ranks and uniforms


The ranks and uniforms of the Merchant Navy are often a complex subject, and the details here are an overview of Elder Dempster Lines in the 1960s.



A national standard uniform for officers and ratings of the Mercantile Marine, later the Merchant Navy, was introduced by The Mercantile Marine (Uniform) Order of 4 September 1918, and was based on that of the Royal Navy.

The 1918 Order set out the first national rank structure, although officer ranks were appointments and did not necessarily relate to certificates of competency held (for example, a 2nd Officer might well hold a Master’s Certificate).

rank table rank table

It is not clear when the standard badges of rank and rate were finalized and the table shown above appears to date from a point later than the 1918 Uniform Order. Of note are the buttons displayed on the lower sleeves by Cadets and Apprentices, apparently preceding the established display of the gold cord and button worn on the collar lapels. It will also be noted that the Chief Steward was not regarded as an officer at this point (nor displayed the zigzag rank lace), and that the Carpenter had no badge of rate.

Although using this as a model, the larger companies had their own variations which were based on their own tradition. The uniform of ratings on British cargo ships was very much a nondescript working rig and Elder Dempster Lines was no different.


Elder Dempster Lines Officers

A dark blue double-breasted jacket with four pairs of gilt buttons displayed, and worn with dark blue trousers, a white shirt and black tie, and black footwear. Elder Dempster Lines buttons had a rope rim, the words African Royal Mail surrounding the company house flag, other (possibly later) examples carried the words Elder Dempster Lines. Merchant Navy buttons had a rope rim, and an anchor and Naval Crown. Ranks were shown by rows of gold distinction lace worn on the lower sleeves of the jacket. The curl of the Royal Navy was replaced by a diamond, and department distinguished by colour cloth between the lace (for example white for Pursers and purple for Engineers). Cadets wore a gilt button and gold cord (with appropriate department colour) on the collar lapels. For formal occasions a short dark blue mess kit jacket was worn with dark blue trousers, white shirt and black bow tie.

Tropical uniform was a short-sleeved white shirt, white shorts, and long white socks, worn with white or black shoes. Ranks were displayed on navy-blue/black epaulettes (more properly, shoulder boards). For those of cadets the gold cord and department colour ran lengthwise along the epaulette. The formal high neck white No.10 jacket with white trousers was rarely worn in the 1960s even on the mailboats, having being superseded by a short white mess jacket worn with dark blue trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. Short-sleeved shirts and shorts were made to measure by visiting tailors at some ports down the Coast. These hard wearing items were often made from salt sacks shipped previously and were popular as working rig, deck officers favouring khaki colour and pursers on cargo ships appearing in a light grey.

Rank titles were also an area affected by custom or practice. Depending on background, deck officers might be referred to as a Mate (for example 3rd Officer or 3rd Mate). The original uniform Order of 1918 referred to them as Officer, although under later Merchant Shipping Acts the official title was Mate. Where an additional officer of the same rank was carried the rank title would be prefixed by Extra (for example Extra 2nd Officer).

EDL officer ranks table
click for larger version

The table above sets out the rank lace of Elder Dempster Lines officers in the early to mid 1960s. The format is intended to show relative rank between offficers of different departments. Not included is Commodore of the Fleet (one broad row of rank lace, no diamond). The title was introduced in 1948, and there were six Masters who were appointed as Commodore before the title lapsed in 1966 on the amalgamation of the Elder Dempster Lines and Blue Funnel fleets.

Radio Officers were entitled to wear three rows of rank lace if they held a 1st Class Certificate, were the Radio Officer in charge (whether sailing single-handed or not), and had a specific amount of sea service. The separate box shows rank lace worn on the mailboats, and in particular the three rows of lace of the Purser, Chief Steward, and Chief Radio Officer. The Doctor and the Refrigeration Engineer were additional officers carried by these ships (the title of Surgeon was often interchangeable with Doctor).

