Wombat's City Hostel

Extension to Sailors' Home of 1863–5 and 1874–5 | Part of Sailors' Home

The Sailors' Home to 1862
Contributed by Survey of London on March 1, 2019

The Sailors’ Home, also known at first as the Brunswick Maritime Establishment, was built on the site of the Royal Brunswick Theatre in 1830–5 with Philip Hardwick as its architect. Enlarged to Dock Street in 1863–5, substantially altered in 1911–12, rebuilt on the Dock Street side in 1954­­–7, adapted to be a hostel for the homeless in 1976–8, and again converted to be a youth hostel in 2012–14, this has been, mutatis mutandis, a major local presence for nearly two centuries, all the while used as a hostel. As the first purpose-built short-stay hostel for sailors anywhere, it represented in its original form the invention of a building type, the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich notwithstanding. It was to have seminal influence on the development of lodging-house architecture.

The prevalence of sailors in east London’s riverside districts was not new at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but populations did increase and living conditions declined. The new wet-dock system meant sailors had to leave their ships immediately without ready access to land-based employment, as there had been previously. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 left an estimated 100,000 seamen redundant from the Royal Navy. The Rev. George Charles ‘Boatswain’ Smith (1782–1863) came to the fore in addressing the lot of these sailors through evangelism. A seafarer himself in his teens who had served with distinction under Nelson in the battle of Copenhagen, Smith had become a Baptist missionary. He established a floating sanctuary on a remodelled sloop in the Thames off Wapping Stairs in 1818, and the British and Foreign Seamen’s Friend Society and Bethel Union in 1819. He then took the former Danish Church in Wellclose Square in 1825 for use as a Mariners’ Church. In the same year Anglicans established the London Episcopal Floating Church Society, which acquired another ship for seamen to use for worship. Smith, a witness to extreme poverty and deprivation in and around Wellclose Square, was next instrumental in establishing an asylum for destitute sailors in a warehouse in Dock Street, which opened in January 1828. He was in addition a pioneering advocate of temperance.1

Paid upon coming ashore, sailors, both naval and mercantile, were prey to exploitation and theft by boarding-house and brothel keepers and others, a practice known as ‘crimping’ that was widespread and generally tolerated. Smith was determined to force reforms and had tried to introduce a system of approved boarding houses as used in other ports. In his eyes the Royal Brunswick Theatre and its predecessor had been a haven for crimping. The collapse presented an opportunity. In September 1828, just six months on from the disaster, Smith convened a meeting on the site with a view to raising there ‘a General Receiving and Shipping Depot for Mariners’.2  This was to be a religious mission, aiming at moral reform through reducing the influence of prostitution and drink. As such it was a late example of the Georgian impulse to ‘improvement’ and control through institutional architecture. Alongside Smith were Captains Robert and George Cornish Gambier, RN, brothers and nephews of Admiral James Gambier, himself an evangelical, and Capt. Robert James Elliot, RN, who was also a topographical artist. George Gambier was the Secretary of the London Episcopal Floating Church Society and he and Elliot were directors of the Destitute Sailors’ Asylum. A committee was formed tasked with acquiring the ground from the creditors of Maurice and Carruthers. The Sailors’ Home or Brunswick Maritime Establishment, so-called, launched appeals in early 1829, aiming to unite ‘the Regularities of social Order with the moral Decencies of Life, the Principles of Christian Loyalty, and the Duties of Religion.’3

