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Thisbe - the Welsh Gospel Ship

Phil Carradice

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The Victorians were the most pragmatic of people. Nothing that was usable was ever thrown away or disregarded. Old buildings, worked out coal mines, ancient buildings and ruins, they were all used at some point when their sell-by date had long passed. In particular, there were ships.

The Victorian age saw the advent of iron and steel as the new building materials, both for men-of-war and merchantmen. Consequently, the old woodenwalls that for years had protected the coast of Britain from invasion were suddenly obsolete. But rather than condemn them to the breakers yard, many old vessels found new careers.

There were prison ships, reformatory ships, receiving ships for men wanting to join the navy, even hospital ships. But in the port of Cardiff they found one further use for an out-of-date vessel of war. This was the Thisbe and in the second half of the 19th century she became a church or gospel ship.

The Thisbe was a 46-gun frigate launched from Pembroke Dock in 1824. She spent most of her service life in the Plymouth and Devonport areas and by the early 1860s she was lying, hulked, ready for breaking.

Thirty years earlier, in 1835, an Anglican clergyman by the name of John Ashley had founded the Bristol Channel Mission. This was an organisation dedicated to provide religious ministry to the seamen and lighthouse keepers of the Bristol Channel. For several years Ashley rowed or sailed out to ships moored in the Penarth roads off Cardiff and conducted services for the sailors on the ships waiting to come into port.

He even found time to venture out to Flat Holm and Steep Holm islands, offering his voluntary help and spiritual guidance to the farmers and fishermen who lived there.

When, in 1858, Ashley's organisation became a national body - under the name Missions to Seamen - it was clear that some sort of permanent base was now required, particularly in the thriving and developing port of Cardiff. The Mission requested a ship, on which they could base a church and the Admiralty happily donated the redundant Thisbe.

In 1863 the old frigate was towed to Cardiff and moored in the East Bute Dock. Conversion of her hull began at once, a church building being erected on her quarter deck. Soon the gospel ship was up and running.

Church services were held three times each week on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday, a necessary arrangement as the sailors who attended might well be at sea if the mission had limited services to just one a week. The Sunday services, inevitably, proved the most popular and it has been estimated that sometimes as many as 600 people thronged the deck of the tiny (151 foot by 40 foot) frigate.

The congregation was made up mainly of sailors and their wives. But there were also Bristol Channel pilots, dock workers, boatmen and people from the immediate locality. The Thisbe, under the energetic and able leadership of Mr Gale, was clearly meeting a need.

Daily newspapers were provided on the ship, a reading room having been created below deck. There was also a small library - with the emphasis, not surprisingly, being on religious tomes. Pens, paper and ink were provided to enable sailors far from home to write to their families. A post box was located on the upper deck and it has been estimated that in 1877 alone over 4,000 letters were sent from the ship.

It was not all religion or spiritual sustenance, however. Magic Lantern Shows were also staged on Tuesdays and Fridays, the performances starting at precisely 7.30pm. On Thursdays the Thisbe held a "concert entertainment" or occasionally choral singing of sacred songs. Each Wednesday evening at 5pm there were games tournaments.

Under Mr Gale the number of conversions - always the aim of Victorian muscular Christianity - in the docks area of Cardiff grew considerably. Visiting sailors regularly used the ship, one of the few places where they could get comfort and companionship - outside the public house. And, of course, the locals continued to flock on board.

Soon, there was just not enough room on the old frigate and, in any case, she was now nearing the end of her days. Seams were leaking and it was certainly not the most hygienic of environments for the young children who came to the ship with their parents.

Mr Gale began to look about for alternative premises. He found them, just two rooms, in Stuart Street. Before long the mission had moved again, this time to Ebenezer Place where the it soon became known as the Seamens' Bethel. Over the years it grew and developed, eventually becoming Ebenezer Church.

And the Thisbe? In 1892 she was sold to the firm of WH Caple and scrapped, her timbers cut away and anything of value being sold on to interested buyers. It was something of a sad end for Cardiff's gospel ship but she had performed sterling work in the docks area of the port and will always be remembered for this.

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