On the Move Living gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Living in 1901
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Sea and Air

Balloons and fixed wings
Although air transport seemed a possibility in 1901, it was still the preserve of enthusiasts. Heated air balloons had been had been used for flight as early as 1783 and by 1901 airships based on this technology were being developed by Count von Zeppelin among others. The future, however, lay with fixed-wing aircraft: in 1903 the Wright brothers made the world's first successful manned, engine-powered, heavier-than-air flight in North Carolina.


In June 1901 the American glider pilot Octave Chanute wrote in Cassier's: '…We may hope that successful aerial navigation will spread civilisation, knit the nations closer together, and perhaps so equalize the hazards of war as to abolish it altogether, thus bringing about the predicted era of universal peace and goodwill'.

The shipping trade
In 1901 British ships dominated the world's shipping trade. The largest ship in the world in 1901 was British - the White Star line's SS Celtic weighing 20,880 tons, launched on 4 April. There was fierce competition, however, from German and particularly American shipping. Within a year, the White Star line had been bought by an American multinational, the International Mercantile Marine Company (IMMC). The global economy spread beyond national boundaries: The Times observed that 'capital had no country [and] would gravitate to those countries where it was most encouraged and least harassed'.

Life at sea
According to the 1901 census, there were 120,412 British and 32,614 foreign seamen, over a third of whom were Scandinavian, on board British ships. There were also an increasing number of 'lascars' (from India) and other Asiatic seamen serving on British ships, rising from 27,911 in 1896 to 33,610 in 1901. Foreigners and 'lascars' could be hired at cheaper rates - a British able seaman aboard an average cargo steamer might draw between £3 and £4 a month, while his Indian equivalent might be paid no more than 20 rupees, just over 14s, a month.


For most seamen, life was hard, living conditions poor and desertion common. Henry Irwin, interviewed in 1903 for a government enquiry into merchant shipping, described some steam ships as 'not fit for a rat to exist in'. In 1900, 57,861 seamen had either deserted or failed to join ships on which they had signed on. A typical firemen might work two four-hour shifts a day and, during each shift, would have to shovel two tons of coal into the ship's furnaces. There was no guarantee of continuous employment and no unemployment benefit if a man failed to find a ship. The 1906 Merchant Shipping Act, however, improved conditions to some extent.

Discharge certificate - link to an enlarged version

(64K)


Sailors who constantly changed their ships can be elusive to trace in the records. One reason for this is that seamen resented the continuous discharge books, which had been introduced in 1900 in an attempt to prevent desertion, because they could be used to record 'bad character' and so hinder further employment. An illegal trade in the sale of discharge books soon developed.