Within the year eminent naval and other figures had been recruited to promote fund-raising (first trustees included William Wilberforce) and the freehold of the site was obtained. But Smith, an uncompromising and combative character, fell out with George Gambier, the Treasurer, over the latter’s unworldly sympathies for Henry Irving’s radical Nonconformity that led him to leave fund-raising to faith. Smith stepped down as Secretary and set up a rival Sailors’ Rest project leading other Dissenters to withdraw support for the Home. Elliot took charge as the Home’s Secretary, contributed more than £1,000 of his own money, and steered the project into Anglican safety, securing the patronage of the Bishop of London, Charles James Blomfield. Hardwick was engaged and on 10 June 1830 Elliot laid a foundation stone. Hardwick conceived the project in stages, to be built gradually as funds became available, ultimately to provide space for 500 men, each with their own cabin or sleeping place. Progress was slow. By the end of 1831 a brick carcase had been raised and roofed, but there things stalled for want of money, in part because of Smith’s rival project, which collapsed in 1832, and another short-lived competitor on Well Street opened by the Destitute Sailors’ Asylum, but abandoned in 1833. There was also an enforced diversion into the forming of a sewer extending beyond the site. Basement vaults and other main internal structures were formed in late 1833, and the Home opened on 1 May 1835 with accommodation for 100 men on its lower levels, and more than £2,000 still needed for completion. The first sailors admitted were the crew of an American ship in St Katharine’s Docks. A peaceful atmosphere introduced by the ‘sobriety and steadiness’ of these ‘temperance men’ was broken a few days later by the arrival of English sailors, coming from India and bringing ‘intoxication, swaggering and noise’.4

The Sailors’ Home was originally a three-storey, basement and attic brick building facing Well Street. Stucco dressings included channelled rustication to the ground floor, as survives. This and the bay rhythm of the façade were retained from the theatre, it is possible even that the lower-storey wall to Well Street was not wholly rebuilt. Hardwick connected the outer bays with a portico of large cast-iron Doric columns similar to those he had placed at St Katharine’s Docks. The south end of the building was replaced in 1893–4, an additional floor was inserted in 1911–12, and the columns were removed in 1952.

The basement had a kitchen to the north and baggage stores for sailors’ chests and bedding to the south, central vaults being for general storage and domestic offices. The main central space at ground-floor level was a waiting hall open to all seamen. It had a York stone-flagged floor with a grid of nine tall cast-iron columns. The floor and columns are both still partly extant, but concealed. This hall was also used for assemblies and worship, and had small box offices for payment and registration, where the men’s ‘characters’ were recorded. Flanking dormitories named ‘Bombay’ (north) and ‘Calcutta’ (south) had two tiers of cabins either side of passages with rows of lavatories at one end. The cabins, each about 8ft long, 5ft wide and 7ft high (2.5m x 1.5m x 2.2m), probably drew on the precedent of Greenwich Hospital’s accommodation for naval pensioners. On the originally comparably tall first floor a central dining and reading hall had a similar array of columns and was flanked by two more double-tiered dormitories (‘Canton’ north and ‘Madras’ south). Upper floors were initially used for a school, lecture room and museum of ship models and curiosities. As inmate numbers grew in 1842–8 the outer upper-storey rooms were gradually fitted up as single-tier dormitories, dedicated in honour of donations as ‘Royal Adelaide’, ‘City of London’, ‘City of Edinburgh’ and ‘Sydney’, increasing the Home’s capacity to 328. The central second-floor room remained divided as a navigation school and a boardroom containing the museum. There was provision for a small savings’ bank, a shipping office (to get sailors placed on vessels), a library and a chaplain. A single bath was introduced in 1845. The Home also employed outdoor agents or runners to outmanoeuvre crimps and bring sailors from their ships.5

Henry Mayhew, in a full description that was not uncritical of the Home’s management, noted in 1850 that seamen addressed the institution’s officers as friends not as superiors, and recorded a testimony from one among them that ‘the steadiest-going seamen will always speak well of the Sailors’ Home’.6 Henry Roberts, closely familiar with the Home having acted as its architect in the 1840s when he was also the first architect of the pioneering Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes and responsible for model lodging houses, later acknowledged that the Sailors’ Home ‘must in some respects be considered the prototype of the improved lodging-houses.’7  The Home’s achievements notwithstanding, its Chaplain, the Rev. Robert Hall Baynes, worried in 1858 that ‘the neighbourhood abounds in gin-palaces and prostitutes, the latter to a fearful extent.’ 8

