Engineers at sea

The birth of our profession

Authored by: Dr. Denis Griffiths

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Putting machinery in a ship presented problems not only in terms of the machinery itself but also because people were needed to attend it and ensure that it operated correctly.  These people would operate in an alien environment as they were not seafarers in the traditional sense, their Job took them to sea but working with the sea and dealing with its ways was a job for the mariner not a mechanic or fireman.  Engine-room staff had to learn to cope with life at sea as well as deal with the machinery and it took a special kind of person to do that.  Over the years many able engineers found that they could not handle life at sea and, despite their mechanical talents, were forced to return to shore employment.

In both the merchant and the naval service engine-room staff were looked upon as outsiders for many years and the view that oil and water did not mix, which was established when the first engines were put aboard ship, remained entrenched in the British Navy and the merchant service.  The first attempts to remove these divisions were taken by the Royal Navy in the late nineteenth century with the Selborne scheme instituted by Fisher, then Second Sea Lord, but these were strenuously resisted by people who were firmly entrenched in the past and living on tradition.  The British merchant service kept its deck and engine departments firmly apart until the advent of dual-training schemes in the 1980 but the British merchant service engineer officer enjoyed a better status than his naval counterpart.


Mercantile Engineers

During the early years of the nineteenth century powered ships operated on river or short sea services and it was necessary for engine-room personnel only to be able to keep the machinery operating and undertake rudimentary repairs.  The fact that the ship did not venture far from land ensured that help was generally available to undertake major repairs at one of the ports around the coast.  Personnel would consist of senior engineers, assistant engineers, coal trimmers and firemen.  Engineers were required to tend the machinery, ensure that it was operating satisfactorily, undertake repairs, start, stop and reverse the engines when arriving or leaving port, and supervise the firing of boilers.  The chief or first engineer would also be responsible for reporting to the owners on the state of the machinery under his control, ensuring that he had sufficient coal for a passage as well as the hiring and dismissing of other personnel.  During the early years of steam at sea engineers were obtained from wherever the ship-owner could get them and there was no recognized system for assessing the suitability of any individual for the position he was to hold.  In many cases the owner left it to the engine builder to arrange for the employment of suitable engineering staff, at least the initial complement for the ship.  No training schemes existed for potential seagoing engineers let alone firemen or coal trimmers.

Good shipowners recognised the need for competent people to tend their expensive engines and understood that the safety of the ship could well depend upon the ability of the engine room staff to keep the machinery working.  With a new ship the advice of the engine builder would often be sought and that was certainly the case with Brunel’s Great Western when she entered service in 1838.  Her owners left the engine builders, Maudslay, Sons & Field, to nominate the engine-room personnel and the chief engineer George Pearne was their choice, probably as a result of his having been employed by that company.  It is obvious that he was concerned at having responsibility for such powerful machinery far from land as is indicated by an unfinished note he wrote upon the ship’s first arrival at New York; ‘ are aware of the mental depression I experienced from having the engines...’; the note was not finished because Pearne was fatally scalded when he was called to the engine room in the middle of writing it. The engine-room log book for that outward journey indicates some of the problems faced by engineers aboard the early ocean-going vessels, not just in terms of machinery defects but also the problems encountered in dealing with drunken and recalcitrant firemen. These problems were still being faced by marine engineers over a century later.

Firemen and coal trimmers were, of necessity, tough individuals who had to be kept under control by the engineer in charge of the watch.  The number of engineers, firemen and trimmers on any watch would vary with the size of the ship but there would always be one senior engineer who had general control in the machinery spaces for the duration of the watch.  Watches were usually four hours long, midnight to 4.oo am, 4.oo am to 8.oo am and 8.oo am to noon, with similar periods between noon and midnight.  Not all firemen and coal trimmers were drunkards but many were hard drinkers, their interest in alcohol being heightened by the hard and hot nature of their work.  Aboard many ships during the nineteenth century and into the next the sale of alcohol to crew members was prohibited, but bottles of alcoholic beverages could readily be smuggled aboard and consumed during off-duty periods in the early days of the voyage.  The task of preventing crew members returning to the ship with alcoholic drinks fell to the night-duty deck officer, who was generally the most junior.  Discretion would generally allow a muscular fireman, much the worse for drink, to return aboard with whatever liquor he carried while the young duty officer went unharmed.  In preserving his dignity the deck officer put problems in the path of the engineer who then had to deal with the drunken fireman at sea.  When the ship was at sea and the drink was finished life in the engine room returned to normal but times in port were always a problem as donkey boilers had to be kept under steam in order to ensure that winches and other auxiliary plant would operate.  With firemen the worse for drink it fell to the engineers to take their turns on the shovel in order to see that steam was maintained.

