Eveyone who went to sea on a British ship between 1894 and 1998 did so being regulated by the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. The version I have was printed on or about 1972, because the price is given in old money £1 10s 0d, and new money £1.50. There were a lot of advantages of going digital.

Strikingly the document runs to more than 300 pages. We used to sign on for two years after which it would be necessary for the ship operator to repatriate the crew, although should the ship return to home trade waters within that period it was allowed for crew members to sign off if they wished. The act contained the regulations for the provision of allotments so that seamen’s families would be supported while they were away, and in some companies the Second Mate did the ship’s accounts and before allowing a crew member to draw money would calculate “what he had in the ship” taking the allotments into account.

There are many really interesting sections in the act, incuding some real gems. Take page 89, for instance where destitute seamen are discussed, and bear in mind that this act was in force until 1998. Quote:

            If any person being a native of any country in Asia or Africa, or of any island in the South Seas or the Pacific Ocean, or of any country not having a consular officer in the United Kingdom, is brought to the United Kingdom in a ship, British or foreign, as a seaman, and is left in the United Kingdom, and within six months of his being so left becomes chargeable upon the poor rate, or commits any act by reason whereof he is liable to be convicted as an idle and disorderly person, or any other act of vagrancy, the master or owner of the ship at the time of the seaman being so left as aforesaid, shall be liable to a fine not exceeding thirty pounds, unless he can show that the person left as aforesaid quitted the ship without the consent of the master, or that the master, owner or consignee, has afforded him due means of returning to his native country, or to the country in which he was shipped.

 And I randomly opened a further page and found this:

            Every emigrant ship shall be provided to the satisfaction of the emigration officer at the port of clearance with at least two privies, and with two additional privies on deck for every one hundred steerage passengers on board, and in ships carrying in as many as fifty female steerage passengers with at least two water closets under the poop or elsewhere on the upper deck to the satisfaction of the emigration officer for the exclusive use of women and young children. The privies shall be placed in equal numbers on each side of the ship, and need not in any case exceed twelve in number.

In 1906 some modifications to the Merchant Shipping Act were carried out in order to provide a scale of provisions for seafarers, and these were quite well known being appended to the Articles of Agreement and published in the Almanacs available at the time. Further modifications to the scale were carried out in 1957 and the result was published in Brown’s Nautical Almanac for 1962 as follows:

 Article                                     Allowance per week

Water                                            28 quarts

Soft bread                                      7 lb

Smoked ham or bacon                      12 oz

Fresh meat                                     7 lb 4 oz

Fresh fish                                       7 lb 4 oz

Potatoes                                         7 lb

Eggs                                              4 per week (see note)

Dried vegetables                               ¼ lb

Flour                                                1 lb

Rice                                                 6 oz

Oatmeal etc                                      6 oz

Tea                                                   4 ½ oz

Coffee (not containing

 more than 25% chickory)   2 oz

Cocoa (or cholcolate)                        3 oz

Sugar                                               1 ½ lb

Milk     Condensed                             14 oz

            Or dried                                 6 oz

            Or homogenised                    1 ¾ pints

Butter                                                 10 ½ oz

Suet                                                    2 oz

Cooking fat or oil or marge  4 oz

Marmalade, jam or syrup     8 oz

Cheese                                                5 oz

Pickles                                                3 oz

Bottled sauces                                      2 oz

Onions                                                8 oz

Dried fruit                                            3 oz

Tinned, frozen or fresh fruit                  6 oz

Fine salt                                              2 oz

Mustard                                             ¼ oz

Pepper                                               ¼ oz

Curry powder                                      ¼ oz               

There are 36 items on the list plus a number of notes, mostly too boring to be included here, but I found my attention drawn to the provision of eggs, which back in the 1960s were still a fairly rare commodity. Blue Star ships were said to provide eggs every day, but most of us were limited to one a week. Hence I was surprised to see that the scale requires that four eggs should be issued during the first fortnight of the voyage and two eggs for each week thereafter. For a long time it therefore seems that many of us were short changed by an egg a week.

Some other quantities seem quite high by today’s standards. 7lb 4oz of fresh meat per week is quite a lot, the equivalent of a medium sized steak a day although it is pointed out that on ships without refrigeration it may be unwise to issue fresh meat if it is more than 15 days old. It also says that the weight of the meat may include bone which provides a window of opportunity for the more unscrupulous ship owners.

You might also be surprised to learn that between 1894 and 1900 there had been 150 questions raised in the Houses of Parliament about the act, ranging from questions about “lascar accommodation on P&O vessels” to the patrolling of the Western Isles herring fisheries by the fishery cruisers. And the questions in the house go on into the 20th century with such frequency and in such detail that one wonders how they had time to do anything else.


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