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Fighting for recognition: engineers onboard

4 April 2024

Our serialisation of the history of Nautilus International continues with a look at how seagoing engineers had to fight not only for fair pay and welfare services, but also for the right to be recognised as professionals alongside deck officers

In the 1800s steam started to transform the shipping industry and with it the profile of the seafaring workforce. Between 1860 and 1900 the proportion of the fleet that was steam-powered rose from just over 30% to more than 90%.

The first wave of seagoing engineers had no ship-specific qualifications or formal training, and were usually employed on the basis of recommendations from shore-based engineering firms and dockyards. However, as steam engine technology developed and the roles and responsibilities of the marine engineer rose, there were increasing calls for the introduction of government regulations in line with the requirements for navigating officers. Whilst the early marine engineers were relatively well paid they faced a struggle to get full recognition of their importance, despite the introduction of engineers' Certificates of Competence through the 1862 Merchant Shipping Acts Amendment Act. Shipowners, apparently resenting the extra costs of engineers, made repeated efforts to keep their numbers as low as possible.

On 8 February 1887 a group of engineer officers met in London to discuss their concerns over cuts in pay and reductions in engine-room crewing. They agreed that a union was needed to protect their interests, and backed a proposal to sound out colleagues about the creation of such an organisation.

Within the space of just one month 200 potential members were gathered during visits to vessels in the docks, and a second meeting, held in one of the committee rooms at Limehouse Town Hall in London, unanimously agreed to the formation of a Marine Engineers' Union (MEU) 'which shall be devoted entirely to their interests, managed exclusively by themselves, and have for its objects the assertion and maintenance of their rights, redress for their wrong, and improvement in their remuneration and treatment'.

The MEU's early success in securing pay rises and protecting engine-room crewing levels helped to generate significant growth, with membership rising to more than 8,000 by the end of 1890. As well as tackling working conditions, the union lobbied MPs for reforms in training and certification requirements, as well as presenting proposals for a portion of wages to be advanced to members’ families each week to ease the financial pressures on them during their breadwinners' long absences.

From the outset, the MEU recognised the importance of collective organisation and was not afraid to take industrial action. The union also worked hard to raise the professional status of marine engineers, staging lectures on subjects of technical interest at its branches. In 1901 the general secretary proudly told a meeting in South Shields that the union's branches were serving as educational institutions, and it even floated the idea of creating a college for marine engineers.

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Securing recognition

Only seven years after the MEU was formed it achieved one of its core objectives, with the 1894 Merchant Shipping Act formally recognising seagoing engineers as officers. In the same year – and partly in response to the MEU's representations – the Board of Trade agreed to establish a Committee on Undermanning in the Mercantile Marine. In 1897 the MEU went on to work with the MMSA, the London-based Shipmasters' Society and the UK Pilots' Association, in order to promote the adoption by Parliament of the Certificated Officers' Bill. The proposed regulations would have stipulated the carriage of certificated officers on British ships, along with stipulations on the numbers to be carried, together with a requirement that no certificates for masters, mates, engineers or pilots should be issued by the UK to anyone other than a British subject. Although the move was unsuccessful in 1897, the battle for tighter controls was to continue for many more years, culminating in a wartime ruling in 1916 that 'no aliens, whether nationalised or not, are to be in command of British steamers'.

The MEU also made another significant achievement in securing Board of Trade agreement to appoint engineers to local marine boards around the UK, and it followed this up with a successful campaign to have engineer assessors at courts of inquiry into shipping casualties whenever the interests of engineers were at stake.

From its early years the MEU operated an employment bureau to find jobs for its members, and it also established a non-contributory accidental death bonus scheme in 1897 in response to statistics showing the high loss of life amongst seagoing engineers.

Union to association

In 1899 the MEU renamed itself the Marine Engineers’ Association, on the grounds that the new title 'was more in keeping with the development of the professional status of the membership'. It continued under its new name to press for higher professional standards, successfully arguing for an extended period of apprenticeship to be brought in with effect from January 1904. It made the case for the introduction of a third-class certificate, and in May 1906 sent a deputation to the Board of Trade to support its calls for more stringent requirements on engineer numbers to reflect increases in tonnage, higher pressures and the greater speed of modern steamers.

The MEA also played a prominent role in the long-running and ultimately successful battle to ensure that seafarers could vote while away from home, with the 1918 Representation of the People Act giving them the right to vote by proxy in Parliamentary elections.


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