There was a time when almost every seaside or maritime town in Britain could boast a sailors' institute.
Just as in the mining ares of Wales, there was always a “'stute” - an institute where miners and their families could gather to read, be educated and enjoy some social interaction – in the coastal regions of the country there were many similar establishments.
These days you will look long and hard to find anything like a sailors' institute. There is one in Barmouth, a rare survivor of what was once a common enough establishment, but one of the most famous lay just down the coast in the little town of Porthmadog.
These days Porthmadog is renowned mainly for its narrow gauge railway but in the early 19th century the town was a thriving port with sailors coming and going, working the big schooners around the coast and across the Atlantic. Sometimes these men could be gone for months, even years at a time and it was essential that their families should be cared for and looked after in their absence.
A warm welcome, solace and acceptance
The sailors' institutes were originally established to provide exactly that. They were places that offered a warm welcome, solace and acceptance for the families of all sailors – and, when they were home from the sea, for the sailors themselves.
They were meeting places that provided sailors and their dependents with the opportunity for leisure and relaxation – billiards, snooker, dominoes and draughts. But more than that, in the institutes the families of sailors could chart and follow the progress of their menfolk around the world. And the Porthmadog establishment was no different from any of the others.
Keeping up to date with the maritime world
In the institute they could read papers – or have them read to them if they weren't able to read – and consult publications such as Lloyd's List and the Shipping Gazette that gave them an idea of what was going on in the maritime world. This really did enable the wives and mothers of those far away to feel that they had contact with their loved ones.
The sailors' institute in Porthmadog opened in 1907, in itself an unusual occurrence as most similar establishments began life in the 19th century. The Porthmadog institute came about at the instigation of deacons from a local chapel, a volunteer from the chapel agreeing to run the establishment, helped only by her young daughter.
They received no wages but were given accommodation in the institute as a recompense. In hindsight, as running the institute was really a full time job, often for 24 hours a day, it hardly seems an adequate payment. But in the early days of the 20th century it was considered an appropriate arrangement by all parties.
The institute was located in a part of the harbour known as Pen Cei and was set in the midst of sailors' public houses, shipping offices and the wharfs themselves. Dame Agnes Weston – Aggie Weston as she was universally known as a result of her founding a whole series of “temperance” homes for sailors across Britain – came to officially open the institute, planting a tree outside the small but impressive building.
The doors of the Porthmadog institute were always open and there was a warm welcome for any sailor, regardless of his nationality.
There was a charge of one shilling to use the facilities but on many occasions sailors or their families who could not afford the fee were quietly admitted anyway. Here sailors would find a reading room, a parlour, even a music room – where the statutory religious services were held.
In those days Porthmadog harbour was always full of ships and so the institute was never short of customers. There was even some ship building when the launches were always accompanied by much celebration and great joy.
Sadly, in the years after World War One, Porthmadog's shipping industry went into permanent decline. Like so many other sailors' institutes across Britain, the Porthmadog establishment was finally forced to close its doors.
These days there are probably no more than a handful of people who remember the old place – but it lives on in the history of the town and as a part of Wales' unique maritime history.