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Commemorative plaque on Rodney Street, Liverpool

Lieutenant Commander Nicholas John Turney Monsarrat RNVR (22 March 1910 – 8 August 1979) was a British novelist known today for his sea stories, particularly The Cruel Sea (1951) and Three Corvettes (1942–45), but perhaps best known internationally for his novels, The Tribe That Lost Its Head and its sequel, Richer Than All His Tribe.

Early life

Born on Rodney Street[1] in Liverpool, Merseyside, Monsarrat was educated at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge. He intended to practise law. The law failed to inspire him, however, and he turned instead to writing, moving to London and supporting himself as a freelance writer for newspapers while writing four novels and a play in the space of five years (1934–1939). He later commented in his autobiography that the 1931 Invergordon Naval Mutiny influenced his interest in politics and social and economic issues after college.

Wartime service

Though a pacifist, Monsarrat served in World War II, first as a member of an ambulance brigade and then as a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). His lifelong love of sailing made him a capable naval officer, and he served with distinction in a series of small warships assigned to escort convoys and protect them from enemy attack. Monsarrat ended the war as commander of a frigate, and drew on his wartime experience in his postwar sea stories. During his wartime service, Monsarrat claimed to have seen the ghost ship Flying Dutchman while sailing the Pacific, near the location where the young King George V had seen her in 1881.

Resigning his wartime commission in 1946, Monsarrat entered the diplomatic service. He was posted at first to Johannesburg, South Africa and then, in 1953, to Ottawa, Canada. He turned to writing full-time in 1959, settling first on Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, and later on the Maltese island of Gozo.


  • July 1940 : Sub-Lieutenant
  • October 1940 : Lieutenant
  • December 1943 :Lt-Commander


HMS Flower and HMS Compass Rose were fictional Flower class corvettes in the short story H M Corvette (1942) and the novel The Cruel Sea (1951)

HMS Dipper and HMS Winger were fictional Kingfisher class corvettes in the stories East Coast Corvette (1943) and Corvette Command (1944)

HMS Saltash was a fictional River class frigate in the novel The Cruel Sea (1951)


  • June 43 : Mentioned in Dispatches


Monsarrat's first three novels, published in 1934–1937 and now out of print, were realistic treatments of modern social problems informed by his leftist politics. The Visitor, his only play, fell into the same category. His fourth novel and first major work, This is the Schoolroom, took a different approach. The story of a young, idealistic, aspiring writer coming to grips with the "real world" for the first time, it is at least partly autobiographical. The Cruel Sea (1951), Monsarrat's first postwar novel, is widely regarded as his finest work, and is the only one of his novels that is still widely read. Based on his own wartime service, it followed the young naval officer Keith Lockhart through a series of postings in corvettes and frigates. It was one of the first novels to depict life aboard the vital, but unglamorous, "small ships" of World War II—ships for which the sea was as much a threat as the Germans. Monsarrat's short-story collections H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1949), and The Ship That Died of Shame (1959) previously made into a film of the same name, mined the same literary vein, and gained popularity by association with The Cruel Sea. The similar Three Corvettes (1945 and 1953) comprising H.M. Corvette (set aboard a Flower class corvette in the North Atlantic), East Coast Corvette (as First Lieutenant of HMS Guillemot) and Corvette Command (as Commanding Officer of HMS Shearwater) is actually an anthology of three true-experience stories he published during the war years and shows appropriate care for what the Censor might say. Thus Guillemot appears under the pseudonym Dipper and Shearwater under the pseudonym Winger in the book. H M Frigate is similar but deals with his time in command of two frigates. His use of the name Dipper could allude to his formative years when summer holidays were spent with his family at Trearddur Bay. They were members of the famous sailing club based there, and he recounted much of this part of his life in a book My brother Denys. Denys Monserrat was killed in Egypt during the middle part of the war whilst his brother was serving with the Royal Navy. Another tale recounts his bringing his ship into Trearddur Bay during the war for old times' sake.

Monsarrat's more famous novels, notably The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956) and its sequel Richer Than All His Tribe (1968), drew on his experience in the diplomatic service and make important reference to the colonial experience of Britain in Africa. Several have peripheral connections to the sea: The Nylon Pirates (1960) tells a story of piracy aboard a modern ocean liner, not pirates in the traditional meaning of the word, but card-sharps, and A Fair Day's Work (1964) deals with labour unrest in a shipyard. The Kappillan of Malta (1973) is as much a story of a place, the island of Malta, as it is of a priest on that island during the terrible days of World War II.