Fights between drunken firemen were not uncommon and it was left to the engineer to sort them out, or at least attempt to minimise the damage individuals inflicted upon each other since injured firemen did no work and that influenced engine room efficiency.  More than one engineer was injured in attempting to sort out a dispute, ‘In one fight, in a north Atlantic liner, the senior engineer concerned had a complete finger bitten off.’ That engineer was a friend of the renowned Harland & Wolff engineer C.C. Pounder. Many engineers themselves would also enjoy a drink but they had the responsibility of ensuring that the ship was operational and the firemen did not.

For many years there was a degree of antagonism between the deck and the engine department and in the early years of steam this was attributable to the fact that by their scarcity the experienced marine engineer was a much sought after commodity.  An incident aboard one of the early Royal Mail steamers in the West Indies during the 1850s illustrates this situation.  While the steamers Tweed and Medway were in Bermuda together engineers from both ships held a party aboard Medway and refused to end it when told to do so by the duty deck officer; he called the dockyard guard to end it by coercion and was severely reprimanded by the shipowner and transferred to another ship because the engineers from the Tweed complained that they were forced to spend the night in the guardroom.  The deck officer related the tale in his autobiography, bitterly commenting that the blame was put on him ‘ engineers in those days were more scarce than they are now.’ Throughout the nineteenth century good engineers were always scarce, and they are today, but then that scarcity carried a premium and wages were good compared with what could be commanded ashore and in comparison with others aboard ship.  During 1846 the chief engineer aboard Great Western received £5.OO per week, the second engineer £5.25 per month and the third engineer £3.25 per month, while the mate received £4.00 per month.  Monthly wages of firemen amounted to £4.00 and seamen received £3.5O or £3.00 depending upon experience. By 1890 the average annual pay of a chief engineer aboard ships of 2,000 tons and over was £233.25, while that for a second engineer was £166.00 and for a third engineer £120.50. For large liners a chief engineer could receive from £300 to £450 depending upon the ship.  Average pay for firemen was £56.75 to £66.00.

By 1890 the British steam-powered merchant fleet was very large and offered employment to thousands of engineers, firemen and coal trimmers, but there does not appear to have been a shortage of people willing to spend time away from their families in working conditions which can only be described as hostile.  Keeping a steamer’s boiler fired was hard, hot and dirty work and keeping the boilers and engines in an efficient operating state was equally demanding.  Work was hot and often dangerous, many engineers suffering injury through coming into contact with operating machinery or being scalded while repairing some part of the steam plant.  Leaking boiler tubes had to be repaired quickly otherwise precious water would be lost and serious damage could occur.  Leakage was often due to tubes becoming loose at the tube plate and re-expanding the tubes was the solution, however, this had to be done while the boiler remained under steam since shutting down a boiler and then letting it cool was both inefficient and resulted in delay to the ship.  In the case of Scotch boilers the fires would be drawn in the furnaces where leaking tubes were located, wooden boards inserted into the grates for the engineers to crawl on; they would then take turns going into the furnace to spend about 30 seconds expanding leaking tubes.  The boiler remained under full steam as this was taking place.  In order to reduce the risk of being burned the engineers would wear a number of boiler suits and thick gloves; furnace doors would be shut while an engineer was in the boiler in order to avoid draughts of hot air which would make the 30 seconds even more unbearable than it was.  Many engineers even into the 1950s were faced with such a task if tubes leaked and over the years several were severely scalded through such leaks getting worse while the engineers were in the furnace.  Life at sea was not a cruise for the engineers and they certainly earned their money.

