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This year the Telegraph will be serialising the first history of Nautilus International, sharing highlights and lessons from our past. In this instalment author Andrew Linington sheds light on Nautilus's beginnings, in response to desperate conditions and unfair treatment
It's hard to think of any group of workers more in need of a trade union than British merchant seafarers in the 19th century.
This was the era of the 'coffin ship', with seafarers 150 times more likely than factory workers to be killed or injured at work. On average 3,360 seafarers died every year. There were no statutory provisions governing accommodation, and onboard conditions were often dire– damp, cramped, and lacking light and ventilation. Food was poor, and scurvy was common. Unsurprisingly, many seafarers were very sick men. It was suggested that only one in 200 would reach the age of 60.
Prison was also a constant threat. Any crew member refusing to board a ship that they considered unseaworthy, overloaded or inadequately manned would be treated the same as a deserter – facing criminal prosecution and imprisonment.
Work at sea was also precarious. Between 1815 and 1833 wages declined by around 40%. There were no proper pensions, no sick pay – and during their frequent spells of unemployment, no wages.
In the face of such appalling conditions, it is hardly surprising that seafarers became increasingly militant. From the 1730s, protests were staged in ports. In the 19th century, protests took place at a time when trade union organisation was strictly prohibited by law, with draconian penalties for workers joining together to seek improved pay or conditions.
However, some seafarers managed to develop collective organisations under the banner of friendly societies and shipmasters' societies, which acted as a form of mutual support, providing pensions and other assistance to members and their families as well as working to raise the professional status of seafarers.
Many became effective lobbying organisations, and they presented compelling evidence on behalf of seafarers to politicians and Parliament, pressing government for a general maritime code of laws for the regulation of the mercantile marine and the provision of facilities to support seafarers in old age or following accidents.
These efforts resulted in a series of regulatory initiatives that sought to address some of the worst problems, not only by examining poor conditions onboard but also the lack of competency among officers − which the 1836 Report of the Select Committee on Shipwrecks concluded was one of the prime causes of the lamentable safety record. It found evidence that many were unable to navigate properly, read charts or follow courses.
The Mercantile Marine Act, passed in August 1850 despite a concerted campaign from hostile shipowners, set out a system of compulsory examinations for masters and mates, and outlined the qualifications and experience required for the award of certificates. It also established local marine examination boards.
Although many seafarers had called for the introduction of examinations and certification, the 1850 Act generated a very negative response, with complainants describing its provisions as 'tyrannous'. The concomitant introduction of 22 new disciplinary offences and procedures led to local strikes and other protests.
This in turn led to the formation of the short-lived Seamen's United Protection Society, which lobbied MPs and the Board of Trade. The Act also spurred the formation of the British Mariners' Association, established in February 1851 in Liverpool. It sought to defend the interests and rights of masters, officers and seamen.
Another sign of the growing unhappiness of officers came in a letter to the Shipping & Mercantile Gazette in April 1844. The writer, signing off as 'British Shipmaster', complained about 'the inefficiency of the law for the protection of the masters and crews of merchant ships', and the fact that 'the members of every other profession or calling are protected, while we appear to be outcasts from the rest of society'. He argued a union was both 'necessary and desirable… in order to obtain laws for our mutual welfare'.
Such sentiments grew as the government pressed on with its programme to reform shipping. The 1854 Merchant Shipping Act took the investigative and disciplinary process further, ending the traditional status of the masters as 'second unto God' by making them answerable to the state as well as shipowners. It was a fundamental change – one that provided the catalyst for the creation of a new organisation dedicated to the best interests of the 'Officers of the Mercantile Marine of the United Kingdom'…