Category Archives: Merchant Navy

Seaman’s Ration Book

Merchant seamen on short trips around Britain’s coastline of a few days would not usually be catered for from their ship’s stores. Instead they were expected to pick up rations ashore and bring them back on board for the cook on board to prepare. A special ration book was therefore issued to sailors that could be authorised by the captain or master of a ship for a week at a time. For the cover we can see that this example was issued to a sailor called ‘Styles’ in Sunderland in 1943:imageThe inside of the cover has instructions to the sailor on how to use the book:imageThe original owner of this book clearly used it a number of times as coupons have been cut out of several pages:imageThere are still many weeks where the book has not been countersigned or coupons removed:imageAlthough clearly not necessary in this case, a form is provided for the sailor to request a new ration book if he were to finish this one:image

imageThe back page gives instructions to the ship’s master about what he needs to do in order to complete the book:imageNote also the printer’s coding at the bottom of the page that indicates this book was one of a run of 115,000 copies produced in June 1943.

Much of Britain’s internal trade was done by sea, with coasters making short trips up and down the coastline with bulky cargos. Fishermen were also expected to make short journeys of a few days around the coast and this ration book was designed to allow them to be fed simply without any recourse to the more complex victualing procedures required for trans-Atlantic crossings or other longer journeys.


Merchant Navy Officer’s Tunic

In 1918 George V authorised the first national uniform for members of the Merchant Navy. The uniform and rank scheme was entirely optional, many private companies already had such systems of uniform and rank based off that used by the Royal Navy, however it was adopted by many smaller firms and was in common use by many in the Second World War. Tonight we are looking at an example of one of these uniforms which dates from around the time of the Second World War:imageCompared to a Royal Navy officer’s uniform this is far lower quality, being made of a thin utilitarian wool fabric, reflecting the low rank and presumably low income of its original owner who would have had to purchase it himself. Two pleated patch pockets are sewn onto the breast of the jacket:

imageAll buttons are made of brass, with the standard merchant marine design:imageA pair of removable shoulder boards are used, rather than cuff lace. These are for a member of the engineering branch, as indicated by the purple piping to the braid:imageDuring the Second World War the First Engineer (or Chief Engineer Officer) had to hold a First Class Certificate in Steam and would have had considerable sea-going experience, he was responsible for the main and subsidiary machinery. Reporting to him was a Second Engineer who would always hold a First Class Certificate in Steam and would be gaining the experience required to permit him to seek a Chief’s post.

There were Third Engineers, Fourth Engineers, and so on, the number of them depending on the size of the vessel. All would usually have completed an apprenticeship ashore in heavy engineering, often in power stations or similar and after going to sea would have gained a Second Class Certificate in Steam. Ocean liners might have Senior and Junior rates such as Junior Seventh Engineer or Senior Ninth Engineer, depending upon the number of officers carried aboard.

The senior Engineroom ratings were the Donkeyman and the Greaser (Petty Officers), in addition to heading the “Black gang”, (engine room ratings) the former was responsible for the ship’s auxiliary power and for maintenance of cargo handling derricks, the latter ensured correct lubrication of all necessary parts of the engines and keeping the Firemen and Trimmers in order.

The Black gang, were the men who handled the coal and spent their working lives coated in coal dust as most ships were coal burning steamers. They were normally divided into two groups, the Firemen and the Trimmers. The firemen were the men who stood watches in the stokehold feeding tons of coal into the furnaces beneath the boilers to keep up a head of steam. The trimmers were the men who spent their lives in the ship’s bunkers (the hold which held the coal) and were responsible for loading barrows of coal with which they ran across planks of wood to the stokehold to maintain the piles of coal beside the men feeding the furnaces. They had to keep the level of coal within the bunkers trimmed (level) to prevent the ship becoming unstable.

Some ships carried Engineroom Storekeepers, experienced older ratings who controlled the issues of stores.

My own grandfather served during the war as a fireman on a variety of merchant ships, the heat and coal dust making for very unpleasant working conditions, especially in the tropics.ole_friele_backer_i_maskinen

Royal Navy Private Purchase 5A Working Dress

Tonight we are looking at a rather unusual naval uniform. In the opening years of the Second World War the Royal Navy refused to adopt battledress for officers aboard ship, despite this ban dyed army battledress was still popular and frequently worn. In the end, bowing to the inevitable, the Admiralty gave permission for officers to wear ‘Working Dress’ (they could not bring themselves to call it battledress!). The Working Dress, or 5A, uniform was very popular and officers could either purchase it from stores or have a set made up by their tailor. Tonight’s uniform started out as a private purchase RN Working Dress blouse:FullSizeRenderIt is made of dark blue serge and has two patch pockets, one on either breast:FullSizeRender4It has three brass buttons up the front, each bearing the King’s crown RN crest:FullSizeRender3The waist of the jacket is secured by three black plastic buttons:FullSizeRender5The maker of the jacket is recorded on a label sewn into the inside pocket:FullSizeRender1As can be seen the jacket was made by Austin Reed of Regent Street. The unusual feature of this uniform however is the shoulder straps, which have the rank of a Merchant Navy Engineering officer:FullSizeRender2This uniform came as part of a wider grouping and was accompanied by a light weight Merchant Navy Officer’s tunic with the same rank. My theory is that the jacket was purchased after the war by a new junior officer as a cheaper form of working dress for use in the engine room of a post war freighter or liner. I also have an Admiralty made set of 5A working dress and both the private purchase and contract uniforms are very similar in design, suggesting the private tailor conformed closely with the pattern outlined by the Admiralty. This is an interesting example of reuse of military equipment after the war and reflects the poorer nature of the United Kingdom and its inhabitants- nothing could be wasted.