Marine Surveyors Lexicon


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Classification Definition

Ship Classification, as a minimum, is to be regarded as the development and worldwide implementation of published Rules and/or Regulations which will provide for:

  1. the structural strength of (and where necessary the watertight integrity of) all essential parts of the hull and its appendages,

  2. the safety and reliability of the propulsion and steering systems, and those other features and auxiliary systems which have been built into the ship in order to establish and maintain basic conditions on board, thereby enabling the ship to operate in its intended service.

The achievement of these goals is conditional upon continued compliance with the Rules and/or Regulations and proper care and conduct on the part of the Owner and Operator.


(a) A ship built in accordance with a Member Society's Rules and/or Regulations, or in accordance with requirements equivalent thereto, and fulfilling the applicable stability requirements will be assigned a class in the Register Book of the Society. For ships in service, each Member Society maintains the provisions of class by way of periodical visits by its Surveyors to the ship as defined in its Rules and/or Regulations in order to ascertain that the ship currently complies with those Rules and/or Regulations. Should significant defects become apparent or damages be sustained between the relevant visits by the Surveyors, the Owner and Operator are required to inform the Society concerned without delay. Similarly any modification which would affect Class must receive prior approval by the Society.

(b) A ship is said to be in Class when the Rules and/or Regulations which pertain to it have, in the opinion of the Society concerned, been complied with.

Why Is It Called "Classification"?

In 17th and 18th Century London, the coffee-houses were popular centres for businessmen to meet. The first was opened in 1652 in Cornhill and by 1714 there were around 500, many catering for specialised clienteles. Marine insurers, who until the Great Fire of 1666 had met at the Royal Exchange, rendezvoused at Lloyd's in Lombard Street.

A foreign visitor in the 1730's wrote that coffee-houses were 'not over clean or well furnished, owing to the quantity of people……and because of the smoke'. However, a prime attraction was the newspapers kept there: 'All Englishmen are great newsmongers,' he noted, 'workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee-rooms in order to read the latest news'. The rise of the coffee-house was thus mirrored by the rise of London as a media-centre. Titles from the Daily Courant (1702) through to The Times (1785) were launched.

Edward Lloyd distributed information in Lloyd's News which first appeared in 1696; it lasted only a few months, an indiscreet reference to proceedings in Parliament earning the disapproval of the Government. In its place, Lloyd printed bulletins, or Ship's Lists, giving brief descriptions of ships likely to be offered for insurance, but in the absence of any organised system of survey, the details were sketchy. The newspaper was revived in 1734, however, as Lloyd's List and Shipping Gazette, and, with the exception of the official London Gazette, it is the oldest continuously published newspaper still in existence.

From the time of the Phoenecians, through the Romans, Venetians, Hanseatics and onward, marine insurers have been looking for some guarantee of the fitness of a ship for the voyage to be undertaken. It was therefore inevitable that the underwriters, gathered as a group at Lloyd's, should set up some system of inspection of hulls and equipment. In 1760 a Committee was formed for the purpose, the earliest existing result of their labours being Lloyd's Register Book for the years 1764-65-66. This detailed vessel ownership, the master (early ISM?), characteristics and condition - but based on the unstated (and differing) standards of the earliest surveyors.

Nonetheless, an attempt was made to 'classify' the condition on an annual basis. The condition of the hull was classified A, E, I, O or U, according to the excellence of its construction and continuing soundness (or otherwise). Equipment was G, M, or B: simply, good, middling or bad. Any ship thus classed AG was considered as sound as could be, whilst one classed UB was obviously a bad risk. After a few years, G, M or B were replaced by 1, 2 or 3, which is the origin of the expression 'A1', meaning 'first or highest class'.

In 1769 the leading underwriters moved to their own premises off Cornhill and called themselves 'Members of the Society'. The many fallacies in the system of assigning class, not least the arbitrary limits to the number of years that a ship could remain in the highest class, which also depended on the place of build, led to a rival society of owners setting up their own register. In the 1820s, moves were made to clean up what had become a system in disrepute and combine the two registers. A telling point, made by one of the leading campaigners, was that the system of classification based on age created a glut of tonnage, because a ship, however well maintained, could never be restored to the highest class. Thus the reputable owner was forced to discard and replace her with new tonnage to acquire "the talismanic charm of A1" - presumably the discarded ship continued to trade, eventually to compete as 'sub-standard'.

Eventually, after long argument, in 1834 a self-standing 'classification society' was set up and called 'Lloyd's Register of British and Foreign Shipping'. Rules for construction and survey were developed, those for iron ships appearing in 1855.

The idea of such an organisation caught on around the world, BV being founded in Antwerp in 1828 but based in Paris from 1832. RINA dates from 1861; ABS traces its origins back to 1862. Adoption of common rules for ship construction by Norwegian insurance societies in the late 1850s led to the establishment of DNV in 1864. GL was formed in 1867 and ClassNK in 1899. The Russian Maritime Register of Shipping was an early offshoot of the River Register of 1913. More recent foundations have been CRS in 1949; CCS, 1956; KR, 1960; and IRS, 1975. They are all called 'classification societies' but, with some exceptions, today do not assign different 'classifications'. The ship is either 'in' or 'out' of 'class'.