The Empire Memorial Sailors' Hostel Limehouse London
Anybody familiar with Commercial Road in East London – not the loveliest stretch of road but built a couple of hundred years ago to connect the city of London straight to its booming docklands – will have seen this strange cathedral-like building in Poplar, now labelled the Mission. It is a bit of a mishmash of architectural styles: a mix of English Perpendicular Gothic (the emphasis on vertical lines and those castle turrets) , the Arts and Crafts movement (the low segmental arches running along the side of the building), and some neo-Georgian windows (thanks to Philip Wilkinson, author of the English Buildings Book) flanking the entrance. It seems that just after the First World War, London was suffering from a lot of sailors with no bed for the night: every night 16 000 seamen from all over the world would be let loose in the city looking for lodging and it seems that only three quarters of them would have any luck. And as contemporaneous news reports had it, “they were prey to all temptations“. I can’t imagine what that might mean. So an appeal was started throughout the Empire, largely organised by women, to raise the necessary money to build this hostel, which would also stand as a memorial to the 12 000 merchant sailors who were killed in service during the First World War. When opened in 1924 the hostel provided 205 clean and airy single cabins, as they were called, and by 1929 had provided beds for over a million sailors. With the decline of the London dockyards in the 60s and 70s, demand slowed down and eventually it became a hostel for the homeless which closed in 1985. In 1994, and a bit of a slap in the face for those charitable women of some 70 years earlier, the building was sold off to a developer who converted it into 50 flats and renamed it The Mission. Another moment in its history was when it became the site for the secret conference of the Situationists in 1960, that organisation of socialist revolutionaries.
Reference The Architect [London], ciii, 20 Feb. 1920, 120, descrip. and two plate illus.