Jim Rice-Oxley

Mediating director of the British Shipping Federation
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The Independent Online

Jim Rice-Oxley devoted much of his career to industrial relations in the shipping industry. As Director of the British Shipping Federation, he was responsible for recruiting and training seaman for the merchant navy, and for keeping the peace between ship-owners and the maritime unions; a relationship which was severely tested by National Union of Seamen's strike in 1966.

Rice-Oxley was born in 1920 into an upper middle-class family of medics and academics: his father was a doctor and his grandfather private physician to the Princesses Alice and Beatrice, and his uncle was Fellow in English at Keble College, Oxford, for 35 years. He had a standard education for his type - prep school, Marlborough and Trinity, Oxford, where, forsaking the family tradition, he read Law.

All this ended abruptly with the outbreak of war in 1939. He enlisted in the Wiltshire Regiment, went to Officer Cadet Training Unit, was commissioned and sent to Egypt with his regiment to join the 8th Army. He was at Alamein, severely wounded by German shrapnel in the shoulder, repaired at a military hospital in Nazareth, and posted as GSO III to HQ of 3 Corps in North Africa and Italy, subsequently rising to GSO II - at the age of 24 - of British Land Forces, Greece.

There in Athens he helped to receive Churchill and Eden and the Greek general Nikolaos Plastiras, whom Churchill would call General Plasterass. Blown up with a fellow officer by a terrorist attack in his hotel in Athens, his only regret was that his companion was deposited directly into the bath and so was able to clean up first. For his services in Greece he was mentioned in despatches.

On demobilisation in 1946 what to do? It was a problem that agonised many of us. Rice-Oxley saw an advertisement for the British Shipping Federation (without knowing what the hell it was) and was accepted. He found a revered organisation in the shipping world, founded in 1890, with three objectives - to supply officers and seamen to British ships; to train and educate them; and to maintain peace and harmony between the ship-owners and the unions.

The BSF at the time had 23 district offices and a staff of 350. Rice-Oxley, now married to his dear wife Barbara, was posted to the Newcastle office where he learned the arts of negotiation and administration.

Back at headquarters in London in 1951, Rice-Oxley steadily climbed the BSF ladder, becoming Director in 1965. But the following year the cosy relationship between the Shipping Federation and the National Union of Seamen was broken by the National Seamen's Reform Movement led by Jim Slater and Sam McClusky. The NUS started a strike which was to last over six weeks and which Harold Wilson characterised as run by "a tightly knit group of politically motivated men". The strike did immense damage - we were "blown off course" said Wilson - and British ship-owners began increasingly to desert the British flag.

All this was a bitter blow to Jim Rice-Oxley, who was essentially a man of peace and reconciliation. He continued as a valued member of the Merchant Navy Training Board - indeed as Chairman until the age of 77, well into his retirement. And he played a major part in the establishment of the National Sea Training College at Gravesend where boys were trained for the merchant navy.

In 1975 the shipping industry decided to merge its two main offices, the Chamber of Shipping and the British Shipping Federation, into one: the General Council of British Shipping. Rice-Oxley did not get the top job - it went to an outstanding outsider from the Department of Trade - but he loyally accepted the situation.

He continued to run the BSF side of things and, most importantly, the International Shipping Federation. This, as its name suggests, was the BSF run big. Over 100 nations belonged and shared their industrial relations woes. Rice-Oxley was always at hand - at meetings of the International Labour Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation - to mediate and draft acceptable texts.

He retired promptly on his 60th birthday, after being appointed CBE for services to shipping, to Shaftesbury in Dorset and began a new life. He became Chairman of the Shaftesbury Civic Society and rescued it. Membership at his arrival was 22 - at his death, several hundreds. He saved that beautiful hilltop town from indescribable desecrations. He went on to the Council of Barnardo's and served there for 17 years. He supported the historic Shaftesbury Church, St Peter's, was a sidesman and had his funeral there. He believed in the afterlife. May he be happy there.

Jim Rice-Oxley should really have been a civil servant. He was a brilliant draftsman, despite an unconventional approach to punctuation, and a born Acas-type negotiator. He was a kindly man, bred to bring two sides together and settle. It was a bitter sadness for his life that the 1966 strike occurred and very shortly after his retirement the 1980 strike. Both of these traumatic events led to the inevitable decline of British shipping and our handing over mastery of the merchant seas to the Far East and the Scandinavians.

Rice-Oxley was also a fitness fanatic, played squash well into his sixties, and operated best at sub-zero temperatures. Many is the visitor or colleague who was frozen out of his office and left glad to shorten the meeting. In Helsinki, however, at an ILO meeting he went too far. Insisting on walking in a temperature of -12C, he had no coat, no hat, no ear muffs. On arrival at the meeting place Jim's ears, never unprominent, could have snapped off. After that he consented to wear a Russian fur hat.

He is remembered for his innate kindliness, his constant efforts to achieve peace between the ship-owners and the maritime unions, his deep desire to improve the lot of destitute children, for his love of the environment, the Church and his family.

Patrick Shovelton