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Our History

The Society was founded in February 1839 as a result of the tragic loss of a fleet of fishing boats on the north Devon coast in October 1838.

Since then we have grown to become one of the largest national maritime charities. Our main purpose today is to provide financial support to individuals in need who have worked at sea in the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets and their dependants. While our title is now more of a metaphor for what we do, shipwrecks still occur and we are there to provide assistance.

Explore our timeline to find out more about how our charity came to be and the events and developments that have shaped us over the decades.

  • 1838 to 1855

    1838 – Wrecked Ships, Wrecked Lives

    On Sunday 28 October, 11 fishing vessels with 26 men onboard left Clovelly harbour for nearby fishing grounds. The fleet encountered a ferocious storm, after which only two vessels returned and 21 men were lost.

    Hearing of the tragedy, Mr Charles Gee Jones, a former Bristol pilot and landlord of the Pulteney Arms in Bath, suggested to Mr John Rye, a retired ‘medical man’, that something should be done to assist the widows, orphans and parents of the fishermen and mariners who lost their lives at sea.

    1839 – The Society’s Formation

    The Shipwrecked Fishermen and Mariners’ Royal Benevolent Society, better known as the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society, was established by John Rye with the assistance of Charles Gee Jones. The Society’s objectives were to give “relief and assistance to the widows and orphans of fishermen; and of mariners, members of the Society, who lose their lives by storms and shipwreck on any part of the coasts of the United Kingdom, while engaged in their lawful occupations; and also to render necessary assistance to such mariners, soldiers, or other poor persons as suffer shipwreck upon the said coasts”.

    The Society’s first public meeting was held on 21 February. Her Majesty Queen Victoria was its first Patron and ever since the Society has been honoured by Royal Patronage. See Patrons below.

    1844 to 1851 – A History of the Society Flag

    The Society’s distinctive flag was introduced in 1844. A distinguishing number was placed in the centre of the cross to identify the vessel to which it was assigned. Arrangements were made through private telegraph stations and then the coastguard to report the numbers on the flags displayed by vessels passing their stations and these in turn were reported to the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette. This was later extended when homeward-bound vessels would report enroute sightings upon arrival at a UK port. By 1851, 2,380 vessels displayed the Society’s flag.

    Some vessels also bore the Society’s flag and number painted on a board to provide a more permanent means of identification. This proved its worth when, in 1851, the William, of Kirkaldy, foundered off Ballywater, County Down. The board was the only item of the vessel recovered, to prove her identity, and enabled the Society to assist dependants of the lost crew.

    1846 – The Society has up to 700 Honorary Agents (volunteers) on its books

    1850 – The Society is Incorporated by Act of Parliament

    The Society was incorporated by Act of Parliament, on which the Rules and Regulations are based.  This was a farsighted document that in addition to its principal original purpose, gave the Society the right to establish Asylums and a system of lifeboats, and to build boats to demonstrate how much safer decked fishing boats could be. It would also allow it to pursue “any other objects, designs, or purposes of a benevolent character, for the benefit and welfare of all and every or any of the classes of men for whose benefit the said Society was originally established or those dependant on them”.

    1851 to 1854 – Lifeboats

    From 1851 the Society operated lifeboats at Lytham, Rhyl, Portmadoc, Tenby, Llanelli, Teignmouth, Hornsea and Newhaven but it was subsequently agreed that it would be wiser if one organisation concentrated on rescuing lives at sea while the other helped the survivors or their bereaved families. In

    1854, therefore, the Society transferred its lifeboats to the Royal National Lifeboat Association (RNLI).

    1851 – The Society begins its practice of giving medals for saving life at sea


    The Society’s founder, John Rye, dies
    The Society gives £375 to the RNLI to assist in its work

  • 1858 to 1912 – The Society Continues its Work

    1858 – The Society appoints a second ‘Travelling Agent’


    A decision is taken for the Society to be represented by Honorary Agents in the Colonies
    The Fishmongers Company donates £100 to the Society. Our Skill and Gallantry Awards ceremony and AGM have traditionally been held at Fishmongers’ Hall, London

    1865 to 1867 – The Society Helps to Form a Hospital for “Worn-out and Disabled Merchant Seamen”

    The Belvedere Institution, providing a hospital for “worn-out and disabled merchant seamen”, was established through the actions of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society in 1865 and opened its doors to its first residents in 1867. In 1868, the Institution was renamed ‘The Royal Alfred Aged Merchant Seamen’s Institution’ after its Patron, Prince Alfred, His Royal Highness (HRH) The Duke of Edinburgh, who was also the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society’s President from 1883 to 1901. The Royal Alfred Aged Merchant Seamen’s Institution went on to become The Royal Alfred Seafarers’ Society.

