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Title: With Jack Ashore--The Seamen's Institute, Sydney.
Author: John Arthur Barry
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Language: English
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Title: With Jack Ashore--The Seamen's Institute, Sydney.
Author: John Arthur Barry


With Jack Ashore.--The Seamen's Institute, Sydney.

Published in the Australian Town and Country Journal, Sydney N.S.W.,
Saturday, November 16, 1901

* * *

Much has been written by novelists and others of Merchant Jack's life
on shipboard, both from the point of view of the preponderating squalor
and hardship which still pervades it and from that of the now rare
romance that comes in his way. But of his life during the brief spells
in port and of the efforts made by kind and generous people to put a
little brightness into it, and to bring home to him the fact that there
are some folk at least who do not regard him altogether as a pariah and
an outcast, very seldom, so quietly is the work carried on, do we hear
anything at all. I purpose in this article attempting, so far as
concerns our own port of Sydney, to supply the deficiency.

Stowed away in an obscure corner of George-street North, almost facing
the wharf where lie the German-Australian steamers, stands the building
known as the Seamen's Institute, consisting of a spacious club-room
below; and above it, on the next storey, the Mariners' Church--capable,
this last, of seating some 600 or 700 people. And, thus, at the
Institute are Merchant Jacks' spiritual and physical needs amply
provided for by those who know his nature intimately, and allow him, if
he so pleases, to smoke his pipe downstairs before going upstairs to
worship God; or, if he prefers it, to stay down altogether. The people
who manage the Institute know Jack too well to throw Scripture at him;
in consequence of which the perverse creature comes out of curiosity to
discover for himself what is going on aloft, and as likely as not
remains to pray.

In the big lower, room Jack can smoke, read, play bagatelle and other
games, such as chess, draughts, ludo, etc., and refresh himself with
''soft" drinks. There is a library (with rather a too theological
tendency about its contents); there are papers and magazines by the
dozen; there is everything the moderate sailor heart could wish for,
except, grog, and that is, of course , anathema maranatha. But, in
addition to this fine clubroom, free to all of the seventy nine or
eighty thousand Jacks who visit our port yearly, there is a regular
weekly round of concerts, smoke nights, and more or less informal
gatherings, some organised by the seamen themselves, others by the
committee of a number of ladies and gentlemen who take an interest in,
and give time, money, and thought to keep Jack straight--out of the
pubs, and off the street--and in leading him to the cleanlier ways and
habits of life. And to the Sydney women, especially, who year in and
year out work so quietly, yet so energetically for the good of the
sailor, is due not only the deepest gratitude on Jack's part, but on
that of the whole community, who more or less profit by their
exertions. For, be it remembered, these nights in Sailor Town don't
partake exactly of the character of a society function. But that Jack
appreciates them is shown by the fact that he rolled up at the Tuesday
and Thursday concerts during the past twelve months to the tune of
17,185. Also 9658 of him went aloft into the church, and praised and
sang, in other fashion. A very notable record, indeed, I think,
considering all things. The attendances on "off nights," when there was
nothing particular going on, came to 26,170. A still more startling
record! Years ago--a good many--when I traded in deep-sea ships to
Sydney, such a place as the present Seamen's Institute would have been
a boon, indeed. I believe it was even then in existence; but somehow we
never heard of it, and in consequence our evenings were either spent on
board or in wandering about the streets. If we wished to write home, we
wrote kneeling on the floor of the deckhouse, using our chests as
desks. In over a dozen voyages I never remember a ship being visited
and, as at present, its crew hailed as friends, and invited with hearty
words of cheer to make themselves at home. We used to wash in a bucket.
The sea swells of to-day go straight to the Institute, and luxuriate in
a bath. And to those just off a long voyage this fact will appeal. Now,
I see by one of the latest official reports, that no less than 3468
ships were visited; 4443 letters written in peace and comfort. The
staff wrote 313 to its sailor friends abroad, and these responded with
368. Evidently Jack trading to and from New South Wales waters regards
the institute as his headquarters.

Nor are the sick seamen in hospital forgotten, no less than 676 visits
during the past year having been made to the Sydney and St. Vincent's
institutions. Jack doesn't forget this kind of thing. But it and the
ship visiting entails a lot of work on the staff--a somewhat
magniloquent term by which to denominate a chaplain and a lay
missionary. Another two, at the least, are urgently needed to carry on
with; but, although out of debt, the Institute can't afford to pay for
more help unless contributions considerably increase. Indeed, but for
the 200 per annum subsidy from the parent mission in England, of which
the Institute is a branch, it would be more than difficult to make both
ends meet. This strikes me as being somewhat of a reproach to the
shipowners of Sydney, seeing that if the Institute can make Jack
soberer, steady, and imbue him with a certain sense of religion, in
fact, make a responsible creature of him, so in great measure do those
who employ him benefit. And that the Institute succeeds, even with its
present limited resources, in doing this its records show.

