July 1, 2015
Article by
Ian Porter

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A Brief History of The Mission to Seafarers, Sydney

In 1822, the Rev. William Cowper (Rector of St Philip’s Church of England in Sydney) and a group of prominent Christian businessmen from ‘dissenting churches’ founded the Interdenominational Society known as The Sydney Bethel Union Society (SBU).  Their aim was to bring the blessings of Christian ministry to seamen in the Port of Sydney.
 
 
For the first 19 years of its history, the SBU used voluntary clergymen to conduct services on board ships until, in 1841, sufficient funds became available to appoint the first Chaplain, the Rev. Matthew Adam (of the Church of Scotland).  Initially, Mr Adam conducted Services on the barge Sir William Wallace (how appropriate for a Scot!), but in 1844 the SBU was able to build a church (at the foot of Erskine Street) for the sum of £312.  However, the site proved unsatisfactory and enactment of the Sydney Bethel Union Trustees' Act, 1851  (NSW) authorised the Trustees of the Bethel Union to dispose of the property and seek a more appropriate location.  Shortly afterwards, a second Mariners’ Church was built at a more convenient site on the eastern side of Sydney Cove - a few hundred metres from where the Opera House currently stands.
 
 
In 1856 a new building was erected at 100 George Street, on the western side of Sydney Cove.  At the time, this building was one of the largest seafarers’ centres in the world and also one of this young colonial city’s most attractive structures.  The upper floor was used for church services and the lower floor for reading, refreshments and entertainment.  By 1863, when nearly 20,000 seamen visited Sydney, attendances at services at Mariners Church were growing and an extensive program of social and welfare activities was offered. 
The Church of England’s Seamen’s Mission commenced in Sydney in 1881.  The first ‘Seamen’s Missionary’ was Mr John Shearston, who ministered to the sailors of the Men at War in Sydney.  He felt himself called to this ministry after encountering a crowd ‘amusing themselves’ at the expense of a drunken sailor.  However the sight that aroused the derision of the crowd aroused in Mr Shearston only compassion.  Hailing a cab, he took the man to his own home, where he cared for him overnight.
 
 
This was the beginning of his ministry to seafarers visiting the Port of Sydney.  Word of the incident soon spread, and Mr Shearston’s ministry of ship visitation, hospitality and evangelism rapidly expanded.  All this had been done in Mr Shearston’s spare time, and it soon became apparent that a full-time ministry was necessary.  Consequently, in 1881, he resigned his Government position and opened his home to the sailors.  Evenings found the neighbourhood echoing the sounds of hymns and spiritual songs as the seafarers filled the home’s small rooms.
 
 
The growth soon demanded larger premises and The Mission moved from 5 Princes St to a nearby location (‘Trafalgar House’ at 9 Princes St), where his ministry continued to flourish.  The excellence of his work was recognized by the Lords of Admiralty and the trustees of Royal Navy House in Sydney; in 1890 he resigned from the Missions to Seamen in order to take charge of the welfare work of Royal Navy House.
 
He was succeeded by Mr Courtney-Smith who (with his wife), faithfully ministered for five years to the sailors of the Mercantile Marine.
In 1895 financial difficulties caused the sale of Trafalgar House to be considered; however this period of anxious uncertainty was brought to an end by an offer of a grant of £100 from The Missions to Seamen in England – if a Chaplain was appointed by the Primate of Australia, Bishop Alfred Barry.
On 10th June 1895, The Rev. T. Henry Distin-Morgan was appointed ‘Chaplain-Superintendent’ and Mr Courtney-Smith continued as ‘Lay Missionary’.
 
At this time, the trustees of the SBU proposed the amalgamation of the SBU and The Missions To Seamen. Constitutional difficulties prevented such an amalgamation, but both parties entered into an agreement whereby the Trustees of the Sydney Bethel Union granted the Missions to Seamen a three-year renewable lease of the Mariners’ Church for a nominal rental of A£1 per annum, on condition that a ‘non-conformist’ worship service would be conducted at least once a month.
The Church of England Mission to Seamen became a Branch of the Missions to Seamen, England and so commenced the existing strong link between the two organizations that survives to this day and under which the Sydney Bethel Union has made substantial annual grants to the Mission to enable it to achieve its objects.
 
 
In 1910 further initiatives by the Sydney Bethel Union saw commencement of significant extensions to the building.  These involved the addition of an extra storey, conversion of the original chapel into a recreation hall, a new chapel (accommodating about 200) and a vestry, along with administrative offices, a library and an Officers’ Room with some accommodation cubicles. On the ground floor, a gymnasium, smoking room and other facilities were added.
In the early 1970s the NSW Government resolved to redevelop The Rocks area on the Western side of Circular Quay in which the Mission to Seamen was located.  Two years later the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority resumed 100 George Street.  Eventually, the trustees of the Sydney Bethel Union accepted the Authority’s (significantly increased) offer of A$1.9 million for the property.  This prompted a search for alternative premises close to the waterfront so that effective ministry of the Mission could be maintained.
 
In 1975, the Sydney Bethel Union purchased for the use of the Missions to Seamen a building in Macquarie Place, Sydney (immediately to the South of the Circular Quay ferry wharves). The building was adapted for its new role and was opened for ministry in 1977.
These years were times of rapid change for international shipping and these changes (which included reduced crew sizes and shorter stays in ports) had an impact on the Mission’s operations. Port developments included the construction of container shipping facilities in the port of Botany Bay with a consequent forecast of a strong decline in the number of ships berthing in the port of Sydney.  In view of this forecast and the receipt of many attractive offers for the purchase of the Macquarie Place property, the SBU decided to sell the property in 1985.
 
 
As an interim measure to enable the Missions to continue operations, the Trustees of the Sydney Bethel Union agreed to fund its temporary occupation of space at 439-441 Kent Street, Sydney and the necessary alterations to the Building required to render it suitable for operations.
The search for a suitable site resumed and in late 1990 the Trustees of the Sydney Bethel Union submitted a successful tender to the NSW Government to acquire the former Sussex St School (1875) property at 320-324 Sussex Street, Sydney for A$2.35 million.  After completion of necessary alterations to render it suitable for the Mission's operations, the building was officially named Flying Angel House by the Governor of NSW, His Excellency Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair AC RAN (Rtd) at a dedication ceremony on 20 June 1993.
In 2011, this building was sold and a new property at 24 Hickson Road, Millers Point was purchased as the new Centre for The Mission to Seafarers, Sydney.
 
The Chaplains of The Church of England Sydney Diocese Mission to Seamen:
 
Mr. John Shearston 1881 – 1889
Mr. Courtney Smith 1889 – 1895
The Rev. T. Henry D. Morgan 1895 – 1908
The Chaplains of The Missions to Seamen, Sydney:
The Rev. T. Henry D. Morgan 1895 – 1908
The Rev. Allan Pain 1908 – 1919
The Rev. Henry Leplastrier 1920 – 1921
The Rev. Alfred Wright 1922 – 1928
The Rev. Thomas Terry 1928 – 1929
The Rev. Thomas Hardy 1930 – 1932
The Rev. William Barnes 1932 – 1933
The Rev. Frederick Evans 1933 – 1942
The Rev. Clive Goodwin 1943 – 1950
The Rev. George Bennett 1950 – 1953
The Rev. Colin Craven-Sands 1953 – 1980
The Rev. Owen Dykes 1980 – 1992
The Principal Chaplains of the Mission to Seafarers, Sydney:
The Rev. Tom Hill 1992 – 2003
The Rev. Ian Porter 2003 – 2017