Last year the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) celebrated 175 years of service to the UK maritime community. For generations, it has been a sanctuary for seafarers calling at ports along London’s River Thames. However, in recent years, as QVSR Chief Executive, Alex Campbell, explains, it has been anything but plain sailing for the Rest.
Each day seafarers arrive in ports along London’s River Thames. They are far from home, rarely have English as a first language and really appreciate a chance to spend time away from their ships.
The Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest (QVSR) provides a welcoming environment where seafarers can catch up with family and friends through free internet, relax in comfort with music, games tables, and TV entertainment, buy refreshments and souvenirs, and socialise with other crew members. Open 24 hours a day 7 days a week, QVSR also has en-suite accommodation available for active and retired seafarers.
The 176-year-old Rest, which works in partnership with the church and maritime charities Mission to Seafarers, the German Seaman’s Mission, and the Sailors Society, is looking to the future with optimism, but not too long ago, that future looked to be in question.
Alex Campbell, joined QVSR in 2003 with the brief to knock down the Rest and build a new one. What became clear quite quickly to Alex was that the ambition of the task was, as he puts it, “more fantasy than fiction”:
“I soon discovered that the outline plans for the new Rest had not been agreed with the local authority, the plans did not have the support of the local authority and they had not even been shown to the planning department, never mind agreed.”
There was no immediate prospect of a new building and the current one was becoming more outdated. Accommodation had changed little since the 1970s with up to 20 men still sharing bathroom facilities. There was a need for drastic change, and it needed to happen quickly.
Multiple challenges presented themselves. Alex and the Board needed to address what QVSR was in the 21st century, who it served and who it should be serving, which led to questions as to whether the Rest should move further East.
There was also external challenges. The local and national government didn’t identify the single male audience QVSR served as a demographic which further accommodation needed to be developed for. This was all as the Rest’s maritime partners were either reducing funding of withdrawing financial support altogether.
After much discussion, it was decided that QVSR would stay in Poplar. It was at this stage that Alex went to the Board with a radical proposal, that they would hand back the grants which limited the control they had over their destiny and would look to raise the £5 million needed to renovate the Rest.
“It was my conviction that we should ‘step out in faith’, believing that if we have a role to play in the present age, we would be successful in our ambitions.”
Alex’s leap of faith would be named the ‘Queen Vic Refit’. Through careful planning, and the kind contributions of donors, phase one of the refit commenced in early 2009 with the first 16 en-suite rooms finished and officially opened by the Rest’s patron, HRH Princess Alexandra, in December of the same year.
“The QVSR staff and fundraisers told the story of the Rest and the vision for what new facilities would bring extremely well which supported further donation and subsequent development.”
Alongside the development, Alex and the board sought to reaffirm the Rest’s commitment to the maritime community.
“The opportunity arose to take over the responsibility of managing the seafarers’ centres on the River Thames at Tilbury and DP World London Gateway. I invited the board to grasp the opportunity, diversifying and widening the scope of the charity’s work, while staying firmly with the charitable aims and objectives.”
The Board agreed to Alex’s proposal giving QVSR an even more meaningful part to play in the maritime world providing accommodation and services to active, oversees and retired seafarers’ centres on the River Thames.
With major expansion plans at both Tilbury and DP World the Thames is becoming an increasingly busy waterway. QVSR is very much part of this, as it strives to continue to meet the needs of seafarers visiting London every day.
“From being a maritime charity that many viewed as ‘being of the past’ we are now seen as an important part of the future and a key component of the maritime welfare sector here in the UK.”
The full 175-year story of the Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest has been chronicled in the limited edition book ‘Saving Jack: The Story of the Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church, The Queen Victoria Seamen’s Rest’. To find out more about QVSR and how you can support its mission, visit: www.qvsr.org.uk