The Seamen’s Institute in Durban’s Point Road was originally a two-storey building, second left, probably circa 1900.
The Seamen’s Institute in Durban’s Point Road was originally a two-storey building, second left, probably circa 1900.

A port of call for all seafarers

By Frank Chemaly Time of article published Jan 8, 2022

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The old picture this week shows the Seamen’s Institute which was established at 154 Point Road (today Mahatma Gandhi) in the 1890s. It also housed the National Union of Seamen.

The early picture shows it as a two-storey building (second left) opposite the Vasco da Gama clock which was installed in 1897 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Portuguese explorer’s voyage to India.

The second picture shows the building after it had been renovated and is from our archives with the caption “The Seafarer’s Club keeping the historic tradition alive”. It is dated July 1991.

Today’s picture, by Shelley Kjonstad, shows the building as derelict although a backpackers sign is on it. There are trees growing out of its roof and on its veranda.

A picture of the Seafarer’s Club taken in July 1991.

Originally the Sailors Society, it was started in 1889 by Marie Schultz, the wife of Durban’s first doctor, who distributed books among seamen, and cared for shipwrecked mariners.

The first Seamen’s Institute was opened at 154 Point Road soon after. 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.

World War II also brought challenges. The clubs were coping with the thousands of servicemen who passed through our ports. The second Institute canteen was built in Durban Harbour and volunteers flocked to help provide 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 refugees and survivors of torpedoed vessels.

The Seaman’s Institute is described in a pamphlet issued to servicemen in Durban during World War II as: “Open always. Refreshments at all hours. Indoor games, billiards, reading and writing rooms. Cinema shows every night at 8pm. Concerts and dramatic performances in theatre frequently. Cricket and football fields available. Sleeping accommodation for Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. Sunday evening service 8.40pm.”

The Seafarer’s Club building, which was turned into a backpackers hostel, 154 Mahatma Gandhi Road this week. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency(ANA)

The pamphlet also describes what must have been the second canteen: “Missions to Seamen (for Seamen only), Wellington Road (near end of Point Road). Open 9am to 10.30pm. Indoor games. Concert and cinema show nightly. Dancing twice weekly. Services on Sundays.”

Today, the Sailors Society and the Durban Seafarer’s Mission are in Bayhead.

Durban Seafarers Mission offers a Christian ministry to all seafarers visiting Durban, in a friendly environment where seafarers can relax, communicate with their families back home and receive support.

Besides visiting ships, it runs the Durban Seafarers Mission Club, together with the International Sailors' Society, the Apostleship of the Sea, the Christian Seamans' Organisation, Biblia, Chinese Mission, German Seaman's Mission and KISMA-Korean.

Facilities include a chapel, quiet room, email and internet, money exchange, phone cards, library and book exchange, bar, karaoke, transport, shop, indoor games, sports, garden, meals and snacks and a postal service.

Can cut

The Mission to Seafarers is a society of the Anglican church which cares for the spiritual and practical welfare of all seafarers, regardless of nationality or faith. It was founded by an Anglican clergyman, Rev John Ashley, who was holidaying near the Bristol Channel in 1835, who discovered that no one ministered to the men aboard ships.

He appointed himself the chaplain to these seafarers and established the Bristol Mission in 1837.

On February 28, 1856, the Mission to Seamen was founded, followed by a constitution two years later, stating the society's main goal to be ''the spiritual welfare of seafaring classes at home and abroad”.

The Independent on Saturday

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