Mission to Seafarers Archive

What is the Mission to Seafarers?

The Mission to Seafarers is a society of the Anglican Church whose mission is to care for the spiritual and practical welfare of all seafarers, regardless of nationality or faith. The origins of the organisation can be seen in the work of Reverend John Ashley, an Anglican clergyman, who whilst he was holidaying near the Bristol Channel in 1835 discovered that no-one ministered to seamen onboard ships. He took it upon himself to begin this work as a chaplain, forming the Bristol Mission in 1837. Over the next fifteen years, Ashley visited over 14,000 ships at sea and sold more than 5,000 Bibles and prayer books to British seamen.

On 28 February 1856 the Mission to Seafarers was founded, then under the name of the Missions to Seamen, and incorporated the Bristol Channel Mission along with several other local Anglican missions. A constitution was agreed two years later, stating the society's main goal to be 'the spiritual welfare of seafaring classes at home and abroad.' The organisation devised a flag featuring a white angel in flight on a blue background, based on the following 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.' The flag would later become synonymous with the society's 'Flying Angel' centres across the world marking them as places of sanctuary for seafarers. By 1858 the organisation operated at 14 stations across England and Ireland, and representatives were also being sent to international ports in Nova Scotia, Madras [Chennai], and Singapore.

In the early years, the society's activity in port largely consisted of chaplains making visits onboard ships to provide spiritual counsel, to hold prayer services, and to distribute bibles. During the 1860s, ships began to dock at quaysides, allowing sailors more time in port. Flying Angel centres were established by the society to cater for sailors' needs by providing such facilities as affordable accommodation, libraries, games rooms, canteens and prayer chapels.

As the society grew, further local organisations undertaking similar work began to form connections with the national office, in some cases opting to become local committees of the Society. Two key examples are as follows: 1) In 1904, the Thames Church Mission, established 23 February 1844 as a 'Floating Mission', merged with The Mission to Seafarers; 2) In 1939 St Andrew's Waterside Church Mission, established in 1864 as a parochial approach to ministering to seafarers, merged with The Mission to Seafarers.

During World War One, fifteen chaplains were called for naval service, resulting in some smaller stations being closed down due to staff shortages and the need to focus attentions elsewhere to support changing demands caused by the war. In Britain, 27 new stations were opened during this time, and a further 24 new overseas stations were opened. Appreciation was shown for the society's efforts in a letter sent by the Admiralty along with a cheque for 1,000 guineas towards the society's costs. Following the war, unemployed seafarers who had lost their jobs in the economic depression of the 1920s were assisted by the society. During the Second World War, the society again undertook activities to support seafarers affected by the war effort.

By 1956 the society operated Flying Angel centres in 81 ports across the world and celebrations of the Mission to Seamen's centenary were arranged by headquarters staff as well as by individual branches. However, changes in shipping and the quicker turn-around of ships in port were creating a need for the society to revise its approach. By the 1960s and 1970s there was less of a demand to provide accommodation for seafarers as less time was spent by them ashore. Smaller centres, providing telephone access, a place to relax for a short time, and small shops stocking necessaries became the norm.

The location of the society’s headquarters was moved to St Michael Paternoster Royal, London, in 1968, having previously been located at 4 Buckingham Palace Gardens.

The 1980s saw the society's global influence and activities increase. Chaplains faced an increasing need to support seafarers caught up conflict in the Middle East. At the same time, around two thirds of the world's seafarers now came from developing countries, such as India and the Philippines. This created a greater need for the society to focus on growing issues such as physical health, low wages, inadequate training and unsafe working environments. Welfare and Justice became a recognised function of the society, and this was cemented further in the 1990s with the formation of a Consultative Forum on changing needs of seafarers in 1998.

In 2000, the society changed its name to the Mission to Seafarers, reflecting the increasingly diverse character of the seafaring workforce. By this time there were full time chaplains employed at centres in over 100 ports worldwide, and the society was represented by a further 200 honorary chaplains working in various situations. Training in justice and welfare issues, understanding different cultures and faiths, and establishing relationships with seafarers whom might only be in port for a brief time now became the focus of the society's work. However, even though the shipping industry had changed dramatically since the time of the Mission to Seafarers' inception, the core need to consider stranded crews, safety issues, living conditions, isolation, and lost lives in shipping casualties remained, ensuring that there was a need for the work of the society to continue into the 21st century. In 2006 the Mission to Seafarers marked it's 150th anniversary with a thanksgiving service held at Westminster Abbey.

