Certification of Seamen Officers


Following on from the information on the ‘ticketing’ system, another preoccupation traditionally said of the Royal Navy was a perceived deterioration in the standards of seamanship in merchant service in the decades following the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. However, study of contemporaneous records indicates the R.N. had much less interest or input than has often been stated. Instead it seems, it was the Foreign Office that was the original motivating force: or at least one official, named James Murray. In 1843 he had made a request to British Consuls abroad to report the state of British mercantile mariners as they saw them. The subsequent oft-quoted results were hardly complimentary. But then this was to be expected, due to the way the request was worded. British merchant masters were portrayed as overwhelmingly ignorant, incompetent, drunken oafs who somehow managed to draw their crews into similar poor and weak-willed behaviour. This was in direct contrast to foreign masters and crews, who were credited as being highly professional (already often with systems of certification, except in the United States) and above all, sober. Illogically, whilst these foreigners were regarded as far superior, they were said also to be able to operate with lower costs, though it is blatantly obvious that British shipowners were operating with lowest cost options. Nevertheless, flawed though aspects were, the evidence was subsequently used to apparently great effect.


However, there had also been another strand of investigation held separately and Murray’s actions in many respects, had been confirmatory. In 1836 a Select Committee of the House of Commons was appointed to look into the causes of the inordinate number of shipwrecks which were occurring. Excluding the East India Company, which had a significantly better record, the evidence (running to 267 pages of main text with about the same in appendices) was absolutely damning. One of its many recommendations was professional examination of seamen officers. Incidentally, there was a second Select Committee which reported twice in 1843 and was also devoted to shipwrecks, primarily dealing with steam-vessels. 

As already stated on the main page of this guide the first and very limited experiment in certification was a scheme of voluntary examinations for foreign-going masters and mates, beginning in 1845. This appears to have been set up pre-emptively by the ‘Board of Trade’, which at this stage had no remit for mercantile activities, although the idea may have been the Admiralty’s. Anyway, this configuration lasted until 1850.

By 1849 there too was sustained interest from within the Board of Trade. With far more knowledgeable and balanced analysis than that of the Foreign Office, Sir Denis le Marchant argued for wholesale improvements in the Merchant Service, under the supervision of a proposed department of the Board of Trade. With the loss of influence of the once great monopolistic state authorised mercantile companies and the subsequent rise of ‘small’ shipowners, market forces had prevailed unchecked and had forced down remuneration of ships’ officers. This more than anything, Marchant maintained, was the reason why better classes of intelligent and educated young men had tended to look for more lucrative professions ashore and in their stead, the new breed of shipowners chose the cheapest ‘commanders’ they could get. These were described as very often illiterate men without any knowledge of navigation, often alcoholics and cruel. Some, as the 1836 report on shipwrecks eloquently proves, also were exceedingly young and/or had little practical experience or knowledge of seamanship!

Shipowners, masters and mates were equally slated by Marchant, mariners without rank were instead regarded as coming unduly the influence of their ‘betters’. So, it was perceived, if the standard of masters and mates was improved, the behaviour of common mariners, which was also regarded as far worse than that of foreigners, would also improve. As well as qualification, Marchant was keen on providing relatively cheap nautical schools for those wishing to be mercantile officers, although it must be emphasized that this was seen to be a way of encouraging nice middle class boys into the industry. It cannot be regarded as a call for primary education for all. Theoretically mariners already had some recourse to law in defence of their interests and there had been legislation seeking to improve their living and working conditions, but Marchant wished to strengthen this significantly. Of course there was a payback. If officers were to be more professional and accountable for their actions, then crewmen would have to stop deserting in droves and also behave better: or face dire consequences.

The bottom line, it must be stated, was in terms of improving the ‘national character’ and hard cash for the Exchequer in increased receipts from trade. Apart from lessening the embarrassment caused to sophisticated British officials by reports of ignorant, drunken and violent fellow subjects of the Queen; since the last elements of protectionism of the Navigation Acts were being lifted, it was seen as necessary for British masters and men to be regarded in a better light by foreign businessmen, in order for ‘Britain’ to compete in the new ‘free’ markets.