Annual numbers of boarders rose from 528 in the first year to 1,263 in the third, 2,183 in 1840 and 3,833 in 1842. Steady increases continued, to 5,544 in 1853 and 8,617 in 1861. Most of the sailors were of British or North American origin, but not all. By 1862 there had been 544 boarders from Africa.9

The land and the gas house behind the Sailors’ Home had been leased in 1842 with a view to possible extension, even before the formation of Dock Street and the building there of St Paul’s Church. It was used as a skittle ground. Part of the new Dock Street frontage was secured in 1854 and the notion of enlargement was revived as inmate numbers continued to increase. The freehold of another northerly frontage on Dock Street frontage was acquired in 1859, but more southerly ground proved slower to obtain, a lease not being secured until June 1862 – the freehold was purchased in 1889.10


  1. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) for Smith: Roald Kverndal, Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth, a Contribution to the History of the Church Maritime, 1986, passim 

  2. Morning Post, 11 Sept 1828 

  3. Newcastle Courant, 28 Feb 1829: The Times, 1 May 1829: _ODNB _for Elliot: Kverndal, pp. 92–3, 325–33 

  4. National Maritime Museum (NMM), SAH/60/2–3: Morning Chronicle, 11 June 1830: Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser, 6 May 1835: Kverndal, pp. 332–40 

  5. NMM, SAH/1/1, pp. 159,165,280,296; SAH/1/13, p. 4; SAH/60/2–3; SAH/60/10: The Builder, 4 Oct. 1862, p. 708: Historic England Archives, 3583/29–49 

  6. Morning Chronicle, 11 and 19 April and 2 May 1850 

  7. Henry Roberts, The Dwellings of the Labouring Classes, 1867 edn, p. 15 

  8. Lambeth Palace Library, Tait 440/433 

  9. NMM, SAH/1/4; SAH/60/2 

  10. NMM, SAH/1/1, pp. 44,233; SAH/1/4, pp. 21,250–2,291,467; SAH/1/7, pp. 362,391; SAH/60/10: The National Archives, WORK6/145/9 

The Sailors' Home from 1862, with hostel conversions (1976–8 and 2012–14)
Contributed by Survey of London on March 1, 2019

In late 1862 a building committee took the Sailors' Home's extension plan forward and Edward Ledger Bracebridge, a Poplar-based architect personally known to Lord Henry Cholmondeley, the committee’s Chairman, was appointed with a brief to design a new block facing Dock Street and to reconfigure the 1830s building. The Rev. Dan Greatorex, newly appointed Chaplain and a member of the committee, objected to Bracebridge’s first scheme on account of its impact on light to his house, immediately to the south on Dock Street. A significantly more expensive amended scheme (first estimated at £8,000 as against £5,500) was approved and built in 1863–5, with James Mugford Macey as builder for a contract sum of £10,626. Thomas Wayland Fletcher was the Clerk of Works. Lord Viscount Palmerston laid the foundation stone on 4 August 1863 and the Prince of Wales opened the building on 22 May 1865. A commemorative stone plaque bearing that information is still to be found facing the hostel’s internal courtyard where it was moved, recut, in 1956.

In the earlier block’s basement, the kitchen was enlarged and a scullery replaced a staircase that had risen through the main halls, now opened up by the removal of ancillary functions to the new block and the placing of an open-well stone fireproof staircase in a linking range. The original central upper-storey spaces were adapted to be more dormitories. The outwardly Gothic and polychrome Dock Street building’s basement had a room for the navigation school, a recreation room, two baths and service rooms. The ground floor had offices to the front, including the seamen’s savings’ bank, with waiting halls to the rear, the first floor a boardroom and officers’ mess room to the north, and a library and recreation hall to the south. The two upper storeys were laid out as a single room, the Admiral Sir Henry Hope Dormitory (Hope, who died in 1863, had been the Home’s Chairman from 1851). This extraordinary space comprised four galleried tiers of sleeping berths or cabins (108 in all) to east and west of an atrium open to the roof with south-end staircases. The gain in accommodation was 160 berths for an overall capacity of 502. Behind the new block a basement-level courtyard gave access to an enclosed skittle alley abutting the earlier building’s northwest corner. A range of water closets ran alongside another yard behind the vicarage.1