Throughout the nineteenth century, and in fact up to the 1960s when the engineer-cadet training scheme became firmly established, seagoing engineers aboard British vessels continued to be drawn from the ranks of those who had gained their engineering experience in shipyards and engineering establishments ashore.  The experience of British engineers varied considerably and there were no defined rules regarding the standards of training needed for seagoing engineers.  In order to ensure that ships were manned to a reasonable standard rules were introduced in i862 in the form of an amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act.  Seagoing engineers were required to obtain certificates of competency and all ships had to carry certificated engineers, the number depending upon the power of the ship’s machinery.  Two grades were available, first class and second class, with an extra first class certificate being available to those engineers who wished to demonstrate a superior level of knowledge.  Certificates of competency were granted to engineers who passed the necessary written and oral examinations; for a limited period a certificate of service was available to those who had extensive seagoing experience in the appropriate rank.  Before sitting for a certificate the engineer needed to have spent a minimum number of months at sea as a watchkeeping engineer but he also had to have received training to an approved standard before setting out on his seafaring career.  The fee for the examinations was set at  £1.00.

The introduction of certificates of competency gave engineers in the British mercantile fleet a status they had not previously enjoyed and it put them in the same position as deck officers.  Standards of training still varied widely and the Institute of Marine Engineers, established in 1889, became the driving force behind moves to change the rules relating to apprenticeships.  The Board of Trade, which controlled the granting of British certificates of competency, had initially insisted upon an apprenticeship lasting a minimum of three years, six months of which had to be spent in a drawing office.  As shore apprenticeships throughout Britain lasted a minimum of five years the Institute requested that this term should also be required for potential seagoing engineers as it would ensure that they had completed their apprenticeships.  This request was resisted under pressure from influential shipowners who feared that a shortage of engineers would result and eventually a compromise was reached on a four-year apprenticeship with allowance being granted for time spent at a technical college. New regulations were introduced in 1901 and since then they have been frequently amended with respect to the training and examination requirements ensuring that the high standard of the British certificate of competency or ‘ticket’ is recognised throughout the world.

Seagoing engineers of the nineteenth century were much on their own when the ship left port and a safe return home was essentially in their hands.  Without sails the ship depended upon its engines and the engineers needed to keep them going and repair them if they failed.  Over the years many ships have made port through the inventive genius and practical skills of their engineers; crude propellers have been constructed from whatever materials existed on board, fractured shafts have been repaired with only hand drills and files, pistons have been replaced, bearings have been repaired and journals bedded in as the ship rolled furiously in a gale.  The list is endless but that is what the engineers were on their ships for, to ensure that the ship, its cargo, passengers and crew reached port safely.  In addition to these manual tasks the marine engineer had to be a chemist in order to handle the problems of boiler-water treatment and he also needed to have the ability to estimate coal quantities with some degree of accuracy.  Being able to assess how much coal had been taken during bunkering ensured that the owner was not overcharged, but knowing how much to take was also important in order to ensure that the ship could reach port.  Bunker spaces were not regular shapes, and to assess the coal remaining at any time could be difficult, an incorrect assessment of the remaining coal resulting in the need for a ship to divert from its route in order to pick up supplies.  During a passage to New York in 1873 the White Star liner Atlantic was forced to head for Halifax, Nova Scotia in order to obtain additional coal as gales had prolonged the passage and the chief engineer was not happy that sufficient coal remained to complete the voyage.  The result was a tragedy as the ship went aground on the coast of Nova Scotia with the loss of 562 lives. During that passage Atlantic also suffered a bunker fire and the engineroom staff spent much of their time dealing with the problem.  Bunker fires were not uncommon as coal would often spontaneously combust; the situation was serious as it resulted in a waste of coal and could, in extreme cases, result in the fire spreading.  More often, however, it was just an inconvenience which had to be controlled and that usually meant digging to the seat of the fire and spraying water on to it until the fire was extinguished.

Although the issuing of certificates gained them the status their work deserved, few engineers during the nineteenth century wore any form of uniform other than a boiler suit.  The work was hard, hot and dirty and a uniform would have been a wasteful luxury; only senior engineers aboard passenger ships had the time to wear a uniform and being seen in public was part of their job.  The founding of the Institute of Marine Engineers established seagoing engineers, and their shore counterparts, as professionals through the publication of their transactions and papers and by ensuring that standards of education and training were maintained and enhanced; it has been performing that role ever since.


