From its earliest days, Port Adelaide hosted legions of sailors, both foreign and domestic, who spent time ashore while their ships were in port. In the Ages of Sail and Steam, these men were typically ‘paid off’ upon arriving at their destination, and expected to survive for days, weeks and even months on limited means and (frequently) no additional income until their vessel departed, or they found work on another ship. In an effort to meet the needs of visiting mariners while they were ashore, a number of sailors' aid societies were established during the nineteenth century. They provided accommodation, meals and entertainment, and some also offered religious instruction and moral guidance. 

Refuges for the Port’s Visiting Mariners

The first of these societies, the Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home, was established in the 1860s. Other organisations soon followed and most remained in operation until the latter half of the twentieth century. These included the Port Adelaide Seamen’s Mission, an institution that was not religiously based, but widely supported by several non-conformist Christian denominations. Anglican groups, such as the Missions to Seamen in South Australia and the Lakeman Institute in Port Adelaide’s Outer Harbour, were extremely popular and provided services to seafarers until the 1980s. The last institution to offer aid to mariners in downtown Port Adelaide, the British and International Sailors’ Society Seafarers’ Centre, closed its doors in May 2012. A Catholic-based organisation, the SA Apostleship of the Sea (or Stella Maris), is located in Taperoo and is the Port Adelaide area’s last functioning sailors’ aid society.

Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home

The first formal accommodation in Port Adelaide for visiting sailors was the Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home. Located on St. Vincent Street, it was an imposing three-storey stone and brick building designed by architect Robert G. Thomas, and bankrolled with donations from several notable South Australians, including Captain John Hart, Sir Thomas Elder, Sir Walter Watson Hughes and George Fife Angas. Construction commenced with the placement of the Home’s foundation stone by His Royal Highness Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh on 18 February 1869; however, because it was located within the intertidal zone on land that had only been partially reclaimed, the structure suffered severe subsidence as building works progressed. By the time the walls were erected, the foundation had settled approximately 19 inches (0.5 metres) into the sediment upon which it rested. The subsidence problem delayed completion of the Home until 16 January 1875, when it was officially opened by Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave.

When it first opened, the Home featured 38 dormitories on its ground floor, 25 of which were furnished. Other amenities, including a dining room and reading room, were also located on the ground floor. The upper floor was initially vacant, but later accommodated a single large dormitory. Combining ‘business with benevolence’, the Home’s administrators originally charged sailors a ‘moderate’ fee for their room and board, and petitioned the Port Adelaide community for donations to cover operating and management costs. They also created a provision for imparting religious instruction and moral guidance in an effort to foster ‘self-respect and [a] sense of responsibility’ among the Home’s patrons. The Home was never very popular with visiting mariners, who frequently criticised it for its ‘bleak’ and ‘austere’ accommodation, and objected to ‘the strictness of [its] rules’. In 1880 the Home was sold to Port Adelaide shipping engineer PH Martin, who bought it as a ‘private speculation’. 

Port Adelaide Seamen’s Mission

The Port Adelaide Seamen’s Mission was established in 1879 and provided many of the same services as the Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home. Known colloquially as the ‘Sailors’ Rest’, it was located on Ship Street and served as a ‘club’ for the exclusive use of mariners, offering accommodation as well as an array of recreation and support facilities. Although not a religious-based organisation, it nonetheless had the support of several non-conformist congregations, employed a full-time missionary, and offered services on weeknights and Sunday afternoons and evenings.

In 1901, the Seamen’s Mission moved to specially-built premises on Nile Street near its intersection with Nelson Street. The new two-storey building was designed by architect F.W. Dancker and built under contract by Messrs. Mathinson and Kestel for approximately £1200. It was constructed of brick, and featured cement dressings, bluestone footings, and timber foundations. A large entry lobby on the ground floor was bracketed by offices for the missionary and his apprentice. The entry lobby opened into a general assembly hall measuring 53 feet (16 metres) by 27 feet (8 metres), and could be divided by large wooden folding doors to form a separate ‘seamen’s room’ that was 17 feet, 6 inches (5 metres) by 27 feet (8 metres). Other amenities on the ground floor included a kitchen, dining room, pantry, and access to an underground cellar and adjoining accommodation for the missionary. The second floor featured a sitting room, linen room, bathroom, and three bedrooms. Electrical lighting was installed throughout the building.

