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Chancery House

Services to Seafarers

Chancery House, Paradise Street, Liverpool

Virulently red and with a roofline of octagonal towers and stepped gables. By James Strong, 1899. Grade II listed. Originally the Gordon Smith Institute for Seamen, containing library, reading room and assembly hall, it was converted to offices in 1980-82.

As a result of the many hardships connected with seafaring a number of charities were set up in 19th century Liverpool especially to help seafarers and their families in difficult circumstances. Spiritual guidance as well as more practical help was given to seafarers by the Gordon Smith Institute and the Mersey Mission to Seamen. The Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society helped victims of shipwrecks and rewarded the bravery of people who saved others’ lives. The Liverpool Sailors' Home was set up to protect sailors from dishonest lodging house keepers who attempted to take advantage of them. The children of seamen who lost their fathers were cared for in the Liverpool Seamen's Orphan Institution.

The four charities are still in existence today but operate on a much smaller scale. The decline of the shipping industry meant that there were fewer seamen and their families in need of help. The growth of the British welfare state also meant that charitable help in general was not needed as much as it had been.

The origins of the Gordon Smith Institute

The Seamen’s Friend Society and Bethel Union this charity was set up on 12 September 1820. Its aim was to give spiritual as well as more practical help to seafarers. It became known as the Gordon Smith Institute at the turn of the 20th century. Then new headquarters were built in Paradise Street. This building was named after the dead son (Gordon) of a wealthy Liverpool merchant, Samuel Smith.

 Chinese seamen enjoying refreshments at a Gordon Smith Institute mobile canteen

Founding fathers of the Gordon Smith Institute

The Liverpool Seamen's Friend Society and Bethel Union was formed in Liverpool in 1820.  It was non-denominational and offered support to seamen, their families and departing emigrants, and loaned portable libraries to ships.  The Society also established the first floating chapel in Liverpool.

In 1881 the Liverpool Seamen's Friend Society made its first move towards accommodating seafarers when it obtained a room in Mariners Parade for use as a free sitting and reading room.  In 1900 the Right Honourable Samuel Smith, M.P., erected and furnished a building as a memorial to mark the death of his son, J. Gordon Smith.  The Gordon Smith Institute, Paradise Street, became the headquarters for the Liverpool Seamen's Friend Society, accommodating up to two hundred seafarers a night.  

The Liverpool Seamen’s Friend Society owed much to the work done by a Baptist minister called Charles George Smith. Born in London in 1782 Smith went to sea at the age of fourteen before beginning to train for the ministry in 1804. Smith set up a number of seamen’s charities in London and elsewhere. Most importantly he was the first person to have the idea of opening a floating chapel, which he did on the River Thames in 1819.

A similar establishment in Kirkdale,
the Gordon Working Lads Institute.

The Building has recently undergone a massive refurbishment and is now a mixture of restaurants and private apartments.

Chancery House 2018

The Mersey Mission to Seamen

The Liverpool branch of the Mission to Seamen was established in 1856 at a meeting in Liverpool of leading shipowners and influential merchants.  The object of the Mission was "to promote and minister to the spiritual, moral and temporal welfare of Merchant Seamen".

In 1873 The Mersey Mission to Seamen was established as having a more independent and autonomous role.  The Mission rented a number of rooms as meeting places for seafarers - including a room in Runcorn catering for bargemen and flatmen, and a room in the Liverpool Sailor's Home as a rendezvous for seafarers when ashore.  In 1876 newly erected premises were opened on Hanover Street by Ralph Brocklebank, and remained the headquarters of the Mission until 1957 when new headquarters were built on James Street.  In 1984 the Mission moved to Colonsay House, Crosby.

The majority of the Mission's records are held at Liverpool Record Office.


Liverpool Maritime Museum
Liverpool Records Office
Central Library

Robert F Edwards
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