And in this connection, chatting with the Rev. Distin Morgan, the
chaplain-superintendent of the Institute, in whom the church robbed the
sea of a good man, I was much struck with a suggestion he made for
raising the sinews of war. This was to say once a year or so, visit the
most important inland centres and lecture on the purpose and aims of
the Institute. As is well known, there are "up country" many hundreds
of men who once used the sea, and who now still retain for it and
matters connected therewith a certain affection and regard.
Recollection, mellowed by time, has preserved the pleasant memories of
the life; of the long days of ease and sunshine through the Trades,
when there was never need to touch a brace; of the balmy, starlit,
tropic nights, when the great pile of canvas, towering heavenward,
forced the beautiful fabric along almost in perfect silence; of the
roaring sprees ashore "'mid shadows of palms and shining sands;" of
wanderings among strange people and cities; and perhaps, above all
other memories, the ever present one of the sublime and wondrous stage
upon which they worked so long, and which they will never see again.
Vanished is the memory of the hardship, the squalor; the rations, bad
and scant; the petty tyrannies that made life a torture; all the
miseries and ills of a profession unequalled in such happenings. Of
many scores of sailors I have met in the bush the majority have always
spoken of the old life behind them with a sort of lingering regret that
must have sounded odd to those who cannot realise how the sea keeps
persistently calling to the men who have once tasted of its laborious
and poverty-stricken yet subtle charm. And among these--they are to be
found in many walks of the inland life--it seems, only reasonable to
suppose that a certain measure of support might be expected for the
Jacks who still plough those "wandering fields of barren foam," who
still labor "in the deep mid-ocean, wind, and wave, and oar."

To those who are interested in the subject it would be perhaps a
surprise to learn the number of seafarers that the great hinterland of
Australia gathers yearly to its bosom. And they are always welcome.
Merchant Jack, like his naval brother, is essentially a handy man and
baulks at nothing, from driving bullocks to pressing wool, from lambing
down a flock of sheep (if needs be in these days) to sinking post-holes
or throwing a bridge across a river. And as for a horse, he is, if "all
over it," but seldom off. "Have you many sailors on your station?" I
once asked a squatter. "Enough to make a dog-leg fence of, thank God,"
he piously replied.

And yet, curiously enough (to those who have never been), Jack, with
all night in, full and plenty of good fresh "tucker," no hazing mates
or "bucko" skippers, some of him, after a while, and suddenly obeying
the Call of the Sea, goes back to it all again. Goes back to the
squalid, foc'sle, and the hard living, and the broken rest; goes back
to the "All hands shorten sail," the thick darkness, the howling gale,
the reeling yard-arm and thunderous canvas; goes back to face the music
because of that little indefinable something tugging at his heart-
strings, calling him so irresistibly.

But, again, many remain and resist; and to these a mission of the kind
proposed by the chaplain might not be unproductive.

Saturday night has been from time immemorial generally looked upon by
Jack as one of liberty and freedom, on which to spend the few shillings
doled out to him from his pay. And yet so successful have proved the
"socials" introduced by Mr. Morgan on that apparently most hopeless of
all nights, that on 52 Saturdays the attendance numbered 7200--all
Jacks, and their five shillings, saved from the low bars and lower
harpies of Sailor Town.

A feature of the Institute is the "Apprentices' room," a large
apartment, comfortably furnished throughout by the hon. secretary, Mrs.
Scot-Skirving, than whom nobody takes more interest in seamen, big and
little, body and soul. And here the youngsters can write letters, read,
exchange opinions on their respective ships, smoke if they wish to, or
make arrangements for running away up country to dig for gold or shoot
the bushrangers, with which that terra incognita still teens. The last
year's report states that out of 445 apprentices who visited Sydney 10
deserted. But of these, 4 were persuaded to rejoin their, ships, 3 were
sent home, 2 went on the coast, and 1 has left no trace. Respecting
that solitary and errant youth is much field for conjecture! A notable
feature in connection with the apprentices is that, as occasion serves,
they are introduced to the ladies of the committee, and by them taken
home, and once more made acquainted with the comforts and amenities of
that other home so far away, and perhaps so longed for. And what such a
privilege means to a little "first-voyager" only the lad himself can
realise. That they are not ungrateful, the walls of their room bear
ample testimony in framed pictures of ships, nicknacks, and curios
presented to the Institute. Monday night is made an "at home" by the
ladies for this especial purpose of seeing the lads and talking with
them, and, as remarked above, offering them such hospitality as they
could find nowhere else apart from their own relatives and friends.
Lucky "brass-bounder" of to-day! Changed, indeed, are the times since,
when with other youthful "hard bargains" the writer tramped the cobble-
stoned streets of Sydney and waited vainly for gracious ladies to
appear offering cates and boundless hospitality to the forlorn children
of the sea, strangers in a strange land. But now, thanks to the
exertions of the ubiquitous and energetic lay missionary, Mr. C. H.
Moss, no visiting ship remains unboarded, and all hands are cordially
invited to the Institute to spend their evenings.

