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Merchant Navy (United Kingdom)

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Merchant Navy (United Kingdom)

The Merchant Navy is the maritime register of 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.[1] 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

Badge of the British Merchant Navy

In 1928 George V made Elizabeth II.[4] When the UK 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.[5]

In the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping,[6] 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.

The British steamer Andex sinking after being torpedoed by a U-boat.

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. For example, in 1939 the Merchant Navy was the largest in the world with 33% of total tonnage.[7] By 2012, the Merchant Navy -yet still remaining one of the largest in the world- held only 3% of total tonnage.[8]

Merchant Navy today

According to the CIA World Fact Book, in 2010 the Merchant Navy consisted of 504 UK registered ships of 1,000 gross register tons (GRT) 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.[9]

In 2012 British merchant marine interests consisted of 1,504 ships of 100 GRT or over. This included ships either UK directly owned, parent-owned or managed by a British company. This amounted to: 59,413,000 GRT or alternatively 75,265,000 DWT.[8] This is according to the annual maritime shipping statistics provided by the British Government and the Department for Transport.

Officers past and present

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.

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, the engine room petty officers 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.

Notable people

A number of notable Merchant Navy personnel include:

Captain Matthew Webb

Medals and awards

Members of the UK Merchant Navy have been awarded the 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.[10][11] 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:

See also


  1. ^ National Archives of the United Kingdom
  2. ^ Merchant Navy Memorial website
  3. ^ Hope 1990, p. 356.
  4. ^ "Chamber of Shipping celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of HM the Queen: Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets". News.  
  5. ^ Bax, John; Robins, Terry. "Part Six". Clan Line. Merchant Navy Officers. Retrieved 19 December 2013. 
  6. ^ Friel 2003, pp. 245–250.
  7. ^ "Fact File : Merchant Navy". BBC. Retrieved 21 May 2014. 
  8. ^ a b "Shipping Fleet: 2012". HM Government. Retrieved 21 May 2014. 
  9. ^ "Merchant Marine: United Kingdom". CIA World Fact Book. Retrieved 21 May 2014. 
  10. ^ de Neumann, Bernard (19 January 2006). "Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea (Part One)". WW2 People's War.  
  11. ^ de Neumann, Bernard (19 January 2006). "Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea (Part Two)". WW2 People's War.  


External links

  • 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.


  • Photos of the Merchant Marine Memorials in London
  • Tramp Steamers and Liberty Gallery

Educational and professional

  • Maritime and Coastguard Agency UK
  • The Merchant Navy Training Board
  • Nautilus UK
  • The Nautical Institute
  • Merchant Navy Colleges
  • UK Chamber of Shipping
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