The Nile Street facility remained in operation until the 1950s, when it was demolished as part of the redevelopment of the area surrounding Queen’s Wharf. Originally, a replacement building was to be erected on the opposite side of Nile Street, but was ultimately established at the intersection of Nelson and St. Vincent Street in 1960. Known officially as the ‘British and International Sailors’ Society’ (but more often by its informal name the ‘Seafarer’s Centre’), it assumed the mantle of providing accommodation, recreation and other services for the Port’s visiting mariners for the remainder of the twentieth century.

The Missions to Seamen in South Australia

Twenty-nine years after the Seamen’s Mission opened its doors, yet another organisation dedicated to the well-being of seafarers was established in Port Adelaide. The Missions to Seamen in South Australia was a branch of the Anglican Missions to Seamen, an international association established in England in the 1830s that provided religious and practical support to sailors in ports around the globe. Following a meeting between Adelaide’s Bishop Arthur Nutter Thomas and the General Superintendent of the Anglican Missions to Seamen, Reverend G.F. Wilson, a South Australian mission was established on North Parade in the heart of the Port. It was based in offices owned by Howard Smith Company, Ltd., and comprised one small ground-floor room for the accommodation of sailors. The Mission’s first lay leader, Reverend F.S. Shell, was appointed in 1908 and lived in an upstairs room with his family.

By June of the following year, the Mission had outgrown the ‘miserable, ill-ventilated, inadequate’ North Parade premises and moved to a two-storey bluestone building on Todd Street that formerly housed the Port Adelaide Club and a branch of the South Australian Commercial Bank. The building was expanded over the next few years to include a canteen and reading room. A chapel dedicated to St. Andrew was created from the Mission’s original dining room, and a separate concert hall (named the ‘Seamen’s Hall’) was erected on adjacent property. The Governor’s wife, Lady Bosanquet, officiated at its opening on 21 October 1913.

Less than five months later, on the evening of 13 February 1914, fire gutted the Missions to Seamen complex. The blaze started in the adjacent timber yard of Messrs. Berry, Hodgson & Co. and rapidly spread to the Todd Street property, where it consumed the Seamen’s Hall and entered the Mission building through its back windows. Within a very short time, only the Mission’s blackened walls remained standing, although several items within were saved through the efforts of staff, bystanders, and a group of naval cadets who were to attend a social event in their honour. While damage to property was extensive, no fatalities or injuries resulted from the fire. The Mission reopened a short time later in a room above a nearby blacksmith’s shop, and remained there until February 1915, when renovation work concluded on the Todd Street building. New amenities included a slide projection room in the main hall, and a shooting and skittle gallery in the basement.

For the next 40 years, the Missions to Seamen offered religious services, accommodation, entertainment and other assistance to visiting mariners. Its members also conducted regular visits to ships in the Inner and Outer Harbour, and even ministered at the Torrens Island Internment Camp during the First World War. The Mission often faced financial challenges, and hosted a variety of fund-raising activities in an effort to remain solvent. Two events in particular, the annual Mission Ball and weekly ‘Flying Angel’ dance, were immensely popular. Sailors showed a decided preference for the Mission over other accommodation options, and some have argued this was due to the involvement of women in many of its social engagements. In 1946, Mission Chaplain R.D. Lloyd conducted Port Adelaide’s inaugural Blessing of the Fleet, and his successor, Reverend B.J. Williams, spearheaded an initiative to maintain the seamen’s section of Cheltenham Cemetery.

The Todd Street building was inspected and declared unsafe in 1956. Subsequent renovation work reduced the structure to one storey and added a modern brick extension, although St. Andrew’s Chapel was retained in its entirety. Although in a degraded condition, the Seamen’s Hall was also retained and renovated. The updated complex opened in 1960 and continued to serve the needs of mariners until 1980. Today, the Mission building and Seamen’s Hall are part of a workshop operated by Quin’s Canvas Goods Pty. Ltd., and a private residence occupies the 1960s extension.

