Sea front line

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Sailors, a dog and a monkey pose for a photo

The crew of a Norweigan tanker with their simian and canine crewmates.

I remember the widespread introduction of containers on ships in the late 1960s but little realised how it would transform the character of Liverpool.

Seafarers were once highly visible around the city with their distinctive clothing and style. This photograph of Norwegian tanker crew members with a monkey and dog reminds me of similar scenes once common around the dock road. The almost universal use of roll on – roll off ships means that crew members now rarely spend much time ashore. We have lost much of the colour and vitality mariners brought to our streets by their presence.

In both the First and Second World Wars members of Britain’s merchant navy and those of its allies were on the front line in the struggle for survival. Until 1939 most people involved in British shipping used the terms Merchant Service or Mercantile Marine in relation to the merchant fleet and its sailors. It was only in the Second World War that the title Merchant Navy became the accepted usage. This development was greatly influenced by the issuing of a Merchant Navy buttonhole badge to be worn voluntarily by seamen from January 1940. There is one on display in the Battle of the Atlantic gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum.

In 1938 the British Merchant Service employed more than 190,000 seafarers. Of these, more than 130,000 were British residents while 50,000 were Indian and Chinese mariners. Women seafarers were relatively few and were usually employed either as stewardesses or children’s nurses on passenger liners. When the war began, most of these women lost their jobs as ships were converted to troop carrying and other duties. Some, however, continued to go to sea throughout the war.

The fiercely-independent, multi-racial body of civilians sailing under the Red Ensign had a long history of poor pay and working conditions.

In 1917 Parliament approved a standard uniform for general use by the Mercantile Marine. But during the Second World War most seafarers on British merchant ships wore either the uniforms of their own shipping companies or just ordinary clothes. A display of archive photos of merchant navy uniforms was held recently at the Maritime Archives and Library.

In May 1941 a shortage of manpower prompted the Government to set up the Merchant Navy Reserve Pool. By this, all seamen and some 60,000 former seafarers were obliged to register with the Pool.

Other exhibits include a Ministry of Information poster showing two gunners on an armed merchant ship with the slogan: “To the Merchant Navy – thank you!” and an officers’ Mercantile Marine cap badge from 1917 onwards.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).