The customs of the Navy are so many, varied and ancient that we can only touch lightly on them. Up to the present day we find that coins are still put in a ship - often under the step of the mast when she is built. The present Royal Yacht is a case in point. This custom possibly dates from the Romans, who had a habit of placing coins on the mouth of a person when being buried so that he might pay his fare to Charon when ferried across the Styx. Coins were possibly put into ships so that in the event of sudden disaster those drowned would at least have their passages prepaid.
One hears frequent references to Davy Jones . This really is the Duffy or ghost of Jonah, Duffy being an old English word for ghost.
The use of the Boatswain’s pipe is almost lost in antiquity, but we know that the ancient galley staves of Greece and Rome kept stroke by the flute or whistle. The Pipe or Call was originally used as a badge of rank also and as such was worn by the Lord High Admiral and known as the Whistle of Honour and was made of gold and suspended from the neck by a gold chain. These officers also carried a Whistle of Command , which was of silver, and was used for passing orders and blown as a salute to certain personages. It was enjoined that it should be blown on these occasions “three several times.”
BOTELER’S DIALOGUES, 1624-85. Comdr. BOTELER, of the Stuart period, has much to say concerning it; Shakespeare mentions it, and Pepys makes a few remarks about it, and as we go back in history we find continuous references to it. The first time I can find it being used actually to pass an order was during the Crusade of 1248, when the Cross-bowmen were piped to come on deck and engage the enemy. In the action between LORD HOWARD, son of the Earl of Surrey, who, as Lord High Admiral, was killed in action with the Chevalier PRECENT DE BIDOUX on April 25th, 1513, off Brest, we are told that, when he observed that his capture was imminent he threw his Lord High Admiral’s whistle into the sea. His Whistle of Command was found on his dead body.
At times the whistle seems to have been a somewhat weighty instrument. I think it was HENRY VIII. who laid down the names of the parts of the whistle, and the weight of the Whistle of Honour was put at 12 “Oons“ or ounces of gold, while the chain was to be of a certain value of golden ducats. Unfortunately my records concerning this were lost in 1914.
In the old days when Captains were frequently called onboard the Flagship when at sea, and in weather too rough to permit of the use of the sea gangways, it was customary for the Captain to enter and leave his boat by means of a Bos’ns chair on a yardarm whip, and he was hoisted out and hoisted in, and the requisite orders were passed by the Pipe.
The present call for piping the side is, although much more drawn out, very similar to the call used for “hoisting and walking away,” and as it was ordained that the “Pipe” or “Call” should be blown as a form of salute, I think the origin of piping the side dates from practice, as it is customary for the Officer of the Watch even now if the Captain is reported coming alongside to give the order Hoist him in, notwithstanding the fact that the gangway may be available for use.
While speaking of Piping the Side it may not be out of place to observe that this form of salute is reserved expressly for certain persons and is an entirely nautical honour. The relevant orders are laid down in K.R. and A.I., Art. 137 and appendix, and the actual calls used in H.M. Service are shown in the latest Admiralty Seamanship Manual, Vol. 1., 1926, Appendix Chart:
No Military Officer, Consular Officer or other civilian is entitled to this form of salute. By the Custom of the Service a corpse of any Naval Officer or man is piped over the side if sent ashore for burial.
“Admirals of Ports” and “Vice-Admirals of the Coast” are offices held as sinecures, whose legal functions have been merged into either the Admiralty or other Government department and whose rights were abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. These officials, as such, are not entitled to be Piped over the Side of H.M. Ships and they hold no Military Commissions.
At the funeral of the late QUEEN VICTORIA and KING EDWARD The Side was piped as the coffin was lowered and at both funerals the Navy with a gun carriage was responsible for the conveyance of that coffin during the last part of the journey. I believe that this was due to the fact that at the funeral of QUEEN VICTORIA the Artillery horses got somewhat out of control and a Naval Field Gun’s crew was substituted. At Portsmouth there is kept a special rubber-tyred limber which was used at the funeral Of KING EDWARD and I believe is being kept expressly for State funerals.
The Blue Peter has long been a sign that a ship was about to sail. and probably derives its name from the French word “Partir” – to depart. Admiral Cornwallis obtained his nickname of Billy Blue from the fact that, on anchoring, he generally hoisted the Blue Peter.
The drinking of healths in the Royal Navy has always been looked upon as a ritual of some importance. It is hard to say with exactitude what the toasts were for every night of the week, but I give the following which were told me by a very old officer as being in vogue in the days of Nelson:
MONDAY NIGHT Our ships at sea.
TUESDAY NIGHT Our men.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT Ourselves (as no one is likely to concern themselves with our welfare).
THURSDAY NIGHT A bloody war or a sickly season.
FRIDAY NIGHT A willing foe and sea room.
SATURDAY NIGHT Sweethearts and wives.
SUNDAY NIGHT Absent friends.
On Saturday night it is customary for the youngest member of the Mess to be called upon to reply on behalf of “The Ladies.”
I cannot trace the exact date when the privilege of sitting to drink the health of the Sovereign was accorded to the Navy. Some say that it was WILLIAM IV. and others say it was Charles II., who on returning to England in 1660 on board the “Naseby,” which had been re-christened the “Royal Charles,” bumped his head when replying to a toast, and ever afterwards held Naval Officers excused from rising on these occasions. To sit when drinking the Loyal Toast is not permitted when the National Anthem is played. This is in accordance with the ruling given by the late Marquis of Milford Haven, on June 4th, 1914. at which date he was First Sea Lord.
In the days when to be on short ration was not uncommon the following graces before meat were sometimes used. Messing three among four of us, thank God there weren’t more of us. This, of course, inferred that the mess was on three-quarter rations. Messing four among two of us, thank God there are but few of us, was used for half rations.
When a mess was forced to solely on the official ration and could not supplement their stock of food from other sources it was referred to as Being on bare Navy
In the Merchant Service the amount of food allowed to each man is regulated by the “Board of Trade” and the Merchant Shipping Act, and the quantity so allowed is termed The Board of Trade Whack or Back Whack .
The custom of imposing penalties for making a bet or mentioning a lady’s name prior to the loyal toast was instituted so that argument should not become heated nor quarrel take place while the proceedings in the Mess were still formal.
Similarly a fine is imposed on anyone who draws a sword in the mess without previously asking permission to do to. The object was to avoid any hasty action, particularly in the days when duelling was prevalent.
It is still considered bad manners to enter a strange mess while wearing a sword, and was discountenanced in order that no aggrieved party should come on board with the intention of forcing a quarrel at all costs.
A dispute between two men could often be amicably settled if these precautions and customs were observed in accordance with the instructions contained in K.R. & A.I. Act 512, where a unique reference is made, namely, “Any officer who shall act as herein denoted and consequently refuse to accept a challenge will be deemed to have acted honourably and to have evinced a requisite obedience not only to this order, but also to the pleasure of the King.”
