The captain of the Titanic, which sank after colliding with an iceberg in 1912 is believed to have originally failed his navigation test, TV historian Tony Robinson said yesterday.
But Edward John Smith, who famously went down with the ship, was eventually given the all clear and he received his Master’s Certificate in February 1888.
He is among the well-known seamen to appear in Masters’ and Mates’ Certificates 1850-1927, which were published yesterday on the family history website Ancestry.co.uk.
The question of what shall we do with the drunken sailor? was a sobering question which puzzled 19th Century politicians and led to the stricter regulation of seamen.
The 280,000 documents, released in partnership with the National Maritime Museum, detail the seamen who passed examinations designed to test their experience and general good conduct, and give evidence of their sobriety.
The system was aimed at tackling drunk and disorderly behaviour, which was rife in the Merchant Navy during the early 19th century.
Launching the newly accessible records in London, Robinson, of TV’s Time Team, said: “It is believed, for instance, that Captain Smith who was eventually the man in charge of the Titanic when it sank failed his exams the first time round because he did not have sufficient navigating skills.”
He went on: “In the mid 19th Century there was an incredible problem in Britain’s Merchant Navy which was essentially that all the sailors were getting hammered all of the time.
“It’s quite understandable. They were away from their homes for years on end, away from any port for months on end with nothing to do on the ship.
“In addition to that, water went off very quickly. It went brackish and alcohol is obviously quite a robust preservative so they were drinking far more rum than you or I would think to be appropriate.”
Robinson added that as sailors began to earn a more generous wage, increasing amounts of money were spent on alcohol.
“In the early 1800s, doctors were becoming much more interested in health generally and they realised that this was a real social problem. There’s one doctor that I’ve read was working on a ship and described one sailor as being so drunk that he had ‘lost the ability to look after his personal attention’, and somebody else had been drunk non-stop for 10 days.
“So the Victorians documented and recorded all of this and set tests which would ensure that there senior staff were sober and could exhibit good conduct.”
Upon passing, men were awarded a Master’s Certificate.