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Merchant Navy (United Kingdom)

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

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.

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. This is according to the annual maritime shipping statistics provided by the British Government and the Department for Transport.


As a signatory to the STCW Convention UK ships are commanded by Deck Officers and Engineering Officers. 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. Cadets usually have a choice of two academic routes; Foundation Degree or Higher National Diploma. 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. During the 3 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 onboard 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. The training regime for Officers is set out in the official syllabus of the Merchant Navy Training Board. 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 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 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.

Notable people

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.
  • James Cook: FRS. (1728-1779). British explorer.
  • 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.
  • Charles Howard GC FRS FRSE (1906-1941), Earl of Suffolk and of Berkshire. Apprentice officer on the windjammer Mount Stewart; bomb disposal expert in World War II.
  • 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.
  • John Masefield: served in Merchant Navy in 1890s: later Poet Laureate.
  • Arthur Phillip: joined the Merchant Navy in 1751 and 37 years later founded the city of Sydney, Australia as the First Governor of New South Wales, which then included the eastern half of the Australia we know today, plus New Zealand.
  • John Prescott: Merchant Navy steward who became Deputy Prime Minister in 1997 under Tony Blair.
  • Peter de Neumann: GM. "The Man From Timbuctoo", The "de Neumann Way" named for him.
  • 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.
  • Frederick Daniel Parslow: VC. Merchant Navy winner of the Victoria Cross.
  • Archibald Bisset Smith: VC. Merchant Navy Victoria Cross recipient.
  • 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 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. 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. 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."

    It is the first state award for meritorious service in the history of the Merchant Navy. 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 less).

    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.

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


    Merchant Navy (United Kingdom) Wikipedia

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