Consequently, under an ‘Act for improving the Condition of Masters, Mates, and Seamen, and maintaining Discipline in the Merchant Service’ (thankfully shortened to the ‘Mercantile Marine Act’) of 1850 there was a certain compulsion. This came into force on 1st January 1851. As well as professional examination for foreign-going masters and mates resulting in the issue of certificates of competency, which it seems was planned to be the future norm, certificates of service were also issued as a transitory stage, in all likelihood in order not to disrupt the shipping industry unduly. (It remains to be seen how this was likely to improve the poor conditions in the shipping industry in the short to medium term.) In 1854, with further major legislation, examinations for masters and mates in the home-trade were sanctioned, for its introduction the following year - but only for those carrying passengers. However, it appears that many coastal ‘masters’ had by then already obtained certificates of service. From a number of searches, it is obvious that there was something of a panic in December 1850, when a great many men applied for and got these: sometimes under false pretences. As the local boards that were to manage the legislation were not even to be elected until the 25th October 1850, it may be that the perceived panic was merely due to the setting up of these bureaucratic systems. (There also seems to have been an added incentive to gaining tickets of service though. Examinations for certificates of competency required payment, but there were no such fees for submissions for certificates of service.)

While in time, certificates of service in foreign-going circles became rare (though not completely non-existent which is strange considering the wording of the original Act of Parliament), they remained well into the 20th century for the coastal trade. (The system was overhauled in 1931 though most of the registers end ten years before.) Nevertheless, there were further complexities.

In sailing vessels there were splits, depending on the rig, which by this era was how vessels were classified. All vessels which were square-rigged, i.e., (full-rigged) ships, barques (or barks), brigs, barquentines (or barkentines), and steam-ships with square rigs, required their masters to hold certification for (square-rig) ‘Ordinary Master’. For command of ocean-going vessels of a fore-and-aft rig, i.e., various types of brigantines and schooners (even though the latter were partially square-rigged) as well as others such as ketches and smacks, unsurprisingly these required certification as ‘Fore-and-aft Master’. (Non British readers, especially those from North America and the Baltic areas, should note that British schooners were substantially different to those that developed elsewhere and they never developed into the incredibly beautiful and large five-masted schooners.)

Although calls were made periodically to bring in certification for non passenger-carrying masters and mates in coasters, this was not done until 1931. Nevertheless, this is not necessarily to decry these uncertificated men who commanded these little vessels (although this was the very class that came in for so much criticism from the Foreign Office and other officials). Even without formal and book-learnt knowledge of navigation, there were highly efficient and skilled practical seamen among them, shifting cargoes where larger vessels simply could not go. Nevertheless, the problems of poor knowledge of navigation and seamanship, as defined by the select committee of 1836 looking into shipwrecks, does not appear to have been seriously addressed in the coastal trade.

Anyway, from 1881, with changes in technology, a new series of certification began. This allowed those holding masters’ certificates of competency to command foreign-going ‘Steam Ships Only’. Incidentally, ‘square-rig’ masters were deemed also competent to command fore-and-aft sailing vessels and perhaps more surprisingly, steamships.

There were also further complications, in the form of more than one stage of examination for Mate (2nd and 1st). In small sailing vessels there was also an another option of ‘Only Mate’. A higher form of masters’ certificate was also introduced, with much more emphasis on ocean navigation and astronomy: the ‘extra master’.

