The 16 mile canal linking Gloucester and Sharpness was intended to bypass the narrow winding stretch of the River Severn below Gloucester. The canal opened in 1827 and growing numbers of seamen and boatmen came to Gloucester.
In about 1831, Mr Campbell of Gloucester had a vision for Mariners Chapel but the vision faded following his death. However, the vision was taken up again in 1846 by a businessman trading in the docks who wanted to see evangelism taking place among the ignorant and neglected seamen and boatmen. The need was highlighted by a ship’s captain and a boatman who separately complained about the ‘absence of spiritual comforts’.
In 1847, a meeting was convened at which it was decided that a chapel should be established, served by a clergyman whose entire attention would be devoted to the sailors and boatmen frequenting the port.
The building was designed by local architect John Jaques – a simple building with just a nave and bell tower. The chancel is at the west end instead of the normal east, due to the close proximity of the warehouse behind the church. Local builder William Wingate began construction work began in 1848. The chapel was completed a year later. Today, it is a grade II listed building.
The opening ceremony took place on 11 February 1849, with Rev James Hollins being appointed the first chaplain. Mariners was built primarily for the workers at Gloucester Docks and crews of vessels moored there, though it has always been open to the residents of Gloucester too. It was and remains a proprietory chapel within the Church of England (*see end).
Mariners was frequented by seamen from many nations who came on the ships unloading cargo in the docks. They were a colourful addition to the local scene. Spanish seamen brought onions to Gloucester and sold them in the streets to local housewives. The seamen brought good business to the many public houses in the streets around the docks!
A local newspaper account in 1860 describes the many nationalities that could be seen and heard at the Docks: ‘Here we see a Frenchman from the rich vine districts of Brittany, an Italian from the fertile plantations around Palermo or a swarthy Negro escaped from the Slave States of America. These, with a few Americans and a sprinkling of Norwegians, Danes, Dutchmen and Germans, compose the motley crews of the arrivals in our port’.
In those days, seamen and bargees were distinctively dressed and there was a social barrier between them and other citizens, notably on Sundays when citizens would wear their Sunday best. People from the ships and boats had the chapel to themselves.
The chaplain welcomed all seamen, organising services in foreign languages when appropriate, and using a portable organ for services on the quayside. There was a Sunday school for boatmen’s children. Religious tracts were given out in many languages, including Welsh, Hindustani and even Chinese. In its first five years, 2,000 copies of the Bible and over 14,000 leaflets in 12 different languages were distributed.
The local watermen and families were often uneducated and living very basic lives. Drunkenness and bad language were common social problems among them. In 1884, an old cheese warehouse with two flats was purchased nearby, for use as a meeting hall. Mariners church started up a coffee bar there, and gave reading and writing lessons. The hall also provided a place simply to relax.
The chaplain also ministered to British emigrants leaving for North America.
With the demise of Gloucester as a major port, the church was in danger of becoming redundant. The regeneration of the docks in recent years has provided new opportunities for the church to play its part in bringing the Christian message to the Docks community.
* A proprietary chapel is a chapel that originally belonged to a private person. In 19th century Britain they were common. Frequently they were set up by evangelical philanthropists with a vision of spreading Christianity in cities whose needs could no longer be met by the parishes. Some functioned more privately, with a wealthy person building a chapel so they could invite their favourite preachers. They are anomalies in English ecclesiastical law, having no parish area, but being able to have Anglican clergy licensed there. Historically, many Anglican churches were proprietary chapels. Over the years they have often been converted into normal parishes. However, Mariners remains a proprietory chapel.