WILLIAM IV. was the last holder of the title of Lord High Admiral, which he held when Duke of Clarence, from May, 1827, to August 12th, 1828.
The origin of the motto, The King, God Bless Him, on the Grog Tub is probably due to the fact that many men used to drink their tot as soon as it was issued and toasted the Sovereign while doing so.
In H.M.S. Cadmus, in the summer of 1913 at Hankow, quinine was issued three times a week. It was issued in a large bottle and the cups were placed in a bowl of disinfectant on the capstan head. The lower deck was then cleared and, commencing with the Captain followed by the Officers and ship’s company, everyone took his tot and toasted the King.
H.M.S. Cadmus and her sister, H.M.S. Clio, though built in 1903, were fitted with hand capstans and hand wheels (aft under poop). They each were allowed one musician in the scheme of complement for playing when weighing or working cables.
It was often customary in the Army when quinine was issued daily on certain stations for the regiment to parade and for the senior officer to toast the Sovereign with his draught, thus ensuring that all officers and men took their medicine out of loyalty if not out of obedience.
If no one partakes of the wine for the drinking of the Sovereign’s health the Mess President is entitled to a glass Down to the Mess , so that all may share in giving proof of their loyal sentiments. No member other than guests may accept a glass of wine for this toast, it being a point of honour to pay for it oneself.
It is still customary in the Army and in Royal Marine messes for the President to remain seated until the last member has left the table, and the decanters should be stoppered prior to The King and remain unstoppered after The King as long as the President is sitting. A President who leaves the table without either stoppering the decanters or delegating his authority lays himself open to the customary fine. In strictly conducted messes this custom is observed in the Royal Navy. The reason for stoppering the decanters prior to the Loyal Toast is to imply that it is solely for this that the wine is provided and that it is no longer required after all have filled their classes.
In former times the Officers of H.M. Yachts were messed by the Board of the Green Cloth , which is actually the Lord Steward’s Department. When this custom was done away with a sum of 6/- per diem was paid by the Board in lieu of messing. This was changed to 5/- per diem when H.M. was afloat, then to 3/-per diem, then to 3/- per diem and 2/- for Warrant Officers when the Standard was flying, and in this form it still exists today.
The Officers serving in H.M. Yachts make a practice of standing when drinking the Loyal Toast. I understand that this is merely to emphasise the honoured distinction of serving in the Royal Yachts .
The Records of the Board of Green Cloth at Headquarters do not go back beyond 1895 and consequently without reference to earlier records elsewhere it can only be stated that the Allowance has been paid continuously at the latter rates since that time, although it is known to be of much earlier origin.
Regency Allowance was first paid to Military Messes to Royal Marine Messes ashore in the early part of 19th Century, probably during the Regency at the end of the reign of KING GEORGE III., and was instituted in order to meet the high cost of wine. It survived under the official designation of Mess Allowance at the rate of £6 per annum per officer until 1919, when it was abolished in consequence of the improved rates of pay then granted to Officers of the Fighting Forces. The Allowance is referred to in Article 536 of the Army Allowance Regulations, 1914.
In pre-war times £6 per annum (approx. 4d. per night) just sufficed for a glass of No. 2 Port.
I have been Informed by French Officers that for many years, even up to 1917, it was the custom in the French Navy to drink to the health of the Little black ship, which they assured me was the “Monmouth,” in order to mark their appreciation of the gallantry displayed by this ship, although I cannot state definitely which occasion is referred to. Callender states that in his opinion it was the Battle of Granada, 1779, between BYRON and d’ESTAING, when the “Monmouth,” together with the “Suffolk,” made a most determined attempt on the head of the French battle fleet in order to ensure the escape of a British convoy. Professor Callender’s ruling on this subject is of interest, but I seem to remember that my French friends stated that the incident did not occur in a general fleet action, and I think it possible that it may date from the action between the “Monmouth,” 64-gun ship, and the “Foudroyant,” of 84 guns, on February 28th. 1758, when Captain Gardiner was killed in action and the “Foudroyant” actually surrendered to Lieutenant Carkett, his First Lieutenant. The “Foudroyant” at this time was considered the finest ship in the French service. The action took place between Toulon and Cartagena. Professor Callender is supported in his opinion by Fraser in his book “Famous Fighters of the Fleet.”
The late Marquis of Milford Haven, when First Sea Lord prior to the War, drew attention to the fact in Admiralty Orders that, although the Navy had the privilege of sitting when honouring the Loyal Toast , they did not have the privilege of sitting when the National Anthem was played. In order to retain the privilege many ships did
not play the Anthem. The First Sea Lord, from his position, had the strongest grounds for drawing attention to this matter, and it is well understood that these orders are in strict accordance with His Majesty’s wishes and with the Custom of the Service. The order was dated June 4th. 1914, and read, “The underlying idea is that whenever the Anthem is played, when the king’s Health is proposed, everyone stands up. If it is not played, people remain seated.” In fact, the admiralty from time to time since 1914 have brought out most stringent regulations ordering that everybody should stand on all occasions when the National Anthem was heard, but our prerogative of sitting whilst drinking the Sovereign’s health has never been questioned.
REGULATIONS AND INSTRUCTIONS
RELATING TO HIS MAJESTY’S SERVICE AT SEA
Established by His Majesty in Council. The 13th Edition.
PRINTED IN THE YEAR 1790
When any Persons of Quality, or of a Publick Character, embark on board any of His Majesty’s Ships, they may be saluted at their coming on board, and also at their departure, with the following Number of Guns.
A Duke, or Ambassador with 15 Guns.
Other Publick Ministers, or Persons of Quality, with 11 guns or less, according to their Degree of Quality.
Nothing in the foregoing Article is to be understood to restrain Commanders in their respect to any of the Royal Family, who are to be saluted by Guns, at the Discretion of the Commander in Chief.
The anniversary Days of the Birth, Accession, and Coronation of the King, of the Birth of the Queen, of the Restoration of King Charles the Second, and of Gun-Powder Treason, shall be solemnized by His Majesty’s Ships, if they are in Port, with such a number of Guns as the Chief Officer shall think proper, not exceeding Twenty-one each Ship.
Salutes of all sorts and descriptions are as old as history. Ships’ salutes in the days of sail were carried out by striking or lowing topsails, by letting fly sheets, and by the firing of guns. Mr. Pepys informs us of how, when the news of KING CHARLES’ declaration came to the Fleet in the Downs, “The General began to fire his guns, which he did, all that he had in the ship, and so did the rest of the Commanders, which was very gallant, and to hear the bullets go hissing over our heads as we were in the boat.” The firing of guns in the olden times was responsible for a most prodigal waste of ammunition and the practice has been greatly curtailed. Dressing ship and manning ship is as old as the time of Queen Elizabeth, and the ceremony of receiving a Royal Personage, as described by Commander Nathaniel Boteler in the reign of CHARLES I., is almost exactly the same as that prescribed in the present year of Grace.