Naval Engineers

The role of the naval engineer was identical to that of his mercantile counterpart: he had to keep the machinery working whenever it was required.  However, naval operations differed from those of the commercial fleet and engineers were looked upon as being necessary but not as important as the fighting men; engineers were very much second-class citizens aboard British warships for almost the entire nineteenth century.  Tradition in the Royal Navy was hard to change and engineers did not fit in with the usual class of man recruited to the fighting forces; they were looked upon as crude and not at all like the gentlemen who normally joined the Senior Service.  That was certainly true but it took many years before engineers were made to feel welcome and an accepted part of the service; engineers aboard a fighting ship could die just as readily as anyone else but they were still not accepted as full members of a ship’s establishment, they were auxiliary seamen.  Only the chief engineer was accepted as a wardroom officer and allowed to mess with lieutenants, paymasters and surgeons, the remainder of the engineers were kept separate and had their own mess and living spaces combined.

Over the years there was much comment in the press concerning the treatment of engineers in the Navy but inertia at the Admiralty and prejudice on the part of those serving aboard ship prevented any real remedial action.

The first steam engineers in the Navy were treated as petty officers although no rank was assigned to them, but by an Order in Council in 1837 three grades of engineer were established ranking with, but after, the gunners, boatswains and carpenters who were warrant officers.  First-class engineers received £9.60 per month, second-class engineers £6.80 and third-class engineers £4.9O; considerably less than engineers aboard Great Western were getting at the same time.  Within a year rates were increased to £12,£8 and £5, respectively, as engineers were leaving to take up positions aboard merchant steamers.  A further Order in Council during 1847 changed the situation somewhat by establishing seven grades of engineer officer and increasing wages to levels which could compete with those offered by merchant shipowners.

At the end of the Crimean War in 1856 it became difficult to find sufficient qualified engineers to man the fleet to a satisfactory level and in 1859 the Inspector of Machinery (George Murdoch) went on a recruitment drive around the shipyards of northern Britain where he succeeded in recruiting 103 apprentices.  Poor publicity regarding the status of engineers in the Royal Navy and levels of pay which were inferior to what could be expected in the merchant service still resulted in a shortage of good engineers to serve the fleet; many of the Murdoch recruits were of poor quality and fewer than half were still in the service by 1870.   There was a need for an improvement in manpower, status and training, and steps were taken to ensure that dockyard apprentices were given a better education and to recruit young men of quality.  In 1864 the Royal School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering was opened in South Kensington to offer a more scientific training to naval engineers, and the year before boys receiving training in the Royal Dockyards became known as engineer students and became eligible to compete for places at the new school.  Education in the sciences formed an essential part of the training of young men entering the Navy but the management of men was also an essential for a good officer aboard ship.

With the general adoption of steam-powered warships the attitude of the ‘sailors’ had to change and by time the mastless HMS Devastation appeared in 1871 the essential role of the engineer could no longer be ignored.  In 1868 a major change took place in the manning arrangements aboard warships when the new class of rating to be known as Engine Room Artificer (ERA) was created.  This divided the engineering branch into professional and mechanical sections with the engineers supervising the work done by the ERAs and ensuring the safe and efficient operation of the ship with respect to all of its machinery.  Engineers were trained in the service, spending much of their time at college before being posted to their first ship; as with the deck and fighting sections of the service young people were recruited and received their training at the expense of the service. There were, however, still complaints regarding the treatment and status of the engineer with respect to their fellow officers and it was difficult to attract sufficient young men to the engineering branch.  Even at the end of the nineteenth century engineers still felt themselves badly treated compared with other branches, for the reasons that:

Engineers were classed as a civil branch and had no executive control over their departments and hence had no power to award punishments;

Promotion prospects were not as good for engineers as for executive officers;

The Engineering Branch was not represented on the Admiralty Board; and

Engine-room complements were generally too small for effective operation of the ship at all times.

