THERE are few sailors in the habit of trading to the river who will not be acquainted with the Swan, a dandy-rigged cutter, that serves as the Thames Floating Church, and may generally be seen lying alongside one of the sections of colliers waiting their turn to go up to the Pool to discharge. As the So- ciety that manages the affairs of this vessel has just published its Seventh Annual Report, we think some of our readers on the coast may like to hear what has been doing on board the Swan for the last year; and as this little Journal may fall into the hands of others who have not had an opportunity of visiting the Swan, and perhaps of some who would like to see a similar Floating Church on some other of our rivers fre- quented by colliers, as the Tyne, the Wear, the Tees, &c., we will preface it by a few words as to the objects of the Mission, and the way they are carried out, as given in the Report before us.
The Thames Church Mission Society was established in 1844 to afford the advantages of a cruising vessel of worship, and partial visitation to the vast floating population on the Thames, consisting of sailors, fishermen, bargemen, &c. To prevent the over- crowding of the Pool, coal-laden vessels for the port of London are not allowed to proceed at once to their destination, but must bring up in the section appointed by the harbour-master, and there await further orders. There are 7 such sections in the river between Blackwall and Gravesend.
The uppermost, in Bugsby's Reach, has room for 65 sail; the two in Galleon's Reach, 25 sail; in Halfway Reach, just above Erith, 25 sail; in Long Reach, 200 sail; in Fidler's Reach, just below Green- hithe, 75 sail; and in Northfleet Hope, 75 more: in all, 465 sail, manned by about 3,000 men and boys. From various causes, vessels are frequently detained here several days, and sometimes for weeks. To supply their crews with spiritual instruction is the great object of the Society, and to assist them, the Admiralty kindly lent the Swan cutter, the hold of which is fitted up as a church.
The crew consists of the master, mate, two men, and two boys, who manage the vessel, and place her where the chaplain directs; the boats are then manned, sup- plied with books, and the work of visitation begins. Tracts are distributed, Bibles and prayer-books sold at reduced prices, and sailors are offered the use of a lending library, and invited to attend Divine service.
At four P.M. a signal is made, denoting that there will be service in the evening. For half-an-hour the Thames church bell calls the seamen to prayers, and during this period the Swan's boats offer a passage to those who cannot otherwise obtain one.
On Sunday mornings the service begins at half-past ten ; in the afternoon, a Bible-class of men and boys assemble at half-past two, and there is evening service at half-past six.
During the dark evenings the church is lighted with lamps, and warmed by a stove in the winter. There has been a steady in- crease in the congregation, insomuch that at times it is difficult to find even standing room. No class of people can be more attentive or decorous, and it is a touching scene to witness the weather-beaten countenances of some of the sailors lifted up in prayer, and to hear their unskilled, but manly voices, joining in a hymn of praise and thanks- giving.
During the past year, 3,348 vessels were visited ; they were chiefly colliers; the rest were emigrant ships, fishing-smacks, barges, &c. 932 Bibles or Testaments, and 382 prayer-books, were sold. Divine service was celebrated 242 times, and attended by 8,942 persons; the greater part of whom, but for this vessel, would have been deprived of the means of worship: and for many a poor fellow it probably was his last opportunity of hearing the offer of mercy.
A sailor lately remarked that he had not been able to attend the services in the Swan for five years, and that on the last occasion he was there with seven other seamen, who were all drowned on the following voyage.
Now when we know that the average loss of life to our own countrymen from wreck and casualties at sea is about 1,000 persons a-year, it becomes a solemn duty to lose no opportunity of declaring to sailors the mes- sage of God's love to man. It may be their last warning. The recent loss of one noble vessel, the Amazon, made 60 widows, and deprived 150 children of a father's care.
Another, and a valuable feature of this Mission, is a lending library of well-selected books, adapted to the taste of sailors: the books are in so great request that the de- mand far exceeds the supply. There can be no doubt that the circulation of these books must be attended with good effect, and as the men take to them kindly, and are anxious to get them, every effort should be made to increase the library, so as always to have suitable books ready for those that ask for them.
