Merchant Navy (United Kingdom)
of the United Kingdom
|Related agencies of
the Merchant Navy
The Merchant Navy is the maritime register of the United Kingdom, and describes the seagoing commercial interests of UK-registered ships and their crews. Merchant Navy vessels fly the Red Ensign and are regulated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). King George V bestowed the title of "Merchant Navy" on the British merchant shipping fleets following their service in the First World War; a number of other nations have since adopted the title.
The Merchant Navy has been in existence for a significant period in British history, owing much of its growth to British imperial expansion. As an entity in itself it can be dated back to the 17th century, where an attempt was made to register all seafarers as a source of labour for the Royal Navy in times of conflict. That registration of merchant seafarers failed, and it was not successfully implemented until 1835. The merchant fleet grew over successive years to become the world's foremost merchant fleet, benefiting considerably from trade with British possessions in India and the Far East. The lucrative trade in sugar, spices and tea (carried by ships such as the Cutty Sark) helped to solidify this dominance in the 19th century.
In the First and Second World Wars, the Merchant Service suffered heavy losses from German U-boat attacks. A policy of unrestricted warfare meant that merchant seafarers were also at risk of attack from enemy ships. The tonnage lost to U-boats in the First World War was around 7,759,090 tons, and around 14,661 merchant seafarers were killed. In honour of the sacrifice made by merchant seafarers in the First World War, George V granted the title "Merchant Navy" to the service.
In 1928 George V made Edward, Prince of Wales "Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets"; a title he retained after his accession in January 1936 and relinquished only at his abdication that December. Sine Edward VIII the title has automatically been held by the sovereigns George VI and Elizabeth II. When the UK entered the Second World War in September 1939 George VI issued this message:
In these anxious days I would like to express to all Officers and Men and in The British Merchant Navy and The British Fishing Fleets my confidence in their unfailing determination to play their vital part in defence. To each one I would say: Yours is a task no less essential to my people's experience than that allotted to the Navy, Army and Air Force. Upon you the Nation depends for much of its foodstuffs and raw materials and for the transport of its troops overseas. You have a long and glorious history, and I am proud to bear the title "Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets". I know that you will carry out your duties with resolution and with fortitude, and that high chivalrous traditions of your calling are safe in your hands. God keep you and prosper you in your great task.
In the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping, which amounted to 2,828 ships (around two thirds of the total allied tonnage lost). The United Kingdom alone suffered the loss of 11.7 million tons, which was 54% of the total Merchant Navy fleet at the outbreak of the Second World War. 32,000 merchant seafarers were killed aboard convoy vessels in the war, but along with the Royal Navy, the convoys successfully imported enough supplies to allow an Allied victory.
In honour of the sacrifices made in the two World Wars, the Merchant Navy lays wreaths of remembrance alongside the armed forces in the annual Remembrance Day service on 11 November. Following many years of lobbying to bring about official recognition of the sacrifices made by merchant seafarers in two world wars and since, Merchant Navy Day became an official day of remembrance on 3 September 2000.
Despite maintaining its dominant position for many decades, the decline of the British Empire in the mid-20th century inevitably led to the decline of the merchant fleet. This is shown in the following table, comparing certain vessel types in 1957 and 2008:
|Passenger vessels||322||37 (including ROROs)|
|General cargo ships||1,145||55|
As of 2005, the Merchant Navy consists of 429 ships of 1,000 gross register tons (GRT) or over; a total of 9,181,284 GRT. This amounts to 9,566,275 metric tons deadweight (DWT). These vessels can be categorised as follows:
- 18 bulk carriers
- 55 general cargo ships
- 48 chemical tankers
- 134 container ships,
- 11 liquefied gas carriers
- 12 passenger ships
- 64 combination passenger/cargo ships
- 40 petroleum tankers
- 19 refrigerated cargo ships
- 25 roll-on/roll-off ships
- 3 vehicle carriers.
In addition, UK interests own 446 ships registered in other countries, and 202 foreign-owned ships are registered in the UK.
