A Little History about the Mission to Seafarers

World-wide friends


The origin of the Mission to Seafarers rests with one man who saw a need and responded to it.

In 1835, whilst on holiday at Clevedon, Somerset, the Rev Dr John Ashley had occasion to visit the island of Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel during which time he became aware of the plight of seafarers. He was so moved by their harsh and dangerous conditions and lonely lives that he dedicated the next 15 years to their welfare until forced to give up his chaplaincy as a result of ill health. In 1857 the Victorian Seaman’s Mission was founded in Melbourne. In 1906/07 it merged with the organisation that is now known worldwide as the Mission to Seafarers.


The Victorian Mission was established on July 1, 1857 and began its work on an ex-hulk called the Emily anchored in Hobsons Bay at Williamstown. The hulk was painted with the title “The Bethel Sailors’ Church” but was known as the Bethel Floating Church. The Reverend Kerr Johnston conducted two services each Sunday until 1859 when a boathouse was acquired at Port Melbourne that was in use until 1878. At this time a new building was erected and became known as “Bethel of the Victorian Seamen’s Union.”

The changing nature of shipping in Melbourne meant that by the mid-1890’s, there was a definite need to establish a new branch of the Mission in the central Melbourne area, as most ships at this stage were berthing along the Yarra River rather than at Port Melbourne.

A decade later, after much negotiation and under the impetus of the Reverend Alfred Gurney Goldsmith, a site was leased from the Melbourne Harbour Trust fronting Australia Wharf in Siddeley Street, near to an existing Sailor’s Rest. During 1905 the Victorian Mission to Seamen was created from the amalgamation of the London Seamen’s Mission and the Victorian Seamen’s Mission.

The Ladies Harbour Lights Guild was also formed in 1905 to assist the resident Chaplain in raising awareness and funds for the Mission, and were later responsible for raising money for both the Memorial Chapel of St Peter the Mariner and the domed Norla Gymnasium. The Guild was well patronised by prominent members of Melbourne society and grew to be a substantial organisation.

In 1917 the Mission moved to its current location a short distance away, as the Melbourne Harbour Trust required the use of the Siddeley Street site. The Mission to Seafarers Victoria is now approaching the centenary at its current location at 717 Flinders street, and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Registry for its outstanding architectural, aesthetic, social and historic significance to the State of Victoria. For further details please visit the Victorian Heritage Registry


The MtSV founded its Heritage Collection within the building complex in 2010. The collection is assessed by Context Pty Ltd as being of National and State Significance.

In 2015 the focus of the program has been to preserve, catalogue and digitize the collection of some 10,000 items and objects. In 2015 a part-time Collections Manager Position was appointed and supported by an Intern Program and volunteers the Heritage Collection has raised new awareness and funding opportunities for the work of the MtSV again this year.

The development of the Collection’s Policies and Procedures, and progression through the Museum’s Australia Accreditation Program has sought external consultancy to achieve stages of the accreditation. In 2015 the MtSV has received funding from Bendigo Wealth, part of the Bendigo and Adelaide Banking Group and grants through Helen Macpherson Smith Trust, Public Records Office of Victoria and National Library with in-kind support from City of Melbourne. A Heritage Collection Preservation Needs Assessment was conducted by The Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, the University of Melbourne in May 2015.


The Mission has been continuously working in Melbourne since 1857 and has retained a substantial amount of records that document its charitable work dating back to this time, which are currently held in the MtSV archival facilities at the Flinders Street Mission. The curatorial team is in the process of digitising and cataloguing its collection that consists of approximately 10,000 photographs, documents and objects of great social, spiritual and historic significance. The collection includes material such as marriage and baptismal certificates, shipping records and newspaper clippings that are of great interest to the general public.

Many photos are over 80 years old, and several of the scrapbooks document historically significant events, such as the death of Queen Victoria. MtSV also has a collection of love letters sent to a young woman of the Harbour Lights Guild, as well as letters sent to and from the Mission from various people and organisations throughout its history.

Once our digitisation project is complete the public will be able to access the entire Mission to Seafarers Victoria’s collection online – there are already several hundred records and images available for viewing on the online catalogue. Although this is the first time in the 153 year history of the Mission that an archive has been created, it is our hope that we are laying the ground work that will preserve this material and future items for centuries to come.

The archive will continue to be added to with photographs, documents and objects from today and tomorrow, which will in turn be catalogued and preserved for future generations.

To access the current collection catalogue, please visit: