University of Leicester
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British merchant shipping and its labour force in an era of economic expansion and social change, 1790-1914

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posted on 2014-12-15, 10:44 authored by David M. Williams
Britain, in the nineteenth century became the world's leading industrial and commercial power, possessed a worldwide empire and exerted enormous political influence. Such pre-eminence stemmed from Britain's technological lead as the first industrial nation and her exploitation of this position through international trade and finance. Both a cause and effect of this commercial supremacy was the development of British maritime power. The mercantile marine operated on the world's major trading routes wile the Royal Navy ensured the freedom of the seas. Up until the eve of the First World War Britain reigned supreme in maritime business with British vessels carrying half the total seaborne trade of the world. Such success was linked to the merchant marine being in the forefront of revolutionary changes in shipping, notably in its response to the new technologies of steam and iron and the different organisational arrangements that these required. British shipowners and commercial interests besides experiencing a vastly expanded market and new technological challenges also, during the century, came to experience a changed context of operation in terms of policy and public attitudes. From the seventeenth century mercantilist theory had led the state to protect shipping through the Navigation Laws. These were repealed in the mid-nineteenth century but such action hardly lessened state involvement with shipping. In many ways the triumph of laissez faire was militated by a different form of central control embodied in the creation in 1980 of the Merchant Shipping Department of the Board of Trade to oversee mercantile marine matters. In subsequent years the Board assumed further responsibilities notably in the fields of safety and the welfare of seamen. These new areas of regulation reflected changing priorities within society and growing humanitarian concerns. While remaining true to its belief in a free market, within that market, the state introduced a framework of regulation.


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University of Leicester

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  • Doctoral

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  • PhD



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