Merchant Navy

From Naval History Archive
Jump to navigationJump to search
British Merchant Navy
Civil Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Country United Kingdom, British Overseas Territories and Channel Islands
Size10th Largest;
  • 1,504 vessels
  • Cargo
  • Cruise
  • Civilian/Pleasure

The 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.


A Merchant Fleet has been in existence for a significant period in English and British history at least since 1307,[2] 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.[3] 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 1863 the Merchant Navy numbered 26,000 ships.[4]

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,[5] 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";[6] 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. 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.[7]

During the Second World War, German U-boats sank nearly 14.7 million tons of Allied shipping,[8] 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.

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.[9] By 2012, the Merchant Navy — yet still remaining one of the largest in the world — held only 3% of total tonnage.[10]

In 2010 the Merchant Navy consisted of 504 UK registered ships of 1,000 gross tonnage 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.[11]

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.[10] This is according to the annual maritime shipping statistics provided by the British Government and the Department for Transport.


  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. Lambert, Dr Craig. "The Merchant Fleet of Late Medieval and Tudor England, 1400-1580 History University of Southampton". University of Southampton. Retrieved 11 July 2019.
  3. National Archives of the United Kingdom
  4. "Maritime and Naval Buildings". Historic England. p. 4. Retrieved 2 July 2019.
  5. Merchant Navy Memorials. 6 September 2012.
  6. Hope. 1990. p.356.
  7. Bax, John; Robins, Terry. "Part Six". Clan Line. Merchant Navy Officers. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
  8. Friel. pp.245–250.
  9. "Fact File : Merchant Navy". BBC. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Shipping Fleet: 2012" (PDF). HM Government. Retrieved 21 May 2014.
  11. "Merchant Marine: United Kingdom". CIA World Fact Book. Retrieved 21 May 2014.