The UK’s National Archive says it is releasing the records of 1 million Merchant Navy seafarers serving from 1918 to 1941 who were part of Churchill’s often forgotten ‘fourth service’. The records are being released for the first time in celebration of tomorrow’s Merchant Navy Day, and are available online at findmypast.co.uk. The Archives hopes the information will help family historians locate information on their seafaring ancestors.
The records are in the form of index cards that the Registrar General of Shipping and Seaman required merchant seaman to carry in order to produce a single index of merchant mariners serving on British merchant navy vessels. The cards include detailed personal information including photos, name, rank, vessel numbers, address of kin, signatures and even physical descriptions such as standout tattoos or other identify marks or scars.
Take, for example, Mohamed Abbathira who is recorded as having a pock marked face and a scar on his right thumb.
A more sombre find is chief officer William Hunt Aaron who died on 25 October 1925 – a note in his record states ‘Supposed suicide’.
Colourful detail can be found in ‘ordinary seaman’ Henry Duncan Abbot’s record, which describes his tattoo as ‘Chinese death head with inscription ‘Death is Glory’ on right forearm’.
Referred to as the ‘fourth service’ by Winston Churchill, Britain’s Merchant Navy played an integral role in establishing the UK as a world leader in trade and industry, yet a remarkable 54% of Britain’s population has never heard of it, according to research by findmypast.co.uk. It was often described as a ‘floating United Nations’ as many crews were made up of international mariners from all over the world.
A spokesman for findmypast.co.uk says “a large proportion of the UK population will have Merchant Seamen in their ancestry. Hopefully these records will help fill the gaps and people will enjoy learning about what life was like for the brave, seafaring merchants who helped the island nation of Britain prosper.”
The UK National Archives says it is planning on releasing information on seafarers from earlier periods sometime in the future.