What does the archive contain?

The collection contains records created by the London head office of the Mission to Seafarers, responsible for coordinating the work and activities of local branches of the Mission to Seafarers across the world.

Also present are records created by local branches and individuals associated with the Mission to Seafarers, which records have been given to the head office of the organisation.

The collection consists of the following record series:

  • Council and Committee minutes of meetings [U DMS/1]
  • Annual reports and accounts [U DMS/2]
  • Letter books recording letters sent out by head office [U DMS/3]
  • Executive officers subject files containing correspondence and reports [U DMS/4]
  • Tours files containing correspondence, itineraries and visit reports [U DMS/5]
  • Conference files containing correspondence and conference papers [U DMS/6]
  • John Ashley Committee files containing correspondence and reports [U DMS/7]
  • Lightships & lighthouses files containing correspondence and reports [U DMS/8]
  • Personnel files containing correspondence, applications and references [U DMS/9]
  • Parish link files containing correspondence [U DMS/10]
  • Port files (home and international) containing correpsondence, reports and ephemera [U DMS/11]
  • Country and region files containing correspondence and reports [U DMS/12]
  • Publications [U DMS/13]
  • Orders of service [U DMS/14]
  • Press cuttings and year books [U DMS/15]
  • Audio visual and photographic material [U DMS/16]
  • Log books [U DMS/17]
  • Memorial books [U DMS/18]
  • Objects [U DMS/19]
  • Donated records from individuals [U DMS/20]
  • Donated records from local branches [U DMS/21]
  • Records of associated and amalgamated organisations, including St Andrew's Waterside Church Mission and Thames Church Mission Society [U DMS/22]
  • Records created by the Dunkirk War Memorial Trust Limited [U DMS/23]
  • Records of the Missions to Seamen Trust Corporation Limited [U DMS/24]

Subject coverage of the collection reflects the Mission to Seafarers aims and objectives as an organisation, largely focusing on the spiritual welfare of seafarers and Christian ministry to the crews of ships arriving into ports across the world, as well as to crews of lighthouses and lightships.

Records contain information concerning individual chaplains and lay helpers who have worked with the society, as well as head office staff. Most references to individuals working with the society occur within the personnel files series [U DMS/10], the port files series [U DMS/11], and the donated individuals' records series [U DMS/20].

Records rarely contain references to named individuals who have been helped by the society or specific ships in ports where the society operated a chaplaincy.

Information relating to the society's work in individual ports is most abundent in the port files series [U DMS/11] but is also captured in the main sequence of minute books [U DMS/1/1] and the donated branch records series [U DMS/21]. A good general overview of the society's activities is provided by the annual reports [U DMS/2] and by various newsletters, journals and newspapers produced by the society [U DMS/13].

How can the collection help my research?

You can use the records to undertake research into various subjects including:

  • History of the Mission to Seafarers
  • Maritime missions
  • Missionary chaplains
  • Port histories
  • Lightships and lighthouses
  • Co-ordination of missionary activity
  • Missionary literature

Is the collection available to researchers?

Anyone can use the collection and it is now available to search using our online catalogue, or download the full catalogue (PDF, 5MB). Items can be requested in advance for consultation in the Searchroom, see our 'Preparing for your visit' page for more details.

Are there any related collections or documents?

The following collections are held at Hull History Centre and also contain information relating to the Mission to Seafarers and related local maritime missionary societies.

U DX365 - Lantern Slides of John (Jack) Bernard Barton, Chaplain for the Missions to Seamen

U DX302 - Miscellaneous Records of the General Secretary of the Missions to Seamen

U DCIM - Records of the International Christian Maritime Association

U DAPS - Records of the Apostleship of the Sea, 1922-2014

C DSHO - Records of the Hull Seamens and General Orphanage

C DSSF - Records of the Hull Sailors' Families Society (including records relating to the Port of Hull Society and the Hull Branch of the Missions to Seamen)

C DSMS - Records of the Hull Mariners Church and Sailors Rest Society and the Hull Missions to Seamen