The ship salute is said to have been enforced in the Narrow Seas by Kings ALFRED and EDGAR. King JOHN certainly issued a decree that it was to be accorded.
Professor Callender states that the demand for the salute in the Narrow Seas cannot historically he conceded prior to EDWARD I., who claimed both sides of the Channel and consequently the intervening sea.
King JOHN was also “Duke of Normandy” and would therefore appear to have as good claim to both sides of the Channel, even though he was responsible for losing much of our French possessions.
It is noteworthy that in the Channel Islands - which alone remain to us of our former possessions in France - His Majesty is still officially referred to as “Le Roi notre Duc” - the King our Duke.
We find that on May 2nd. 1635, My Lords were most careful to emphasize the necessity for enforcing the old decree and they lay great stress on the matter, and also to the keeping of order in the Narrow Seas. I refer to the Admiralty Letter to the Earl of Lindsey.
The Dutch formally conceded the salute in 1673.
The instructions on this subject were embedded in the King’s Regulations up to the Trafalgar period, when they were somewhat modified and non-compliance was to be reported and not enforced by shot of gun as hitherto. There was a special clause in the treaty of Westminster, April 5th, 1654, that the ships of the United Provinces were to accord the salute in British Seas (end of first Dutch War).
The fact of shortening sail or letting fly sheets inferred that the person saluting was willing to place his ship at a disadvantage in the matter of speed, and the firing of guns denoted the fact that he was temporarily unarmed on account of the time taken in those days to reload the cannons.
The insistence by British vessels of the Flag being saluted led to the Dutch War. In May, 1652, off the Start, and on June 8th. 1673, off the Lizard, our claim to the salute by Dutch men-o’-war was enforced by action. On the early occasion the Captain of the “Dreadnought”, one, Henry Straddling, went so far as to lodge the Dutch Rear Admiral’s Flagship in Plymouth Port for the neglect of what Straddling considered to be his duty.
In retaliation for the incident of 1652 Tromp was so infuriated that he flaunted his flag off Dover and attacked Admiral BLAKE, and after these preliminaries the Dutch War commenced.
Nowadays, though there are no written regulations stating that merchant ships shall dip to British men-o’-war, the Admiralty consider that this an act of courtesy, and in accordance with A.F.O. 172/29 desire that the non-observance of this custom by British Merchant ships shall be reported to My Lords.
On entering a foreign port in the days of sail, after a salute to the Country and the Governor had been fired, it was customary to run up the jib, or loose, hoist, or let fall the foretopsail at the first gun, and furl or pick it up on completion., or if topsails or topgallant sails were set (as the old expression was), to “veil” them when saluting any Sea Officer or the Admiral of the Port. This privilege was not accorded to dignitaries who were not connected with the sea.
Many high dignitaries were compelled, by cannon shot, to salute the English flag in various sea. Among others may be mentioned King Phillip of Spain when visiting Queen Mary in 1554; the King of Denmark when returning from visiting King James I.; a Portuguese Ambassador, and numerous ships of war, the Commanding Officers of which were in some cases tried in the Admiralty Court and their ships were detained during the proceedings.
Saluting the Quarterdeck I myself do not believe originated due to the belief that there was originally a crucifix there, as we find that in former days when the Quarterdeck was saluted it was customary for all Officers present there to return the salute by uncovering, and this leads me to think that it was not the crucifix that was saluted, but the fact that the Quarterdeck was the seat of authority and the position nearest to which the King’s colours were displayed. This, however, is a matter on which I am prepared to be convinced. I do not think that any custom which was based on saluting the crucifix would have survived the many religious upheavals to which the country was formerly subjected.
SIR JOHN JERVIS made it a practice, even when addressing an inferior rank, always to remain uncovered.
QUEEN VICTORIA instituted the salute in the Navy as opposed to uncovering.
The occasion being when she sent for certain Officers and men to Osborne to thank them for rendering help to a distressed German ship and did not like to see men in uniform standing uncovered.
The personal salute with the hand, although borrowed from the Army, is full of interest and various theories have been evolved concerning its origin. There is the usual theory that it has been the custom from time immemorial for a junior to uncover to a superior, and even to-day men in the Brigade of Guards remove their caps instead of saluting when wearing fatigue dress. The holders of this theory maintain that the present salute is merely the first motion of removing one’s head dress. It was introduced into the Navy in 1890, but during the war a large number of old retired officers were in the habit of doffing their head gear instead of saluting, this, of course, being the method to which they were accustomed.
In a book called “New Art of War,” printed in 1740, it is stated that “When the King or Captain General is being saluted each Officer is to time his salute so as to pull off his hat when the person he salutes is almost opposite him.”
Another tradition is that the salute and its return were given as mutual tokens of trust and respect, so that when two armed men met they raised their visors, thus laying themselves open to attack. The old head dress being clumsy and not easily removed, the preliminary movement of the salute was considered sufficient.
That the hand is kept open is probably a relic of very ancient times and denotes that no weapon is concealed therein.
The salute with the left hand was abolished in the Navy in the year 1923, so as to bring our customs into line with our Allies and also to conform to the practice in vogue in the Indian Army. Both on the Continent and among Indian and African troops a salute given with the left hand was considered a gross insult.
The Salute with the Sword is undoubtedly of very ancient origin, but there are certainly two schools of thought concerning it.
Some hold that it is of Crusader origin and that the position of the “Recover” is symbolical of the act of religious homage wherein the cross hilt of the sword was kissed as representing the crucifix, and that the holding of the sword at arm’s length represents the hailing or acknowledging of the leader, and the sinking of the point to the ground betokens an act of submission to superior authority. The other school only differ, I believe, regarding the origin of the “Recover” position and affirm that it is derived from the Oriental custom (still existing) of shading the eyes from the magnificence of the superior.
I cannot say which belief is more correct, but the latter was, I believe, that which was taught some years ago at the Royal Military Training Colleges for Officers.
It is noteworthy that the only straight-bladed cross-hilted swords still in use in the Services are those of the Scottish Archers, undress swords of the Highland Regiments, Midshipmen’s dirks and bandsmen.
When an Officer is tried by Court Martial, prior to the judgment of the Court being delivered, his sword is placed on the table so as to have the point towards the prisoner if he has been found guilty and with the hilt towards him if he has been found not guilty.
