A haven for wandering souls
By Luis Calleja
Researcher Royal Historical Society of Victoria
Sailors are the life blood of any port colony.
Melbourne’s establishment as Victoria’s primary shipping port led to a massive expansion of its naval traffic throughout the 1800s. One commonly overlooked aspect of shipping is the mass of nomadic sailors needed on the ships that busily traverse the globe delivering goods from one shore to another.
Sailors, upon the completion of a contract, would often end up in a city they knew nothing about and would linger there for an indeterminate amount of time awaiting their next assignment. Sailors could go months without earning a wage so, as a result, many faced housing insecurity and often ended up destitute. To cater for their inconsistent income, hotels and boarding houses would rent out their rooms to sailors on the assumption that their next employment contract would pay forward their wages to the hotel to pay off their debts.
While this practice undoubtedly worked wonders for many sailors, with most boarding houses earnestly participating, it was also a system rife with exploitation, the worst manifestation of which was an activity known as “crimping”. Crimps would wait around ports and venues where sailors would congregate to offer free liquor and tobacco along with the promise of higher wages.
Once crimps had gained a sailor’s trust, they would often drug them or encourage them to drink to excessive amounts. Once a sailor had fallen into a drunken stupor, he would be herded onto the ship of whichever captain had hired the crimps and be sent off to sea. The unfortunate sailor would wake to find himself in the middle of the ocean, expected to work for little to no money, and faced with beatings and imprisonment in the ship’s hulk if he refused.
This vile practice was frequently undertaken by unscrupulous hotel and boarding house owners, who saw an opportunity to increase their room turnover and pocket a bit extra from the captains hiring them to kidnap people.
As Melbourne’s port expanded so too did the reports of crimping which was “not uncommon” by the early 1860s. According to an article about the Melbourne Sailors Home by historian Mark Howard, growing community concerns about the practice of crimping – as well as frequent complaints of drunken sailors roving around the city late at night – led Charles Ferguson, Melbourne’s Chief Harbour Master, to write a letter imploring the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce to establish a sailors’ home.
Sailors’ homes were essentially dormitories for sailors, the key difference was they did not require rent upfront, it was expected that once sailors got a contract part of their wages would go towards repaying the costs of housing them. The Sailors’ Home would also provide a bed and meal to destitute and retired sailors, who were unable to work due to the physical demands of the job.
Another key feature was the provision of financial services for their tenants, sailors could deposit their incomes and seek financial advice reducing the likelihood of destitution. The final benefit of the Sailors’ Home was its attached shipping office, a central point where sailors and captains could register their desire for employment/employees in a regulated space that would, ideally, reduce incidents of crimping.
Charles Ferguson saw the construction of a sailor’s home as the solution to “a vast amount of evil, [as] it is well known that the crimping system is in full bloom here [Melbourne].” Ferguson’s proposal received support from various wealthy Melburnians as well as the Victorian Government that provided Crown lands upon which the home was to be built. Alfred Smith who designed major public buildings such as the Bank of Victoria, the Supreme Court of Victoria, and the Esplanade Hotel, was commissioned as the architect for the home.
The building was designed in the Renaissance Revival style of architecture, affording sailors a degree of respectability uncommon at the time. Construction started somewhere between 1863 and 1864 on the corner of Spencer St and Little Collins St. By 1865 the sailors’ home was open for business, becoming a hub for weary sailors to establish themselves while they awaited their next contract.
The home stayed in operation for almost 100 years, eventually closing in 1963. It provided an important place of respite for sailors and reminds us of the community engagement that is required to overcome the challenges posed by intermittent employment and housing insecurity. •