    1871 – A great storm hits Bridlington Bay. More than 70 sailors lose their lives and 30 ships are wrecked


    • 480 vessels are lost off the British coast
    • The Society has over 1,000 Honorary Agents
    • The Emile Robin Award is instituted with £666 in stocks. Similar awards are established by Monsieur Emile Robin in France, Italy and Holland
    • A scheme for relieving and repatriating distressed colonial seamen is instituted through the Government
    • Particularly severe gales lead to considerable loss of life


    • After disastrous gales, a special collection is held for Shetland’s fishermen, raising £776
    • 189 fishermen lose their lives in the Eyemouth fishing disaster, Scotland


    • Terrific gales batter the UK coastline from October to December, with a particular impact on the fishing fleets of Hull, Grimsby and other nearby fishing stations
    • 945 British-owned vessels are lost over the year, 445 of these off the coast of the UK
    • The Society receives a gift of 100 aneroid barometers manufactured by Dollond, with more donated by the Worshipful Company of Salters and others, to be presented as rewards or given on loan to fishermen and fishing stations

    1897 – The Society has assisted 500,365 people since its formation

    1912 – This is publicly designated as the most disastrous year ever known at Lloyd’s, with no fewer than 228 ships (of which 82 were British) reported as lost, and 36 (23 British) as ‘missing’

  • 1914 to 1978 – From Wartime to Peacetime and Back Again

    1914 to 1918

    • Honorary Agents support crews from ships sunk by enemy action and the dependants of those killed. £126,836 was expended in helping 50,917 sailors and fishermen, 2,656 widows, 4,724 orphans and 1,122 aged parents
    • Mine-Sweepers Fund established

    1925 – The Society assists 6,920 beneficiaries in total over the year (2,688 fishermen and mariners, 2,797 widows, 1,296 orphans and 139 aged parents)


    • The Society assists 6,329 beneficiaries in total over the year (1,946 fishermen and mariners, 3,230 widows, 1,003 orphans and 150 aged parents)
    • The Society has assisted over 895,000 people since its formation

    1939 to 1945 – The Society supports the crews of ships sunk by enemy action and the dependants of those killed in the service of their country

    1950 – The Society has about 700 Honorary Agents on its books

    1951 – Large collecting mines (Mk 17) are installed around the coast of the British Isles


    • The Society aids 501 survivors from the crews of 45 vessels
    • The Society assists 3,714 beneficiaries in total over the year (1,174 fishermen and mariners, 233 wives, 41 children, 1,863 widows, 371 orphans and 32 aged parents)

    1953 – Model mine collecting boxes are used for the first time

    1959 – The Society starts trading in Christmas cards for the first time

    1978 – The Society ends its membership scheme

    Find out more about the contribution of the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society and fishing and merchant fleets to both World Wars.

  • 1996 to the Present Day – Entering a New Millennium

    1996 – The Society takes over the administration of grants to beneficiaries of The Royal Alfred Seafarers’ Society

    2001 – The Society’s first website is established

    2001 – The Society takes on the administration of the Royal Seamen’s Pension Fund


    • The Society deals with over 700 applications for assistance
    • Over the year, 3,000 grants are made to ex-fishermen and merchant seamen
    • There are 300 Honorary Agents on the Society’s books

    2005 – Society Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, attends our Skill and Gallantry Awards ceremony and AGM


    • The Royal Seamen’s Pension Fund merges with the Society
    • The Cornwall Seamen’s Benevolent Trust merges with the Society


    • Society Patron, HRH The Princess Royal, visits Central Office in Chichester
    • The Hull Fishermen’s Trust Fund merges with the Society
    • The Society becomes the sole trustee of the Fleetwood Fishing Industry Benevolent Fund

    2013 – The Society launches its first photography competition, a national awareness-raising initiative

    2014 – The Society marks its 175th anniversary

  • Society Offices

    1839 – The Society is established at 26 Bucklebury, London

    1850 – Central Office moves to Hibernia Chambers, London Bridge

    1885 – Move to Sailors’ Home Chambers, Dock Street, London

    1895 – Move to 26 Suffolk Street, Pall Mall East, London

    1920 – Move to Carlton House, Regent Street, London

    1945 – Move to 16 Wilfred Street, Westminster, London

    1971 – Move to 1 North Pallant, Chichester (our current home)

  • Patrons

    1839 – Queen Victoria

    Edward VII

    George V

    George VI

    1952 – Queen Elizabeth II

    2001 – HRH The Princess Royal

  • Presidents

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