Officers past and present
A person hoping to one day become a captain, or master prior to about 1973, had five choices. To attend one of the three elite naval schools from the age of 12, the fixed-base HMS Conway and HMS Worcester or Pangbourne Nautical College, which would automatically lead to an apprenticeship as a seagoing cadet officer; apply to one of several training programmes elsewhere, or go to sea immediately by applying directly to a merchant shipping company at perhaps the age of 17 (with poor prospects of being accepted without some nautical school or other similar prior education.) Then there would be three years (with prior training or four years without) of seagoing experience aboard ship, in work-clothes and as mates with the deck crew, under the direction of the bo'sun cleaning bilges, chipping paint, polishing brass, cement washing freshwater tanks, and holystoning teak decks, and studying navigation and seamanship on the bridge in uniform, under the direction of an officer, before taking exams to become a second mate. With luck, one could become an "uncertificated" second mate in the last year.
The modern route to becoming a deck or engineer officer comprises a total of three years of which at least twelve (six for engineers) months is spent at sea and the remainder at a sea college. This training still encompasses all of the traditional trades such as celestial navigation, ship stability, general cargo and seamanship, but now includes training in business, legislation, law, and computerisation for deck officers and marine engineering principles, workshop technology, steam propulsion, motor (diesel) propulsion, auxiliaries, mechanics, thermodynamics, engineering drawing, ship construction, marine electrics as well as practical workshop training for engineering officers. Training is now undertaken at Blackpool and The Fylde College (Fleetwood Campus), Glasgow College of Nautical Studies, Plymouth University, South Tyneside College, University of the Highlands and Islands (Shetland School of Nautical Studies) and Warsash Maritime Academy. As well as earning an OOW (Officer of the Watch) certificate, they gain valuable training at sea and an HND or BSc degree in their chosen discipline. The decrease of officer recruiting in the past, combined with the huge expansion of trade via shipping is causing a shortage of officers in the UK, traditionally a major seafaring nation, and as such a scheme called Maritime UK has been launched to raise general awareness of the Merchant Navy in the modern day roles.
Another essential seagoing career was that of the radio officer (or R/O, but usually "sparks"), often, though not exclusively, employed and placed by the Marconi Company or one of a number of similar radio company employers. After the inquiry into the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and the nearby SS Californian which did not render assistance due to their radio being down for the night, it was ordered that round-the-clock watch had to be maintained on all ships over 1600 GT. Most vessels only carried one radio officer, and in the hours he was off-duty, an automatic alarm device monitored the distress frequency. Today, Marconi no longer supplies radio officers to ships at sea, because they are no longer required due to the development of satellites. Deck officers are now dual trained as GMDSS officers, thereby being able to operate all of the ship's onboard communication systems, with Electro-technical Officers (ETO) trained to fix and maintain the more complex systems.
COMSAT launched their first commercial satellite in 1976 and by the mid 1980s satellite communication domes had become a familiar sight at sea. The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System or GMDSS was introduced and by 1 February 1999, all ships had to be fitted, thus bringing to an end the position of radio officer. This has led to a new career path, the recently introduced ETO, who is a trained engineer with qualifications to assist the mechanical engineer to maintain vital electronic equipment such as radios and RADARs. ETOs are marine engineers given extra training. Although ETOs are relatively new, many companies are beginning to employ them, (although mechanical engineers are still employed – see Engineering Officer (ship)).
Sailing on the high seas has a long history, with embedded traditions largely inherited from the days of sail. Because of the ever-present concerns of safety for crew and passengers, the layers of authority are rigid, discipline strict, and mutiny almost unknown. Merchant mariners are held in high esteem as a result of their extraordinary losses in times of war. The ships were often "sitting ducks" lined up in the sights of enemy combatants.
Composition of crew
Ship crews work under the eyes of the officers; the deck crew and bo'sun, responsible for general maintenance, sailing "before the mast" (which, due to exaggerated pitching motion in bad weather, is the least comfortable part of the ship). Other duties aboard ship are performed by the ship's carpenter, the cooks, the stewards, the quartermaster who steers the ship, and the below-decks crew, often referred to as "greasers". Ocean-going vessels with more than 12 passengers are required to have a doctor aboard.
