Expected moral standards from ships' officers


Arun Vajpey

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I have a rather odd query. In the late Victorian and Edwardian era, what sort of OFF-DUTY moral standards did major shipping companies like Cunard, White Star etc expect from Captains and Officers employed by them? For example, if it was discovered that a well known Captain was cheating on his wife, would that be ignored as his personal affair or would there be informal disciplinary proceedings alleging that he could be affecting the company's reputation etc?

I'm asking only about off-duty behaviour, not during a voyage.
 

Kas01

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I imagine they were something similar to the classic military admonishment to "never get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy". Obviously much more could be prosecuted back then, including adultery, sodomy in the case of homosexuality, and so forth, but I don't know the prosecution or disciplinary rates back then.
 
Nov 14, 2005
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I have a rather odd query. In the late Victorian and Edwardian era, what sort of OFF-DUTY moral standards did major shipping companies like Cunard, White Star etc expect from Captains and Officers employed by them? For example, if it was discovered that a well known Captain was cheating on his wife, would that be ignored as his personal affair or would there be informal disciplinary proceedings alleging that he could be affecting the company's reputation etc?

I'm asking only about off-duty behaviour, not during a voyage.
That would probably depend a lot on what port they were visiting. I can't speak for the Victorian era...missed that one. But sailors being sailors including officers I've seen both sides of the coin. I've always said that my parents raised me to be a good and decent person. That all flew out the window on my first liberty call in Olongapo.
:p
 
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Gaston Sam

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I think it would depend on whether it was made public, and how well-connected the officers were.
 

Arun Vajpey

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I don't mean 'made' public but the corporate fear of a scandal. For example, if a Captain of a Cunard liner, ostensibly a respectable family man, was in reality having an affair offshore, there was always the risk of exposure and public scandal. In such a case, would Cunard worry about what that might do to their own reputation or would they just shrug it off as his personal business?
 
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Gaston Sam

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That's a good question. I'm not sure, but maybe they would warn him against continuing with it. If the case was eventually known and became a scandal the company would probably demote or terminate the Captain or officer.
 

Kas01

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Well, the thing that they would ask would probably be if it was prejudicial to good discipline. An affair might be brushed aside provided that everything else is in good standing, but if there was a history of that officer having discipline problems it might very well result in dismissal. That's to say nothing of a Francisco Schettino-type incident--had an officer and passenger bumped uglies aboard ship back then, it probably wouldn't have mattered if anything actually happened, like a collision between the ship and an underwater object.
 
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Probably for most of the board members of any company in those days it would be like throwing stones in a glass house. Mistresses among that crowd were not uncommon. If something blew up in the press and it made the company look bad then yeah...they would cut the guy loose.
 
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Aly Jones

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I have a rather odd query. In the late Victorian and Edwardian era, what sort of OFF-DUTY moral standards did major shipping companies like Cunard, White Star etc expect from Captains and Officers employed by them? For example, if it was discovered that a well known Captain was cheating on his wife, would that be ignored as his personal affair or would there be informal disciplinary proceedings alleging that he could be affecting the company's reputation etc?

I'm asking only about off-duty behaviour, not during a voyage.
I have always wondered if officers hooked up with each others sisters off duty.
 

William Oakes

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What the published corporate rules were, and what actually was "allowed" or perhaps a better way of saying it is, "they looked the other way," were probably two different things.
If no one was caught. probably nothing was said, even it was known.
If a scandal erupted certainly the Line would enact disciplinary measures.
Being that the British are strict sticklers for decorum, it must not have been an issue.
Otherwise, we would have heard about it.
 

Arun Vajpey

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Being that the British are strict sticklers for decorum, it must not have been an issue.
Otherwise, we would have heard about it.
Not just the Brits. Americans of the era were also rather particular about "family values" and such weren't they?

Also, in those times where ships were the practical and glamorous modes of transatlantic and other voyages, captains and senior officers might have been considered as role models for the younger generation.
 
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Kas01

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Still are. The laws forbidding adultery and such are still on the books even though they're no longer enforceable.
 

Arun Vajpey

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Growing-up (when I was old enough to consider these things I mean ;) ), I wondered about married sailors being away from home for extended periods. There might have been temptations on both sides. That's probably why some companies might have had (informal?) codes of conduct.
 

Aly Jones

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Women find it a lot easier to get courted, chased by men. That's why men put rings on their women fingers. So when they're away at war, voyages etc...other men know she belonged to another man.
 

Aly Jones

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Also, in those times where ships were the practical and glamorous modes of transatlantic and other voyages, captains and senior officers might have been considered as role models for the younger generation.
Yes. Officer Murdoch ,as I read, that he was very popular amongst the transatlantic passengers. So kind of a role model.

