Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Samuel Shearston (1853–1916)

by C. Craven-Sands

This article was published:

John Samuel Shearston (1853-1916), seamen's missionary, was born on Trafalgar Day, 21 October 1853, in Sydney, son of Sydney-born parents John Shearston, butcher, and his wife Elizabeth Catherine, née McMahon. After schooling, he was employed as a clerk at the Royal Mint, Sydney.

In 1872 Shearston compassionately rescued a drunken seaman from the ridicule and torment of a crowd in George Street; from that evening he began a personal, voluntary, spare-time mission to these neglected itinerant workers. He visited seamen in ships and in hospital distributing tracts, counselling them and inviting them to his Double Bay home. In 1878 he was licensed as a lay reader by Bishop Barker and accepted invitations to take services on board ships. On 29 April 1880 he married Mary Jane Sledge at Darling Point. Childless, they later adopted an orphaned naval rating.

Owing to his example and persistent canvassing, the Church of England Mission to Seamen was founded in 1881. Shearston, resigning from the Mint, was appointed missioner in May and his new home at 3 Princes Street, Dawes Point, became its headquarters. By day he visited merchantmen and foreign and royal naval ships, becoming a familiar sight on Sydney Harbour in the 1880s in a skiff rowed by an Aboriginal youth. In the evenings he and his wife welcomed seamen with simple entertainment, reading materials, company and refreshments.

A member of the Independent Order of Good Templars, Shearston persuaded seamen to avoid the many sleazy dens where alcohol, sex, quack medicines, amusements and accommodation were available so long as they had money in their pockets. In 1885, with the help of friends, he moved to larger premises at 9 Princes Street, renamed Trafalgar House, where they were also able to offer some residential accommodation. At the end of 1886, at its committee's request, he agreed to also act as superintendent of Goodenough Royal Naval House at 39 Princes Street, which he ran in conjunction with Trafalgar House.

In 1889, to accommodate the increasing number of naval ratings on shore leave, a new Royal Naval House was erected by public subscription in Charlotte Place (Grosvenor Street); it could sleep 300 men and provided reading, dining-and billiard-rooms and a gymnasium. Shearston resigned as missioner to become superintendent of Royal Naval House in September 1890. Mrs Shearston acted as housekeeper. The men, grateful for their warm welcome, soon referred to the premises as 'Johnny's', by which they were known until closed in 1970. By August 1897 some 165,502 men had slept at Royal Naval House since it had opened. A new wing was opened in 1908. Shearston's work had the full support and co-operation of the admirals on the Australian Station. His most cherished possessions were signed photographs of George V who had visited Royal Naval House in 1901.

An active Freemason, Shearston was past master of Lodge Temperance and grand chaplain of United Grand Lodge of New South Wales (1897, 1915-16). He was dark haired, with a naval beard and wide forehead. Shearston died at Royal Naval House on 21 March 1916 and was buried in South Head cemetery. His wife and adopted son survived him. Shearston had remained a valuable member of the committee of the mission he had founded, which eventually was affiliated with the worldwide Missions to Seamen.

Select Bibliography

  • Illustrated Sydney News, 3 Jan 1889
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11, 26 June, 16 Oct 1889, 22, 23 Mar 1916
  • Sydney Mail, 21 Aug 1897, 29 Mar 1916
  • Church of England Seamen's Mission, Reports, 1882-96.

Citation details

C. Craven-Sands, 'Shearston, John Samuel (1853–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 October, 1853
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


21 March, 1916 (aged 62)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.