Liverpool was built on its association with the sea, the Mersey was the gateway to the rest of the world and generations of Liverpudlians sailed through that gate, ploughing the oceans of the world bringing wealth to the nation.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the pinnacle of Liverpool’s maritime history also its demise; fifty years ago Britain had the largest Merchant fleet the world had ever seen and the youth of Liverpool stood in line to follow their father’s, grandfather’s and great grandfather’s into that proud profession which gave them their identity as seamen in the British Merchant Navy.
They started as young men and served in every branch of the industry, from Deck Boy to Master; three months at a National Sea Training School and they joined their first ship, they had a basic knowledge, from then on it was learn as you go and learn they did, coached by those who had joined before them.
It was a proud profession with skills developed over hundreds of years, young seamen were multi-skilled tradesmen who never got the recognition they deserved. My father and uncles were all Liverpool Merchant Seamen and I followed them to sea, in 1951, as a Deck Boy on the Empress of Scotland and retired eight years ago as a Master Mariner.
About fifteen years ago I read about the QE 2 entering the Mersey and thousands of Merseysiders turning out to see this magnificent ship; thirty years prior to that you could have come down to the Pierhead almost any day of the week and seen as many as two ocean liners lying in the river. If the dock area, including graving docks, could have been seen as a straight line they would have stretched over twenty seven miles; Liverpool was one of the world’s great seaports and it used to be said there was a scouse on every Merchantman, if you didn’t go to sea one of your family members did and if they didn’t chances were you knew someone who did.
They left school at age fifteen and sailed the ships, three years after joining the Merchant Navy a young man could have been on the wheel under pilot orders bringing the QE 2 into New York harbour. British Merchant seamen were amongst the best in the world, whether a Fireman, Steward or Able Seaman they knew their job and you took pride in what they knew, those wingers and waiters on the “big ships” were the best, they could lay a silver service, they knew which wine went with each course, plus they could confidently wait on royalty if required; if your Father, Grandfather or Brother went to sea you can feel proud, I know they were proud to be able to say, “I’m in the Merch!”
The British Empire was built on the back of the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy, they sailed the oceans and seas of the world taking British produce to places many people have never heard of and returning with food for the nation; thousands of British seamen gave their lives during the wars; young men sailed away on lightly armed, and sometimes unarmed Merchant men, to face the German wolf packs and natures fury so that we could live in safety and comfort.
In Liverpool they have monuments to those brave men who gave their lives at sea but what about the thousands of young men of the Merchant Navy who served, they too should get recognition for their service to the nation; we once had a monument called The Sailor’s Home in Canning Place but our city father’s saw fit to demolish it … It was the Fourth Grace and stood proudly as an emblem of all the men who, “Packed Their Grips and Went Away To Sea.”