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The Merchant Navy - United Kingdom

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The Merchant Navy is the United Kingdom maritime register 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.

Image right - by Nxn 0405 chl - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wiki Commons

Please link the profiles of people who served in the Merchant Navy to this project, regardless of rank or time period. Those who served in WW1 can also be linked to On War Service inc Volunteers - WW1 (United Kingdom & Ireland) and United Kingdom & Ireland HQ.

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The Merchant Navy can be dated back to the 17th century, where a failed attempt was made to register all seafarers as a source of labour for the Royal Navy in times of conflict but successfully implemented in 1835. British ships were also involved in piracy and armed robbery on the high seas 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 from trade with India and the Far East. Trade in sugar, contraband (opium to China), spices and tea 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 at his abdication in December 1936. 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. [Bax, John; Robins, Terry. "Part Six". Clan Line. Merchant Navy Officers. Retrieved 19 December 2013.]

In the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping, amounting to 2,828 ships. 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.

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.

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.[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

Notable People



  • 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 G.C. BSc (Hons) FRSE, Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire. Apprentice of thye Windjammer Mount Stewart.
  • 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.


  • Peter de Neumann: GM. "The Man From Timbuctoo", The "de Neumann Way" named for him.


  • Alun Owen: later wrote the screenplay for A Hard Day's Night.


  • Frederick Daniel Parslow: VC. Merchant Navy winner of the Victoria Cross.
  • 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.



  • Ken Russell: directed films such as Tommy, Altered States, and The Lair of the White Worm.


  • 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.


Sources, References and Further Reading