Victorian London - Charities - Asylum for Destitute Sailors

see also Henry Mayhew Letter to the Chronicle 51 - click here

Destitute Sailors' Asylum, 10, Well-street, E., known to mercantile Jack as "The Straw House," was originally established in the year 1827, since which period it has been the means of dispensing she1ter, food, and partial clothing, together with medical advice when necessary, as also spiritual counsel to no fewer than 57,130 destitute sailors of all creeds and tongues. The work of the year 1879 was especially heavy, the clouded state of commercial affairs and the depression of shipping interests, coupled with the stormy weather which had so long prevailed, and the unusually long and severe winter, having contributed to make up the large number of 1,333 destitute sailors - English and foreign - who were received into the asylum from May, 1878, to May, 1879. The aggregate amount of wages received by the 1,333 men when paid off from their last ship had been, by their own statements, 6,044 2s. 9d., or an average of 4 10s. 8d. per man. No fewer, however, than 617 out of the number came penniless to the asylum from boarding-houses and other places in London, and from other parts of the kingdom; 24 were shipwrecked; 159 were from foreign ports; 71 from the Seamen's Hospital at Greenwich; 19 from hospital in London; and finally, 5 from the least satisfactory source of all, the House of Correction.
    The public cannot do better than refer any destitute sailor who may apply to them for relief - or any tramp or mendicant professing to be a destitute sailor - to the Destitute Sailors' Asylum, where, if he be really a sailor, and really destitute he will be sure of receiving a fortnight's maintenance, with the gift of certain articles of clothing; while every exertion will be made to get him a ship. The directors very justly point out that by communicating this fact to seamen in real want, a much greater boon will be conferred upon them than by pecuniary relief, while the great evil of money-giving to mere impostors will be avoided.
    The whole establishment is conducted under a strict sense of the necessity for impressing upon improvident and penniless Jack the disadvantages of pennilessness and improvidence. He is not to be allowed to starve in the gutter of Ratcliff-highway, nor to sink absolutely to the humiliating comfort of a grim black calico bed in the casual ward of Wapping Workhouse. But when Jack has wasted his hard-earned substance in riotous living in Ratcliffe-highway, he must not expect to find at the expense of his charitable neighbours the plum-cake of providence, or the spring mattress of self-support. His dietary and his sleeping arrangements are upon an equally Spartan scale. In the Straw House, too, Jack's bath is not an optional, but a compulsory function, during the performance of which his garments are subjected to the salutary discipline of the oven, supplemented when circumstances seem to require it, by a sufficient pan of sulphur. Occasionally even this drastic treatment is considered insufficient, and Jack is then provided with a fresh rig, not perhaps in the highest style of nautical dandyism, but sufficiently respectable to enable him to set out - as he is expected to do the first thing in the morning - on the quest for employment with some chance of success. When he does succeed in getting a ship, and, in reply to the shipping-master's question, has to state where he slept the previous night, his appreciation of the situation sometimes verges on the comic. Nothing short of compulsion suffices to extract the humiliating confession ; and when at last he leans across the counter, and whispers "Straw House" through the speaking-pipe of the big brown hand which has held so loose a grip upon the wages of his last voyage, it is with the evident determination to hold on a little better to those of the trip on which he is now about to start.

Charles Dickens, Dickens's Dictionary of the Thames, 1881