This custom is the equivalent of the old practice on shore where the executioner, carrying his headsman’s axe, immediately preceded the accused on his return from the Court to the prison and in order to demonstrate the judgment of the Court turned the edge of the axe towards or away from the prisoner, depending on whether sentence of death had been passed or not.
When decapitation ceased to be the extreme penalty in England and was superseded by death by hanging it was at one time the custom for the executioner to tie together the wrists and thumbs of the prisoner by means of a short cord in order to intimate to the public that the prisoner was under sentence of death. In the event of an acquittal the hands were left free.
A Rogue’s Salute or One Gun Salute is the signal gun fired to denote that a Court Martial is about to assemble to try a case under the Naval Discipline Act. If the Court assembles on board one of H.M. ships the Union Flag is flown at the peak halliards while the Court is sitting. In olden times it was customary to fire this signal gun in order to muster the hands of all ships in company to witness a yard-arm execution. A yellow flag was hoisted at the same time and kept flying until the sentence had been carried out.
When Keelhauling was recognised as a punishment a single gun (sometimes shotted) was fired over the head of the delinquent as he emerged from the sea “In order to astonish and confound him.” Due to the severity of the punishment this additional discomfort would appear to have been unnecessary, as the unfortunate culprit had in all likelihood lost consciousness.
The practice of receiving senior Officers and others on entering a ship is very ancient and used to be attended with much pomp and ceremony. In fact, at one time, no matter what hour of the day or night the Captain returned to his ship, all Officers were expected to attend to welcome him, notwithstanding, as one quaintly remarks in his memoirs, “ Though he should be drunk as a beggar.”
As a rule the sea gangways were used by junior Officers in harbour and by everyone at sea, weather permitting, the accommodation ladders and entry ports being barred in. It is curious to find, even as late as 1914, that ships still existed with the second or third step of the sea gangway made longer than the remainder. This was to enable the man ropes to be held out to the person boarding the ship by two men specially stationed on the long step for this purpose. The step being extra long, these men were clear of the gangway and the expression Manning the Side became a literal fact.
Articles 922 and 923 of K.R. & A.I. lay down the orders for the conduct of a junior Officer in command meeting with a senior Officer in command, and direct that “Providing the state of the weather admit, he is to wait on such senior Officer, to show all the orders which are not secret that he is acting under, and inform him of the state and condition of the ship or ships under his orders, etc., etc.”
In accordance with these regulations it is customary and good manners for the junior Officer to ask the senior Officer’s permission “To proceed in execution of previous orders” should the meeting take place at sea and the junior be on detached service. In harbour the junior Officer is expected to enquire at what time it will be convenient for him to wait on his superior and then make a formal visit at the time specified.
The junior enters a boat first and leaves it last so that the seniors shall not be in any way incommoded or wetted, as so often happens when lying alongside in rough weather.
A Merchant ship in need of hands used to hoist a bucket, but this custom is now seldom if ever seen. A man who desired to quit the ship used, I believe, in the Merchant Service to hang his shirt, tail-up, in the forerigging, and his exit would be arranged at a price by a shore boatman. I have also heard that a sea boot displayed in a like manner had the came signification.
The hoisting of a broom is to this day common on the east coast of England and in most North Sea Countries as an indication that a change of ownership of a vessel is about to or has very recently taken place. In Russia, round the White Sea, it is a signal that there is a holiday, or “Prasnik” - a matter of frequent occurrence when Vodka was obtainable.
I think it possible that TROMP hoisted his broom to signalise the capture of either the “Garland” or the “Bonaventure” off Dungeness on November 15th, 1652, when BLAKE was defeated. Regarding TROMP and his broom, the Dutch most emphatically state that the alleged incident is not compatible with his character and they are inclined therefore to discredit this story.
BLAKE hoisting the whip and thus originating the pendant may, I think, also be regarded as a myth, as pendants were authorised by law about the middle of the 14th Century. While on the subject of pendants, it might be pointed out that until quite recently an Admiral’s flag was flown by the senior sailing trawler of particular fleets in the North Sea. He was always known as the “Admiral”, and his motions and orders were most implicitly carried out by means of a well recognised code of signals. His fleet sometimes consisted of as many as 150 to 250 ships, but with the era of the steam trawler this custom began to die out and is now almost extinct, although it existed as recently as the “Dogger Bank Incident,” caused by the Russian Baltic Fleet, October 21st, 1904.
Ships in mourning are those which make their appearance as slovenly as possible, and the half-masting of flags is a relic of this. To be slovenly in a appearance has been a sign of grief from the earliest times, and there are many Biblical references to this practice. In the Merchant Service it is customary to leave ropes’ ends trailing and yards scandalised. I think that the last occasion that one of H.M. ships scandalised her yards as a sign of mourning was when H.M.S. Exmouth carried out this procedure in 1908 when laying off Lisbon after the murder of Don Carlos, King of Portugal. H.M.S. Exmouth was commanded by Captain Arthur Henniker-Hughan and was flying the flag of Admiral The Hon. Sir Assheton George Curzon-Howe, K.C.B. H.M.S. Arrogant was also present and, for lack of known precedent, yards were cockbilled, mainmast down to starboard, foremast down to port, lower booms were dropped. “Arrogant” copied “Exmouth” and the condition prevailed from 0800 with a gun fired every 15 minutes until “Sunset.”
Admiral G. A. Ballard, in a letter to the Society for Nautical Research (“Mariners’ Mirror,” Vol. XIV. No.4. Oct.,1930) confirms that this practice was carried out at Tientsin in 1894 when he was the first Lieutenant of H.M.S. “Linnet.” The occasion was the death of the Czar ALEXANDER III., and the following ships were present: H.M.S. “Linnet,” the Russian “Sivoutch,” the German “Wolf,” the French “Comete,” and the American “Monacacy.” The procedure followed was commenced at 8 o’clock in the morning and the motions of the Russian ship were followed by all ships present.
Colours were first hoisted, then halfmasted and the order “Top Away” was given simultaneously in all ships, and yards on the fore were topped to starboard and those on the main to port. No ship present had yards on the mizzen and, although all ships acted in the same manner, no pre-concerted arrangement had been come to.
Braces were kept fast and no gaffs were lowered.
On the fourth morning afterwards, when colours were hoisted at 8 a.m., the order “Square Away” was given in like manner in all ships, and as a spectacle it was most effective. Sail tackles were hooked to the topmast heads to get a sufficient angle for the lower yards.
H.M.S. “Linnet” had no yards on the main as she was rigged as a three-masted brigantine, so only the yards on the fore were topped in the manner already described.
The American “Monocacy,” being a pole-rigged paddler, dressed ship with half-masted Russian and American colours.
