Merchant Navy (United Kingdom)

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British Merchant Navy
Badge of British Merchant Navy.JPG
Badge of the Merchant Navy
Active1835 – present
Country United Kingdom, British Overseas Territories and Channel Islands
Size10th Largest;
  • 30 Million Gross Registered Tonnage
  • 40.7 Million Deadweight Tonnage
Colours  Red
  • Cargo
  • Cruise
  • Civilian/Pleasure
Red Ensign
Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Civil Jack
Civil Jack of the United Kingdom.svg

The Merchant Navy is the maritime register of the United Kingdom and comprises 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;[1] a number of other nations have since adopted the title. Previously it had been known as the Mercantile Marine or Merchant Service, although the term "Merchant Navy" was already informally used from the 19th century.


The crew of HMS Castle Harbour, assigned to the Royal Naval Dockyard as the Examination Service vessel (that inspected merchant ships). Crew members included members of the Merchant Navy. HMS Castle Harbour would later be sunk by a German submarine while being delivered to the Mediterranean by a Merchant Navy crew

The Merchant Navy has been in existence for a significant period in English and British history, owing its growth to trade and imperial expansion. It can be dated back to the 17th century, when an attempt was made to register all seafarers as a source of labour for the Royal Navy in times of conflict.[2] 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 trades in sugar, contraband opium to China, spices, and tea (carried by ships such as the Cutty Sark) helped to entrench this dominance in the 19th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, maritime education expanded to train merchant navy officers. For example, in 1855 Leith Nautical College provided training for seafarers in Scotland.[3][4] Other maritime colleges developed in this period included the South Tyneside Marine and Technical College, founded 1861 (now the South Tyneside College) and the Southampton School of Navigation, 1902 (now the Warsash Maritime School).[5]

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 at risk of attack from enemy ships. The tonnage lost to U-boats in the First World War was around 7,759,090 tons,[6] 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 companies.

In 1928 George V gave Edward, Prince of Wales the title of "Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets";[7] which he retained after his accession to the throne in January 1936 and relinquished only at his abdication that December. Since Edward VIII, the title has been held by the sovereigns George VI and Elizabeth II.[8] When the United Kingdom and the British Empire entered the Second World War in September 1939, George VI issued this message:

Second World War poster highlighting wartime dangers that the Merchant Navy faced

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.[9]

During the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping,[10] 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.

Between 1941 and 1949, the SR Merchant Navy class steam locomotives were built in the UK.[11] Each locomotive of the class was named after British shipping lines from the Second World War, principally those operating out of Southampton.[11]

In honour of the sacrifices made in both World Wars, representatives of the Merchant Navy lay 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 the two world wars and since, Merchant Navy Day became an official day of remembrance on 3 September 2000.

Merchant Navy today[edit]

Despite maintaining its dominant position for many decades, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the use of the flag of convenience, and foreign competition led to the decline of the merchant fleet. For example, in 1939 the Merchant Navy was the largest in the world with 33% of total tonnage.[12] By 2012, the Merchant Navy – while still remaining one of the largest in the world – held only 3% of total tonnage.[13]

In 2010 the Merchant Navy consisted of 504 UK registered ships of 1,000 gross tonnage (GT) or over. In addition, UK merchant marine interests possessed a further 308 ships registered in other countries and 271 foreign-owned ships were registered in the UK.[14]

In 2012 British merchant marine interests consisted of 1,504 ships of 100 GT or over. This included ships either directly UK-owned, parent-owned or managed by a British company. This amounted to: 59,413,000 GT or alternatively 75,265,000 DWT.[13] This is according to the annual maritime shipping statistics provided by the British Government and the Department for Transport.

An example of Merchant Navy Officers, graduating at their 'passing out' ceremony from Warsash Maritime Academy in Southampton, with Former First Sea Lord Alan West, Baron West of Spithead, in 2011.

