Seamen and the law : an examination of the impact of legislation on the British merchant seaman's lot, 1588-1918
The aims of this study were to determine the general outline over three centuries of variations in the sailors' lot; to establish the linkage with the legislative process, and to ascertain what part Parliament, the unions and the executive had played in making and interpreting the law. It was found that the years 1838-51, 1867-83 and 1905-18 were periods when significant advance occurred, with the earlier and intervening years forming plateaux where little change took place. The legal provision in respect of seamen was of three types - Admiralty-inspired, trade-enhancing and reformist - with the first two categories predominating. The Admiralty consistently attempted to treat merchant seamen as a secondary source of manpower down to the end of the nineteenth-century, while trade interests sought to have the men subject to strict disciplinary requirements and subscribe to a state-supervised contract of employment that stabilised variable costs. Unions were unable to influence the legislative process to any great extent because they had little real power until the large steam vessel provided a background to employment similar to that in large units of enterprise ashore, while the Board of Trade was dominated by anti-interventionists until 1890 and only slowly moved in support of the reformers. The arguments of Keir and MacDonagh that the Board was an example of dynamic expansion in executive capacity are refuted, with the Parris thesis that it responded to changes in society seeming more correct. Seamen were the most legislated-for body of workers, but voluminous legislation often failed to touch upon essentials. The Thornton argument of a delayed industrial revolution at sea is developed by suggesting that the lag in the exploitation of the steam-propelled vessel, in successful unionisation of the workforce and in improving the condition of merchant seamen can all be put at about twenty-five years, so that the retardation of the shipping industry vis-a-vis industry ashore may be fixed at about a quarter of a century. Tight legislation, designed to strengthen national defence capability and expand trade, created instead a corset of regulation that merely restricted national growth.