His book The Story of Esther Costello (1952), later made into a film of the same name, while perceived as an uncomplimentary take on the life of Helen Keller and her teachers and assistants, is really an exposé of sleazy practices and exploitation of real causes in the fundraising racket, similar to criticisms of televangelism.[2] It caused a minor public outcry when it first appeared, and Keller's staff considered suing him, then tried to keep the book off the shelves.[3] His final work, unfinished at the time of his death but published in its incomplete form, was a two-volume historical novel titled The Master Mariner. Based on the legend of the Wandering Jew, it told the story of an Elizabethan English seaman who, as punishment for a terrible act of cowardice, is doomed to sail the world's seas until the end of time. His hero participates in critical moments in history; Monsarrat used him to illustrate the central role of seamen.


Two non-fiction books, Life is a Four Letter Word: Breaking In (London, 1966) and Life is a Four Letter Word: Breaking Out (London, 1970) comprise Monsarrat's autobiography.


Nicholas Monsarrat died 8 August 1979 in London. The Royal Navy co-operated with his wish to be buried at sea.


  • Think of Tomorrow (1934)
  • At First Sight (1935)
  • The Whipping Boy (1937)
  • This is the Schoolroom (1939)
  • The Visitor – play
  • H.M. Corvette (1942)
  • East Coast Corvette (1943)
  • Corvette Command (1944)
  • Three Corvettes (1945) (a consolidation of H.M. Corvette, East Coast Corvette and Corvette Command)
  • Leave Cancelled (1945)
  • Three Corvettes (1945 and 1953)
  • H. M. Frigate (1946)
  • Depends on What You Mean by Love (1947)
  • H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1947)
  • My Brother Denys (1948)
  • The Cruel Sea (1951)
  • The Story of Esther Costello (1952)
  • The Boy's Book of the Sea – as editor (1954)
  • Canada from Coast to Coast (1955)
  • Castle Garac (1955)
  • The Tribe That Lost Its Head (1956)[4]
  • The Boy's Book of the Commonwealth – as editor (1957)
  • The Ship That Died of Shame, and Other Stories (1959) (comprising The Ship That Died of Shame; Oh To Be In England!; The Reconciliation; The List; The Thousand Islands Snatch; Up The Garden Path; The Man Who Wanted a Mark IX; I Was There; The Dinner Party; Licensed To Kill; Postscript)
  • The Nylon Pirates (1960)
  • The White Rajah (1961)
  • The Time Before This (1962)
  • To Stratford with Love (1963)
  • Smith and Jones (1963)
  • Something to Hide (1963)
  • A Fair Day's Work (1964)
  • The Pillow Fight (1965)
  • Life Is a Four-Letter Word (volume 1): Breaking In (London, 1966) – autobiography
  • Richer Than All His Tribe (1968)
  • Life Is a Four-Letter Word (volume 2): Breaking Out (London, 1970) – autobiography
  • The Kappillan of Malta (1973)
  • Monsarrat at Sea (1975)
  • The Master Mariner, Book 1: Running Proud (1978)
  • The Master Mariner, Book 2: Darken Ship – unfinished novel (1981)

Film adaptations of his works

  • The Cruel Sea (1953), directed by Charles Frend, starring Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker, John Stratton, Virginia McKenna. Screenplay by Eric Ambler.
  • The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), directed by Basil Dearden, starring Richard Attenborough, George Baker, Bill Owen, Virginia McKenna, Roland Culver, screenplay by Basil Dearden, Michael Relph, John Whiting.
  • H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Port – TV film (1956), adapted from H.M.S. Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, narrated by Ronald Reagan, produced by Revue Studios. Teleplay by George Bruce.
  • The Story of Esther Costello (1957) (also known as The Golden Virgin), directed by David Miller, starring Joan Crawford, Rossano Brazzi, Heather Sears, Lee Patterson. Screenplay by Charles Kaufman.
  • Bait for the Tiger (1957) – television film, adapted from Castle Garac, directed by Paul Nickell, starring Anna Maria Alberghetti, Corinne Calvet, Carl Esmond, Peter Lawford. Adaptation by Whitfield Cook.
  • Something to Hide (1972) (also known as Shattered), produced by Avton Films, directed by Alastair Reid, starring Peter Finch, Shelley Winters, Colin Blakely, John Stride, Linda Hayden. Screenplay by Alastair Reid.
  • The Reconciliation (1984) – TV film, directed by John Jacobs, starring Roger Rees, John Castle, Jim Norton, Meg Davies, teleplay by Roy Russell.


  1. Liverpool Record Office Annual Report 2008-2009
  2. [1]
  3. Lash, Joseph, Helen and Teacher, Addison Wesley 1997, pp. 732–738.
  4. "THE "CRUEL SEA" MAN GOES TO AFRICA Monsarrat writes a `let-down'.". Melbourne, Vic.: National Library of Australia. 13 October 1956. p. 10. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 

External links

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