Book Review: Sailors’ Society, 200 Stories from the Sea, 1818-2018

Nick Churchill, Melanie Warman, Charis Gibson, and James Leslie. 200 Stories from the Sea, 1818-2018. Southampton: Sailors’ Society, 2018.

This is a commemorative book with 200 short vignettes about the work of the Sailors’ Society on the occasion of its 200th birthday. The source of most of the stories is the Society’s magazine, Chart & Compass founded in 1879, but also using some of the Society’s other archives presumably. The book is published by Sailors’ Society, available in paperback, hard cover and limited edition and can be ordered from a special website: https://200stories.org/. It is a beautifully designed book, with rich photos and an engaging layout. Some stories are given one or two page treatments, others come in small groups on one page.

The book recounts the work of the Sailors’ Society in the last several centuries; the work of chaplains, but also its hostels and other programs. It frames the Society as a witness to history – the stories are a mirror for the ups and downs of the maritime industry. Stories in Chart & Compass recounted in this book link the Society to royalty, tragedy, valour and even a bit of rock & roll. With Royal patronage, beautiful stories of chaplaincy in peace and war, and the Beatles spending time at one of their seafarers’ hostels, the work of the Sailors’ Society is projected as wide and diverse. The current CEO of Sailors’ Society, Stuart Rivers, writes in the introduction, “Sailors’ Society has a rich history of harnessing the possibilities of innovation to offer the best welfare support available to seafarers and their families.” (3)

At the outset, the authors provide a helpful chart of the various names of the Sailors’ Society in the past:

  • 1818 – Port of London Society
  • 1827 – Port of London and Bethel Union Society
  • 1833 – British and Foreign Sailors’ Society
  • 1925 – British Sailors’ Society
  • 1995 – The British and International Sailors’ Society
  • 2007 – Sailors’ Society

The Port of London Society began on March 18, 1818, in a meeting called by George Charles “Bosun” Smith, pastor of the Octagon Baptist Church in Penzance. In order to “alleviate the worldly woes” of distressed sailors in London, Bosun Smith proposed the Society to promote chaplains conducting services on board ships. The Society was part of the Bethel movement that encouraged preaching on ships, using a distinctive flag bearing the symbols of a dove and star. The work was very prosperous, we read: in 1820 reports emerge that Christian ministries on the Thames have been so successful that publicans are complaining of hard times. From these beginnings, the Sailors’ Society expanded into the worldwide organization it is today.

The book is worth reading for any who wants to know more about the history of maritime ministry in the UK and abroad. It is informative, but is especially inspirational in its design and demonstration that Sailors’ Society is poised to continue to strive for seafarers’ welfare in the coming generation.

Review by Jason Zuidema