These points and others were brought before the First Lord, Earl Selborne, in 1901 but met with little sympathy and it was obvious that those in power at the Admiralty were averse to any change in the condition and status of the engineering branch.  The attitude was parochial as major changes were taking place in the engineering industry and the British fleet would have to embrace such changes or be left behind by their French and German rivals.  Britain’s navy was built upon tradition and still attempted to live on it to the detriment of skills without which it could neither function nor fight.  Engineers were totally unrepresented on the Admiralty Committee which sat during 1900-01 to investigate their grievances and this contrasts sharply with the US Navy Personnel Board, established in 1897, which consisted of seven executive officers and four engineer officers. The appointment of John Fisher as First Sea Lord in 1904 heralded a new era in British sea power and also a change for the engineering branch.  Unfortunately many of Fisher’s innovative ideas did not find approval among the more traditional and with his departure many were reversed.  Eventually, however, the importance of the engineering branch was recognised and British naval engineers received the status they deserved.  The story of the fight for recognition is recorded in Up Funnel, Down Screw!

Engineers worldwide have performed their duty in the engine rooms of ships large and small, commercial and naval, that duty sometimes being undertaken at considerable risk to their well-being.  Naval engineers of all countries were in the same danger as executive and fighting officers aboard their ships even if their workplace was surrounded by a belt of armour.  For safety all watertight compartments of a fighting ship would be secured when in battle and engineers down below stood little chance of surviving if the ship sank.  They did their duty and understood the risks.  Merchant ships during a conflict had little protection and their engineers were equally as vulnerable, perhaps more so as they had no protective armour belt.  Even in peacetime the job had its dangers as a grounding or collision would necessitate engineers being present in the engine room to keep pumps working and ensure that electricity for lighting and other purposes would be available for as long as possible.  When Titanic sank all the engineers were lost with her; they kept pumps and lights working for as long as possible and sacrificed their lives doing their duty.



  1. R. Hough, First Sea Lord, Severn House, London, 1906, pp. 151-6.

  2. D. Griffiths, Brunel’s Great Western, Patrick Stephens, Wellingborough, 1985, PP. 30, 40.

  3. C. Claxton, Logs of the First Voyage of the Steamship Great Western, Great Western Steamship Co., Bristol, 1838.

  4. C. C. Pounder, ‘Human Problems in Marine Engineering’, Trans.  I.Mar.E., 1959, P. 99.

  5. R. Woolward, Nigh on Sixt Years at Sea, Digby, London, 1895, pp. 88 - 90.

  6. D. Griffiths, Brunel’s Great Western, pp. 138-9.

  7. The Engineer, vol. 71, 13 Feb.  1891, pp. 121-2.

  8. W H. Thorn, Reed’s Engineers Handbook, Thomas Reed, Sunderland, 1866, pp. 1-6. Engineer, vol. 71, 13 Feb. 1901, pp. 121-2.

  9. Engineering, vol. 7I, 24 May , p. 677.

  10. C. H. Milsom, The Coal Was therefore Burning, Marine Media Management, London, 1975.

  11. Marine Engineer various months in 1882 contain articles and letters; Engineer, to No. I922, vol. 70.  PP. 18l, 533-4, 538-9, vol. 71, PP. 5, 1934.

  12. E. C. Smith, ‘The Rise of the Engineering Branch of the Royal Navy’, Engineering, vol.  114, PP. 576-8.

  13. D. B. Morrison, ‘The British Naval Engineer’, Trans. NECIES, vol. 16, 1899-1900, pp. 215-6.

  14. E. C. Smith, ‘Rise of the Engineering Branch’, P. 578.

  15. D. B. Morrison, ‘The Engineering Crisis in the Navy’, Trans, IESSS, vol. 44, 1901 2. P. 104.

  16. G. Penn, Up Funnel, Down Screw!, Hollis & Carter, London, I955.


The above is reproduced, with permission,  from the book:
Steam at Sea: Two centuries of Steam-powered Ships
By Dr. Denis Griffiths
Published by
Conway Maritime Press, London, 1997
ISBN 0 85177 666 3
Visit Dr. Griffiths website on the historical aspects of marine engineering.