Central Register of Seamen 1941-1972



The Central Register of Seamen came into existence through various strands of legislation and changing conditions. Pre war the National Service (Armed Forces) Act of 1939 laid the basis for conscription into the armed services. All of the relevant ages were required to register with the Ministry of Labour under this Act. Merchant mariners, whether currently or formerly serving, were not exempted, but would not be conscripted into the armed services if they continued to sign onto merchantmen. It should be noted that in the early stages the call up only affected young men between the ages of 20 to 23 though. And, according to the official history (C.B.A. Behrens: Merchant Shipping and the Demands of War) immediately pre war slightly over 70 per cent of British merchant mariners (excluding Lascars) were over twenty-five. So, with this in mind, the (illogical) perception that there would not be an increased need for merchant mariners in wartime and the natural ‘reserves’ of merchant mariners not only from the normal casual form of recruitment for most, but also through the lean years of under employment of the 1920s and 30s, manning was not seen as an important issue by the then controlling wartime Ministry of Shipping.

It would appear that some of the peacetime assumptions (made by the Marine Department of the Board of Trade and inherited by the Ministry of Shipping) went slightly awry. Without the threat of conscription to make mariners (other than within the ages under the National Service Acts) return to the sea there was nothing to make them stay at sea if they did not want to. In time there was a perception (within the civil service departments) that mariners were creeping ashore, to better-paid and safer jobs. They were also supposedly staying at home between voyages for longer periods than they had done in peacetime. It was also maintained (in the official history) that all the normal ‘disciplinary’ problems associated with the inability to realistically deal with merchant mariner defaulters, especially in relation to not joining and desertion, were magnified in wartime through an increase in these activities - thereby affecting the supply of manpower. And, as far as the Registrar General for Shipping and Seamen was concerned it was even possible for the youngsters of conscription age to leave the sea and yet not be called up through not re-registering with the Ministry of Labour. The last was especially so, since around June 1940 the planned mechanism for keeping tabs on those seamen of military age failed. Interestingly, the official history did admit that the civil servants did not understand the full complexity of the matter and in particular to the casualty rates suffered by merchant mariners at sea. Also, it later turned out that the delays in sailing had actually been negligible.

After the fall of France the concept of the control of manpower became an important issue, not just for the supply to the armed forces, but also industrially. As of the spring of 1941 a series of Essential Work Orders was the result. The one for the merchant service was formulated later in the year, coming into force in May 1942. Along with the relevant Registration for Employment Order these meant inherent changes to the employment of merchant mariners.

Under this Registration for Employment Order all (civilian) men between 18 and 60 who had served on merchant vessels any time from 1936 onwards were required to register. (It would appear from personal research that women working at sea were ‘encouraged’ to return to shore in 1942.) Employment became continuous, complete with paid leave entitlement. Mariners not on merchantmen were held in ‘the pool’, for redeployment where and when needed. In reality in time there were a number of these pools throughout the world and some for specific operations, such as Overlord - the Invasion of North West Europe. While the National Maritime Board (formed in 1920 as negotiating machinery for the industry) formulated the detail in relation to the pool, most of the day to day administrative work was carried out by the (owners’) Shipping Federation.

Perhaps because of the above (not bringing in the traditional network of mercantile marine offices and other State officials abroad) there were some faults in the system. Some mariners were not included in the system because they had not had the opportunity to register under the Employment Order. If on short haul trips they were taken in when they returned to the United Kingdom. But, others who had been on ocean-going voyages and did not return to the U.K. remained outwith the system - some late into the war. Although these individuals sometimes had some freedoms to leave their vessels abroad (depending on the articles signed) there was also the distinct disadvantage - if their ships were sunk their pay was stopped, as had overwhelmingly been the case up to then.

Post World War the Central Register of Seamen was continued. As can be seen from surviving files, partially this was due to the continuation of conscription into the armed forces, but also because Ministry of War Transport officials were of the opinion that this could be used to future commercial advantage. Unfortunately, this future would prove far from rosy for the merchant service, but the C.R.S. continued to be compiled until 1972.


Go to the Central Index Register c.1919 to 1941

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