As a signatory to the STCW Convention UK ships are commanded by Deck Officers and Engineering Officers.[15] Officers undergo 3 years of training, known as a cadetship at one of the approved maritime colleges in the United Kingdom. These include Warsash Maritime Academy, South Tyneside College, Fleetwood, Plymouth University and City of Glasgow College.[16] Cadets usually have a choice of two academic routes; Foundation Degree or Higher National Diploma.[15] Successful completion of this results in a qualification in marine operations or marine engineering. Generally the costs of a cadetship will be met by sponsorship from a UK shipping company.[17] During the three years of training, cadets also go to sea, for a period of a year or more, usually spread across the cadetship. This affords a practical education, that along with the academic time in college prepares a candidate for a separate and final oral exam. This oral exam is carried out with a Master Mariner at an office of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Successful completion of the oral exam will result in the award of a certificate of competency. This is the international qualification, issued by the UK government which allows an Officer to work in their qualified capacity on board a ship. Certificates are issued for different ranks and as such an Officer will usually return to complete a subsequent series of studies until they reach the highest qualification.

The first UK Deck Officer certificates of competency were issued in 1845, conducted then, as now, by a final oral exam with a Master Mariner.[18] The training regime for Officers is set out in the official syllabus of the Merchant Navy Training Board.[19] 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.

Historically a person wishing to become a captain, or master prior to about 1969, had three 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 about age 17. 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.

Historically, the composition of the crew on UK ships was diverse. This was a characteristic of the extant of the shipping companies trade, the extent of the British Empire and the availability of crew in different ports. One ship might have a largely all British crew, while another might have a crew composed of many Indians, Chinese or African sailors. Crews from outside Britain were usually drawn from areas in which the ship traded, so Far East trading ships had either Singapore or Hong Kong crews, banana boats had West Indian crews, ships trading to West Africa and Southern Africa had African crews and ships trading to the Indian Ocean (including East Africa) had crews from the Indian subcontinent. Crews made up of recruits from Britain itself were commonly used on ships trading across the North Atlantic, to South America and to Australia and New Zealand. Traditionally and still now, the ships crew is run by the Bosun, as overseen by a responsible Deck Officer, usually the Chief Mate. A ship may also have different sub-departments, such as the galley, radio department or hospitality services, overseen by a Chief Cook, Radio Officer or Chief Steward. Many of these roles have now changed, as ships crews have become smaller in commercial shipping. On most ships the Radio department has disappeared, along with the Radio Officer (colloquially known as 'sparks') replaced by changes in technology and the requirement under the STCW Convention for Deck Officers to hold individual certification in the GMDSS System. Electro-technical Officers (ETO) also serve aboard some ships and are trained to fix and maintain the more complex systems.



Ensigns are displayed at the stern of the vessel or displayed on the gaff, on a yardarm. Red Ensigns can be defaced, those can only be flown with a warrant on board the vessel. Bermuda (historically part of British North America, but left out of the Confederation of Canada) flies the red ensign also as a territorial flag on land, as did other British North American colonies that still do so as Provinces of modern Canada, including Ontario (other British Overseas Territories that fly a nautical ensign as the territorial flag on land use the Blue Ensign which in Bermuda is only flown from civil government vessels such as ferry boats).

British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies ensigns[edit]

Yacht club ensigns[edit]

Institution ensigns[edit]

House flags[edit]

House flags are personal and designed by a company. A house flag is displayed on a port halyard of a Yardarm.

House flags of the early 20th century

Notable people[edit]

Captain Matthew Webb, a Captain and cross channel swimmer.
Joseph Conrad, a Captain and author.

A number of notable Merchant Navy personnel include:

Medals and awards[edit]

Authority to wear the British War Medal (and ribbon) and the Mercantile Marine Medal (and clasp, ribbon) issued to Minnie Mason for her work on English Channel ferries throughout World War I

Members of the UK Merchant Navy have been awarded the Victoria Cross, George Cross, George Medal, Distinguished Service Order, 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.[20][21] Many Royal Humane Society medals and awards have been conferred on Merchant Navy seafarers for acts of humanity in both war and peacetime.

