Nicholas Monsarrat

Lieutenant Commander Nicholas John Turney Monsarrat FRSL RNVR (22 March 1910  8 August 1979) was a British novelist known today for his sea stories, particularly The Cruel Sea (1951) and Three Corvettes (1942–45), but perhaps best known internationally for his novels, The Tribe That Lost Its Head and its sequel, Richer Than All His Tribe.[1]

Lieutenant Commander

Nicholas Monsarrat

Commemorative plaque on Rodney Street, Liverpool
BornNicholas John Turney Monsarrat
(1910-03-22)22 March 1910
Liverpool, England
Died8 August 1979(1979-08-08) (aged 69)
OccupationLawyer, writer, sailor
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge University
GenreMaritime fiction
Notable worksThe Cruel Sea
Years active1934–1979
SpouseEileen Rowland, Phillipa Crosby, and Ann Griffiths
ChildrenMarc, Anthony, and Max

Early life

Monsarrat was born on Rodney Street[2] in Liverpool, Lancashire, to parents Sir Keith Monsarrat, surgeon,[3] and Ada Marguerita Turney Waldegrave.[1] Monsarrat was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge.[4] He intended to practise law. The law failed to inspire him, however, and he turned instead to writing, moving to London and supporting himself as a freelance writer for newspapers while writing four novels and a play in the space of five years (1934–1939). He later commented in his autobiography that the 1931 Invergordon Naval Mutiny influenced his interest in politics and social and economic issues after college.

Wartime service

Though a pacifist, Monsarrat served in World War II, first as a member of an ambulance brigade and then as a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). His lifelong love of sailing made him a capable naval officer, and he served with distinction in a series of small warships (corvettes and frigates), assigned to escort convoys and protect them from enemy attack. Monsarrat ended the war as commander of a frigate, and drew on his wartime experience in his postwar sea stories. It has been alleged that during his wartime service, Monsarrat claimed to have seen the ghost ship Flying Dutchman while sailing the Pacific, near the location where the young King George V had seen her in 1881. No mention was made of this in his autobiographies however, and the ship he was supposedly serving on (HMS Jubilee) did not, in fact, exist.

Resigning his wartime commission in 1946, Monsarrat entered the diplomatic service. He was posted at first to Johannesburg, South Africa and then, in 1953, to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.[5] He turned to writing full-time in 1959, settling first on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, and later on the Maltese island of Gozo.[6]


  • July 1940: Sub-Lieutenant
  • October 1940: Lieutenant
  • December 1943: Lieutenant Commander


"HMS Flower" and "HMS Compass Rose" were fictional Flower-class corvettes in the short story H M Corvette (1942) and the novel The Cruel Sea (1951)

"HMS Dipper" and "HMS Winger" were fictional Kingfisher-class corvettes in the stories East Coast Corvette (1943) and Corvette Command (1944), (republished with H M Corvette as Three Corvettes in 1945).

"HMS River" and "HMS Saltash" were fictional River-class frigates in H M Frigate (1946), and the novel The Cruel Sea (1951). (In the 1953 film version HMS Saltash was depicted by Castle-class corvette: HMS Portchester Castle, and hence named "Saltash Castle").


  • June 43: Mentioned in Dispatches


Monsarrat's first three novels, published in 1934–1937 and now out of print, were realistic treatments of modern social problems informed by his leftist politics. The Visitor, his only play, fell into the same category.[7] His fourth novel and first major work, This is the Schoolroom, took a different approach. The story of a young, idealistic, aspiring writer coming to grips with the "real world" for the first time, it is at least partly autobiographical.

The Cruel Sea (1951), Monsarrat's first postwar novel, is widely regarded as his finest work, and is the only one of his novels that is still widely read. Based on his own wartime service, it followed the young naval officer Keith Lockhart through a series of postings in corvettes and frigates. It was one of the first novels to depict life aboard the vital, but unglamorous, "small ships" of World War II—ships for which the sea was as much a threat as the Germans. Monsarrat's short-story collections H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1949), and The Ship That Died of Shame (1959, made into a film of the same name), mined the same literary vein, and gained popularity by association with The Cruel Sea.

The similar Three Corvettes (1945 and 1953) comprising H.M. Corvette (set aboard a Flower-class corvette in the North Atlantic), East Coast Corvette (as First Lieutenant of HMS Guillemot) and Corvette Command (as Commanding Officer of HMS Shearwater) is actually an anthology of three true-experience stories he published during the war years and shows appropriate care for what the Censor might say. Thus Guillemot appears under the pseudonym Dipper and Shearwater under the pseudonym Winger in the book. H M Frigate is similar but deals with his time in command of two frigates. His use of the name Dipper could allude to his formative years when summer holidays were spent with his family at Trearddur Bay. They were members of the famous sailing club based there, and he recounted much of this part of his life in a book My brother Denys. Denys Monsarrat was killed in Egypt during the middle part of the war whilst his brother was serving with the Royal Navy. Another tale recounts his bringing his ship into Trearddur Bay during the war for old times' sake.

