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:Compared 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:
All buttons are made of brass, with the standard merchant marine design:A 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:During 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.