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The Merchant Navy


The British Merchant Navy, known simply as 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)


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 seamen as a source of manpower for the Royal Navy during times of conflict. However the registration of merchant seamen failed, and it was not successfully implemented until 1835. The merchant fleet grew over successive years to become the worlds foremost merchant fleet, benefitting 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.

During 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 seamen were also at risk of attack from enemy ships. The tonnage lost to U-boats during the First World War was around 7,759,090 tons, and around 14,661 merchant seamen lost their lives. In honour of the sacrifice made by merchant seamen during 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 amounts 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 is 54% of the total Merchant Navy fleet at the outbreak of the Second World War. 30,000 merchant seamen were killed aboard convoy vessels during 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 during the two World Wars, the Merchant Navy lays wreaths of remembrance alongside the armed forces during the annual Remembrance Day service on 11 November. Following many years of lobbying to bring about official recognition of the sacrifices made by merchant seaman 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:

Merchant Navy: 1957 and 2008
Ship Type 1957 2008
Passenger vessels 322 37 (including ROROs)
General cargo ships 1,145 55
Tankers 575 88
Total 2042 180

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


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 one 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 Warsash Maritime Academy, Shetland School of Nautical Studies, South Tyneside College, Glasgow College of Nautical Studies and Fleetwood Nautical Campus. As well as earning an OOW (Officer of the Watch) certificate, they gain valuable training at sea and an HND or 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 Sea Sense 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 during 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 and ETOs (Electro Technical Officer) are 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 electro-technical officer (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).

Ship crews are of course made up of others, working 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, interestingly, it used to be that each of these departments were peopled with ethnically based workers. The deck crew would often be Malay, the quartermasters Filipino, the greasers and stewards Indian, 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 twenty-four 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 monsters.

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.





Educational and professional




mv Victoria
mv Victoria (ex Sea Princess, Kungsholm)

The Red Ensign, Flag of the Merchant Navy