History of the Merchant Navy

Pop was standing by the rail: looking out over the blue Caribbean. He was fond of doing this from time to time and never seemed to tire watching the waves and the distant horizon. Perhaps he was thinking about some of the things he had once told me. I had been able, one day, to get Pop to sit down with me at home and tell me something of his early days and of his of his experiences as a sailor. While he spoke to me at that time I made a record of what he said (most of this in shorthand). As Pop gave me a running account of what had happened (in response to my various questions), I will in a few moments reduce this conversation in narrative form since this will approximate what he said and in the way he told me. The specific details are just as he gave them to me as I did write them down as he spoke, and I kept my notes ever since.
Pop came from the little town of Greenock on the River Clyde in Scotland: this being a short distance from Glasgow. This is in the middle of the great shipbuilding works stretching all along this part of the Clyde. This part of the Clyde has an air of the sea about it, and everybody there was and is interested in ships and the building of them.

In Pop’s day, everybody in Greenock and that general area had very definite ideas about conduct. No work was allowed on Sunday. You had to walk to Church, as you couldn’t ride because of the local ordinances. All stores were closed Sundays, but the hotels were open. A drink of liquor could be had a certain hours on Sunday, but not during Church hours.

As a boy, Pop had a longing to follow the sea; and his Scotch Presbyterian aunt, with whom he lived, at last reluctantly agreed to let him spend several years in a Government training ship where he was taught all the things a sailor needed to know in those days: such as the handling of sails, the working of the compass, the climbing and manipulation of the rigging, the sewing and repairing of sails, and so on (and some academic subjects as well). Boys started this training at an early age and were just teenagers when they graduated.


With the training they got, the graduates (and it took three years to complete the courses) had the knowledge which otherwise would have taken years to acquire, and they were soon able to join the ranks of experienced sailors who were generally classified as “Able Seamen” or “Ordinary Seamen”. “Able Seamen” were paid the highest wages and were assigned the jobs requiring the greatest skill. Comparisons as to skills, especially with other industries, are not easy to make – as all jobs on sailing ships required a certain amount of skill. Pop did say, however, that a rough comparison would be that of the driver of a big truck and his helper.

Discipline was strict on the training ships that were run by a Navy commander and a staff of officers. Those that Pop were in had formerly been British men-of-war: the first training ship he was on having been H. M. S. “Cumberland”, and the second was H.M.S. “Empress”. Pop’s training course, in which between five hundred and six hundred boys participated, lasted three years and he lived on the training ship the whole time except that after the first six months the boys were allowed short- leaves at various times.

The training day was long and busy one. Pop got up at 6:00 a.m., washed up, got breakfast, and then spent some time in the mess and also in sewing on sails. Then he went to classes for general schooling and seamanship: how to hoist sails, how to pull the cannon out the gun-ports and back. Families had to pay a small amount per month for the boys’ education. In Pop’s case he became a pupil-teacher and was paid a certain amount a month for this that was applied to his own education.

Although the administrators and officers who ran this Government training program for seamen were sturdy men and firm disciplinarians they evidently were also men of sincere religious convictions and have a real regard and gruff affection for their students. When Pop and the other boys received their graduation certificates from the Superintendent, the following comments and fatherly advice were written on the back:


“While on board the H.M.S. “Empress” you received a good education. The best return you can give for these benefits is to turn out a credit to the ship. My duty is not ended when you leave. but I am directed by the Committee to help you in every way possible until you have established for yourself an independent position. I therefore begin by giving you the following advice.

Try to rise to the top of your profession. A thoroughly upright and trustworthy person is invaluable to an employer. If you wish to grow up a Godly man, take our Lord Jesus Christ as your model; strive to be like Him; read your Bible every day and remember that God is always near you. Ask Him for what you need and never be afraid to kneel when you pray. If in any trouble go straight to a clergyman for advice. Your body is “the Temple of God’. Therefore keep it pure…

Write occasionally to me from abroad to let me know how you are making out. When you return to the Clyde always come on board. You will always find friends to help you in the old ship. Bear in mind that steamers are rapidly taking the place of sailing ships and that knowledge of steam is generally required in the mastery of a steamer. When you have finished your apprenticeship or have been long enough at sea, go to the government Examiner of Seamanship of the port where you be at, or on board any training ship, and ask to be examined for “Able Seaman”.

If you are bound as an apprentice the advantages you have over and Ordinary Seaman are several. You have constant employment instead of being discharged after each voyage. You have a home on board your ship and are provided for in case of sickness. In most ships you have a far better berth. After you serve your apprenticeship well it will be to the interest of the owners to keep you in their employment. With the education you have received you can get much higher wages as Ordinary Seaman; and the temptation will be very great to run away from your ship, but do not forget that you have signed an agreement and you can never hold up your head as an honest man until you have returned to the Master’s service”

The face of the graduation certificate issued to Pop gave him a rating of “Good” or “Very Good” for each of the courses listed and under the caption, “Special Qualifications” was written: A very promising trustworthy lad”.

Let us now hear Pop tell about some of his early days as a sailor and of his experiences at sea.