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Dr Ashley’s Pleasure Yacht by R. W. H. Miller

23 February 2018

William Jacob discovers the choppy waters of a mission’s early life

THE Mission to Seafarers — the Missions to Seamen, as it was — has provided a popular opportunity for Anglican ordinands to spend a year or two gaining experience working as student helpers or pastoral assistants before beginning ordination training. Some may have wondered about its origins, but only Dr R. W. H. Miller has set out to unravel the complexities of the missions.

He recounts a fascinating piece of historical detective work about John Ashley, who claimed to be the initiator of evangelistic and pastoral work among merchant seamen, from his yacht in the Bristol Channel, thus founding the Bristol Channel Mission. On the way, Miller throws light on some fascinating byways of Victorian Anglicanism, notably an underworld of slightly disreputable, financially independent, entrepreneurial, and unbeneficed clergy.

What is most impressive is the willingness of committed leading Bristol laypeople to support Ashley’s initiative and ambitious plans, despite his erratic behaviour. Like many charismatic founders and initiators, Ashley was incapable of working with other people, being both unreliable and damaging to his cause.

In addition to Ashley’s bizarre career, Miller traces the origins of the various competing initiatives eventually incorporated in the Missions to Seamen, including the London Episcopal Floating Church Society, the Liverpool Mariners’ Church Society, the fiercely Evangelical Thames Church Mission, and the high-church St Andrew’s Waterside Church Mission, which began at Gravesend and also made grants to parishes in ports, to provide mission work to merchant seafarers, fishermen, dock workers, navvies, and their families.

For anyone interested in a previous century’s fresh expressions of church and evangelistic initiatives, as well as missions to seafarers, or just an example of how to research a clergyman who seems to have been keen to cover his tracks, this is a good read.

The Ven. Dr William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.


Dr Ashley’s Pleasure Yacht: John Ashley, the Bristol Channel Mission and all that followed
R. W. H. Miller
The Lutterworth Press £20

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