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, King George V granted the title "Merchant Navy" to the service. The Prince of Wales was made the Master of the Merchant Navy.
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 considerable time, 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-technial 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:
- 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 twentieth-century's greatest novelists.
- Arthur Phillip: joined the Merchant Navy in 1751 and 37 years later founded the city of Sydney, Australia.
- Ken Russell: directed films such as Tommy, Altered States, and The Lair of the White Worm.
- Kevin McClory: an Irishman who spent fourteen days in a lifeboat and later went on to write the James Bond movies Never Say Never Again and Thunderball.
- Alun Owen: later wrote the screenplay for A Hard Day's Night.
- Victoria Drummond: MBE, (1894-1978) Britain's first woman ship's engineer.
- Frank Laskier: WWII Merchant Navy steward who became a public icon for recruitment efforts.
- Chris Braithwaite (c.1885-1944): seafarers' organiser and Pan-Africanist.
- Freddie Lennon: a Merchant Navy steward whose son John would later found the musical group The Beatles.
- 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.
- Violet Jessop: stewardess who survived Titanic sinking, and author of autobiography about sailing.
- John Prescott: a Merchant Navy steward who became Deputy Prime Minister in 1997 under Tony Blair.
- Fred Blackburn: England footballer.
- Edwin Stratton: founder of Yoshinkan UK.
- Air Marshal Sir Peter Horsley: Deputy Commander in Chief (Strike Command) from 1973 - 1975. Started work as a deck boy in 1939 aboard the TSS Cyclops.
- Gareth Hunt: actor, notably in The New Avengers, and Upstairs, Downstairs
Members of the British Merchant Navy have won the George Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross 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.
British shipping companies
The British Merchant Navy consists of various private shipping companies. Over the years 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
- Anchor Line
- Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company (Shell Tankers)
- Bank Line
- Ben Line
- Bibby Line
- Blue Anchor Line
- Blue Funnel Line (Alfred Holt)
- Blue Star Line
- Booth Steamship Company
- British India Steam Navigation Company
- British Tanker Company
- Thomas Brocklebank Ltd
- Bullard, King and Company
- Burns and Laird Lines
- Byron Marine Ltd
- Caledonian MacBrayne, formerly Caledonian Steam Packet Company and David MacBrayne
- 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
- Ellerman Lines
- Evan Thomas Radcliffe
- Federal Steam Navigation Company
- 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
- Indo-China Steam Navigation Company Ltd.
- Isle of Man Steam Packet Company
- Lamport and Holt
- London & Overseas Freighters
- Loch 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, originally named the Commonwealth and Dominion Line
- Reardon Smith
- Red Funnel Line
- Ropner Shipping Company
- Royal Mail Steam Packet Company
- Shaw, Savill & Albion Line
- Shell International Shipping Services
- Silver Line
- Stag Line
- Star Line (shipping company)
- Stephenson Clarke Shipping
- Tyne-Tees Steam Shipping Company
- Union-Castle Line
- United Africa Company
- Wandsworth and District Gas Company
- Andrew Weir and Company
- 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, Ronald (1990). A New History of British Shipping. London: John Murray (Publishers) Ltd. p. 356. ISBN 0-7195-4799-7.
- Friel, Ian (2003). Maritime History of Britain and Ireland. London: The British Museum Press. pp. 245–250. ISBN 0-7141-2718-3.
- Friel, Ian (2003). Maritime History of Britain and Ireland. London: The British Museum Press. p. 279. ISBN 0-7141-2718-3.
- CIA World Factbook, confirmed 09.08.2008
- 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.
- 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.