Interview with Tim Reardon, author of 'The Chamber of Shipping & the First World War'

Tim Reardon is best known for having been one of the UK Chamber of Shipping's policy directors, but he's also a keen maritime historian. In June, he launched his first book, titled 'The Chamber of Shipping and the First World War', which was published by Witherby. 

The book itself tells the story of the important contribution made to Britain’s war effort by the Chamber of Shipping, as it was then known. It also looks at the service of the nation's shipowners and merchant seafarers, whose unstinting war record was honoured in 1928 by the award of the name Merchant Navy.  

Here, the book's author Tim talks more about the book and why the First World War was a pivotal moment for the UK's shipping industry.

How did the book come about? Why did you choose to take it on? 

We wanted to do something to highlight the contribution of Britain’s merchant fleet to the country’s war effort.  As the centenary of the war approached in 2014, various events and exhibitions were being announced to commemorate particular battles and campaigns, but there was nothing that acknowledged the role of merchant shipping.  We decided to plug the gap.  The big question was how – given that none of those who served are still alive, very few ships of that era have been preserved, only a handful of Britain’s shipowners from a century ago are still in business, and the merchant fleet had such a global reach that there isn’t an obvious geographical focus for any commemoration.

So we decided that the best tribute we could pay to those seafarers and shore staff who gave so much during the war would be to add to the sum of historical knowledge about what they did.  Quite a lot of information is preserved in the Chamber’s own archives which, if it ever was public knowledge, has long ago been forgotten. We decided to put it in the public domain – and to do so in the form of a book, rather than just on our website, because we wanted our tribute to be a lasting one. As for me, I am a historian by training and interest.  So this was a natural project for me, and I leapt at the chance to take it on. 

Mauretania american troops returning homeThe Mauretania with American troops returning home - courtesy of Cunard Line.

How long did the project take?

Overall it took a couple of years.  I spent 18 months or so reading through the Chamber’s old reports and minute books, taking them with me on long train journeys and so on.  Having thus extracted all the useful information they contained, I wrote the book in three months last autumn.

There was then another three or four months earlier this year, working with Witherby Publishing to turn that manuscript into a book.  Witherby, who published all our annual reports and other documents during the First World War just as they publish the books we produce today, very generously supported this project.  It is thanks to their design skills and publishing expertise that this book looks as good as it does.

It also took a while to gather the photographs and other illustrations in the book.  Wartime photographs are scarce and precious, and finding them was a real quest.  The Chamber has none, other than portraits of our presidents, so we were entirely reliant on the generosity of shipowners, ports, museums and memorials allowing us to use theirs.

mauretania dazzle painThe Mauretania, dazzle-painted, with destroyer escorts in the Western Approaches - courtesy of Cunard Line.

Which aspect of the book do you find most interesting and why?  What was the most surprising thing your research uncovered, or else something that not many people know and may be surprised by?

Personally, I have always been interested in logistics and operations, so the organisation of convoys – assembling dozens of merchant ships in one place at the same time, loaded and bunkered ready for the ocean voyage, and then keeping them in formation as they zigzagged across the Atlantic – was something I found hugely impressive.

It was also interesting to compare how the Chamber worked then with how it works now.  Many of the challenges are instantly recognisable: clumsy decisions by Government, conflicting demands on ships, and complaints about too many foreign seafarers.  The differences are quite striking too.  Back then, shipowners really were at the heart of Britain’s commercial establishment: 21 shipowners were elected as MPs in 1918; and the Chamber had ready access to the highest levels of Government.  

In terms of style, the biggest difference is probably the frankness with which shipowners expressed themselves – political correctness had yet to be invented.

As for surprises, there is a good story about how today’s Merchant Navy uniform came into being.  Before the war, many shipowners had issued their crews with company uniforms.  These were more or less similar in design to those worn by the Royal Navy and, as the war brought merchant and naval personnel into closer and more frequent contact with each other in British ports, so difficulties were encountered.  Senior Royal Navy officers complained about impersonation of naval personnel and muttered darkly about a threat to naval discipline.  Merchant seamen, in their turn, took deep offence at being told that they were not entitled to wear their uniforms.  So a committee was established to design a standard uniform, which would be recognised by all: and that uniform, approved by the King in 1918, is still worn today.

smokescreen convoy world war oneSmokescreen covering convoy movements, June 1918 - courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

In what ways did the First World War transform the Chamber? 

The First World War was when the Chamber came of age.  In 1914 the Chamber was a small outfit, with one full-time employee, annual operating costs of around £2,000, and a small office on the north side of Leadenhall Market (where Waterstones is now).  It had just two committees: a Documentary Committee, which wrote and promulgated standard charterparties; and an Advisory Committee on New Lighthouse Works, which scrutinised the spending of the three General Lighthouse Authorities.  By the end of the war, it had ten committees, its own proper office – with meeting rooms, a members’ library, two telephones – and a staff of four.

It was the circumstances of the war that caused these changes.  Faced with the wholesale requisition of their ships and with demands from the Admiralty for ships to operate in ways they had never done before, shipowners needed to work really closely together in a way that they simply had never done previously.  The Chamber provided the mechanism for this to happen. 

Kildonan Castle and armed merchant cruiserThe vessel Kildonan Castle and another merchant cruiser in Bressay Sound, Shetland in 1916. Large, fast vessels like these were requisitioned, armed and deployed by the Admiralty in place of warships for certain duties. Courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives.

What lessons can we learn today from how the UK Chamber responded to the challenges presented by the war?

Circumstances are so different that I wouldn’t try and draw lessons.  The commercial and regulatory challenges of today, difficult as they can seem, simply don’t compare with the deadly perils that threatened ships and their crews a century ago.  The German Navy, with its numerous well-armed and very capable U-boats, was doing everything within its fearsome power to sink as many British ships as it could find and thereby to starve Britain into surrender.  The organisational role played by the Chamber was an important element of the merchant fleet’s response to those circumstances, but they have no parallels today.  Looking back at the courage and resilience of Britain’s merchant seafarers in defying a constant threat to their ships and their lives, perhaps the most appropriate response is to reflect on our own good fortune to be living in a time of peace and relative prosperity.

Do you have any plans for a follow-up and what would it cover? 

There are no plans at the moment.  But being involved in marking the centenary of the First World War has been a very rewarding experience, and there are many more anniversaries in the years ahead – next year marks 140 years since the creation of the Chamber and 90 years since British shipping was formally termed “the Merchant Navy” – so there will be plenty of opportunities for similar projects to celebrate our heritage.

Below: A cigarette card published in 1917, paying tribute to the role of the crews of merchant ships in keeping Britain supplied with food and raw material - from a set entitled 'Britain's part in the war'.

1917 mercantile marine cigarette card