James Fell and his son John (b.1911)

FELL, James  [1861  -  N/K]

I was intrigued by a brief mention of the Reverend James Fell in Richard Whittington-Egan’s book Liverpool Collonade [1955]. Writing about the history of the Mersey Mission to Seamen he notes that “On one wall….gleams the brass memorial tablet to Fell of ‘Frisco, the Reverend James Fell, sometime chaplain of the Mersey Mission, the padre who carried six-shooter in his hip pocket and whop, alone and unaided, cleared the crimps from the San Francisco waterfront”. (‘Crimps’ being those who sought to part sailors from their money).

It seems that having worked in and studied the operation of the Mersey Mission Fell was specially chosen to establish a similar institution on the San Francisco waterfront. He began his work in 1892 and by the summer of 1893 had progressed to the extent that the local journal, the San Francisco Call [22 July 1893] carried an article with glowing praise of the ‘Seamen’s Institute’ at 33 Steuart Street and “the young man specifically gifted for the work”. It seems that Fell was hugely enthusiastic about providing a “place where (mariners) may pass their time in rational amusement, where the moral atmosphere is wholesome” in the hope that this would keep them away from those who would lure them into sinful pursuit and take their money. The astonishing part of the tale is that alongside his efforts to offer wholesome alternatives he was quite prepared to clear out the undesirable elements in the port with physical force. A number of contemporary reports refer to him “beating up” the crimps. When the time came for him to leave San Francisco (and presumably hang up his six-shooter) he was presented with a framed memorial document signed by the sailors. His impact on the city must have been considerable as they named a lengthy thoroughfare, Fell Street, after him which exists to this day.

He wrote a book about his experiences entitled British Merchant Seamen in San Francisco: 1892-1898 [Edward Arnold 1899].

James Fell had been born in Ulverston in 1861, the son of John Fell, a barrister and when his gun-toting days were over he returned to the area to pursue the somewhat calmer calling of a country parson. He was the vicar at Ulverston and the 1911 census found him administering to the spiritual needs of the coastal village of Arnside.

During his first spell in Liverpool he resided at 136 Duke Street L1 (now demolished). He resided in the city for a period after his return from SanFrancisco at 8 Falkner Street L8

8 Falkner Street L8

Rev. James Fell was living here in 1900.

Fell Street, San Francisco (where it seems the sign fell).


The main sources I found were some ancestry notes on Flickr (not sure who to attribute here) and the San Francisco Call article on a California Digital Newspaper Collection.