The Red Duster - Merchant Navy Day

Everybody is familiar with remembrance and commemoration, from ‘Poppy Day’ on November 11th to Battle of Britain Day and many others. But there is one day that fewer folk are aware of, even in the maritime community.

It remembers the contribution and sacrifice made by thousands of largely unsung heroes who kept Britain fed and fuelled, and supplied for war, especially in World War 2 but also in WW1 and the Falklands conflict, as well as others.


It isn’t just about wartime sacrifice, Merchant Navy Day, each September 3rd since 2000, also seeks to highlight the essential nature of sea trade to an island like ours – with around 95% of everything we buy arriving in merchant shipping.

The general population likely give little thought to cargo traffic - the supermarket shelves are full, the fuel station always has petrol for the car. But without merchant shipping coming daily into our ports we are but days away from shortages and anarchy!

On September 3rd Councils, Public buildings and anywhere with a relevance to the service are invited to fly the symbol of the Merchant Navy – the Red Ensign or ‘red duster’.

In fact a free ensign is available via maritime charity Seafarers UK, and the idea of hoisting and flying the Red Ensign comes by Royal request.

It is hoped that by staging the event and promoting this day of commemoration, awareness of the maritime community can be raised and this of course aims for greater assistance for seafarers who need it through the Merchant Navy Fund.

So what is The Merchant Navy?

It is a collective term for the registered maritime assets of the United Kingdom, and as well as ships themselves includes the London-based International Maritime Organisation, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, various maritime colleges and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary which supports the Royal Navy around the globe.

King George V bestowed the title ‘Merchant Navy’ to recognize the contribution of commercial shipping to the Nation in World War 1, although the idea of a national merchant fleet of registered ships is centuries older – as before the Royal Navy was properly created- and in times of war when more ships were needed – the Crown needed a fleet of ships to be available.

The Falklands Conflict saw many merchant vessels ‘Taken Up From Trade’ for war service – and not all came home. 

The Red Ensign was created as far back as the 17th century (when it bore simply the cross of St George on a red field) as the flag flown bt the merchant fleet, mirroring the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.

You can see the Red Ensign around Sutton Harbour in almost any direction, on fishing vessels and yachts – and also on the ‘mine’ beside West Pier. Many of these sea mines were placed around UK harbours after WW2 as collecting boxes for the Merchant Navy fund, as so many good ships had been lost to mines during the war. One wonders how many people pass by without giving a thought to what it represents, or to the wreaths which sit on the memorial for much of the year.

The Ensign as we see it today stems from 1801; interestingly until 1864 it was also the flag of the Royal Navy, whose fleets were ‘of the red, of the blue and of the white’, and bore ensigns of those colours.

Red Ensigns charged with a local badge may also be flown by registered ships of a whole range of former colonies and dependencies.

So next time you see a vessel proudly flying the Red Duster around Sutton Harbour or elsewhere, spare a thought for it’s history and the Service that it represents – and the many thousands of seamen who lost their lives in the course of trade across the lonely oceans and seas of the world – and look out on September 3rd. Be sure to mention that it is Merchant Navy Day!