Such, then, is the work that has been accomplished on the Thames by a few faithful and resolute men with small means. There is also a floating Mariners' Church at Liver- pool and at Bristol. Now is there any reason why a somewhat similar vessel should not be established in some other of our river harbours, where the want of churches near the river's banks renders it very difficult for sailors to attend any place of worship ? The Tyne and the Wear are cases in point, but especially the former, which is a river about ten miles long from its entrance at Tynemouth and Shields to Newcastle Bridge; and in a portion of this length the vessels lie in tiers or sections, very much as in the Thames, waiting their turns to be loaded with coal; or occasionally, when laden, waiting for a fair wind to sail.
The Tyne, too, stands at the head of the list of our ports for the number of arrivals and sailings, having upwards of 40,000 vessels in and out every year, or more than either London or Liverpool. As many as 1,200 laden vessels have been seen at one time lying in the port waiting for a fair wind. It is true that in several cases the vessels have not their full crews on board, but they always have some men and lads to take care of the craft, and these would make up a large congregation, who would most thank- fully attend Divine service, if the opportunity were afforded them, in a church of their own, without going far from their vessel.
Besides, on the banks of the Tyne there is no superabundance of churches; they are, alas! like angels' visits, " few and far between." We would then respectfully invite all interested in the welfare of sailors belonging to the Tyne to take this question into consideration. We feel assured that the difficulties which may start up at first sight, when they come to be faced and grappled with, will vanish. All that would be re- quired to make a beginning would be a small vessel, with her hold fitted up as a church, say with 100 or 150 sittings to start with; the cabin prepared for the chaplain, who should live on board; the forecastle, or fore-peak, for the crew, which need be very few in number; besides which, arrangements should be made for an evening school, open to apprentice lads and sailors, a reading-room, a lending-library, and a depot for Bibles, prayer-books, and useful publications. The vessel need not be a black un- sightly-looking craft, but painted of a cheer- ful colour, in accordance with her use; not a repulsive, but a pleasing object, similar to the floating Mariners' Churches in the United States of America (a model of one of which was shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851), at Hong Kong in China, and elsewhere. It would not require masts or sails, as we feel sure some one of the numerous steam-tugs on the Tyne would give her a friendly tug when she required to shift her berth. After the first cost of the vessel, it is probable the whole expense need not exceed 400Z. a-year, which could be no great object to the counties of Northumberland and Durham, and all well-disposed sailors would assist.
We believe such an establishment would be highly popular among sailors, as it certainly is in America; that not only seamen, but their wives, children, and friends would press to be admitted to attend public service on board, in preference to having to seek sittings with difficulty in a church on shore.
The floating population of the Tyne on a working day (exclusive of steamboat passengers) may be roughly estimated at 2,000 persons; on a Sunday, probably it does not exceed one-half. Now, if one in five, or even one in ten of this number, could attend public worship, there would at once be a fair congregation; but not improbably some pilots might join, and in fine weather we believe the numbers would be much increased.
Much, of course, would depend upon securing the services of a zealous chaplain, who would devote himself to the work, and put his whole heart in the cause; but we trust there can be little doubt that a faithful mi- nister would be found by seeking. Can one doubt that in such a cause "The Lord of Hosts would be with us; the God of Jacob would be our refuge ?" Nor is it impossible that after a short time that peculiar class of men so characteristic of their employment the " keelmen" might be induced to attend the TYNE FLOATING CHURCH ; they would not find that they did their work worse on the Monday from having joined in the service of God on the Sunday.
They have a spirit-stirring song on the Tyne, the chorus of which says, " Weel may the keel row ;" we venture to assure them that the " keel" would row all the better, and more cheerfully, could they spend a portion of their evenings and of their Sundays on board their own Floating Church, where they would be always gladly welcomed, and their best interests attended to.