Indexing the Merchant Navy Crew Lists and Agreements

Within the documents held at The National Archives are rich, inter-governmental department conversations – something I was reminded of when researching the reasons for the delay of the award of the Victoria Cross to Frederick Parslow.

The 1915 project to index the Crew Lists and Agreements for the Merchant Navy has just been successfully released and during the course of the project we found many, many interesting stories which I hope to share via other blogs. However, one story we found inspired us to launch the project to mark the anniversary.

Record of Frederick Parslow (catalogue reference ADM 240/83/351)

Record of Frederick Parslow (catalogue reference ADM 240/83/351)

At 8am on 4 July 1915 the Anglo-Californian was sailing 90 miles south west of Queenstown, with a cargo of horses destined for the war effort, when a large submarine was sighted about a mile from the port beam. The ship immediately started manoeuvring and an SOS was sent. At 9am the submarine opened fire and kept the ship under fire until 10am when the order to abandon ship was given by the submarine. Captain Parslow stopped the ship to allow men to leave but then received a radio message telling him to hold on. As the ship got underway again the submarine opened fire wrecking the bridge and killing Parslow. His son, who was a mate on board ship, and also called Frederick Parslow, took over the fight until two destroyers arrived on the scene at about 11am and the submarine dived.

While there was no doubt about the heroism displayed by Parslow Snr he was not actually awarded the VC until May 1919. The reason often cited for this delay is the execution of Captain Charles Fryatt who was captured, court martialled and executed for trying to ram U33 while in command of the Brussels. However this execution did not happen until a year later in July of 1916. It didn’t make sense.

So, back to the original documents and those inter-departmental conversations. The answer was to come from ADM 116/3595 and T333/1.

On 30 August 1918, a committee convened at the War Office to discuss the wording and ‘co-ordination’ of the Royal Warrant relating to the award of the Victoria Cross. Chaired by Sir Frederick Edward Grey Ponsonby, the committee consisted of the great and the good from the War Office, the Admiralty, the Air Ministry, the India Office and the Colonial Office. The pressing issue before the committee was ‘should the award of the VC be extended to women and Civilians?’

The Admiralty was most in favour of the VC being given to the mercantile marine. Having already approved the award of the DSO and the DSC to the mercantile marine it was felt that King George V would have no objection to the award of the VC assuming the right conditions were met and the Admiralty already had two men in mind Frederick Parslow and Archibald Bissset Smith. It was discussed that when awards had been made in the past, commissions were given retrospectively into the Royal Naval Reserve. However feelings were quite strong that the gallantry of the mercantile marine should stand on its own merit and not be the subject of retrospective commissions into the reserve of the Royal Navy.

Concern was expressed that following the execution of Captain Fryatt (he did get a mention) if the mercantile marine were eligible for the VC they would be seen as combatants by the enemy. However, as the Merchant Navy had by this time been subjected to unrestricted submarine warfare it is unlikely by that point that they did see themselves as non-combatants.

It was therefore agreed by the committee to include the merchant marine – and women – in the Victoria Cross Warrant. Unexpectedly George V was not at all happy with the proposals and agreed to sign the warrant only if it came into force after hostilities had ended and then not be applied retrospectively. Winston Churchill acquiesced to the King’s request and there it should have all ended. However in a letter dated 25 March 1919, Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary, wrote to Walter Long of the Admiralty expressing the King’s dismay that two mercantile marine officers (Parslow and Bisset Smith) had been recommended for the VC for actions in 1915 and 1917 respectively.

The Admiralty reply of 31 March runs to five pages and quotes, from earlier correspondence in 1915, Stamfordham to Balfour:

‘The King is delighted to approve the enclosed submissions as he has always thought there was something rather absurd in making officers of the mercantile marine temporary members of the Royal naval Reserve in order that they could receive Naval decorations which they had by their services become so worthily eligible.’

The reason for the delay in the recommendations was given as ‘we were afraid of the view that the Germans might take of an extension of the VC to the mercantile marine’ and ‘it might be put forward as justification for the policy of sinking at night or even individual acts of cruelty as in the case of Captain Fryatt.’

The reply from the Palace on 1 April stated: ‘I cannot disguise the fact that the reopening of this question – which His Majesty hoped was definitely settled – has disturbed him not a little…His Majesty’s point is that the two masters of ships, Bisset Smith and Parslow, were civilians.’ In a further letter from the Palace dated 5 April Stamfordham wrote to Long: ‘His Majesty considers that as Bisset Smith and Parslow were civilians at the time of their gallantry…they were not then eligible for that decoration’ and ‘Possibly this end could be obtained by conferring post commissions in the Royal Naval Reserve to Bisset Smith and Parslow. If so the King would approve the decorations.’

ADM 240 are the registers of Officers service in the Royal Naval Reserve. Piece 83 page 72 records the commissions of Lieutenant Archibald Bisset Smith back-dated to 26 February 1917 and Lieutenant Frederick Parslow back-dated to 22 February 1915. Both entries have the cuttings from the London Gazette detailing the actions for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross.





  1. Roger Hoefling says:

    In welcoming this article, may I add that Frederick Parslow VC will be honoured by the unveiling of a commemorative paving stone on Islington Green, near to where he was born, at 1100 on Saturday 4th July 2015, the centenary to the day of his death? This is part of the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) scheme to recognise similarly the recipients of the 628 VCs awarded in the First World War.
    The DCLG having been persuaded that since Parslow and Smith served, fought and died in the Mercantile Marine, they should be so remembered, their paving stones will share the distinction of referring to ‘Master’ and ‘Mercantile Marine’.

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