As may be expected from a nation with a gigantic overseas empire, there were various colonial ports where men were allowed to take these professional examinations. However, it must be stated that this did not begin until the passing of the Merchant Shipping (Colonial) Act of 1869. So, there was a period of around twenty years where it was possible for masters and mates not to need paper qualifications if they did not have any contact with the U.K. Certificates acquired in these ‘far flung’ places had differing serial numbers prefixed by the port, or country. These included Canada, Newfoundland, Malta, Bombay, Hong Kong, Straits Settlement (Singapore) and various throughout Australia (including Tasmania). For those specifically interested in Australian certificate numbers there is a complication. I have found that up to four different officers could hold the same ‘NSW’ certificate number, as the different testing centres all apparently issued tickets beginning at number one.

It should also be noted that certificates could be issued in places other than the place of examination. It was not uncommon for men who had spent a strenuous period of study ashore, to go home for a short holiday and have their certificates issued at a local Mercantile Marine Office: assuming that they had the relative documentation in their possession. These too could be issued abroad, though this seems to have been uncommon. I have viewed one example issued in Panama.

As so often happens (in Britain) ambitious schemes for social change are scuppered by suitable resources not being made available to make them work in reality. While the routine paper exercises were indeed carried out, through a lack of staff at the Board of Trade, much of the rest was not. However, a major plank of this legislation which was enforced dealt with disciplinary matters of certificate holders: especially in respect to loss of vessels. Local Marine Boards, could and did investigate major accidents and other incidents. If found guilty, offenders could have their certificates suspended, or cancelled. However, it must be stressed that the onus on disciplinary action was put on to the local boards, but that they were only required to deal with what they regarded as serious breaches. (This in effect nullified much of the ‘socially enlightening’ legislation.)

There are other points should also be borne in mind. Standards were far from uniform. Some places were commonly regarded as setting less onerous examinations and certificates from ports such as Cork, were often seen as suspect. Also, even though standards did rise in time, there was considerable opposition in what shipowners often regarded as unnecessary state interference in their affairs. So, in many respects examinations reflected the minimum required, rather than excellence desired.

Finally, sail did not just disappear off the face of the earth after the steam engine had been developed. It is true that wooden-hulled vessels generally became rarer as the 19th century proceeded, for a number of reasons, from a shortage of hardwoods brought on by wholesale long term overuse (which is why Burma’s rain-forests were logged on a large scale as of the 1850s) to increasing skill in metalworking which allowed for more efficient steam power. However, mercantile activity is about turning profits and even though sail became unable to compete in some facets of the industry, not in all. Sail remained a competitive mode of transportation for non perishable, non seasonal, high bulk but low value cargoes. In part this too was the introduction of iron and steel, as well as other ‘labour saving’ devices and re-rigging of (full-rigged) ships as barques, allowing for smaller crews. (Sometimes, idlers such as carpenters, stewards and even cooks were required to work aloft as crews became reduced.) So, well into the 20th century sail could be seen in some trades, exporting coal from South Wales to Argentina and returning, after rounding the Horn twice, with nitrates from Chile. Sailing coasters too survived much longer in some regions, such as Britain’s West Country, due to the nature of the industry and business there. Apart from a certain conservatism in seamen themselves, ‘square rig’ and ‘fore-and-aft’ certification therefore remained valid well into the 20th century. It is also said that some shipowners respected masters with square rig certificates more, although personally I have come across no hard evidence to support this contention.


This information came from study of the original legislation and actual records, plus the excellent work on the Board of Trade - P.G. Parkhurst’s: Ships of Peace: A record of some of the problems which came before the Board of Trade in connection with the British Mercantile Marine from the early years to the year 1885 (New Malden, Surrey: private publication, 1962). The background information on the changing nature of shipping can be found variously, but two very informative books on this are in Conway’s History of the Ship series. Both are edited by Robert Gardiner and published by Conway Maritime Press in London. They are; Sail’s Last Century: The Merchant Sailing Ship 1830-1930; and The Advent of Steam: The Merchant Steamship before 1900.


Go to Lloyd’s of London

Go to the Certification of Engineers

Go to the Central Index Register c.1919-1941

Go to the main Mercantile Page


Return to the top of the page