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Working for the Yankee Dollar – Seamen’s wages on British and America Ships.

By Sheila McGowan

In the past there was always a very precarious situation between the seafarer and money, especially when they were paid off after a trip.
Trips were divided into short coastal trips and deep sea. The deep sea sailors were particularly vulnerable when they came ashore; most had large sums of money on their person. Some seamen did not have permanent homes so they stayed at sea for years. These sailors were very wealthy men when they decided to come ashore and settle down.

As time progressed the seamen had to go to the shipping company’s offices to collect their wages. These shipping offices were very busy, dangerous places. Boarding houses began to spring up in the dock area of the ports, which were often cheap, dirty and unhealthy, and were run by ‘Crimps’ -  the nickname for the lodging house owners. They employed runners who waited by the docks and touted for business to entice the men to their establishment; some were honest, but the majority were crooks always ready to rob the seamen.

As time went on the shipping industry began to be more regulated and safer for the visiting seafarers. Sailors Homes were becoming increasingly available. The industry slowly became unionised, the dues were collected by the company and handed over to a union official after engagement, which he then paid into the union offices.

Crew members contributed into a Medical Fund, paid Income Tax and National Insurance. A Money Order scheme was introduced for the men to send money to their families or friends. The Seamen’s Saving Bank was recommended so the men could withdraw money for their immediate needs while at sea, with the rest kept securely for when the trip ended.The money could be withdrawn at any port of choice. In the days of Air Mail the crew’s postage costs were considerable, and this also was deducted from the wages.

George sailed on the Corinthia in 1918, he was paid off in Cardiff, and a month’s wages came to £12.00 with all his deductions his final balance was £10.8s.8d, another month on the Galtymore in 1920, he picked up £13.6s.1d after deductions[i].

There was a vast difference in pay when he was out of the UK and paid in dollars, and was doing four to five month trips. Although he earned $387.00 in one trip, his take home pay came to $54.63c. During this trip he was drawing various amounts of cash in different countries for example:
Rio de Janeiro, $15.00; Trinidad, $2.40c; Baltimore, $180.00; New York $30.00.

Tax was deducted when the trip ended, and in order to keep his final salary as low as possible, George could have possibly changed his money to sterling and sent it back home for his family by a trusted sailor friend.

Wives and families could also go to the Shipping Offices with an allotment note and collect a monthly allowance. This was much appreciated and helped the families to keep going when the seaman was away, and plan for their future.

By 1932-1933 half of those who were engaged in the shipping industry were becoming unemployed due to the slump in the North Atlantic, the increase in the use of oil instead of coal added to the demise, and sailings were reduced by 60%.

On Jan 1st 1938 the Merchants Officers Pension Fund came into operation, but as usual, this did not favour the lowers ranking seamen, they still left the service with no pension or security.


Last modified onThursday, 04 December 2014 17:04
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