Monsarrat's more famous novels, notably The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956) and its sequel Richer Than All His Tribe (1968), drew on his experience in the diplomatic service and make important reference to the colonial experience of Britain in Africa. Several have peripheral connections to the sea: The Nylon Pirates (1960) tells a story of piracy aboard a modern ocean liner, not pirates in the traditional meaning of the word, but card-sharps, and A Fair Day's Work (1964) deals with labour unrest in a shipyard. The Kappillan of Malta (1973) is as much a story of a place, the island of Malta, as it is of a priest on that island during the terrible days of World War II.

His book The Story of Esther Costello (1952), later made into a film of the same name, while perceived as an uncomplimentary take on the life of Helen Keller and her teachers and assistants, is really an exposé of sleazy practices and exploitation of real causes in the fundraising racket, similar to criticisms of televangelism.[8] It caused a minor public outcry when it first appeared, and Keller's staff considered suing him, then tried to keep the book off the shelves.[9]

His final work, unfinished at the time of his death but published in its incomplete form, was a two-volume historical novel titled The Master Mariner. Based on the legend of the Wandering Jew, it told the story of an Elizabethan English seaman who, as punishment for a terrible act of cowardice, is doomed to sail the world's seas until the end of time. His hero participates in critical moments in history; Monsarrat used him to illustrate the central role of seamen.


Two non-fiction books, Life is a Four Letter Word: Breaking In (London, 1966) and Life is a Four Letter Word: Breaking Out (London, 1970) comprise Monsarrat's autobiography.


Nicholas Monsarrat died of cancer on 8 August 1979 in London.[5] The Royal Navy co-operated with his wish to be buried at sea.

The two naval ratings responsible for the lifting of the cask at his burial were AB Graham Savage and AB Stephen Knight, aboard HMS Scylla (F71).


  • Think of Tomorrow (1934)
  • At First Sight (1935)
  • The Whipping Boy (1937)
  • This is the Schoolroom (1939)
  • The Visitor – play
  • H.M. Corvette (1942)
  • East Coast Corvette (1943)
  • Corvette Command (1944)
  • Three Corvettes (1945) (a consolidation of H.M. Corvette, East Coast Corvette and Corvette Command)
  • Leave Cancelled (1945)
  • Three Corvettes (1945 and 1953)
  • H. M. Frigate (1946)
  • Depends on What You Mean by Love (1947)
  • H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1947)
  • My Brother Denys (1948)
  • The Cruel Sea (1951)
  • The Story of Esther Costello (1952)
  • The Boy's Book of the Sea – as editor (1954)
  • Canada from Coast to Coast (1955)
  • Castle Garac (1955)
  • The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956)[10]
  • The Boy's Book of the Commonwealth – as editor (1957)
  • The Ship That Died of Shame, and Other Stories (1959) (comprising The Ship That Died of Shame; Oh To Be In England!; The Reconciliation; The List; The Thousand Islands Snatch; Up The Garden Path; The Man Who Wanted a Mark IX; I Was There; The Dinner Party; Licensed To Kill; Postscript)
  • The Nylon Pirates (1960)
  • The White Rajah (1961)
  • The Time Before This (1962)
  • To Stratford with Love (1963)
  • Smith and Jones (1963)
  • Something to Hide (1963)
  • A Fair Day's Work (1964)
  • The Pillow Fight (1965)
  • Life Is a Four-Letter Word (volume 1): Breaking In (London, 1966) – autobiography
  • Richer Than All His Tribe (1968)
  • Life Is a Four-Letter Word (volume 2): Breaking Out (London, 1970) – autobiography
  • The Kappillan of Malta (1973)
  • Monsarrat at Sea (1975)
  • The Master Mariner, Book 1: Running Proud'' (1978)
  • The Master Mariner, Book 2: Darken Ship – unfinished novel (1981)

Film adaptations of his works


  1. Krueger, Christine L. (2003), Encyclopedia of British Writers, 19th and 20th Centuries, Facts on File, p. 257, ISBN 0-8160-4670-0
  2. Liverpool Record Office Annual Report 2008–2009
  3. "Bio" (PDF).
  4. "Nicholas Monsarrat". Historic Naval Fiction. Archived from the original on 17 August 2016. Retrieved 11 January 2015.
  5. Pace, Eric (4 August 1979). "Nicholas Monsarrat, Novelist, Dies; Wrote War Epic 'The Cruel Sea'". The New York Times. p. 17. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  6. Smith, J. Y. (9 August 1979). "Author Nicholas Monsarrat Dies". The Washington Post. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  7. Hauptfuhrer, Fred (2 July 1979). "To Ann and Nicholas Monsarrat, the Sea Is Never Cruel: It Inspires His Fiction and Their Idyll". People. People. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  8. Lash, Joseph, Helen and Teacher, Addison Wesley 1997, pp. 732–738.
  9. "THE "CRUEL SEA" MAN GOES TO AFRICA Monsarrat writes a `let-down'". The Argus. Melbourne. 13 October 1956. p. 10. Retrieved 10 July 2012 via National Library of Australia.
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