For ships of the British Merchant Navy on foreign service, it used to be that each of these departments were peopled by different groups. The deck crew would often be Malay, the quartermasters Filipino, the greasers and stewards Indian, the firemen (stokers) West African, the cooks Indian but from Goa where, being Christian, they could prepare Western style food, and the ship's carpenter ("chippy") would often be Chinese. The officers would be British or Commonwealth, headed by the captain (or master, but more often referred to as "the old man"). The purser was in charge of the ship's stores.
Nowadays ships have turnaround times of less than 24 hours instead of several days, due to containerisation, requiring a much smaller crew. The passenger liners that once transported people now ply the oceans for pleasure seekers, cargo ships have switched to containers using efficient shoreside cranes instead of the ship's derricks, and tankers have become gigantic supertankers.
A number of notable Merchant Navy personnel include:
- Fred Blackburn: England footballer.
- Chris Braithwaite (c. 1885–1944): seafarers' organiser and Pan-Africanist.
- Joseph Conrad: joined the Merchant Navy in 1874, rising through the ranks of Second Mate and First Mate, to Master in 1886. Left in order to write professionally, becoming one of the 20th century's greatest novelists.
- Victoria Drummond: MBE, (1894–1978) Britain's first woman ship's engineer.
- Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley: Deputy Commander in Chief of RAF Strike Command 1973–75. He started work as a deck boy in 1939 aboard TSS Cyclops.
- Gareth Hunt: actor, notably in The New Avengers, and Upstairs, Downstairs
- Violet Jessop: stewardess who survived the Titanic sinking, and author of autobiography about sailing.
- Frank Laskier: WWII Merchant Navy steward who became a public icon for recruitment efforts.
- Freddie Lennon: Merchant Navy steward whose son John later founded the musical group The Beatles.
- Kevin McClory: an Irishman who spent 14 days in a lifeboat and later went on to write the James Bond movies Never Say Never Again and Thunderball.
- Arthur Phillip: joined the Merchant Navy in 1751 and 37 years later founded the city of Sydney, Australia.
- John Prescott: Merchant Navy steward who became Deputy Prime Minister in 1997 under Tony Blair.
- Ken Russell: directed films such as Tommy, Altered States, and The Lair of the White Worm.
- Alun Owen: later wrote the screenplay for A Hard Day's Night.
- Edwin Stratton: founder of Yoshinkan UK.
- Captain Matthew Webb: (19 January 1848 – 24 July 1883) was the first recorded person to swim the English Channel without the use of artificial aids.
Medals and awards
Members of the UK Merchant Navy have been awarded the George Cross and Distinguished Service Cross for their actions while serving in the Merchant Navy. Canadian Philip Bent, ex-British Merchant Navy, joined the British Army at the outbreak of World War I and won the Victoria Cross. Members of the Merchant Navy who served in either World War also received relevant campaign medals. In the Second World War many Merchant Navy members received the King's Commendation for Brave Conduct. Lloyd's of London awarded the Lloyd's War Medal for Bravery at Sea to 541 Merchant Navy personnel for their bravery in 1939–45. Many Royal Humane Society medals and awards have been conferred on Merchant Navy seafarers for acts of humanity in both war and peacetime.
British shipping companies
The British Merchant Navy consists of various private shipping companies. Over the decades many companies have come and gone, merged, changed their name or changed owners.
Below is a list of some of the British shipping companies, past and present:
- Aberdeen Line
- American and Indian Line; Bucknall Steamship Lines
- Anchor Line
- Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company (Shell Tankers)
- Atlantic Steam Navigation Company
- Bank Line
- Ben Line
- Bibby Line
- Blue Anchor Line
- Blue Funnel Line (Alfred Holt)
- Blue Star Line
- Booth Steamship Company
- British and African Steam Navigation Company
- British and Burmese Steam Navigation Company
- British India Steam Navigation Company
- British Tanker Company
- Thomas Brocklebank Ltd
- Bullard, King and Company, including Natal Direct Line
- Burns and Laird Lines
- Byron Marine Ltd
- Cairns, Noble and Company
- Caledonian MacBrayne, formerly Caledonian Steam Packet Company and David MacBrayne
- Carisbrooke Shipping Ltd.
