Looking Back

Ours is the story of Port Natal, one of the great natural harbours of the world, where the Sailors Society was born, so let our story begin here in 1877, in a shallow silted harbour, fringed by mangroves and hippos and crocodiles with a few rickety wharves at the Point and the town of Durban, just a few buildings scattered along the waterfront.

The Sailors Society, which is today a nationwide organisation, had small beginnings. It owes its origin to Marie Schultz, the wife of Durban’s first doctor who distributed books and tobacco amongst seamen, and cared for shipwrecked mariners, forming around her a band of helpers.

From this beginning in 1889 the first Seamen’s Institute was opened at 154 Point Road, Durban with a building and the society was in business. Ten years later the Anglo Boer War broke out. Half a million Imperial Troops were sent to SA and the Seamen’s Institute had its first experience of administering to men at war. An important development in our shipping industry took place in 1904 when the first passenger steamer, the Armadale Castle crossed the bar and docked at the Point.

This heralded the start of a long association between the steamship passenger liner and the Sailors Society. Meanwhile sister clubs had been built in Port Elizabeth and Simon’s Town. Port Elizabeth at that time had not yet developed as a port. In fact it was not until 1934 that the first breakwater was built in Algoa Bay and mail ships could dock alongside the quay. The Simon’s Town club was built as a service to the men of the South Atlantic squadron of the Royal Navy.

The Union of South Africa was born in 1910 and our ports began to expand. 1914 saw the commencement of the First World War and the three clubs became full to overflowing as countless volunteer workers toiled long hours to care for the servicemen who entered the doors of the clubs.

The years following the war, with their acute economic depression, presented the Clubs with severe financial problems, but the storm was weathered and the bad years passed until 1939 when the Second World War brought challenges in Seafarers work never before imagined.

The clubs moved efficiently into action to cope with the thousands of servicemen who passed through our ports. The second Institute Canteen was built in Durban Harbour and volunteers flocked to the aid of the clubs providing food and shelter, comfort and a home from home, not only for the men and women in the fighting forces and Merchant Marine but also for the refugees from the east and elsewhere and for the survivors of torpedoed vessels. It was an heroic task, the full story of which can never be told and of which grateful appreciation is still attested by men and women in many parts of the world.

Ex-servicemen still talk of the ladies in their white overalls working in the Seamen’s’ Institute, with their mounds of eats and gallons of tea, but one particular lady in white is especially remembered. Many today remember with affection that familiar figure on the breakwater in her white dress and picture hat, singing the old wartime songs to men going off to war. The memory of Perla Siedle Gibson is perpetuated by a ships library trust which bears her name and which is run by the Sailors Society with the assistance of the MOTHS.

The post-war years brought thousands of immigrants to SA and Union Castle mail-ships arrived week after week with new settlers. These ships carried large crews who made full use of the facilities offered by the Sailors Society’s clubs. South Africa also entered upon a new phase in world shipping with the formation of Safmarine, in 1946 to be followed later by Unicorn Lines which originally provided a South African coastal service and which today has expanded to include the Americas, the Far East and the Indian Ocean Islands. As our country grew as a maritime nation, so it was decided that the Seamen’s Institutes around the coast should be co-ordinated under one national body and thus, in 1950 the Sailors Society Southern Africa was registered as a company and a welfare organisation.