Smith, George Charles (DNB00)

SMITH, GEORGE CHARLES (1782–1863), known as ‘Boatswain Smith,’ was born in Castle Street, Leicester Square, London (now Charing Cross Road), on 19 March 1782, and was apprenticed to a bookseller in Tooley Street from 1794 to 1796. In the latter year he was apprenticed to the master of an American brig, but when at Surinam, Guiana, was pressed into the English naval service. According to his own account, he was soon appointed a midshipman in the Scipio, and in 1797 a midshipman in the Agamemnon, serving in the North Sea fleet. He then became master's mate, was present in the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, and in 1803 left the navy. From 1803 to 1807 he was a student under the Rev. Isaiah Birt at Devonport, and a preacher to sailors and fishermen at Plymouth, Dartmouth, and Brixham. In 1807 he was chosen pastor of the Octagon baptist chapel at Penzance, where he served until 1825, and again from 1843 to 1863. In 1822 he converted the chapel into the Jordan baptist chapel. Between 1812 and 1816 he built six chapels in villages around Penzance, and educated men to supply them.

But his energies were chiefly devoted to providing soldiers, and especially sailors, with religious teaching, and to forming in their behalf philanthropic institutions. On missions connected with these objects he often left his charge at Penzance. From March to July 1814 he served as a voluntary chaplain with the English army in Spain. Afterwards he brought to England two French ministers, through whom he introduced the Lancasterian system of education into France.

He commenced open-air preaching in Devon and Somerset in 1816, encountering much opposition, but his efforts led to the formation of the Home Missionary Society in 1819. In 1817 he began prayer meetings and preaching on board ship among sailors on the Thames, when the Bethel flag was first used as a signal for divine service on board a vessel. He opened the first floating chapel for the sailors on the Thames in 1819, and soon after established similar ship-chapels in Liverpool, Bristol, and Hull. In 1822 he commenced open-air preaching in Tavistock Square, London, and, carrying out similar services all over the provinces, set an example which has since been widely followed. He formed the Thames Watermen's Friend Society for giving religious instruction to watermen, bargemen, and coal-whippers in 1822, and a society for river and canal men at Paddington, where he also opened a chapel. In 1823 he originated the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum for Boys, which is now a flourishing institution at Snaresbrook. In 1824 he formed the Shipwrecked and Distressed Sailors' Family Fund, which is now continued as the Shipwrecked Mariners' and Fishermen's Society.

In 1824 Smith formed the London City Mission Society, and in the same year opened the Danish Church, Wellclose Square, London Docks (which had been closed for twenty years), as the Mariners' Church. In 1827 he established the London Domestic City Mission for holding Sunday services and visiting the poor in their houses. He claimed to have established in 1828 the first temperance society in England, and in 1829 he commenced the Maritime Penitent Female Refuge, now carried on at Bethnal Green.

On the site of the Brunswick theatre, Wellclose Square, of the falling down of which on 28 Feb. 1828 he printed an account, Smith erected the Sailors' Home, the first establishment of the kind, it is believed, in the world. In 1830 he established the Sailors' Orphan Homes for Boys and Girls. To pay the expenses of these establishments he made open-air preaching tours through Great Britain, having with him twelve orphan boys, six dressed as sailors and six as soldiers, who were trained to sing hymns and patriotic songs. At this time he fantastically entitled himself ‘George Charles Smith, B.B.U.’ (i.e. Burning Bush Unconsumed). In 1861, at the age of eighty, he visited America on the invitation of the Mariners' Church and the superintendent of the Sailors' Home, New York. He preached there and at Boston, Philadelphia, and Salem.

He died in poverty at Jordan House, Penzance, on 10 Jan. 1863; the coastguard, the naval reserve, and two thousand people attended his funeral on 16 Jan. He married, in June 1808, Theodosia (d 1866), daughter of John Skipwith. By her he had a numerous family.

His name is found on upwards of eighty publications, chiefly small books and tracts. An almost complete bibliography is given in Boase and Courtney's ‘Bibliotheca Cornubiensis’ (pp. 664–9, 1337). Some of his most popular works were: 1. ‘The Boatswain's Mate,’ a dialogue, 1812, many editions. 2. ‘The Prose and Poetical Works of the Rev. G. C. Smith,’ 1819, a collected edition of twenty-four pieces. 3. ‘Intemperance, or a General View of the Abundance, the Influence, and the horrible Consequences of Ardent Spirits,’ 1829. He also edited ‘The Sailor's Magazine,’ 1820–7, and ‘The New Sailor's Magazine and Naval Chronicle,’ 1827, which, under various changes of name, he conducted to 1861.

Theophilus Ahijah Smith (1809–1879), philanthropist, eldest son of the above, was born in Chapel Street, Penzance, on 2 July 1809. In June 1824 he was apprenticed to Thomas Vigurs, a printer. From 1831 to 1837 he was employed under his father in the Sailors' Society, and during that time he assisted in forming the English and American Sailors' Society at Havre. In conjunction with Messrs. Giles and Grosjean, he in 1835 inaugurated the first temperance society in London, and in 1839 formed the Church of England Temperance Society. From 1840 to 1847 he was assistant secretary to the Protestant Association, and from 1847 to 1861 secretary of the Female Aid Society. In 1860 he originated the midnight meeting movement, and was the secretary from 1861 to 1864. Finally he was the secretary of the Protestant Association from 1865 to 1868. He was permanently crippled by a railway accident in 1868, and died at Cardigan Road, Richmond, Surrey on 13 Jan. 1879. He married, first, in June 1836, Annie, daughter of James Summerland; secondly, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Cronk. He published an account of his father in 1874 under the title of ‘The Great Moral Reformation of Sailors.’

[Gent. Mag. 1863, i. 260, 390–1; Congregational Year Book, 1862, p. 223; Cornish Telegraph, 14 Jan. 1863, p. 3, 21 Jan. p. 2; Baptist Mag. 1848, xl. 293, 563, 690; Boase's Collect. Cornub. 1890, p. 907; The Cornishman, 29 Dec. 1881, p. 8.]

G. C. B.