One million 20th century Merchant Navy Seamen records are going online for family historians for the first time ever, as Britain approaches Merchant Navy Day on Saturday 3rd September. But when asked what the Merchant Navy was, 54% of the British population couldn’t answer correctly, even though almost 90% have heard of them. This is a sad fact considering the Merchant Navy was integral to putting Britain on the trade and industry world map and were named by Churchill as Britain’s ‘fourth service’. The revelation comes as findmypast.co.uk, a leading UK family history website, publishes these fascinating records online in partnership with The National Archives.
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Snapshots of mariners
Today’s launch sees records of crew members of UK merchant ships from 1918 to 1941 made available online, including rarely seen photos of the mariners. This is the first time that many relatives will be able to see what their seafaring ancestor looked like and also learn more about the people who made up Churchill’s ‘fourth service’.
The records provide fascinating details about each individual mariner. The most complete records have extremely detailed descriptions, including hair and eye colour, height, and distinguishing marks such as tattoos. In one case, Ordinary Seaman Henry Duncan Abbot from Dundee was listed as having a Chinese death head tattoo with the inscription “Death is Glory” on his right forearm – perhaps not so ordinary after all.
The shocking gap in Britain’s general knowledge is highest amongst the younger generation – just 26% of those aged under 35 know what the Merchant Navy is, compared to a wiser 64% of over 55s. Many will therefore be surprised to learn that the Merchant Navy consists of all seagoing UK vessels with commercial interests and their crews.
So it may be a shock to many that at various points in the last millennium, Britain had the largest merchant fleet in the world. The workforce on these vessels was a casual, ‘jobbing workforce’ so in any one year as many as 1.5 million people could be employed in the Merchant Navy, meaning many people are likely to find ancestors in these records. In the popular BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?, David Suchet and Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen both discovered ancestors who had been in the Merchant Navy.
Debra Chatfield, Marketing Manager at findmypast.co.uk, comments: “This is the first time the UK Merchant Navy Seamen records, with their fascinating images of the mariners, have been made available online. Many people aren’t sure what the Merchant Navy is, even though a large proportion of the UK population will have Merchant Navy seamen in their ancestry. Hopefully these records will help fill the gaps and people will enjoy learning about what life was like for the brave, seafaring merchants who helped the island nation of Britain prosper.”
A floating United Nations
The Merchant Navy Seamen records reveal the diverse crews that manned vessels ranging from cargo liners to passenger ferries to luxury cruise ships, working in a variety of professions and industries through some of the most vital moments in British history.
The term ‘floating United Nations’ has often been linked to the Merchant Navy and these records go further to support this idea. As high as 70% of ships’ crews were made up of international seamen from countries such as the West Indies, Scandinavia and Japan. These records hold details, and in many cases photographs, of these multi-national mariners.
Ship shape and women’s fashion
The Merchant Navy has been in existence for a significant period of British history, owing much of its growth to British imperial expansion. One of the most notable observations from the records is that women were prevalent on the ships. One example is Doris Abbey from Liverpool, a 5’4” Manicurist with hazel eyes, brown hair and a medium complexion – perhaps she joined the Merchant Navy to make sure the mariners’ nails were kept ship shape!
Janet Dempsey, Marine and Maritime Record Specialist at The National Archives comments: “The Merchant Navy Seamen records cover a very significant era in nautical history commencing at the very peak of the popularity of ocean travel, in the time of the great ocean liners, when overseas tourism meant taking to the seas. The years that followed saw the end of this period of prosperity, and the start of the Great Depression. For mariners this was a time when work on board was hard to get, and many men were forced to take other work between voyages to make ends meet. These newly digitised records make a fascinating social record as well as a valuable family history resource.”
Young hands on deck
At this time, many young mariners were operational at sea and a number of them can be found in the records. One young seaman, Allison Robinson Saville, was a 14 year old boy who was born in Hull in 1904. As Cabin Boy, the lowest ranking male employee, his role would have been to wait on the officers and passengers of the ship, and run errands for the ship’s Captain.
Though these records do not cover the war time period, the Merchant Navy supported the Royal Navy during times of conflict, including WW1 and WW2. During these wars the Merchant Navy suffered heavy losses from German U-boat attacks. Official recognition of the sacrifices made by merchant seamen throughout history has taken place every 3rd September, with the Annual Merchant Navy Parade and Reunion taking place in Trinity Gardens, Tower Bridge on the closest Sunday, this year Sunday 4th September.
The Merchant Navy Seamen records are the only set of their kind available online and have been published in association with The National Archives. The records show that the seamen who made up the Merchant Navy not only came from the UK, but from every continent, with large numbers from across English-speaking world (notably the Maritime provinces of Canada), from the West Indies and Sierra Leone, and from Scandinavia, Somaliland, China and Japan. There are even some seamen from landlocked Switzerland.