Agnes Weston initiated the English Sailor’s Rest institutions in Devonport and Portsmouth, where she provided food, lodging, reading and smoking rooms, and evangelical teaching for naval enlisted personnel. Her work here is distinguished by overweening piety, celebration of the heroism and probity of most of the royal navy members, a strong message of teetotalism and salvation. She published tracts and pamphlets such as Ashore and Afloat, and her Monthly Letters.
p. 116-18. In 1875 she befriended Admiral Sir Leopold M’Clintock at Portsmouth, famous as discoverer of Franklin’s fate, and met with him to give an account of what she had accomplished: But a new interest was coming on, and that was no less than a Government Arctic expedition under Captain Sir George Nares. To Admiral M’Clintock the charge of selecting the ships, fitting them up, and sending the expedition off, was entrusted. The ships selected were the Alert, a seventeen-gun sloop, and for the second the Admiral bought a whaler, which, as regarded build, steam-power, and size, was admirably adapted for the work; she was named the Discovery. During part of 1874 they were being fitted up, and on May 20, 1875, the expedition sailed. The men were selected with great care as suitable in every way, and when all were told off, and the expedition nearly ready to sail, I had a farewell tea-party for them, organized by Mr. G. D. Dowkontt. Many of my old friends were going, and who was certain to come back?
Several of the men were total abstainers, notably a very fine fellow, a petty officer named Adam Ayles. He stuck bravely to his promise all through the time. He said that he had promised his mother never to touch strong drink, and he ‘warn’t going to break his promise to her for all the snow and ice in the Arctic regions.’ It was notable that he enjoyed better health than any of the ship’s company. On the terrible sledging expedition, where men stricken with scurvy had to be dragged on the sledges, Ayles was always to the fore, and so by his help the pledge-book and cards of the Royal Naval Temperance Society went farther north than any had gone before or since.
I gave each man a little Testament, which fitted nicely into the pocket of his duffle coat. As the men were speaking one after another one of them said, ‘What about our Monthly Letters, our Blue Backs? we shall want them more than ever up in the Arctic.’ It was a posing question, and I asked, ‘Could any one suggest some plan, as certainly no mails could reach them in Smith’s Sound, locked up in snow and ice.’
Bluejackets always find a way out of a difficulty. One of them was up in a twinkling, and he said to me, ‘I know what you can do; we may be away three years, perhaps not, but best to on the safe side. If you will write thirty-six letters right ahead, one for every month, and have them put up in two boxes, one for the Alert and one for the Discovery, I’ll take charge of the box for the Alert, and there’ll soon be a volunteer for the Discovery, and we’ll serve them out the first of every month, and it’ll be almost as good as if they came straight from you.’
This suggestion was carried unanimously, and I set to work to get them ready, and before the expedition sailed they were alongside the ships, in company with pianos, plum-puddings, and countless things which had to be left behind. However, Sir Leopold said that ‘Whatever was left behind, the Blue Backs were to go,’ and the Admiral’s word was law.
Years afterwards I was on board H.M.S. Duke of Wellington, then the flagship at Portsmouth, when a seaman asked me if I remembered sending the Blue Backs to the Alert and Discovery.‘I was on board the Discovery,’ he said,’ and how we used to look forward to your letters during the long dark winter, and I am so glad to tell you through them I learned to know and love the Lord Jesus Christ, and I’ve had sunshine in my heart ever since.’
p. 121, she refers to “manly Christianity,” a popular concept of the time.
p. 139-40, she prides herself on the marvelous effect her publications are having on the seafaring community. She heard from a U.S.N. chaplain of a training ship that “The boys read Ashore and Afloat and your Monthly Letters with great delight and interest, and will continue to do so as long as you send them. All the boys on our training ship are well acquainted with you through your letters, and should meet any of them, they will be so glad to know you personally. Wishing you God speed in the work, I remain….”
p. 140: We also send large quantities of the Ashore and Afloat and Monthly Letters to the mercantile service, deep-sea fishermen, coastguardsmen, and lighthouse keepers. The output at the present time is: Ashore and Afloat, 750,100 copies; and Monthly Letters, 770,680 copies a year.
p. 142, apropos Weston’s publication, a former sailor says: it’s a sight of good them papers do. Wherever they go men will always read them, if they read nothing else, because them come from Mother Weston. You must want plenty of shiners to do that. I’ll give half-a-crown, I know the good that they do at our coastguard station. I wish I could give more. I owe all my happiness to the Blue Back.
p. 207: I was very pleased to find that there was a great demand among the men for Testaments. ‘Please give me a Testament, Miss Weston,’ a young fellow said shyly. ‘Will you read it? I replied. ‘Yes,” he said, ‘I will keep it in my ditty-box, and I will always read it;’ so said many others. I said to them, ‘I have some Testaments, and I have some other books; I only want to give Testaments to those who will value them. Hands were outstretched all round….I had the pleasure of knowing that a large number of New Testaments had gone to China with the defenders of their country.
p. 217, at the Queen’s funeral in 1901 the sailors took over from the horses and man-hauled the coffin to St. George’s—how appropriate, just as Scott was going off to his first manhauling venture in Antarctica.