Merchant Navy (United Kingdom)

For the steam locomotives, see SR Merchant Navy class.

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.[1] That registration of merchant seafarers failed, and it was not successfully implemented until 1835. British ships were also deeply involved in acts of piracy and armed robbery on the high seas, off the waters of Europe and Caribbean, as ships with British sailors robbed from ships of foreign navies.[2] 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, contraband (opium to China), 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,[3] 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.

Badge of the British Merchant Navy

In 1928 George V made Edward, Prince of Wales "Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets";[4] a title he retained after his accession in January 1936 and relinquished only at his abdication that December. Since Edward VIII the title has automatically been held by the sovereigns George VI and Elizabeth II.[5] 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.[6]

In the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping,[7] 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 Audax 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.[8] By 2012, the Merchant Navy - yet still remaining one of the largest in the world - held only 3% of total tonnage.[9]

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.[10]

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.[9] 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" third 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 (eight for engineers) months is spent at sea and the remainder at a sea college. The training regime for Officers is set out in the official syllabus of the Merchant Navy Training Board.[11] 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), City of Glasgow College, 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

Up until about the 1990s the officers were almost, but not all, native to Britain. The rest of the crew could be recruited from anywhere although an entire crew was usually recruited from a single port, including British crews. Carpenters were recruited separately and if they were not from Britain they were often Chinese even if the rest of the crew were African or Indian.

The ships officers were: the Captain or Master, who was in command and responsible for the successful completion of the voyage, the Chief Officer or Mate ran the deck crew and was in charge of the loading and discharge of the cargo, the Second Officer or Second Mate was responsible for the navigation of the ship and the Third Officer or Third Mate was the safety officer. The Chief Engineer was in overall charge of the ship's machinery. The Second Engineer ran the engine room and the engine crew. In a motor (i.e. Diesel) ship the Third Engineer was responsible for the main engine, the Fourth Engineer was in charge of the generators. The junior engineers assisted the others in their rôles. In steam ships these duties would be allocated differently. The electricians were part of the engine department and reported to the Second Engineer. The Radio Officer was responsible for radio communications and the maintenance the electronic navigation devices and reported directly to the Captain; the Radio Officer also sometimes carried out administrative tasks on behalf of the Captain. The Chief Steward ran the catering department and was usually a UK resident like the rest of the officers however if a Chinese crew was carried the Chief Steward would normally be Chinese. This was the basic structure but there were many variations and additions, including training positions.

The deck crew was run by the Bosun although the Carpenter was considered the senior member of the deck crew, both reported directly to the Chief Officer/Mate. Below the bosun was the Deck Storekeeper sometimes known as the Lamp Trimmer, and maybe a Bosun's Mate and then the rest of the deck crew the number of which varied depending on the size of ship and the work required. If Quartermasters (men who steered the ship) were carried they were usually directed in their duties by the Second Officer/Second Mate. The engine room crew were run by the Engine Room Storekeeper or, on a tanker, the Pumpman, and were commonly divided into firemen who assisted in the boiler room and greasers who worked in the engine room. One of the greasers may have been appointed Electrician's Mate. Under the Chief Steward was a Chief Cook, who ran the galley and was assisted by the galley staff, and the officer's stewards who were sometimes led by a Second Steward.

Crews recruited from the Indian Sub-Continent included Goanese cooks and stewards because they were prepared to handle food eaten by the British officers. Indian crews had separate cooks for the deck crew and for the engine crew, although by the 1970s it was becoming common just to have a chief crew cook and a second crew cook.

Crews from outwith 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.

Tramp ships, which included tankers, would recruit crews from anywhere although each company usually only recruited crews from a single country.

While vestiges of this system remain, British ships can now have captains, officers and crews from anywhere in the world on condition that they have internationally recognised qualifications, so crews are now far more multi national. Although the basic management structure is still in place Radio Officers have been replaced by Electronic Technical Officers who deal with the vast array of electronic equipment now carried and are usually part of the Engine Room Department, though now renamed Technical Department. Chief Stewards and Carpenters have all but been phased out, the Chief Cook now heading the Catering Department and Carpenters no longer required on most ships. The deck and engine crews have also been merged and although still run by a Bosun the same crew work on deck and assist in the Engine Room when required. The pumpman on a tanker, who is responsible for much of the cargo care equipment and cargo pumps, is now part of the Deck Department and reports to the Chief Officer/Mate.Simon JD (talk) 14:11, 20 March 2016 (UTC)

Notable people

Further information: List of notable mariners

A number of notable Merchant Navy personnel include:

Captain Matthew Webb

Medals and awards

Authority to wear the British War Medal (and ribbon) and the Mercantile Marine Medal (and clasp, ribbon) issued to Minnie Mason for her work 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.[12][13] Many Royal Humane Society medals and awards have been conferred on Merchant Navy seafarers for acts of humanity in both war and peacetime.

From September 2016, members will be eligible for the new Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service. The first state award for meritorious service in the history of the Merchant Navy.[14]

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. British Shipping is represented nationally and globally by the UK Chamber of Shipping, headquartered in London.[15]

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

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

See also


  1. National Archives of the United Kingdom
  2. McCarthy, Mathew (2013). Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America, 1810-1830 (1st ed.). Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. ISBN 1843838613.
  3. Merchant Navy Memorial website
  4. Hope 1990, p. 356.
  5. "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.
  6. Bax, John; Robins, Terry. "Part Six". Clan Line. Merchant Navy Officers. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
  7. Friel 2003, pp. 245–250.
  8. "Fact File : Merchant Navy". BBC. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  9. 1 2 "Shipping Fleet: 2012" (PDF). HM Government. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  10. "Merchant Marine: United Kingdom". CIA World Fact Book. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  11. "UK Government - Seafarer Training" (PDF). Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. "UK Chamber of Shipping - About". Retrieved 3 July 2016.


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