The Outer Harbour Mission and Lakeman Institute

Due to an increase in the size of vessels calling at Port Adelaide at the turn of the twentieth century, shipping facilities opened at Outer Harbour on the northern tip of Lefevre Peninsula in 1908.  Initially, Outer Harbour was very isolated, and reliable overland transport to Port Adelaide was virtually non-existent. As the number of ships (and crews) utilising Outer Harbour’s facilities steadily increased, so too did the need for land-based accommodation and other services typically provided by one of the Port’s many mission establishments. In 1915 two rooms belonging to the South Australian Harbours Board were donated to the Anglican Missions to Seamen and converted into the Outer Harbour Mission. The Mission proved incredibly popular in its first year of operation and accommodated approximately 12 000 visitors in October 1916 alone.

Faced with a staggering increase in patrons, the Mission’s administrators quickly realised that additional and/or expanded premises were desperately needed. Frederick Lakeman, a wealthy Port Adelaide merchant, had a keen interest in the welfare of mariners visiting the Outer Harbour and donated a large prefabricated hut to the Mission in early 1919.  The hut was constructed of timber weatherboard and previously used by soldiers at Mitcham Camp during the First World War. It featured a large recreation hall and small chapel, a wrap-around verandah, a ‘piano for concerts and an organ for church services’, and was ‘liberally furnished with writing tables and chairs…[as well as] bagatelle and other games’. Lakeman paid to have the building dismantled, transported from Mitcham, and reconstructed at Outer Harbour. He was also responsible for funding the vast majority of its furnishings. The Harbours Board provided the site upon which the building was situated. In subsequent years additional amenities, including another chapel, bathrooms, a billiard room and kitchen, and a sports oval, were added to the facility.

In 1923, the Harbours Board reclaimed the land on which the Mission was located, and the buildings were transported to a new site the following year. Following the move, Lakeman bankrolled an ambitious new Mission that featured a mock-Tudor building—complete with towers and a baronial hall—as its centrepiece. Known as the ‘Lakeman Institute’, the complex featured standard accommodation for visiting sailors, as well as separate rooms for female immigrants, stewardesses and officers, a caretaker’s cottage, reading and billiards rooms, and a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas. The Tudor-style hall (Lakeman Hall) was designed by architect Guy St. John Makin and constructed of brick. It was officially opened by Governor Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven and the Bishop of Adelaide, Reverend Arthur Nutter Thomas, on 21 October 1929. Shortly thereafter, the old weatherboard building was dismantled and transported to Port Lincoln, where it was erected and served as that community’s Seamen’s Mission for several years.

During the Second World War the Outer Harbour Mission was transformed into temporary billeting for injured and distressed sailors, while its oval accommodated an encampment for servicemen departing on overseas duty. In the immediate post-war years the number of mariners utilising the Mission rapidly declined, and by the 1960s not enough patrons visited to justify the expense of maintaining it. Damage to buildings and infrastructure wrought by pests and salt air exacerbated the issue, and led to the Mission’s closure in 1974. The Harbours Board subsequently took possession of Lakeman Hall and rented it to the Lefevre Workers’ Club until September 1992, when it was set alight and largely destroyed in an act of arson. St. Nicholas chapel survived the blaze, was later re-roofed, and hosted occasional church services until the early 2000s. In 2004, all surviving remnants of the Outer Harbour Mission were removed from South Australia’s State Heritage Register and subsequently demolished by Flinders Ports (which assumed responsibility for port infrastructure managed by the South Australian Harbours Board in November 2001). Although originally intended for use as a car park, the property upon which the Mission was located is currently vacant, and lies within the boundaries of the North Haven Golf Course.

Final Years

During the 1970s, use of Port Adelaide’s sailor’s aid societies steadily declined, and by the end of the decade all were facing serious financial hardship. In an effort to maintain some degree of support for visiting mariners, the remaining organisations (including the Anglican Missions to Seamen, British Sailors’ Society, and Catholic Apostleship of the Sea) united to form the British and International Sailors’ Society Seafarer’s Centre. The new organisation opened in 1980 and operated out of premises on Nelson Street until 30 May 2012, when it was closed by the Society’s head office in London due to declining use. Today, the only remaining sailors’ aid organisation operating within the Port Adelaide area is the SA Apostleship of the Sea in Taperoo.

