Dr Ashley’s Pleasure Yacht: John Ashley, the Bristol Channel Mission and all that Followed

By R.W.H. Miller

The story of John Ashley, the 19th-century priest who founded the Bristol Channel Mission, the innovative maritime service that became the Mission to Seafarers.

ISBN: 9780718894504


Institutional foundation stories have a tendency to change and develop with the passage of time and much repetition. Maritime social historian R.W.H. Miller here explores the life of The Rev. John Ashley and his association with the foundation story of the Mission to Seafarers, the work of which society is much admired by its present Patron, HRH the Princess Royal. The traditional story is that Ashley’s son, out walking by the Bristol Channel with his father, in the early 1830s, asked how the islanders could go to church. Ashley went to see, and from the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm seeing large fleets of wind bound ships, asked himself the same question. He used his own money (deriving mainly from the trade of sugar and slaves) to build a schooner, which he sailed in all weathers to provide an answer, in the process creating for himself a place in the ancestry of several Anglican and Catholic societies, of which the Mission to Seafarers, the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, and the Apostleship of the Sea, continue to provide seafarers with a valued and often heroic service.

Additional information

Dimensions 234 × 156 mm
Pages 166
Illustrations b&w

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Trade Information LPOD

About the Author

R.W.H. Miller, currently a Catholic priest in the west of England, has been a long-time student of Maritime Social History and member of the Society for Nautical Research and the International Maritime Economic History Association. He has worked for both the Missions to Seamen and the Apostleship of the Sea. He is the author of Priest in Deep Water (2010) and One Firm Anchor (2013), also published by The Lutterworth Press.


Foreword by Martin Foley

1. Who was John Ashley?
     His Parents
     His Early Years
     After School
     Indefatigable Curate
     With Qualifications

2. John Ashley Discovers a Need
     A Pleasure Yacht for Dr Ashley
3. John Ashley and his Committee
     John Ashley States his Case
4. The Bristol Channel Mission: Lame Duck or Phoenix?
5. John Ashley and The Missions to Seamen
     Negotiations with the Bristol Channel Mission
6. John Ashley’s later years
     John Ashley in Court Again?
     John Ashley Leaving the Church of England?

7. John Ashley in Context: Early Modern Seamen’s Missions
     The Bible and Tract Societies
     G.C. Smith
     And what of Bristol?
     London Episcopal Floating Church Society
     Liverpool Mariners’ Church Society

Conclusion: What has been Achieved?
     John Ashley’s Faith
     The Contradictions

Appendix 1: John Ashley: An Inspiration
Appendix 2: John Ashley: An Indirect Inspiration
Appendix 3: John Ashley’s Siblings
Appendix 4: John Ashley, his Wife and Children



Endorsements and Reviews

I have been familiar for many years with Dr Miller’s work on the history of the Church and the merchant seafarer. Dr Ashley’s Pleasure Yacht uncovers the life of a nineteenth-century clergyman, John Ashley, a man with private means deriving from family sugar estates in Jamaica, makes some surprising discoveries. As Ashley is often claimed as the founder of the Mission to Seafarers, the story of his work visiting wind-bound ships in the Bristol Channel has been told often. Less well known is a major disagreement with his committee and what followed.
Professor Séan McGrail, Emeritus Professor of Maritime Archaeology, Oxford University

Miller offers an insight into the role of a number of societies operating missions at this time. Though much of Dr John Ashley’s life remains unknown, Dr Ashley’s Pleasure Yacht takes a crucial step in unravelling the story of a character whose efforts played a pivotal role in early British Seafaring Mission history.
Suzi Higton, in The Expository Times, Vol 129, No 2

Robert Miller’s biography of Rev John Ashley is a much more detailed portrait than anything else now available of a man who was central to the early period of maritime ministry. … Miller’s book helps understand the early years of maritime mission in a way that can still instruct those currently involved. … This [book] should continue to inspire seafarers’ welfare in the twenty-first century.
The MARE Report, Vol 3, 2017

This is a well-written book – funny in places because the subject is so dreadful – demonstrating effectively that not all ‘heroes’ of the nineteenth-century church were necessarily very attractive characters.
Alan Wakely, in The Reader, Winter 2017

The Revd Mr Miller’s biography of Dr. John Ashley supplies a long-standing need for an authoritative account of the man who is officially … described as the founder of the Missions to Seamen. … This is a well-written and highly readable account of a deeply flawed man who had undoubted gifts and performed valuable work in the early years of his life. … This book is warmly commended, particularly to those with an interest in the history of maritime Bristol, the Bristol Channel, and ecclesiastical history in the nineteenth century.
Martin Crossley Evans, in Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society Transactions, No 135, 2017

[The author] recounts a fascinating piece of historical detective work about John Ashley, who claimed to be the initiator of evangelistic and pastoral work among merchant seamen. … For anyone interested in a previous century’s fresh expressions of church and evangelistic initiatives, as well as missions to seafarers, or just an example of how to research a clergyman who seems to have been keen to cover his tracks, this is a good read.
Dr William Jacob, in Church Times, 23 February 2018