In the late 1960s there were changes to the Catering Department and the ranks of officers. The new rank titles and rank lace are shown below, and may be compared with the table above. The rank of 2nd Catering Officer was somewhat unique (not only in its "one and a half" rank lace), and was an interim rank after Cadet Catering Officer pending promotion to Catering Officer following further service and experience. The changes were also seen on the mailboats, for example on the Aureol the Chief Catering Officer displayed three rows of zigzag gold lace as before, the Catering Officer two rows (as did the Cabin Class Chief Steward), and the Baggage Master one row. The Chief Barman/Storekeeper wore one row of silver zigzag lace.

EDL catering officer ranks

Cadet Catering Officers were a little more complex. They wore the gilt button and zigzag gold cord on the collar lapels of their dark blue double-breasted jacket (as shown in the main table), but on "whites" their epaulettes did not display the rank lace running along the length as with cadets from other departments but a half gold zigzag with white zigzag under horizontally across the epaulette. On the dark blue mess kit jacket the half gold/white zigzag was worn on the lower sleeves.

Further details are on the Pursers, Cadet Training, and Badges and Buttons pages, and examples of uniforms and rank lace may be seen on the following pages.

on and off duty on and off duty
ranks representative ranks

The uniform Order of 1918 allowed for the continuance of shipping company cap badges and the Elder Dempster Lines cap badge displayed the EDL house flag within an embroidered gold wire wreath. The Naval Crown was not standard but did appear on some badges. The Merchant Navy cap badge could also be worn, a silver anchor on a red oval cushion within a wreath of gold wire and Naval Crown above. The wreath was defined in the 1918 Order as being oak leaves and acorns but the later Bombay style cap badge saw this replaced by a larger laurel wreath. Examples of the differing styles of Elder Dempster Lines and Merchant Navy cap badges are shown in the table below. It was only in later years that the company cap badge appeared with the Naval Crown.

Elder Dempster Lines

Cap Badge
Cap Badge

officer cap badges

Cap Badge
Merchant Navy
Cap Badge

Merchant Navy


Elder Dempster Lines Ratings

The uniform Order of 1918 designated a double-breasted dark blue jacket with three pairs of gilt buttons displayed, and worn with dark blue trousers, a white shirt and black tie, and black footwear. Merchant Navy buttons were as those for officers, but without the rope rim, in gilt for Boatswains and equivalent petty officers and in black for other ratings. A single-breasted working jacket with four buttons was also described.

Badges of rate were in embroidered gold wire or red cotton, and followed the Royal Navy pattern. A Boatswain wore crossed anchors and a Quartermaster a ship's wheel.

Working rig on cargo ships was of a relaxed nature, and normally the only ratings in a uniform were the Stewards. That on the mailboats was more formal, deck ratings wearing the round cap in the style of the Royal Navy and with an Elder Dempster Lines cap tally.




The Merchant Navy cap badge was as for that of officers, but without the surrounding wreath.

Ratings by Departments

Deck Boatswain
Leading Able Seaman
Able Seaman
Senior Ordinary Seaman
Efficient Deck Hand
Engineer Engine Room Headman
Catering Chief Cook
Assistant Cook
Pantryman / Galleyman
Senior Steward
Assistant Steward

The table above is not exhaustive and is an overview of the key ratings on cargo ships, and does not reflect the situation on the mailboats where many other ratings were to be found (including Quartermaster, Chef, Baker, Printer, Stewardess, Baggage Master, Barman, and Hairdresser). Departments were generally mixed nationality crewed, and temporary personnel (notably the famous Kroo Boys) engaged down the Coast.


Merchant Navy Badge

All personnel were entitled to wear the Merchant Navy Badge when off duty.



all text © Mike Ingham
Mercantile Marine rank table images © Peter Johnstone
Elder Dempster Lines rank table and rank badges © and courtesy Ron Clark
photographs © Mike Ingham and Peter Jones
Merchant Navy Badge © Crown Copyright
rating badges images © and courtesy E C Coleman Rank and Rate
cap badges © Elder Dempster Lines and Crown Copyright and courtesy
The Gold Wire Badge Company, David J Barnes, Ivor Halsey, and Collectors Centre Online
Elder Dempster Lines House Flag © Elder Dempster Lines

EDL Elder Dempster Lines page

this page last updated 2 March 2018

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