This article is the translation (by Sarah Thompson) of the previous one in Italian published on Dec. 4th.
A hundred years ago, on 4th December 1913, the Seamen’s Institute of Livorno – also known as the Recreation centre for British sailors – was inaugurated “in the presence of the British ambassador to the King of Italy, Sir Rennell Rood, the British naval attaché to Italy, Captain Boyle, and many other guests”, as reported in the Gazzetta Livornese on 4th December 1913.
The article continues: “…the Recreation Centre will be open to the public today and tomorrow when, from 3-10pm, there will be a well-organised charity fair with many generous prizes, in aid of the institute, which we feel sure the people of Livorno will attend in large numbers. The centre’s concert hall has been used by the ladies of the English and Italian communities to set up a “maypole”, a typical graceful English dance, which will represent an enjoyable novelty for many Livornese.”
A few days prior to this, the Gazzetta Livornese had dedicated ample space on its front page to the Institute, “erected in Piazza del Villano”:
“Since long before 1840 – when the foundation of similar institutes was not allowed – British sailors were assisted and protected in all their needs by a chaplain who used to visit them on board the steamships they were working on, also carrying out religious functions there. Later, the initial – and rather modest – foundations for a recreation centre were laid: rooms were initially opened for this purpose in a building on the Molo Mediceo where the Antimonio factory used to stand, and later in Via San Sebastiano. Then, using funds available and those acquired from the sale of the English Church in Via degli Elisi [Scottish Presbyterian, editor’s note], the construction and furnishing of the recreation centre, much longed-for by the chaplain and in particular by George Henderson – who took care of all the procedures needed for the purchase of the area – was finally made possible. The handsome building with its harmonious lines was constructed by the Carlo Frediani company using part of our old fortress walls. The work was supervised by Mr Henderson according to designs and plans by Torello Macchia [also responsible for the Church of the Sacro Cuore dei Salesiani and the conversion into a cinema of the old Teatro degli Avvalorai, editor’s note]. The institute stands in Piazza del Villano and is built in the Florentine style of the 15th century. The facade bears a niche in which the statue of the Villano will be placed, exactly where it used to stand. Above this, a plaque will commemorate the deeds of the Livornese peasant, while a medallion will feature an image of the Medici caravel.
Opposite the niche stands a wrought iron fence, while high up on the façade, below the battlements, are the coats of arms of the English shipping lines that frequent the port of Livorno, and of the cities from which the ships belonging to those lines originated. There are also alternate coats of arms of some Italian cities, including that of Livorno.
Lower down are the royal coats of arms of Great Britain and the countries it comprises – England, Ireland and Scotland – faithfully and artistically sculpted in concrete by Alfredo Banchelli.
The section of the building occupied by the church and the residence of chaplain Rev. Peter Wilson – who, together with Mr Henderson, has done so much to bring this noble project to a successful conclusion – also bears other concrete coats of arms belonging to the Presbyterian church under whose protection the charitable Institution lies.
The church and the residence have a separate entrance in Via Sant’Antonio. The entrance to the recreation centre is in Via del Giardino: on the right as you enter there is a large hall for concerts and conferences. A plaque commemorates the charitable work carried out by Mr J. Thomson Henderson, uncle of George, who died in 1885, just a few days before the inauguration of the first recreation room for which he had worked considerably.
This hall communicates with the church, which is a simple building, both severe and imposing. A marble plaque commemorates the reverend Robert Walter [Stewart (1812-1887), editor’s note] who was minister of the Presbyterian Church of Livorno from 1845 to 1887 and who, during his long stay in our city, strived long and hard with Mr Henderson and other members of the English community to establish the Institute.
On the left is a gymnasium dedicated to Mr Robert C. Henderson, and a library where the Mission’s historical records will also be kept. Besides the caretaker’s accommodation, the mezzanine floor also houses dormitories for convalescent sailors or those out of work for which it has been agreed between the British Consulate in Livorno and the British government that the Institute will receive subsidies from the latter. The recreation centre also includes rooms for reading, writing, and billiards, as well as bathrooms, for the sailors. The piano nobile is occupied by the minister’s residence, furnished with austere luxury, sleeping quarters for officers’ wives who do not wish to stay on board, and reading, writing and billiards rooms for officers. The building is surmounted by a large terrace which affords enchanting views of the sea and the whole of our port. The entire recreation centre is served by electric light and heated by numerous radiators. Well-being, peace, and a mood of serene calm can be felt throughout. Hygiene is carefully attended to. The long-awaited “dream” could not have been better realised and we would like to congratulate Mr George Henderson and his collaborators once again, and send our greetings through them to the outstanding, hard-working British community that Livorno has the honour of hosting.”
In 1935 the Institute was endangered by the new city plans which involved its expropriation and demolition. The destiny of the Seamen’s Institute was nevertheless marked: the 1943 allied bombings destroyed it almost completely, leaving just an outer shell. Official British reports of the time reveal the intention of the British community to rebuild it, but unfortunately this never happened and today we are left with a fading memory of this other lost piece of the Livorno delle Nazioni.
Our association would like to thank Dr. Roberto Riu for reminding us about this significant centenary. We will continue studying and researching the Seamen’s Institute of Livorno to reconstruct its history and we wish, one day, to place a tablet and a historical sign close to where the Institute was once standing, to remind our citizens and foreign visitors of its existence, when Livorno was still the city of all Nations.