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Another Nail in Davy Jones Locker for the British Merchant Navy.

This week another nail was hammered into Davy Jones Locker as it slowly sinks to the bottom of the sea for the British Merchant Navy.

P&O established ferry services in the late 1960s in the North Sea and English channel. Following a bumpy time in the late ’70s and early ’80s, P&O Ferries sold its cross channel services to European Ferries. In the next couple of years, P&O acquired shares in European Financial Holdings Ltd, which held 20.8% of shares in European Ferries, by 1987 they purchased the remaining shares in European Ferries that at the time were trading as Townsend Thoresen. Following the terrible disaster of the Herald of Free Enterprise, Townsend Thorsen was renamed P&O European Ferries in Oct 1987.

Over the next 19 years there followed acquisitions and splits following the Competition Commission consultation. Then in 2006, the P&O Group, including P&O Ferries was sold to Dubai-based DP World. Which is essentially by Dubai’s ruling royal family. The main interest of DP World was the ports rather than the ferries, the ferries later being sold off to another state-owned company Dubai World but DP World later bought them back in 2019

On Thursday DP World pulled the rug out from under the British merchant navy when it informed 800 loyal crew members that they were out of work from an online video

P&O Ferries insists that without this

"difficult but necessary"

action it will not have a business.

In the 1960’s Britain had a healthy shipping industry and one of the larger merchant marine fleets in the world. The port of London handled over 60 million tons of cargo a year in the early 1960s.

New tonnage was being built mainly by the British Shipyards. This soon changed. In 1966 British seaman went on strike for six weeks, no one benefitted from this, not the Seaman's union, the Seamen themselves of the British ship owners. The ships sat in dock unmanned, preventing other ships from docking and unloading their cargo. Importers and exporters could no longer rely on British shipping and turned to foreign tonnage to carry their cargoes.

In 1967 following the six-day war, the Suez Canal was closed and stayed closed to shipping until 1975. This proved another blow to worldwide shipping with vessels having to take the longer route via the Cape of Good hope, using more fuel and taking more time. During this time OAPEC had an oil embargo that drove up the price of oil by 70%. Many ships became uneconomical to maintain and were sent for scrap.

Another nail in the coffin for British Shipping was the advent of containerisation. Containerisation, which greatly reduces the cost of transportation, by reducing voyage time and particularly the turnaround time spent in port.

Before this advance, conventional cargo ships typically stayed in Australian waters for a period of three months whilst stevedores discharged and re-loaded the ship by manual methods. Cranes with slings unloaded crates onto pallets, and cargo was literally manhandled. Dockers then maneuvered the crates into the cargo holds, and forklift trucks moved the pallets to warehouses. Damage and delays were frequent and militant trade unions were forever bringing the dockers out on strike. Containerisation changed all that forever. With a container vessel, the containers are ISO sized, and the boxes are simply lifted on or off a truck to a ship using large specialised cranes. Because the container is loaded and unloaded at the factory or plant where the goods are manufactured, stevedores are not required to handle the cargo inside.

So the writing was now on the wall for most of the smaller shipping companies. To survive new container ships had to be built and hundreds of thousands of containers manufactured. This involved the smaller companies getting together to form new shipping consortiums with of course the decline in the number of sailors and dockers required. New container docks were built and the old enclosed docks along the river Thames and other docks in the UK were closed up and became derelict. These new sea monsters were being built in places like Germany and Japan, leading to a decline in the British shipyards, in turn, more redundancies were made with further dock areas becoming redundant. Meanwhile, the advent of the Jumbo Jet was a further nail in the coffin for the British merchant navy with the mighty Ocean liners becoming unprofitable.


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John Martin
John Martin
20 mars 2022

I joined North Sea Ferries, a joint P&O/Royal Nedlloyd company managed from Hull and Rotterdam in 1991 for services from Hull to Europoort and Zeebrugge. Everybody employed both ashore and afloat considered the company more akin to family. There were two ships each under the Dutch and British flag. In 1995 an additional ship under each flag were introduced out of Hull. I served in all three British flagged ships with harmonious relations with our Dutch colleagues. In 1996 P&O 'bought out' Royal Nedlloyd and the company was renamed P&O North Sea Ferries but keeping the Dutch flagged ships. Shortly after, a good percentage of the British hotel crew who were on a two week on/two off rotation were rep…

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