How the Mission To Seafarers are still going strong after 160 years

The Mission to Seafarers, South Shields.
The Mission to Seafarers, South Shields.

It has not been all plain sailing for the Mission To Seafarers in South Shields.

But despite its difficulties, the charity is still helping merchant navy sailors from around the world – and is now celebrating its 160th anniversary.

HRH The Princess Royal officially opens Mission to Seafarers.

HRH The Princess Royal officially opens Mission to Seafarers.

Just five years ago, the future of the charity was in doubt as the mission’s head office in London announced plans to move its welfare officer and support staff.

The uncertainty was compounded by a flood at the Mission’s Mill Dam home.

But thanks to a campaign spearheaded by the Gazette, the Mission continues to offer “much-needed solace and practical help” to merchant navy sailors across the globe.

Mission secretary Coun Fay Cunningham and committee member Sandford Goudie provide a brief history of the charity.

“In 1883 a site was obtained on part of the ground formally covered by the old Bottle Works and close to the Mill Dam,” explains Coun Cunningham.

“This was presented to the Mission by Mrs Sarah Love, of Beulah House, Durham.”

Additional land was bought, and on October 27, 1884, the foundation stone was laid by Dr Lightfoot, Bishop of Durham, who opened the completed building on the following Whit Monday, May 25, 1885.

The building consisted of two floors, the church being on the first floor and the ground floor used as a reading room for seamen.

An anonymous donor in 1894 presented the Mission with a “commodious steam launch to enable the Mission to extend its operations on the river”.

The launch always had the Flying Angel flag hoisted for all to see. She would make special calls en-route at the Floating Hospital Ship to pick up letters from patients to post.

“In 1921, due to the ever increasing number of seamen around Mill Dam requiring accommodation, it was decided to buy the German Sailors Home which had been built in 1909, and had stood empty since the outbreak of the great War in 1914,” added Coun Cunningham.

“The new Mission was opened on December 15, 1921 and was dedicated by the Right Reverend Herbert Hensley Henson, DD Lord Bishop of Durham. A commemorative stone was unveiled by Lt Col CH Innes Hopkins.”

As the years went by, the Mission helped countless sailors, moving with the times to provide “spiritual and material welfare for seafarers”.

The passing of time also brought a desire to commemorate the bravery and sacrifice of seafarers, culminating in the erection of the Merchant Navy Memorial in South Shields.

Mr Goudie takes up the story, revealing how: “During the Second World War, more merchant men, sailing from the Tyne, died than anywhere else in the world.

“When I found this out, I was surprised that we didn’t have a memorial to honour them.

“As a result, I got in touch with Jim Slater, the former General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, who lived in town, and asked him if we could raise money to pay for a memorial.

“I wrote to business associations and asked for a donation and got money from all over, including Australia.”

The memorial, which cost £70,000, and was sponsored by local businessmen and supported by donations from mariners and their families across the world, was unveiled by Countess Mountbatten of Burma on September 19, 1990.

“It captures the spirit of going to sea,” added Mr Goudie, whose father did just that during the war.

But less than a decade later, the future of the Mission looked bleak, as the Gazette reported in September 2012.

“The Mission’s head office in London announced plans to move Diane Erskine, its welfare officer, and other support staff to a new base at the Port of Tyne Authority,” recalls the newspaper.

“Amid the uncertainty surrounding the move, the historic venue was seriously damaged by flooding at the end of 2010.

“But the borough rallied in support of the Mission and The Gazette launched a campaign, and within no time at all, 7,000 people had signed a petition calling for a U-turn.

“The borough MPs David Miliband and Stephen Hepburn came on board to offer their support, and slowly but surely the tide began to turn.

“Next, Isos Housing, which was redeveloping the Holborn House complex in which the Mission is housed, offered to help with repairing the venue.

“The weight of public opinion convinced national bosses to give the Mission a one-year reprieve, extending the lease of the building and launching a taskforce to help revamp it.

“In the meantime, the flood-hit Mission went ‘on tour’ – seeking temporary shelter in Rosie Malone’s pub in South Shields and then The Waterfront in the town.”

But on Merchant Navy Day that year, it reopened its doors at the Mill Dam, with a service in the chapel, led by its chaplain, the Rev Pat Bealing.

And there was more good news as staff were assured that the lease on the building, which was due to run out in 2015, “will be extended and an as-yet-unnamed high-profile Royal visitor (later confirmed as the Princess Royal) is earmarked to officially re-open the venue in 2013”.

The then Gazette editor John Szymanski said at the time: “It is fantastic news that the Mission is back where it belongs – and that it is going from strength to strength.

“I am pleased that the Mission’s future seems secure, and it can continue on its course of providing vital help, advice and support to seafarers far and wide.”

Mr Goudie concludes by saying: “In essence the South Shields Mission is the second oldest in the UK. Today it continues to provide a great service to the people who use the Tyne.”