I also wonder if it works the other way around, that women chased the officers and fancy them too. I read in letter by boxhalls fiance that she was shocked that boxhall picked her. she mentioned that socialites actually fancy officers. Im taking it as the women were chasing them.
 

Stephen Carey

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When I signed my Apprenticeship Indentures as a prospective Engineer Cadet, I noticed that I was forbidden to indulge in excessive alcohol consumption and was not allowed to visit houses of ill repute... I speed read through all that and signed on the dotted line, whatever it said I could or couldn't do!
As far as transatlantic voyages went, you had to be a fast operator to trap any female in the 5 days you had going for you - along with your minimum 8 hours a day watchkeeping (for engineers; actually 12 hours for deck officers in those days). Certainly the uniform helps immeasurably (my wife still coos over my photos in uniform). Everyone is aware of what happens with shipboard romances, more prevalent in the P&O where you had weeks if not months to trap any female(s) that took your fancy or fancied you and your gold braid encrusted uniforms (especially the "ice-cream suit" or tropical mess-dress). Even Nelson said "Every sailor is a bachelor south of Gibraltar" and Lightoller himself met his future wife Sylvia on a passage to/from Australia.
In general - unless you get caught like Schettino did - what happens at sea, stays at sea. No one's going to rat on you to the Company for sure (in case it gets revisited on you) and a blind eye is turned. When I was on passenger ships - briefly - you were not allowed to "broach cargo" - visit the girl in her cabin - but had to find somewhere else to do the dirty deed, like your own cabin providing you didn't share it with someone else or could bribe them with beer to stay away for an hour or so...
Even today in the RN and USN where they now have lots of women in the crew, the question of "Where do they have sex" is answered by "Anywhere two inventive minds can imagine". Unless you are caught out (as was the CO of a nuclear submarine with one of his female officers tsk tsk) then you've got away with it.
It's pretty much the same as an office romance - the company isn't interested if it doesn't affect your job; it's of no concern to them otherwise. Cruise ships nowadays are a hotbed of drink and sex amongst the crew as there are so many young females living cheek by jowl with their young male counterparts for up to a year at a time. They are not allowed to fraternise with passengers (who are mostly old anyway), but of course they don't need to! As for the Officers, I doubt anything has changed from my and Lightoller's day; just be discrete...
 
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Nov 14, 2005
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Interesting post. Some things should probably be left unsaid so I won't go into those. This is a family friendly site after all. I can't speak for the merchant navy but for the navy I was in the officers acted pretty much the same way as the enlisted did. They just usually went off to places that were out of sight.They would cart off to Manila or somewhere a little higher class. But being a Master at Arms for awhile I knew they were pretty much the same. A lot of incident reports got lost once we left port. You know its bad when the ships doctor gets picked up by shore patrol...LOL. One thing I am curious about that might be different. Its off topic but did you merchant marine guys have a crossing the line ceremony? Pollywogs to shellbacks?
 

Arun Vajpey

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Cruise ships nowadays are a hotbed of drink and sex amongst the crew as there are so many young females living cheek by jowl with their young male counterparts for up to a year at a time.
Thanks for all the replies, but I did not really mean shipboard fancied and dalliances but long term conduct offshore. Also, I was referring to Edwardian times when there were no planes, movies etc and being the time of massive transatlantic migration, ships and crew probably featured a lot in the frontline news on both sides of the Atlantic. So, I assumed that the Captain and Officers might have served as role models and so were expected to have 'clean' private lives.

An example, although he was a prominent millionaire passenger and not a ship's officer, was J J Astor. I read that his marriage to a woman younger than his oldest son raised quite a few eyebrows and frowns in his circles and a few past acquaintances then stopped socializing with him on that account.
 

Aly Jones

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So, I assumed that the Captain and Officers might have served as role models and so were expected to have 'clean' private lives.
I would like to think so. I'm not sure what they did in-between courting A woman. I came across information of Edwardian times on plessure. ( using a family friendly term ) that between 1890 / 1910 there was an instrument for men to stop them from pleasuring themselves. So anything to do with plessure was frowned upon in Edwardian times, and I really doubt any men used it and just kept their business to themselves. And behind closed doors.
Titanic officers for instance, all of the senior officers were happily married. The junior's officers were writing love letters to certain one woman they were courting at one time etc... Officers seem to get married very late in life compared to lower class men such as my GGF. Many fire men, strokers, trimmers were already married and had children, where as men with better jobs took their time. It seems though majority of men from different backgrounds took one wife at a time, but we also know their were mistreses back then too, but rare.
Marriages and bonding meant something back then, even the most daring people in the edwardian era wouldn't have more than 2 spouses in their life time.
So, how I see it, officers and captain were edwardian gentlemen and I couldn't really see them acting like how men act today- booty calls etc... But with the one woman they love and courted for so many years, when they finally meet her, I reckon they didn't wait for marriage. They were human after all, and wouldn't kiss and tell before marriage
 

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