In 1874–5 the single-storey skittle alley was reconstructed, extended to the south and raised to be a three-storey and basement range (which survives) to provide an additional dormitory for ships’ mates and space for a clothing store, sales of clothing from the Home having increased since their introduction in 1868. John Hudson and John Jacobs, both of Leman Street, were architect and builder respectively. The same men combined to give the 1830s building an additional attic dormitory in 1876. A drinking fountain still in situ near the northwest corner of what was the main waiting hall is surmounted by an inscribed plaque recording a benefaction of 1873 from William McNeil, a formerly resident seaman. There is also documentation of a drinking fountain given by John Kemp Welsh in 1875. Thereafter an Officers’ Smoking Room went up on the north side of the yard.2

By this time there were many other hostels for sailors, but the Sailors’ Home was the parent exemplar. Outside, crimping was still prevalent, and the Home was drawing more than 10,000 boarders annually. Ale was served, but there was no bar. It remained a Christian foundation, but not zealously so, aiming to ‘encourage habits of decorum, economy, and self-cultivation, and to contribute in educating {seamen} as missionaries of Commerce to the ends of the earth’.3 Between 1879 and 1884 Joseph Conrad (Jozef Korzeniowski) stayed several times at the Home and studied in its navigation school. Conrad called the Home a ‘friendly place’, ‘quietly unobtrusively, with a regard for the independence of the men who sought its shelter ashore, and with no ulterior aims behind that effective friendliness.’4

Educational provision was reshaped in 1893 in collaboration with the London County Council, which had a new role overseeing technical schools, to create the London Nautical School and the London School of Nautical Cookery, to train cooks for the merchant navy. After the Merchant Shipping Act of 1906 made certified cooks compulsory, Lloyd George reopened the enlarged cookery school in 1907.5

The Black Horse public house, originally at what became 10 Well Street, had been extended around 1860 with premises immediately north of the Home’s Dock Street site. George Edward Rose was the proprietor (it was later the Rose Tavern), and Frederick Robert Beeston was probably his architect. The Home acquired this on a long lease in 1895 for conversion to a cartage depot after the Mercantile Marine Office on Well Street had displaced the establishment’s earlier stable yard and the original building’s south range.6

That sacrifice had reduced the Home’s capacity to 300, a limit that had further to be reduced to 200 following a threat of closure in 1910 when the LCC stipulated improvements to the original dormitories, in particular for the provision of light. An appeal for funds was launched and Murray, Delves & Murray, architects (Stanley Delves, job architect) prepared plans for works carried out in 1911–12 by Harris and Wardrop, builders. These involved the insertion of an additional floor in the Well Street block with internal reconstruction to form a light-well above the ground-floor waiting hall, which gained a skylight and was now designated ‘the Lounge’. Structural steel carried down to the basement. The dining hall moved to the ground floor of the north range and the cookery school to the skylit attic (until the 1930s when it moved to the basement). Bars and a first-floor chapel were introduced and the navigation school soon departed. All the sleeping cabins were now on the upper storeys. No. 14 Well Street was acquired and demolished to permit the formation of windows in the Home’s north flank wall, which was faced with channelled rusticated render. External fire-escape staircases were also added. Following this reconfiguration the establishment rebranded itself, incorporating as the Sailors’ Home and Red Ensign Club in 1912.7

Despite the reduced berths, the numbers of boarders continued to average more than 10,000 a year. By 1919 the Home had admitted a total of 639,005 sailors, 336,088 of them English, 51,388 from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, 18,500 from Germany, 11,376 from Russia, 2,483 from the ‘Cape and Mauritius’, 1,154 from West Africa, 7,958 from the West Indies, 2,523 from the East Indies, 1,914 from South America, and 1,387 from China and Japan. After this the origins of the sailors were no longer recorded in annual reports.8