Until recently it was the practice (even within my memory) that a volley should be fired at sunset, at which time the colours are lowered when in harbour. The privilege of firing this gun is only enjoyed today by certain Commodores and Flag Officers, and the old expression which was used on hearing the evening gun fired was the Commodore has fallen down the main hatch , or, in other words, his day’s work was finished. This is connected with the custom of firing an evening gun, which some say was meant as a sign of defiance to the enemy, while others affirm that it was to ensure a dry priming and charge being in the gun prior to nightfall. It has always been strictly enjoined by regulations, which still exist, that ensigns or flags should not be kept abroad during windy weather nor at times when they could not be clearly discerned. During the hours when colours are not formally displayed in harbour they are temporarily hoisted when British or Foreign men-o’-war or ships of importance approach or leave the anchorage.
There is a curious incident in connection with the colours at sunset which for many years was practised at Gibraltar. During one of the sieges of Gibraltar the Queen of Spain, a most devout Roman Catholic, made a vow that she would sit in a chair on a spot still known as the “Queen of Spain’s Chair” until she saw the English Colours over Gibraltar hauled down. The English General, on hearing this, and not wishing to incommode the lady, and as he had no intention of surrendering, ordered that the colours should be dipped five minutes before sunset. I have seen this done many times to the “Jack” which used to fly on “King’s Bastion,” although I have never seen it practised since the War.
Two other customs at Gibraltar which have fallen into disuse are, firstly, the salute by all parties of men, armed and unarmed, when passing the Trafalgar Cemetery, and the other, the locking up of the Fortress at night with a guard and band everybody in the street raising his hat or saluting as the King’s keys passed. The custom of saluting the King’s keys is still carried out in the Tower of London and is the only occasion, I believe, when the Guard is permitted to talk in the ranks, not being a Divine Service. The keys being delivered up, the Officer in charge says “God save the King” to which the Guard reply “Amen.”
Naval Officers on full pay have the right to seize certain ensigns if flown by unauthorised persons when afloat. The ensign so seized is forfeit to His Majesty and the delinquent is also liable to a heavy fine.
The Lord Mayor of the City of London is still by appointment the Admiral of the Port of London. Notwithstanding this, the Navy is not permitted without asking special permission to march through the precincts of the City with fixed bayonets, nor with any colours displayed. The Royal Marines have this privilege, which dates from the 18th Century. It happened in the year 1746 that a detachment of Marines were beating for recruits in Cheapside. A Magistrate of the City approached the Officer and required him to cease beating the drum, as no soldiers were allowed to interrupt the civil repose. The Captain commanding the Marines immediately said: “Sir. We are Marines.” “Oh, sir,” replied the Alderman. “I beg your pardon. I didn’t know it. Pray continue your route as you please.”
I think the only regiments entitled to this privilege are the Grenadiers, the “Buffs,” or East Kent Regiment, the Royal Marines, and the 6th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and (prior to the war) this privilege was, as regards the Household Regiments, confined to the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards, and also to the H.A.C. This is as reported by Mr. Adrian Polloch, Remembrancer to the City of London (and I refer the curious to the R.U.S.I. Journal, Number 470, of May, 1923).
The Broad Arrow is a Government mark which dates from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and is the cognizance of Lord de L’Isle, the First Lord Commissioner of Ordnance in the reign of that Sovereign.
CHARLES I., in 1627, ordered all muskets, cannons and weapons for sea service to be marked with “ C. R.” and an anchor. Our guns to this day bear the Royal Crown and motto of the Garter. The Foul Anchor or Sailor’s Disgrace was the badge of Lord Howard of Effingham.
TRINITY HOUSE, whose ships have the privilege of flying the White Ensign when escorting the Sovereign (conferred by Admiralty Letter of June 21st, 1894), is an institution founded by “Sir Thomas Spurt, Knyte,” Controller of the Navy to HENRY V11I. It was he who founded the Yards of Woolwich and Deptford. He also was in command of the “Henri Grace A Dieu” or Great Harry. TRINITY HOUSE up to a recent date examined in Navigation those aspiring to become Masters in the Royal Navy.
The Royal Yacht Squadron also have the privilege of flying the White Ensign by authority of Admiralty Warrant of June 6th, 1829. There are no regulations about Royal Yacht Squadron ships dipping to H.M. Ships, but those who have good manners invariably do so.
In the days when livestock was carried onboard it was natural that the Captain should be careful to select the tit-bits for his own table, and I think we can say that this originated the custom of demanding a cask of tongues on commissioning from the Victualling Yard. This practice lapsed when meat cards were introduced during the War.
The taking off of the hat by a rating is merely a mark of respect to a superior and is still carried out at inspections, or when he appears either as a defaulter or even for investigation before a superior Officer. The fact that it is laid down in the regulations that this should be done, even if only for investigation, I think proves that in no sense was it meant to lower a man in his own estimation or in that of others. Strangely enough, the same custom exists to a certain extent in the Brigade of Guards. In the Italian Navy it is customary for the boat’s crew to remove their hats when the Captain boards or leaves his galley.
It is only about 80 or so years since women ceased to be carried in men-o’-war, and it was Queen Victoria who ordered this practice to be discontinued. In the old days when no leave was given, the ship was invaded by crowds of women on her arrival in harbour and any man was free to choose as his fancy dictated. Officers were very jealous of the reputation of their ships, and not infrequently those women thought by the Officer of the Watch not to attain the standard of beauty considered essential were ignominiously returned to the shore.
The boatmen at the Naval Ports were careful in their selection of the cargo they wished to import, as it was customary for women to stipulate that unless they were accepted they would not pay for their passage.
Scenes of profligacy and debauchery used to take place on the gun decks of our man-o’-war. The gangway however, had to be kept free and it was in the space between the guns that these scenes occurred. Hence, to call a man a Son of a Gun was equivalent to casting doubts on the legitimacy of his parentage. An old definition of a man-o’-war’s man was that he was Begotten in the galley and born under a gun. Every hair a rope yarn, every tooth a marlin spike, every finger a fid hook, and his blood, right good Stockholm tar.
An Officer in the Fleet has informed me that when his grandfather was commanding a brig off the Spanish coast in about 1835 he made the following entry in his diary: “This day the Surgeon informed me that a woman onboard had been labouring in child for twelve hours and if I could see my way to permit the firing of a broadside to leeward nature would be assisted by the shock. I complied with the request and she was delivered of fine male child.”
I think I may say that this is one of the few occasions on which Gunnery Officers of the Navy can truthfully claimed to have achieved a satisfactory result without hitting the target.
On another occasion we hear that practice with the great guns was discontinued at the request of an Officer, as there was a woman onboard in such a condition that it was feared that the shock might prove detrimental to her
A Wet Christmas was a thing to shock the least susceptible, and the Officers as a whole wisely kept clear so as not to excite the men who were entirely out of control.