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Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

That's great to hear those stories Philip.

Philip Ng's picture
Philip Ng says:

I visited in Adelaide 1971 and 1972 when my ship Straat Cook was in port.
Enjoy dancing with those beauty at the mission.

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

Thanks for sharing that Tony, must have been a fascinating place to meet people.

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

Thanks for sharing that Tony, must have been a fascinating place to meet people.

Tony Jordan's picture
Tony Jordan says:

Spent many day of childhood at the Outer Harbour and Port Adelaide Mission for Seaman ( Uncle and his family were caretakers at both missions) and still in contact with one of the English sailors I met in the sixties...fond memories

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

We'd love to see your photo Hans.

Hans Ehmann 's picture
Hans Ehmann says:

My apologies. It was the third property in from Nelson.

Hans Ehmann 's picture
Hans Ehmann says:

The building was not near the intersection of Nile and Nelson but actually on the corner, and I have a photo taken just before demolition which shows that only the front on Nile st was two storey while the balance of the building to the north was only single storey, but with a substantial ceiling height.

Catherine Manning's picture
Catherine Manning says:

That's wonderful David, sounds like fond memories.

David vout's picture
David vout says:

I was a frequent visitor59 60 61, I well remember a young couple who were excellent dances

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Advertiser, 29 April 1901, ‘Seamen’s Mission hall’, p. 4.

Advertiser, 14 February 1914, ‘Big fire at Port Adelaide: Seamen’s Institute gutted’, p. 19.

Advertiser, 31 March 1919, ‘For sailors and soldiers: Seamen’s Institute at the Outer Harbour’, p. 9.

Advertiser, 21 October 1924, ‘Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home’, p. 11.

Advertiser, 22 October 1929, ‘Helping seamen: Lakeman Institute opened’, p. 17.

Advertiser, 18 October 1932, ‘Old Port landmark to go’, p. 5.

Advertiser, 3 December 1932, ‘Link with early Port Adelaide: Historic relics unearthed at Sailors’ Home’, p. 17.

Advertiser, 19 May 1950, ‘Proposed new Seamen’s Mission building for Pt. Adelaide’, p. 5.

[Adelaide] Chronicle, 5 April 1919, ‘For sailors and soldiers: Generous gift by Mr. Lakeman’, p. 15.

Couper-Smartt, John and Christine Courtney, Port Adelaide: Tales from a ‘Commodious Harbour’ (Port Adelaide: Friends of the South Australian Maritime Museum, 2003).

McDougall and Vines Conservation and Heritage Consultants, City of Port Adelaide Enfield heritage review (Norwood: McDougall and Vines Conservation and Heritage Consultants, 2014).

Portside Messenger, 7 January 2004, ‘Mission doomed’, p. 1.

Portside Messenger, 7 April 2004, ‘Historic hall makes way for car park’, p. 1.

South Australian Advertiser, 3 March 1869, ‘Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home, Port Adelaide’, p. 3.

South Australian Chronicle and Weekly Mail, 23 January 1875, ‘Formal opening of the Sailors’ Home at Port Adelaide’, p. 1.

South Australian Register, 18 January 1875, ‘Prince Alfred Sailors’ Home’, p. 6.

South Australian Register, 6 May 1889, ‘The Port Adelaide Seamen’s Mission and the Sailors’ Home’, p. 6.

South Australian Register, 28 November 1900, ‘Seamen’s Mission Hall and Sailors’ Rest’, p. 4.

The [Adelaide] Register, 2 September 1925, ‘A sailor’s log: The late Capt. W.P. Lee’, p. 15.

The [Adelaide] Register, 3 June 1909, ‘Mission to Seamen’s Institute’, p. 4.

The [Adelaide] Register, 27 March 1908, ‘Church of England Missions to Seamen: Branch at Port Adelaide’, p. 6.

The [Adelaide] Register, 31 March 1919, ‘New Seamen’s Institute: Opened at Outer Harbour’, p. 6.