All down the years there has been a member of the Hill family actively engaged in the work of the Society. Mrs Churchman, a member of the London Committee, was a Miss Hill and as such was once the Acting Secretary until the appointment of Mr Thomas who served for 17 years. When Mrs Churchman died in 1991 the connection with the Hill family finally came to an end. Mr Thomas was followed by Mr K Freestone who was Secretary for three years and then Frank Trumble joined the Society in January 1965.
The First Word War, and then the depression followed by the Second Word War, took toll of our work and workers and we entered into a period of decline. We had taken on the responsibility for the King George V Seamen's Memorial Hospital in Malta which was opened in 1921. It was destroyed by a bomb in the last war and was rebuilt and reopened again in 1948. It was a great place of Christian witness and many seamen who came into its wards heard the gospel preached.
When Malta was granted independence and the British Navy left, the hospital was costing the Society a great deal to keep open for a purpose which was never intended. It finally closed in 1967. But this is another story which is not for telling now.
In 1965 we were reduced to five operating coast stations. These were Appledore, Ardrossan, Workington, Ramsey and Cork. We also had the old Headquarters in Ratcliff Highway but it was no longer used by seamen. The old Katherine Dock was closed and the London County Council wanted to pull the place down to build a new dock road, and this in fact they did. A Compulsory Purchase Order was made and the old building went. But even in its going it served the Society because from the money we received from this sale we were able to start the work again in London.
Our present position has come about in many ways during the past few years. We have under God taken on a new lease of life and although we have not yet reached the position of having nineteen mission stations we are, I believe today, reaching more seamen with the gospel than ever before in the life of the Society. And where once we were thought of as little account in this field, we are today a force to be reckoned with and I know that in some society offices around the country we are looked upon as serious competitors, a position we would not actually wish to occupy.
I trust that you have gained some insight into our past history. It is good sometimes to look at the foundations upon which we build. No builder would want to erect another storey onto a building until he was sure the foundations would stand the extra weight. As long as we maintain without compromise our calling to preach the gospel to the men of the sea, and to see this as the first charge upon all our resources just as Bo'sun Smith and after him George Teil Hill did, then I believe God will bless us and use us in the extension of his Kingdom, in just the same way that he used these great men of the past, and we will be called upon just as they were to make our contribution. These men of days gone by gave their all, even their lives, to the cause of God's work among seamen.
Following Frank Trumble's retirement in 1979 Jeff Laurie, Port Chaplain for the port of Manchester, was appointed General Secretary. Jeff Laurie served in this capacity until he retired in 1986 when he was succeeded by Derek Cartwright. In 1990 Derek left the Society to go into the ministry. Gordon Pickering and Michael Wilson were appointed as Joint Administrators, soon after which Fred Hudson was appointed as Head of Mission. When he left in 1992, Michael Wilson was appointed to the position of Director, until 2012 when he retired.
During the time since Frank Trumble's account of the Society's history was written, God has continued to bless the ministry of the SCFS. The Society still employs full time Port Chaplains in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. In addition, we have recognised over twenty SCFS representatives and also work in association with SCFS-Philippines.
As a result the SCFS currently has representation in Antwerp, Belfast, Cebu, Cork Davao, Dublin, Dundee, Greenock, Hamburg, Hull, Iloilo, Immingham, Invergordon, Ipswich, Leith, Liverpool, Manila, Portsmouth, Rotterdam, Shoreham, Singapore, Southampton, Teesside and Tilbury. In addition we are represented in a number of Dutch ports through our links with Het Havenlicht and Lumen Maris.
In 1989 the SCFS assumed responsibility for the work previously undertaken by the Merchant Navy Christian Fellowship which has strengthened the Society's ability to keep in touch with Christians at sea by regular correspondence. 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 sacrificial giving of the Lord's people and we thank God that he has provided for us in this way for 150 years. Please support the SCFS World Mission on your Doorstep.