It was not uncommon to find several men and sometimes women dead when discipline was again enforced, and I think from these orgies dates the practice of permitting the harmless buffoonery which still exists and which includes the custom of the junior and senior ratings exchanging clothes and duties.
The origin of the call of the morning to Show a Leg dates from the time when women were carried and those who thrust out a leg or a Purser’s stocking were exempt from turning out until Guard and Steerage ; nor did the old cry of Out or down there , which prefaced the call, ever affect them and which meant that if they did not turn out summarily they would immediately be cut down.
The Service hammock is suspended and spread by cords which are known as clews , and the expression So and so is going to fit double clews is undoubtedly derived from the practice of women being carried in ships, but nowadays means that a man is about to become married.
There is an old story related by Captain Glasscock in 1826 of a sailor who asked leave to marry and when it was pointed out by a Lieutenant that the woman was a most notorious harlot he replied that it did not matter and that when he came into port and found the good lady aboard some other ship he proposed to shove alongside and claim her as his own. History does not relate whether his request was granted.
It was not uncommon in the old days for a body of women 500 strong to march across country to join up again with a ship which had proceeded from one port to another. Only a few privileged persons were permitted to take their wives to sea. The remainder of the so‑called “wives,” whether permanent or “acting,” were ejected before sailing.
The Sergeant‑Major’s duties regarding the reporting of “chronometers wound” I am unable to trace but I have always been led to believe that the Sergeant‑Major, having nothing whatever to do with the routine of the ship beyond setting the Guard, was more likely to remember this most important detail than anybody else.
The custom of hoisting the ensign of a prize inferior to one’s own one is unable to place definitely as its conception. The French had the custom of hoisting a captured ships ensign reversed, and in Admiral Saumarez action with Admiral Liniois on July 6th, 1801, off Algeciras, when the British ship “HANNIBAL” was captured, it was not realised that she had struck as it was thought that the ensign reversed was a sign of distress and the barge of H.M.S. “VENERABLE” in going to her assistance was also captured.
In 1915 when bringing in the German trawler “WURTZBURG” I hoisted the White Ensign superior to the German but this was not understood by the fishing boats I met off the Yorkshire coast and with whom I was anxious to communicate, and, as they told me afterwards, they thought it was “Ruse de guerre.”
It will be remembered that the first Lieutenant of the “SHANNON” in her action with the “CHESAPEAKE” was killed due to the “SHANNON” re‑opening fire because he accidentally hoisted the Stars and Stripes superior to the British Ensign. It is therefore evident that this signal of victory was the only one in our Service which formerly was well understood.
The incident of the “HANNIBAL” may be explained by the fact that the capture of a British battleship by the French was such a rare occasion that very few knew what procedure to expect.
The custom of Evening Quarters which is still with us originated when before dark every ship, according to the degree of readiness required, prepared for night action. We might note that even to‑day the bugle call for Evening Quarters and that for General Quarters or Action is precisely the same with the exception of the additional “G’s” sounded. There was an A.F.O. which stated that the call for “Divisions” is to be used at Evening Quarters, and that formerly used for this purpose is to be used only at General Quarters or Action. This order is seldom now observed.
In the old days they were very wary when preparing for action because of the danger attending the handling of loose powder. The following, some of which has its counterpart now in our Magazine Regulations, was the ordinary routine when preparing for action.
Partitions to cabins and all movable gear liable to splinter was dismantled and struck down or thrown overboard. Frieze cloths were wetted and hung on all approaches to the magazines and cartridge rooms. The cartridges were handed through a hole in the screens, while the magazines were lighted by reflected light from behind thick bull‑eyes. The powder boys had instructions to carry the cartridges under their jackets and were the only people with the exception of the Master‑at Arms who were permitted to descend below the gun decks during action. Midshipmen were stationed at the top of the hatches where the gratings had been tripped with special instructions to pistol anyone who attempted to contravene these orders and escape below.
They were fully aware of the importance of splinters, and it was customary when going into close action to reduce the charges in the guns so that the shot would have a less penetrating but more splintering effect.
The insides of the gun decks and the scupper ways were painted red so that blood stains should not be so noticeable. Women who were onboard were generally employed in the cockpit or magazines. It was the duty of the Master‑at-Arms continually to do the rounds and to note the expenditure of ammunition and keep tally of the casualties.
The table in the Midshipmen’s berth was used as an operating table. Anaesthetics were unknown and insensibility to pain was produced by administering rum.
All gear that could be was sent down from aloft. Preventers and extra yard slings were rigged and screens of red cloth known as Top armings to hide the riflemen were placed round the top. Nelson deprecated this practice, but it was always used by the French and, as is well known, it was from the maintop of the “REDOUTABLE” that Nelson received his fatal injury.
Hammocks were lashed over shrouds in the chains and other places where covering protection was deemed to be necessary. Boarders were detailed from the guns’ crews and sail trimmer, and actually worked at their guns armed for boarding. It was customary in some ships to have the decks wetted and whatever sails were not in use were rolled up tight and wetted.
Sir ALEXANDER BALL, when in the Battle of the Nile onboard the “ALEXANDER,” owes the safety of his ship to his foresight in carrying out these precautions against fire, as a large part of the “ORIENT” fell onboard “ALEXANDER” when the former blew up. The “ALEXANDER” caught on fire, but it was quickly extinguished. Broke of the “ SHANNON “ also followed this example with good effect.
The Master‑at‑Arms was responsible in olden times for the training of the men in the use of small arms and for noting the expenditure of ammunition in action. Subsequently the former duty was performed by the Master‑at‑Arms under the supervision of the junior Lieutenant. In more modern times the Master‑at‑Arms has been entirely relieved of this part of his duties.
The Master‑at‑Arms is today known as the Jaunty , which is believed to be a corruption of the French word “Gendarme,” which became John Damme and thus Jaunty. The Master‑at‑Arms has a staff of Petty Officers to assist him who are now called Regulating Petty Officers, but prior to 1913‑14 were known as Ship’s Corporals. They carry out the duties of ship’s police and, from the fact that formerly they occupied their time in searching for (as opposed to preventing) crime, they became known on the lower deck as Crushers.
To give some idea of the expenditure of ammunition in a heavy action we may mention that at the bombardment of Algiers the British Fleet expended 118 tons of powder, 50,000 shot and 1,000 10” shells in about 9 hours. The “Queen” at the “Glorious First of June” used 25 tons of powder and 6o tons of shot. This was equal to 130 broadsides.
In action those who were very grievously wounded or killed were bundled through a port. Those who died after the action were buried in the ordinary manner at sea, although in the French Service it was customary to bury the dead in the ballast. I do not know whether this was due to superstition or for what reason. I imagine that this custom is the origin of the expression to show someone Where the dead Marine was buried , in other words an impossible place to find in the bowels of the ship.