Numerous minor alterations were carried out in the 1930s, including conversion and refenestration of the clothing store for staff cabins in 1931 to raise capacity to 235. More than 20,000 were boarded in 1933, usage that was sustained after the war when the merchant navy reserve pool was introduced, bringing seamen greater security of employment. Additional accommodation being needed, the Home’s architect, Colin H. Murray of Murray, Delves, Murray & Atkins, advised a comprehensive approach in 1937 and was asked to prepare plans for complete rebuilding. War meant postponement, but Murray did advance a scheme for rebuilding the Dock Street building in 1942.9

By 1945 Murray was working with Brian O’Rorke on a more ambitious phased project for the replacement of the whole complex (now simply called the Red Ensign Club). This envisaged three slab blocks laid out on an offset H plan to make best use of the two street frontages, rising at the centre to twelve storeys for a total 307 bedrooms (no longer called cabins) above lower-level common spaces. London County Council approval was secured, but in the post-war years building licences were not forthcoming. O’Rorke (1901–74), New Zealand born, had come to notice in placing joint third in the competition to design the RIBA’s headquarters and gone on to build a reputation for designing passenger-ship interiors. In 1946 he succeeded Edwin Lutyens as architect for the National Theatre, for which his designs remained unbuilt. He took over as architect for the new Club, leaving Murray, Delves, Murray & Atkins in charge of maintaining the existing buildings. Wells, Cocking and Weston were appointed consulting engineers, Ian Cocking in the lead. Commander A. E. Loder (Secretary and Chief Steward) and Commander A. Westbury Preston were key inside figures in seeing through the rebuilding project, as was Rear Admiral Sir David Lambert as Chairman in the early 1950s.

Ambitions grew, with 6–10 Ensign Street to be acquired for demolition to square off the site, and brief hopes that the Church Commissioners would permit building above St Paul’s Vicarage. But costs kept rising with inflation and a diminishing number of boarders gave rise to concern in 1949 that expansion was no longer warranted. O’Rorke scaled down the plans by two storeys, and a licence for the first phase was granted in 1950. A new problem arose when the Merchant Navy Welfare Board was unable after all to contribute funds. With a shortfall of £35,000 of an estimated £275,000, and costs still rising, in 1951 O’Rorke suggested rebuilding the Dock Street range with the taller central block to its rear for £160,000 to prevent further delay. This was agreed and Charles Price Ltd (led by Kenneth Price) was given the contract for the new building for £179,488 in March 1952. First Hardwick’s Ensign Street block was re-modernised, to plans by Murray with R. Mansell as contractor. A staircase was inserted in the northeast corner of the ground- floor lounge, which was otherwise laid out with a billiard table and a ‘television set’. The Dock Street rebuilding ensued from 1954 and was completed in 1957 for a final cost of £218,400. Even so, the central block had also had to be abandoned, the new capacity was just 240 and there was a deficit of £63,000.10

O’Rorke’s building has six storeys and a setback attic, a steel frame and reinforced-concrete floors, metal windows and copper roof covering. Above curtain-wall glazing for the façade of the two lower storeys that housed communal spaces, it is brown-brick clad. The flat-faced Modernism is herbivorous yet stark. A lighter touch was introduced in the intertwined rope- pattern ironwork of the first-floor balconettes. A lift motor-room tower rising above the southeast staircase was a remnant of the centre-block plan. There had been disagreements as to the relative size of cabins (still, after all, so-called) for seamen and officers. The hierarchical view prevailed and it was 1966 before washbasins were installed in each room. The former pub and cartage depot to the north on Dock Street was demolished for yard access, and 8–10 Ensign Street came down in 1954 for a contractor’s site and then a car park.

