Merchant Navy (United Kingdom)

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.

British Merchant Navy
Scillonian III, as seen from the air, halfway between St Mary's and Penzance
Country United Kingdom, British Overseas Territories and Channel Islands
Size10th Largest;
  • 30 Million Gross Registered Tonnage
  • 40.7 Million Deadweight Tonnage
  • Cargo
  • Cruise
  • Civilian/Pleasure
Red Ensign
Civil Jack


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 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,[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 companies.

In 1928 George V gave Edward, Prince of Wales the title of "Master of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets";[4] 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.[5] When the United Kingdom and the British Empire 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.[6]

During 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.

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.



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.

British Overseas Territories Ensigns

Yacht Club Ensigns

House Flags

House Flags are personal and designed by a company. It is displayed on a port halyard of a Yardarm

Merchant Navy today

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.[8] By 2012, the Merchant Navy – yet still remaining one of the largest in the world – held only 3% of total tonnage.[9]

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.[10]

In 2012 British merchant marine interests consisted of 1,504 ships of 100 GRT 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.[9] 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.[11] 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.[12] Cadets usually have a choice of two academic routes; Foundation Degree or Higher National Diploma.[11] 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.[13] 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.[14] The training regime for Officers is set out in the official syllabus of the Merchant Navy Training Board.[15] 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 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:

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.[16][17] 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.[18] 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."[18]

It is the first state award for meritorious service in the history of the Merchant Navy.[19] 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).[20]


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


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.[25]

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

British Shipping Companies
Aberdeen Line
Alexander Shipping Co.
American and Indian Line; Bucknall Steamship Lines
Anchor Line
Australind Steam Navigation Company
Anglo-Saxon Petroleum Company (Shell Tankers), now Royal Dutch Shell
Atlantic Steam Navigation Company
Bank Line
Ben Line
Bibby Line
Blue Anchor Line
Blue Funnel Line (Alfred Holt)
Blue Star Line
Booth Steamship Company
Bolton Steam Shipping Co. Ltd.
Bowker and King
British and African Steam Navigation Company
British and Burmese Steam Navigation Company
British India Steam Navigation Company
British Tanker Company
Thos & Jno Brocklebank Ltd
Bullard, King and Company, including Natal Direct Line
Burns and Laird Lines
Byron Marine Ltd
Cairns, Noble and Company
Caledonian MacBrayne, formerly Caledonian Steam Packet Company and David MacBrayne
Carisbrooke Shipping
P & A Campbell
The China Navigation Company
Clan Line
Clyde Shipping Company
Coast Lines
William Cory and Son
Counties Ship Management
Crescent Shipping
Cunard Line
*Currie Line – Leith
Denholm Line Steamers
Donaldson Line
Donaldson Atlantic Line
Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company
Eagle Oil and Shipping Company
Elder Dempster Lines, including Glen Line and Shire Line
Ellerman Lines, including many companies taken over
Evan Thomas Radcliffe
Federal Steam Navigation Company
Fisher, Renwick Manchester – London Steamers
Fletcher Shipping Ltd.
Furness Withy
Fyffes Line
GATX-Owego Steam Navigation Company
General Steam Navigation Company
Global Marine Systems, previously Cable & Wireless Marine and British Telecom Marine
Harrison Line (T&J Harrison)
Harrison Clyde Ltd Woodside Crescent Glasgow
Head Line Ulster Steamship Co. Ltd. – Belfast
P Henderson and Company
JP Henry and MacGregor – Leith
Houlder Brothers and Company (Houlder Line)
RP Houston and Company (Houston Line)
Indo-China Steam Navigation Company Ltd.
Isle of Man Steam Packet Company
Isles of Scilly Steamship Company
Lamport and Holt
Leyland Line
London & Overseas Freighters
Loch Line
Manchester Liners
Mississippi and Dominion Steamship Company (Dominion Line)
North of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland Steam Navigation Company
North Star Shipping
Ocean Steam Navigation Company (White Star Line)
Orient Steam Navigation Company (Anderson, Green and Company)
Palm Line
Pacific Steam Navigation Company
Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O)
Port Line, formerly the Commonwealth and Dominion Line
Prince Line
Reardon Smith
Red Funnel Line
Ropner Shipping Company
Royal Mail Steam Packet Company
Sealink, its immediate predecessors the Great Western Railway, LMS, LNER, Southern Railway and many of their antecedents
Scottish Shire Line
Shaw, Savill & Albion Line
Shell International Shipping Services
Silver Line
Stag Line
Star Line
Stephenson Clarke Shipping
Townsend Brothers Ferries, later Townsend Thoresen
Tyne-Tees Steam Shipping Company
Union-Castle Line
United Africa Company
United Baltic Corporation
Wandsworth and District Gas Company
Andrew Weir and Company
Wilson Line
Yeoward Line

See also


  1. "Merchant Navy Day, the fourth service remembered". 3 September 2016. 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. Merchant Navy Memorial website Archived 6 September 2012 at
  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. Archived from the original on 20 December 2013. 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. "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 seafarer careers: training provision, information and examination syllabuses". Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  12. "Study". Careers at Sea. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  13. "Sponsorship". Careers at Sea. Retrieved 18 February 2017.
  14. Maclachlan, Malcolm (2016). The Shipmaster's Business Self-Examiner. The Nautical Institute. p. 3.
  15. "UK Government – Seafarer Training" (PDF). Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. "Meritorious service rewarded with new Merchant Navy medal". UK Government. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  19. 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.
  20. "Merchant Navy Medal Guidance" (PDF). UK Government. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  21. Clyde Uniforms epaulettes design
  22. Mercantile Marine Standard Uniform poster of 1941
  23. Ranks of the Merchant Navy and hierarchy
  24. [ Hierarchy of the Merchant Navy]
  25. "UK Chamber of Shipping – About". Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  26. "Anchor-Donaldson". Retrieved 6 October 2017.


  • Blackmore, Edward (1897). The British Mercantile Marine. London: Charles Griffin and Company, Limited. Retrieved 29 May 2007.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica (1911). "Shipping". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 24 (11th ed.). Retrieved 17 April 2007.
  • Friel, Ian (2003). Maritime History of Britain and Ireland. London: The British Museum Press. ISBN 0-7141-2718-3.
  • Hope, Ronald (1990). A New History of British Shipping. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-4799-7.
  • Hope, Ronald (2001). Poor Jack: The Perilous History of the Merchant Seaman. London: Greenhill Books. ISBN 1-86176-161-9.
  • Mission to Seafarers. "Mission to Seafarers Timeline Alongside World Events". Mission to Seafarers. Archived from the original on 16 September 2007. Retrieved 2 April 2007.
  • Thompson, Captain Barry (2008). All Hands and the Cook: The Customs and Language of the British Merchant Seaman 1875–1975. Takapuna, NZ: Bush Press on behalf of the author. ISBN 9780908608720.


Educational and professional

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