Whistling in a man-o’-war has always been most strongly discouraged for obvious reasons, but custom ordains that the Cook of the Mess shall whistle when engaged in stoning plums or prunes to mix in the duff, as this shows that he is not stowing his own hold to the detriment of the rest of his messmates.
Up to 1690 at the launching of a ship her health was drunk from a silver cup which was after use thrown into the sea, but this was discontinued as a measure of economy.
Up to 1811 a ship was always launched by a Royal Personage or a Dockyard Commissioner, but in 1811 the Prince Regent instituted the practice of a lady performing the ceremony. The religious service now held at a launch of a man-o’-war was, I believe, instituted about 1875 at the launch of the Tug “Perseverance” in Devonport Yard. The institution of the service is generally ascribed to the representations of Admiral King Hall.
At night five minutes after the watch on deck changes one soft stroke is given on the ship’s bell as a sign for the new watch to muster. This is always called Little One Bell . A Little One Bell relief is a particularly unpopular person as he is so called owing to his habitual lateness in taking over the watch.
Striking the Bells and Dog Watches . It is noticeable in British ships that the hour of 1830 or 6.30 P.m. is denoted by the striking of one bell. I believe in olden days it was the custom to strike five bells at half past six in the last dog watch, but the present practice was instituted after the mutiny at the Nore, owing to the striking of five bells being the signal for the commencement of the mutiny on May 13th, 1797.
Foreigners still carry out the old routine, but I am led to believe that a certain number are more or less falling into line with our custom.
The nautical day is divided into watches of four hours’ duration, except for the period of 4p.m. to 8p.m. (1600 hours to 2000 hours) which is split into two watches of two hours duration each.
As the ship’s company used normally to be organised in two watches (Port and Starboard) it followed that a man would always have the same periods of duty unless one of the watches was split. The 4p.m. to 8p.m. period was accordingly split and the watches are known as The First Dog Watch and The Last Dog Watch. The team is probably derived from Dodge Watch.
The expression Second dog watch is never used at sea. I do not think that the pun of the dog watch being a watch ‘Cur-tailed’ has any bearing on the term.
The points of the compass card are of very early origin.
The very ancient charts had a Wind rose marked on them, and the French still use the term “Rose des Vents” to mean a compass.
The early navigators worked chiefly in the Mediterranean and naturally marked the card with the letters designating terms familiar to them. Thus North became “T” for Tramontana, and this letter subsequently became converted into a spear-headed symbol and finally into a “Fleur-de-lis,” though there are some who affirm that the emblem represents a lotus flower and that it is of Oriental origin.
Burials at Sea . When sewing the corpse up in an old hammock or piece of canvas it is usual to put the last stitch through the nose of the deceased. I have heard that this is done in order to avoid any chance of launching the body overboard while in a state of catalepsy, the shock of having a stitch passed through the nose being considered sufficient to bring the patient back to life. I can find no regulations in support of the custom, but for very many years it was usual for the man who did the sewing up of the corpse to be paid a guinea a body. On board H.M.S. “CASTOR” after the Battle of Jutland the sum of twenty‑three guineas was paid out from the public funds to the rating who officiated in this respect. This was vouched for by an officer who was present.
“While serving as first Lieutenant of H.M.S. ‘LEGION’ we had occasion to bury three dead Germans and I well remember that my upper check Petty Officer did his best to cajole three guineas out of me, but was met with the remark that I had no cash to spare for live Bosches and certainly did not propose to chuck any away on dead ones and that he had better make an official request through the Captain. The above‑mentioned Bosches were killed in the action of October 17th. 1914.”
In the olden days there were celebrations similar to those on “Crossing the Line” when crossing the 30th parallel and on entering the Straits of Gibraltar.
The Vikings put their novices at sea through some very strenuous ordeals with a view to proving them and the customs referred to probably originated with them. All initiates had to vow to do the same to others.
The custom of having prayers onboard H.M. Ships is of great antiquity and in BLAKE’S time it was usual to sing hymns and psalms at the changing of the watches. In the 17th and 18th Centuries it was usual in go to prayers prior to commencing an action (e.g., Lord HOWE on June 1st. 1741, at 0730 hove to and went to breakfast and prayers before engaging the enemy).
H.M. Ships have carried fishing appliances for many years, and in the earliest printed instructions the Captain is ordered to employ some of the people in fishing and the catch was to be distributed among the Officers’ and Seamen’s messes without favour or partiality and without any reduction of provision allowances.
We have the expression Working a dead horse, which strictly speaking belongs to the Merchant Service, a Dead Horse being the monthly advance of erases given to a man on signing on so that he could purchase the necessary kit, etc., before sailing. This usually was spent prior to departure and therefore the first month’s work was done for money already received and spent. In the Merchant Service it was customary at the end of the month to make a canvas effigy of a horse and hoist it up to the tune of that well‑known chanty “They say old horse you’re dead and gone; they say so and I hope so.” At the conclusion of the chanty the effigy was cut adrift and any work done after that was considered “Good,” as it was paid for afterwards, probably on paying off.
At Malta near the top of San Giovanni on the southern side there is an implement known as Promotion hook . Custom ordains that junior Officers desirous of being promoted in the Service must crawl through this hook or staple whilst ascending the steep street of San Giovanni.
Professor Zammit informs me that his hook originally stood at the corner of San Giovanni and Strada Mercanti and was used in connection with the pillory which was at this corner certainly as late as the time of Grand Master Pinto, who functioned between 1741 and 1773. This pillory was used in connection with the Court of Justice known as the Castallania. The hook appears in have been moved down the street towards the end of the 19th Century in order to make room for a shop window.
In the old first‑rates the after bulkhead was pierced by a door amidships which opened from the Captain’s cabin to the half deck, which space was covered by the Quarterdeck. The half deck was also known as the “Steerage “ from the fact that the steering wheels and binnacles were placed there. The term Guard and Steerage refers to the Guard and those people who were entitled to sling in the Steerage and who did not necessarily turn out with the hands. The old cry for calling the hands , given in full, was:
Out or down
there! Out or down there! All hands
rouse out, rouse out, rouse out. Lash and carry, lash
and carry, show a leg or else a Purser’s stocking.
Rouse and shine, rouse and shine.
Lash up and stow, lash up and stow, lash up and stow.
Often followed by the words: It’s to‑morrow morning, and the sun’s a‑scorching your eyes out.
The more imaginative Boatswain’s Mates would sometimes conclude their remarks by informing all and sundry that they were Off the cloudy coast of Cornwall or The sunny coast of Spain, or other information of a like nature.