In September 2016 the UK Government introduced the Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service.[22] The medal is awarded:

"to those who are serving or have served in the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets of the UK, Isle of Man or Channel Islands for exemplary service and devotion to duty, rewarding those who have set an outstanding example to others."[22]

It is the first state award for meritorious service in the history of the Merchant Navy.[23] Recipients must be nominated by someone other than themselves, with at least two written letters of support and are normally required to have completed 20 years service in the Merchant Navy (although in exceptional circumstances it may be less).[24]


British Merchant Navy Officers Ranks and Rank Badges
Deck Officers Engineer Officer Electrical Technical Officer Ship's Medical Officer Steward's Department Officer
Master British Merchant Navy Master (Captain) Rank.jpg Chief Engineer Chief Engineer.jpg N/A N/A N/A
Chief Officer British Merchant Navy Chief Officer Rank.jpg Second Engineer Second Engineer.jpg Chief ETO Chief Electrical Technical Officer.jpg Ship's Surgeon Ship's Surgeon.jpg Chief Purser Chief Purser.jpg
Second Officer British Merchant Navy Second Officer Rank.jpg Third Engineer Third Engineer.jpg ETO Electrical Technical Officer.jpg Ship's Doctor or Dentist Ship's Doctor or Dentist.jpg Purser Purser.jpg
Third Officer British Merchant Navy Third Officer Rank.jpg Fourth Engineer Fourth Engineer.jpg N/A Ship's Nurse Ship's Nurse.jpg Assistant Purser Assistant Purser.jpg
Cadet Deck Officer Cadet Deck Officer.jpg Cadet Engineer Officer Cadet Engineer Officer.jpg Cadet Electrical Officer Cadet Electrical Officer.jpg N/A N/A


British shipping companies[edit]

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. British Shipping is represented nationally and globally by the UK Chamber of Shipping, headquartered in London.[29] British shipping registrars belong to the Red Ensign Group.

The Bibby Sapphire is a diving support vessel built in 2005 for the operational shipping company Bibby Line.
The British Emperor, launched in 1916 was a ship of the British Tanker Company that was sunk in 1941.
Queen Mary of 1936 (80,700 GRT) was a ship of the Cunard Line.

Below is a list of some of the British shipping companies, past and present:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Merchant Navy Day, the fourth service remembered". 3 September 2016. Archived from the original on 24 March 2017. Retrieved 23 March 2017. In 1928 King George V announced that, in recognition of its service and sacrifice, it would henceforth be known as the Merchant Navy
  2. ^ National Archives of the United Kingdom
  3. ^ "Former students of Leith Nautical College to meet up". The Scotsman. Retrieved 14 September 2022.
  4. ^ The Sea Dominies: The Story of Leith Nautical College, 1855–1987. London: Board of Governors of Leith Nautical College. 1987. ISBN 978-0-9512408-0-9.
  5. ^ Aldridge, M. H. (1996). A history of the Southampton School of Navigation. The Southampton Institute.
  6. ^ Merchant Navy Memorial website Archived 6 September 2012 at
  7. ^ Hope 1990, p. 356.
  8. ^ "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. Archived from the original on 20 December 2013. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
  9. ^ Bax, John; Robins, Terry. "Part Six". Clan Line. Merchant Navy Officers. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
  10. ^ Friel 2003, pp. 245–250.
  11. ^ a b Burridge, Frank: Nameplates of the Big Four (Oxford Publishing Company: Oxford, 1975) ISBN 0-902888-43-9
  12. ^ "Fact File : Merchant Navy". BBC. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  13. ^ a b "Shipping Fleet: 2012" (PDF). HM Government. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  14. ^ "Merchant Marine: United Kingdom". CIA World Fact Book. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  15. ^ a b "UK seafarer careers: training provision, information and examination syllabuses". Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  16. ^ "Study". Careers at Sea. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  17. ^ "Sponsorship". Careers at Sea. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  18. ^ Maclachlan, Malcolm (2016). The Shipmaster's Business Self-Examiner. The Nautical Institute. p. 3.
  19. ^ "UK Government – Seafarer Training" (PDF). Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ a b "Meritorious service rewarded with new Merchant Navy medal". UK Government. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  23. ^ Goodwill, Robert (26 November 2016). "New state award for a Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service". GOV.UK. UK Government Digital Service. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  24. ^ "Merchant Navy Medal Guidance" (PDF). UK Government. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  25. ^ Clyde Uniforms epaulettes design
  26. ^ Mercantile Marine Standard Uniform poster of 1941
  27. ^ Ranks of the Merchant Navy and hierarchy
  28. ^ [ Hierarchy of the Merchant Navy]
  29. ^ "UK Chamber of Shipping – About". Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  30. ^ "Anchor-Donaldson". Retrieved 6 October 2017.
  31. ^ "Scottish Ship Management Ltd". Retrieved 6 April 2023.


External links[edit]


Educational and professional[edit]