One million 20th century Merchant Navy seamen’s records have been made available online for the first time.
Family history website Find My Past says: “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 Find My Past publishes these fascinating records online in partnership with The National Archives of the UK.
Snapshot of a mariner
“The 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.”