Following the closure of the London and St Katharine’s Docks in 1968–9 and continuing financial difficulties the Red Ensign Club closed at the end of 1974. Hostel use was quickly re-established, the buildings being converted in 1976–8 for the Look Ahead Housing Association Ltd (Beacon Hostels), founded in 1973 by Mary Jones, a retired civil servant. The complex became a hostel for single homeless men, with the London School of Nautical Cookery carrying on in the basement. Christopher Beaver Associates were architects for the conversion, Finchley Builders and then J. W. Falkner & Sons Ltd, carried out the work in phases. Capacity at what came to be called the Aldgate Hostel (sometimes Beacon House) shrank from 180 to 150 beds. Many of those housed were construction workers and there was also use as a halfway house for men released from prison. By 2012 Look Ahead had closed this and all its other large ‘industrial-era’ hostels to shift to smaller specialist services.

Another conversion was carried out in 2012–14, the property having been acquired by Michael Sherley-Dale, whose residential property company, JMS Estates (IOM) Ltd, leased the premises to Wombat’s Hostels. This firm, founded by Marcus Praschinger and Sascha Dimitriewicz with a name deriving from the genesis of the business in their travels in Australia, had opened its first youth or backpacker hostel in Vienna in 1999 and gradually expanded across Europe. The refurbishment of the Dock Street–Ensign Street hostel was by Andrew Mulroy architects, with Eastern Corporation as the main contractors, and Peter Thompson as the project manager. In a light-touch approach, little external fabric apart from the entrance doors and canopy was replaced. The middle range of the 1860s was raised by two storeys and its long-since disused staircase was removed. The main internal change was from single bedrooms to dormitories. Wombat's London opened with 618 beds. The vaulted cellar was made a café and bar with exposed brickwork, and the internal courtyard was landscaped as a garden. In 2015 the access road to the north was infilled with a three-storey extension using Moleanos (Portuguese) limestone cladding for the façade. An additional attic bedroom storey on the Ensign Street building was formed in 2018–19, with a two-storey addition to the infill block set to follow on, all designed and overseen by Mulroy and Thompson with Eastern Corporation.11


  1. National Maritime Museum (NMM), SAH/1/5, passim; SAH/1/13, pp.280,283: Historic England Archives, 3583-029–57: Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives (THLHLA), P/MIS/75: The Builder, 25 April, 18 July, 8 Aug. and 26 Dec. 1863, pp. 303,522,567,919: Illustrated London News, 27 May 1865, p. 505 

  2. NMM, SAH/1/6, pp.418,421,439,493: London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), District Surveyors Returns (DSR): Ordnance Survey map 1894 

  3. Shipping and Mercantile Gazette, 24 May 1872 

  4. Joseph Conrad, ‘A Friendly Place’, Notes on Life and Letters, 1912, p. 203: Alston Kennerley, ‘Joseph Conrad at the London Sailors’ Home’, The Conradian, vol. 33, no. 1, spring 2008, pp. 69–102 

  5. LMA, SC/PHL/02/0229; LCC/EO/HFE/05/147: NMM, SAH/57/3 

  6. DSR: The National Archives (TNA), WORK6/144/9; WORK6/145/8; IR58/84823/4099: Post Office Directories 

  7. NMM, SAH/3/2, pp. 1–12: THLHLA, Building Control files 21363, 21689; cuttings 365.1; P16978–82: LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146: TNA, IR58/4823/4100: DSR 

  8. LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146 

  9. NMM, SAH/3/2, pp. 71–230: THLHLA, Building Control file 21363: LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146: DSR 

  10. NMM, SAH/1/12–13, passim; SAH/60/20–22: THLHLA, Building Control file 21363: LMA, LCC/EO/HFE/05/146; GLC/AR/BR/06/028958 

  11. THLHLA, Building Control file 21363: Tower Hamlets planning applications online: information kindly supplied by Peter Thompson 

Wombat's, internal courtyard from the north in 2019
Contributed by Derek Kendall

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