Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Joseph Conrad at the London Sailors' Home

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

Joseph Conrad at the London Sailors' Home

Article excerpt

I am not likely to forget my early days in Well Street and the good will shown to a stranger by all there - and especially by your late Father, who so kindly assisted me in becoming (I hope not an altogether unworthy) British subject; and your own uniform kindness. Kindly give my best regards to Mr. Newton, my only teacher, and to Mr. Bastard, my first watch officer . . .

To Vernon Weston, 26 May 1896 (CLl 283)

I have been in touch with the Sailors' Home for sixteen years of my life, off and on . . . between the years 1878 and 1894. I have listened to the talks on the decks of ships in all latitudes, when its name would turn up frequently.... I would say that, for seamen, the Well Street Home was a friendly place ... quietly unobtrusively, with a regard for the independence of the men who sought its shelter ashore, and with no ulterior aims behind that effective friendliness.

"A Friendly Place" (1912; Notes on Ufe and Tetters 203)

WITH THESE generous words Joseph Conrad acknowledges his indebtedness to one of the most important of London's seafarers' institutions and, by extension, his familiarity with the worldwide network of charitable welfare provision in ports, which was largely British in origin. In his time such facilities for mariners ashore were also likely to be provided by or associated with the Protestant religion. From the time he first frequented ports as a prospective seafarer in Marseilles in 1874 he could not have avoided becoming aware of the seedy side of port districts, dubbed "Sailortown" by writers describing social conditions in ports, nor of the seamen's missions, sailors' rests, seamen's institutes, sailors' homes, and seamen's hospitals opened by such charities amidst the businesses that lived off shipping and their crews close to where ships berthed (Hugill 1967; Smith 1924; Smith 1925). With the notable exception of the Singapore Sailors' Home (established 1849), these institutions do not feature significantly in his writing and are, apparently, under-represented in the extensive contextual writing about his life and works (Sherry 1976: 20, 176, 182-83; Young 1992: 70- 71).1 This is despite the long periods, unusual for a seafarer, that Conrad spent in ports between voyages during his sea career.

Although his biographers have attempted to locate Conrad in lodgings ashore when he was between ships, they appear not to have considered the seafaring charitable accommodation found in larger ports (Singapore excepted) or the ever-present commercial seamen's lodgings (van Marie 1976b; 1979; 1985). Yet the areas in which these were located were inevitably the first Conrad encountered when setting foot ashore and the last when outward bound. That of London, especially the older area immediately east of the Tower, was at the heart of his seafaring experience ashore in Britain. In the 1880s, it had not yet lost the exotic and international mix of individuals, social facilities, degradation, smells, noise, shipping-related businesses, and industrial and commercial activities that writers on the area have attempted to portray. Even in the early twenty-first century some vestiges of the area of Conrad's time remains, not least the part of the original building in Well Street and the 1950s replacement in Dock Street, of this first of all sailors' homes.

Conrad certainly walked the streets east of the Tower, in connection with his ships and with his involvement in the British merchant seafaring regulatory regime (see Fig. 1; Hampson 1992). At the beginning and at the end of voyages in London he signed on and off his ships at the Mercantile Marine Office in Hammet Street, Tower Hill. From 1851 to 1873 it had been in the Sailors' Home, and from 1895 it was in an adjacent building erected by and rented from the Home in Well Street. He was examined for his Certificates of Competency as Second and First Mate and Master - all "ordinary" (that is, sail and steam) and foreigngoing (that is, international) in the London Local Marine Board's examination rooms in the same area, and he studied for these qualifications in the Home's own Navigation School (van Marie 1976a; Mörzer Bruyns forthcoming). …

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