Recently there came to Sydney on a tramp steamer an Ordinary Seaman of
no common parts, who, when he returned home, wrote the story of his
experiences. He called his book "The Shuttle of an Empire's Loom," and
told his story well. Also, he has a long reference to the Institute,
describing a concert he was present at, and concluding as follows:
"Would that some of the other bodies who profess to take an interest in
the welfare of the merchantman had as much knowledge of the correct way
to set about it as the Sydney Sailors' Institute." The author also
expresses his thanks for a bag of "Strand" and "Pall Mall" magazines,
"Illustrated News" and "Graphics," "which passed many a weary hour at

Scores of these neat bags, filled with reading matter invaluable to
Jack in his watch below, are yearly placed on outward-bound ships by
Mr. Moss, for whom the arduous work of visiting is, as the trade of the
port increases, getting to be quite too much. As remarked before, to
allow such an institution to remain short-handed for lack of a few
extra pounds per annum, is a reproach to the Sydney shipping community,
many of whose names are conspicuously absent from the published list of
subscriptions. In a measure, perhaps, as far as the general public is
concerned, the Institute has only itself to thank for any want of
support it may have experienced. It doesn't advertise; it doesn't send
round canvassers; it simply, so to speak, sits still, and trusts in
Providence and the shipping people, which ought, of course, to suffice.
Only, unfortunately, it does not. Hundreds, nay thousands, of out-
siders have a soft place in their hearts for Jack, and a spare shilling
or two in their pockets for his benefit. And these are the people who
might very well be asked to supplement the offerings of the regular
subscribers. As it is, the Institute is doing valuable work; but it
might be made to do much more, and do it better. Space is urgently
required to meet the ever-growing number of visitors. On hot summer
nights, when the rooms are uncomfortably crowded, there is nowhere for
perspiring Jacks to escape except on to a little narrow balcony or out
into the street. The lavatory accommodation, too is becoming
insufficient. There are also other matters; and take it full and by,
the place, despite the incalculable good it is doing, even with its
scanty funds and congested space, is not a credit to one of the
greatest shipping ports in the world. In the near future it will be
ridiculously inadequate to its purpose, and if something be not done,
Jack will overflow into the streets and public houses. Of course the
executive fully realise this fact; but it is helpless without ampler
funds to draw upon than it at present possesses.

Glancing over one of the later subscription lists, it is significant to
remark that, the whole of the ship collections, amounting to 113 5s
2d, is contributed, without exception, by regular traders to the port.
Apparently the scores of strangers who visit us yearly have given
nothing, which shows, I take it, the need for more help--in Mr. Moss's
department especially. It seems only fair that these nomadic vessels,
availing themselves of the advantages of the Institute, as we know they
do, should be invited to contribute to its maintenance. Of interest
also is it to note that among the thirty odd contributing steamers on
the list appears only a solitary sailer--a fact which but emphasises the
above remarks, inasmuch as on most nights representatives of canvas may
be met with at the Institute. Mr. Moss should have, at the very least,
two colleagues to help in the work of visiting and collecting.

And, talking about sailing ships, the master of the Macquarie, the late
Captain Goddard, was one of the best friends the Institute had; ashore
or afloat he ever took a sympathetic and practical interest in its
fortunes. And now, although he has gone far beyond the "long wash of
Australasian seas," which his noble ship cleft so surely and so
regularly, yet is his memory kept green in many hearts of seamen and
landsmen. The Institute could do with many more friends like the old
master mariner of the Macquarie.

It is hardly necessary to say that all Merchant Jack does not spend his
evenings rationally and soberly at the Institute. Some of him still
goes on in the bad old way. With him, however, we have nothing to do
just now. But to the majority--the great majority--it may be safely said
that the quaint old building snugged against tall warehouse walls,
grimy with steamer smoke, and practically unknown to thousands of city
people, has proved a very present help, a certain harbor of refuge. And
the purpose of this article has been not only to draw attention to that
fact, but to attempt to enlist the sympathies of the public at large,
both in town and in country, to such an extent that the scope of the
work shall be enlarged and opportunity afforded those willing to assist
Jack ashore, which is where he really needs it, even more than when


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