History of the Seafarers Hospital Society
From 1817 to 1870
The Seafarers Hospital Society was founded in 1821, as the Seamen’s Hospital Society, by a group of philanthropists in response to the increasing number of homeless and impoverished seafarers living on the streets of London after the Napoleonic wars. By then the Mercantile Marine, as it was known, was clearly demarcated from the Royal Navy but had none of the Navy’s medical services to support its men. The health of the sailors in the merchant service had been almost totally neglected.
It was in response to this neglect that, in 1817-18, a group of philanthropists established a charity for distressed seamen. Originally called the Society for Distressed (Destitute) Seamen, in 1821 it became the Seamen’s Hospital Society.
The Society’s founders included abolitionists William Wilberforce, MP for Hull, and Zachary Macaulay. They formed a committee to fit out and run a floating hospital ship anchored in the Pool of London off Greenwich.
For the next fifty years thousands of merchant seamen were cared for by the Society on a succession of three ships. The second ship was called the Dreadnought and the name has been retained.
From 1870 to 1986
In 1870 the Dreadnought came ashore and operated for over 100 years from the former Greenwich Hospital Infirmary where it gained its world-wide reputation as the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital. From 1870 onwards the Society not only supported the work of the Dreadnought but also developed a network of related services, from hospital and nursing care to residential care and support.
From 1986 to the present day
In 1986, with changes in the NHS and the decline of the merchant fleet, the Dreadnought Hospital was closed and its work transferred to Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital where seafarers continue to receive priority medical treatment.
Today the Society plays an important role in meeting the health and welfare needs of seafarers. It provides health and welfare grants to seafarers and their dependants; provides grants to the maritime organisations that care for them; and supports a number of other services provided exclusively for seafarers, including SAIL and the Dreadnought. It has recently amended its name from Seamen’s Hospital Society to Seafarers Hospital Society.
Find out more
A number of interesting articles and books have been written about the Society and its history.
These include two books by respected historian, Prof Gordon C Cook:
- Disease in the Merchant Navy: A history of the Seamen’s Hospital Society, published in 2007, available from Amazon (www.amazon.co.uk) and Radcliffe Publishing (www.radcliffe-oxford.com).
- Greenwich and its lost hospitals, published recently and available from Melrose Books (Greenwich and its lost hospitals flyer)
We also have a large and unique archive of historical material relating to the Society which can be accessed by special arrangement.
To find out more call us on 020 8858 3696 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org