Maritime charity The Royal Alfred Seafarers Society and its care home at Belvedere House celebrate all its former seafarers this Merchant Navy Day on September 3.
Merchant Navy Day is an opportunity for the country to champion Britain’s merchant fleet’s hard work and sacrifice and raise public awareness of the country’s ongoing dependence on merchant seafarers. The Red Ensign is flown across the UK to honour the men and women of the Merchant Navy.
The modern-day British merchant fleet operates worldwide and is an integral part of British industry, responsible for looking after the country’s imports and exports and includes a variety of vessels from cruise ships to tankers and cargo ships of all descriptions.
Britain’s merchant fleet was the largest in the world during both world wars and was vital in keeping the country supplied with raw materials and food during the war effort. The perseverance, however, came at a cost, with more than 50,000 merchant seafarers losing their lives across both world wars. Merchant Navy Day was formed in the year 2000 to commemorate the sacrifices of merchant seafarers.
The Royal Alfred Seafarers Society, established in 1865, delivers expert care to former seafarers and their dependants – including those living with dementia – from various maritime backgrounds and has many residents and tenants that were part of the Merchant Navy.
Ian Potter, a resident at The Royal Alfred and a member of the Merchant Navy, shares his story: “For me, it was the dream job. After leaving school, I tried to join but was told I was too fat! So, I ended up doing five years as a deep-sea fisherman sailing from Grimsby. This was in 1968. In 1973, fishing was starting to become a dead-end job, so I contacted the British Shipping Federation, stating that how was I fit enough to be a fisherman, which was a very physical job, but not fit enough to be in the MN? They replied that I should go to my local Pool (branch of the British Shipping Federation) and take the medical tests. It was the same doctor who passed me fit for fishing, so I joined in 1973. It was a great job, travelling the world and getting paid for it.
“During WW2, my father was a Senior Radio Officer seconded to the Merchant Navy and then transferred to the Royal Navy. I think that the people of this country tend to forget the service and ultimate sacrifice paid by the boys and men of this service. We might have lost the war without their service and sacrifices in keeping the UK supplied with food and arms.
“I got to fly around the world to places like Sydney in Australia, Buenos Aires in Argentina, Detroit in the USA, and other places. Joining my first ship – a Shell tanker named SS Partula – was the first time I’d ever been on an aeroplane and stayed in a hotel. I preferred to join a ship abroad, flying out to some exotic place, because I knew that if I didn’t like it, I couldn’t just walk down the gangway and go home! I once joined a ship, the Roland, in Middlesbrough, and before I signed on, the Chief Steward asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. He told me to look around the ship and then come back and tell him my decision, The ship was falling apart, but I still decided that I’d stay, and the trip to Brazil and then back to the UK became one of my most memorable.
“The seafarers here at The Royal Alfred are a mix of ex Royal Navy and ex Merchant Navy, but although there is a friendly rivalry between both services, we all have the common bond of being at sea. As the saying goes, you can take the man out of the sea, but you can’t take the sea out of the man.”
Championing the Society’s seafaring residents, CEO, Commander Brian Boxall-Hunt, said: “This Merchant Navy Day, I am proud to celebrate all of our former seafarers here at the Society that were part of the Merchant Navy and of the contributions they have all made to the maritime industry during their service.
“While we are looking back on the contribution made by our residents, it is also important to recognise the work of the UK’s current seafarers. They kept our country afloat during the pandemic and are responsible for transporting most of our everyday items, such as food and fuel. Here at the Society, we have built a strong community of former seafarers and their dependents, who offer support and companionship to one another through their many shared experiences.”