'Orphans of the Sea' - Special exhibition to commemorate 190 years of the Royal Merchant Navy Education Foundation

Written by Sue Round on .

'Orphans of the Sea' - children at Bow Road in the 1840s   -  Pic courtesy of the Berkshire Records Office'Orphans of the Sea' - children at Bow Road in the 1840s - Pic courtesy of the Berkshire Records Office

The Royal Merchant Navy Education Foundation (RMNEF) is celebrating 190 years with a special exhibition at Berkshire Records Office, Reading.  The charity, based in Hungerford offers a range of educational support to children of people who have served – or are serving – at sea in the Merchant Navy, the Fishing Fleet or the RNLI.


Entitled ‘Orphans of the Sea’, the exhibition tells the story of the charity using previously unseen documents and photographs.  A fisherman on the King’s Yacht Britannia, an engineer lost on the Titanic and a recipient of the Victoria Cross are just some of the extraordinary stories revealed in the exhibition.

The charity was first established in 1827 when a Merchant’s Seamen’s Orphan Asylum was opened in London to support orphaned children from the Merchants’ Navy.

Since it was established, thousands of children have benefitted.  The Merchant Navy has played a vital role in the prosperity of the UK but life in the Merchant Navy was dangerous.  The fact there are more than 40,000 wrecks around the UK is testament to this.

Children of those lost on the Titanic and King’s Yacht Britannia were among those who benefitted from the charity.  In the 1920’s there were more than 300 children in the asylum which then became the Royal Merchant Navy School in Bearwood, near Reading.

Today, the school has closed but the charity continues to support the children of Merchant Navy sea-farers, professional sea-going fishermen and RNLI lifeboat crew members with everything from school fees and uniform, to textbooks and computers.

Charles Heron Watson, secretary and chief executive officer of RMEFCharles Heron Watson, secretary and chief executive officer of RMEFCharles Heron-Watson, secretary and chief executive officer of RMEF, who lives in Ramsbury, said : “We, and I speak as someone who has spent more than 30 years at sea, understand the challenges faced by sea-faring families only too well. We currently provide educational help to over 75 families, offering a range of bespoke support. Our mission is still to provide education that leads to long term employment and comes in many forms from short term grants for educational extras to long term financial support to those who need it most.”

“We know that education is the foundation and we are proud of our continuing support of the families of Merchant Navy sea-farers. However, our biggest challenge continues to be making sure that people are aware of the Foundation and the work that we do.”

Mark Stevens, Berkshire County Archivist, says: “The ‘Orphans of the Sea’ exhibition offers a fantastic chance to celebrate the work of an important charity. The Foundation is intrinsically linked to Britain’s seafaring history and its archives offer a direct link to families, from Georgian times onwards, who were touched by maritime disaster. The exhibition runs until the 16th of February and we’d like to invite anyone with an interest in British history – and especially with connections to the Merchant Navy – to come to the Berkshire Record Office to make the most of this unique exhibition.”

Click here to find out more about the RMNEF.

The exhibition ‘Orphans of the Sea’ is at the Berkshire Records Office, 9 Coley Avenue, Reading from November 8 to February 16.  Click for more information.