It’s the season of Remembrance. Like everything else, it’s a bit different this year. Social distancing and lock down has means traditional parades are postponed and the Royal British Legion faces its biggest challenge yet in terms of poppy sales and fundraising. It could all be a bit grim. And yet…

Photo by Eric Smart on

People rose to the challenge. The RBL launched the ‘Every Poppy Counts’ campaign including printable posters to make window displays and a virtual Field of Remembrance. When out walking The Wolf I’ve spotted poppy themed door wreaths and beautifully coloured window displays. The local council here has festooned the High Street with poppies and live streamed a wreath laying service complete with a playing of the Last Post, even though there could be no public attendance.

I knew I wanted to write about Remembrance. Being a history loving military wife, it means a lot to me. It’s not just remembering the fallen though; it those who still serve, those who have been forever changed by service, those left behind, the veterans, the heritage…this list goes on.

But what to write? So much has already been documented. Remembrance inspired travel is a no go. So I got to thinking about a service that made a huge contribution but is often overlooked: The Merchant Navy.

Merchant seamen were civilians who chose to work at sea. We use the term sea-man but it wasn’t just men. Women and children too, sometimes. Cargo steamship SS Fiscus was torpedoed in 1940. Fatalities included the brothers Kenneth and Raymond Lewis aged 14 and 15, who had signed onto the ship using a forged letter giving permission from their Father to go to sea. Makes me feel a bit better about the fact I caught one of my teens forging my signature on a letter for her teacher recently. Could be worse!

Victoria Alexandrina Drummond.

Women sailed too, albeit in lesser numbers. Around fifty women are known to have died in service. It’s easy to imagine that the ships were an exclusively male environment, isn’t it? It makes it all the more important that when a sea-woman’s story is known, it is celebrated. Take for example, Victoria Alexandrina Drummond MBE. She was the first female marine engineer in the UK, the first female to make it into the Institute of Marine Engineers, served on foreign and UK ships and was decorated for her bravery under enemy fire.

Laboe Naval Memorial, Germany.

Male or female, life as a Merchant sailor in time of conflict was not for easy and nor was it fair. For example; despite the fact the MN was keeping the nation fed, sailors could not always expect to eat well. Fresh food might only be available in port, and only if the Ship Master agreed to budget for it. Some Shipping lines were known for feeding the crews as well as they could. Others not so much. Shipping company, Hogarth & Sons of Glasgow, earned the label “Hungry Hogarth”.

Interior of the Laboe Memorial. Each silhouette represents a real vessel that sank.

Working hours were long with a basic week of sixty four hours before overtime, although this was reduced in the early 1940’s to fifty six hours. The pay was poor, especially when compared to wages for those involved in war work ashore. Shockingly,up until 1941, those sailing onboard British vessels attacked and sunk by enemy action had their pay stopped from the moment the ship sank. Even if a sailor was lucky enough to be picked up, or survive time at sea in a lifeboat, this was all classed as non working time and unpaid. Probable death, untold trauma and no wages. Imagine setting sail knowing that was your likely outcome?

Scottish Merchant Seaman Memorial, Leith.

Add to that long periods of time away from home with little to no communication. Many seamen had no fixed abode ashore and lived a transient life split between time at sea and life in hostels. Those with families and homes must have gone home as strangers and with the next sailing looming large. As an army wife I can tell you separation is hard. I can’t imagine doing it under wartime conditions for less pay, with longer hours and minimal compassion. These are people who knew sacrifice.

The Merchant Navy is remembered beautifully in Leith where a sandstone monument pays tribute to merchant sailors who have sailed in times of war and peace. The jaw dropping Laboe Naval Monument near Kiel in Germany commemorates all lives lost at sea. Both are beautiful and both well worth a visit if you ever have the chance.

I couldn’t hit publish on this post without giving a mention to Bridget Elizabeth Talbot. She wasn’t a merchant sailor, but she did invent a watertight torch for life belts to give sailors overboard a better chance of rescue. Many merchant seamen made it home thanks to her invention and her tenacity in getting it made part of compulsory kit. Remembrance should include everyone and every sacrifice. Let’s keep the history and the stories and the sheer courage alive. Lest We Forget.

Helen x

20 thoughts

  1. I wish more people would read the poems of Alun Ross who served with the Arctic Convoys. They convey, like nothing else, what life was like aboard these ships. In fact, if I can manage it, I’ll try to do a Post today about his poetry. Meantime, did you see my image of the sculpture in Cardiff to the merchant seamen who left from Wales? In case not, here’s the link:

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      I love that sculpture, it’s a lovely tribute. I don’t know enough about the convoys although I think we did touch on the subject when we were up in Orkney. Always so much to discover. I’ll look up Alun Ross, thanks for the tip.

  2. Excellent post. Victoria Drummond is in the Dundee Women’s Heritage Trail and has featured in a few Glasgow Women’s Library projects. Amazing woman!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thanks you, I’d heard the name but when I started reading into her life story…just, wow. My teen daughters are involved in a local project to get more girls interested in engineering so I’ve tasked them to research her achievements. She’s quite the role model.

  3. Hi, back again re the convoys. I’ve put up a piece this evening
    as I said I would. I’m now going to look into it to see if the government ever did award the medals they said they wouldn’t. I remember it, about 5 years ago or so, the Minister responsible said something like ‘medals are only given to those who suffer real rigours.’ I wonder where he’d been all his life.

  4. Lovely post Helen, so important to support Remembrance and any associated charities. We always attend a service if possible as it’s just so important to remember the sacrifice so many people made.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thank you. Remembrance is important, it’s been a bit subdued this year. Hopefully by next year something closer to normal will be resumed!

  5. A lovely post. You seem to have formed a real connection with the men and women of that period and their lives.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thank you! Yes, I do find it all endlessly fascinating.

  6. LadyinPink says:

    Glad to read this. Near my parents vacation home in the State of New Mexico is a large memorial and a cemetery for these “Merchant Marines” apparently at one time there was a hospital to treat tuberculosis. Merchant Marines graves from all over the world can be seen there in the Southwestern United States.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Oh really, I’ll have to have a google . I’d love to see some of the graves and tributes. I think the USA celebrates it’s veterans and serving soldiers better than we do here in the UK. Thank you so much for making the time to read and comment, means a lot to me.

      1. LadyinPink says:

        I believe that the place I am talking about is called Fort Stanton it’s near Ruidosa New Mexico

  7. I learned something new today! Thank you for encouraging people to not forget the sacrifices of so many. As a proud daughter of a disabled Vietnam Veteran, I feel it is our moral obligation to thank and remember our service men and women any chance we get!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Such a lovely comment, thank you so much.

  8. My stepdad was in the Merchant Navy and there’s much about it I don’t know. Thanks for posting this. 🙂 🙂

    1. How I wish I were younger and had more time to do research and write the historical articles I used to write. I could do more though, if I rustled myself around and didn’t insist on reading the paper from cover to cover every day – before settling down with a book!

      1. You’ve earned the right to do that, Mari. 🙂 🙂

    2. You should try and find out more about your stepdad, I’m sure it would be fascinating. Did he serve on the convoys or the minesweepers do you know?

      1. Convoys. Both he and my Mam are dead, and my stepsister too, and I don’t really want to go there, Mari.

  9. ThingsHelenLoves says:

    Thanks Jo, my Dad was in the Merchant Navy, he’s given me a healthy interest in and respect for the subject, I think.

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