- P & A Campbell
- The China Navigation Company
- Clan Line
- Clyde Shipping Company
- Coast Lines
- William Cory and Son
- Counties Ship Management
- Cunard Line
- Donaldson Atlantic Line
- Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company
- Eagle Oil and Shipping Company
- Elder Dempster Lines, including Glen Line and Shire Line
- Ellerman Lines, including many companies taken over
- Evan Thomas Radcliffe
- Federal Steam Navigation Company
- Fisher, Renwick Manchester – London Steamers
- Furness Withy
- Fyffes Line
- General Steam Navigation Company
- Global Marine Systems, previously Cable & Wireless Marine and British Telecom Marine
- Harrison Line (T&J Harrison)
- P Henderson and Company
- Houlder Brothers and Company (Houlder Line)
- RP Houston and Company (Houston Line)
- Indo-China Steam Navigation Company Ltd.
- Isle of Man Steam Packet Company
- Lamport and Holt
- Leyland Line
- London & Overseas Freighters
- Loch Line
- Manchester Liners
- Mississippi and Dominion Steamship Company (Dominion Line)
- North of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company
- North Star Shipping
- Ocean Steam Navigation Company (White Star Line)
- Orient Steam Navigation Company (Anderson, Green and Company)
- Palm Line
- Pacific Steam Navigation Company
- Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O)
- Port Line, formerly the Commonwealth and Dominion Line
- Prince Line
- Reardon Smith
- Red Funnel Line
- Ropner Shipping Company
- Royal Mail Steam Packet Company
- Sealink, its immediate predecessors the Great Western Railway, LMS, LNER, Southern Railway and many of their antecedents
- Scottish Shire Line
- Shaw, Savill & Albion Line
- Shell International Shipping Services
- Silver Line
- Stag Line
- Star Line
- Stephenson Clarke Shipping
- Townsend Brothers Ferries, later Townsend Thoresen
- Tyne-Tees Steam Shipping Company
- Union-Castle Line
- United Africa Company
- Wandsworth and District Gas Company
- Andrew Weir and Company
- Wilson Line
- Yeoward Line
- Equivalent Royal Navy ranks in the Merchant Navy
- Ratings in the Merchant Navy
- Maritime and Coastguard Agency
- Transportation in the United Kingdom
- Royal Naval Reserve
- Master Mariner
- National Archives of the United Kingdom
- Merchant Navy Memorial website
- Hope 1990, p. 356.
- "Chamber of Shipping celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of HM the Queen: Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets". News. UK Chamber of Shipping. 1 June 2012. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
- Bax, John; Robins, Terry. "Part Six". Clan Line. Merchant Navy Officers. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
- Friel 2003, pp. 245–250.
- Friel 2003, p. 279.
- CIA World Factbook, confirmed 09.08.2008[dead link]
- de Neumann, Bernard (19 January 2006). "Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea (Part One)". WW2 People's War. BBC. Retrieved 17 December 2013.
- de Neumann, Bernard (19 January 2006). "Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea (Part Two)". WW2 People's War. BBC. Retrieved 17 December 2013.
- Blackmore, Edward (1897). The British Mercantile Marine. London: Charles Griffin and Company, Limited. Retrieved 2007-05-29.
- Encyclopædia Britannica (1911). "Shipping". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica 24 (11th edition ed.). Retrieved 2007-04-17.
- Friel, Ian (2003). Maritime History of Britain and Ireland. London: The British Museum Press. ISBN 0-7141-2718-3.
- Hope, Ronald (1990). A New History of British Shipping. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-4799-7.
- Hope, Ronald (2001). Poor Jack: The Perilous History of the Merchant Seaman. London: Greenhill Books. ISBN 1-86176-161-9.
- Mission to Seafarers. "Mission to Seafarers Timeline Alongside World Events". Mission to Seafarers. Archived from the original on 16 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Merchant Navy (United Kingdom).|
- The Marine Society
- Mercantile Marine Community
- British Merchant Navy Association
- Records of World War Two Medals issued to Merchant Seamen from The National Archives.
- Search and download WW2 Merchant Shipping movement cards from The National Archives.