On June 2, 1830, a constitution was adopted to establish the New Bedford Port Society. In the spring of 1832, the Seamen’s Bethel was opened for worship. During the next year, the aid of the ladies of New Bedford was required, for it was found that sick sailors suffered from neglect and want. The Ladies’ Branch of the Port Society was organized June 24, 1833 and took as its mission the care and visitation of sick, disabled and worn-out seamen. The notes of that meeting read, “The benevolent ladies of this place have formed themselves into a branch of the Port Society to ameliorate conditions of sick and distressed seamen.”
In 1851, Sarah Rotch Arnold presented to this Society the Mariners’ Home. The ladies then raised $3,000 for furnishings and upkeep. The home was opened in 1851 and used as a boarding house for active seamen, as well as a home for retired seamen. There was a hospital room on the second floor. A Sabbath school and library were started by the ladies. A reading room on the main floor was evidently the most popular meeting place for the sailors.
Originally funds for carrying on all work were raised by private subscription. It is said that as most ship owners contributed one cent per ton as a tax to the treasury of the New Bedford Port Society, they likewise contributed, but not as much, to the Ladies’ Branch. The articles of incorporation from 1861 state: “The purpose of this Corporation shall be to assist in the moral improvement of sick, needy or worthy seamen and to assist other needy or worthy persons: to provide financial assistance for the education of needy and deserving students, giving first consideration to families of descents of seamen; and to assist the New Bedford Port Society in any project relating to the Mariner’s Home or the Seamen’s Bethel which the Ladies’ Branch deems desirable.”
In 1933, at the 100th anniversary meeting of the Ladies’ Branch, Lillian Cummings wrote, “New Bedford is no longer the great maritime city from which five thousand seamen sailed every year. However, the Ladies’ Branch continues on with its work. It is interesting to relate that there are women on the Board today whose great-grandmothers were members of this Society. Years ago it was the custom for membership on the Board to be handed down within families form one generation to the other.”
In the 21st century, New Bedford has come full circle to have been named the No. 1 fishing port in America for value of catch landed. The number of registered fishing vessels is about equal to the number of whaling vessels at the height of that fishery, but the support for fishermen and their families is much more substantial in today’s world. The mission of the Ladies’ Branch continues with the main focus of awarding scholarships to college-bound students from maritime familes or students going into the maritime world themselves, as well as supporting the missions of the Seamen’s Bethel and Mariners’ Home.
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