Hammocks (or Hamacs) according to Admiral W. H. Smyth, are the undisputed invention of Alcibiades. Columbus found them in use in the Bahama Islands. The modern word is said to be derived from the language of the Caribbs and the article itself was introduced into the Navy about 1590, probably as the result of the experience of Sir Francis Drake and many other Elizabethan seamen who had frequent dealings with these natives.
In the old days when the raised forecastle and aftercastle were carried in ships, as a historian says in the reign of Queen Elizabeth “The more for their majesty to astonish the enemy” it was customary to refer to the after structure as the Aftercastle , and it is for this reason that a careful Captain of the Quarterdeck to this day marks his wash‑deck gear with the mystic symbol “AXLE” or “AX.”
Whilst on the subject of customs it might be advantageous to recall some of those which have fallen into disuse since 1914. They are many and varied. No longer do we have the smoking circle and smoking lantern on the upper deck. Boats do not now challenge each other by tossing their oars or letting fly their sheets off the starboard gangway of the ship they desire to compete against. In the evenings we seldom see the old games such as Priest of the Parish ‘which was a sort of gamble resorted to in the olden days, with a man’s prize money as the stake), Biffers , and Sling the Monkey .
Signalmen when hoisting or lowering colours no longer remove their caps. At the issue of rum the Band nowadays does not play one of the old‑time tunes such as “Nancy Dawn” or “Drops of Brandy” and we do not clear up decks or beat too quarters with the drum. These two latter customs were falling into disuse prior to the War, but were done in a few ships, of which the “HINDUSTAN” was one.
A ship going home to pay off was always played out of harbour, and it was considered a thing of some importance that she should be given a proper send‑off, but this is not always now an organised effort on the part of the Fleet as it used be. The paying off pendant , however, is still with us. When the Atlantic Fleet left Gibraltar to pay off in 1912 the “VENERABLE” was the third ship in the line and we requested the “PRINCE OF WALES” which was the Flagship to haul in her pendant somewhat, as the fly was dangerously near our standard compass. All the ships in that Squadron had approximately the same length of pendant.
Custom ordains that its length should be that of the ship if the ship pays of on the proper date and up to the accepted time. An extra length is added for every period, e.g., for a commission which is stretched from 2 years to 2 years and 2 months the length would be: length of the ship plus 1/12.
The custom is alleged to have originated in the 19th Century when all cleanings rags were put together and hoisted as a sign that they were finished with.
The Admiral’s or Captain’s Joiner dates from the time when a craftsman of that nature was always carried in ships to keep in repair the wonderful gilded scroll work and carving generally called ‘Gingerbread ‘ work, which ornamented the stern and quarter galleries of the old skips and which first became really prominent in HENRY VIII.’s “GRACE à DIEU” or “GREAT HARRY.” Hence the term to Knock the gilt off the Gingerbread.
Idlers was the official general term that embraced all who are now designated as “Daymen” (Coopers, Painters, Blacksmiths, etc., and all other Artisan Ratings who normally kept no night watches). The term existed till quite recent times and was abolished due to it being a very inapt appellation for a highly skilled and hard working body of craftsmen.
The following nicknames need little explanation, but are almost forgotten. The Master or Navigator was formerly known as Old Soundings and his assistant to this day is known as Tankey , and so also is the Captain of the Hold known on the lower deck. The Navigator or Master in former times was in charge of the fresh water of a ship, although nowadays this duty really devolves on other Officers. Tommy Pipes was the Boatswain, and Old Blue Lights was the Gunner. We have already referred to Mr. Nipcheese .
The Royal Marines have been known by many and various nicknames, but that of Cheeks dates from the Nelsonic period when the skirts of a Marine’s coat or tunic were looped so as to give free play to the legs, and on looking at a Marine dressed in this manner from the stern view the inference is obvious. Before the amalgamation of the Royal Marine Artillery and Royal Marine Light Infantry they were known at sea by the nicknames of Bullocks and Turkeys respectively. The Royal Marine Artillery were noted for their magnificent physique and size, while the Royal Marine Light Infantry were clothed in the scarlet tunic the same as the Infantry of the Line, hence the above appellations.
A sailor when speaking of any Royal Marine often referred to him as a Leatherneck and sometimes used the same term for soldiers as a whole, the reason being due to the leather tongue which closed the opening of the collar in the military pattern tunic. The Royals is another term by which the Royal Marines are known, but this is never used when talking to any of H.M. land forces as in military circle, it refers to the Royal Dragoons (1st).
The soldier is also sometimes referred to as A Pongo , A Grabby , A Bezook or A Swaddy , the latter being an Army expression which the sailor has borrowed in the same way that the Army borrowed our word Matelot. In military circles the sailor is described as A Flatfoot , A Baggy , A Blue , or A Matelot . The expression Webfoot is also sometimes used but strictly speaking this is the sailor’s term for a West Country seaman.
Tell that to the Marines. Should anyone doubt the truth of a story he may make use of this expression in order politely to demonstrate the fact. Many and various are the origins attributed to this expression, and that well known writer, Colonel W.P. Drury, Royal Marines, gives an origin which accords so well that I am led to believe that such may possibly be the true and correct explanation. The “Merry Monarch,” KING CHARLES II., doubted the veracity of one of his attendants at Court, who stated that when serving in the Southern Seas fish had been observed which flew in the air. The King, loth to cast aspersions on the integrity of the raconteur, referred the matter to a Marine Officer who was attending his person, and the Marine Officer vouched for the truth of the assertion. The King thereupon remarked “That in future should we have any occasion to doubt any statement we will first ‘Tell it to the Marines .’”
From the ubiquitous nature of their service the Royal Marines are certainly very well qualified to judge of the facts of any “traveller’s tale.”
Some aver that the expression took its birth due to the fact that the Marines were a military force and therefore were apt to be credulous regarding matters connected with maritime affairs, but many consider that the story is apocryphal, even though Byron refers to it in 1823 (“The Island.” ii., XXI.), and Scott does the same in “Red Gauntlet,” in 1814 (chapter X111.).
It is probably rare in these days to find the old custom of Christening midshipmen kept up. The ceremony used to be carried out in the case of all newly‑appointed junior “Young Gentlemen” and consisted of a plate of ships’ biscuit being broken on the head of the subject, who also had to drink some sea water and frequently was given a dozen with his own dirk scabbard for having the temerity to Bring his name to sea.
It was not unknown for the subject to have a broad arrow lightly nicked on his nose with a razor, the owner of the nose to heal the soonest being subsequently dealt with again in order to chasten his vile body for so discarding His Majesty’s mark.
Junior Midshipmen were always known as Crabs or Warts , and no opportunity was ever lost of impressing on them that their status in the state of creation was with, but after, that of a black beetle.
Snotty is a slang term for a Midshipman and is derived from the allegation that these Officers used to make their sleeves do duty as handkerchiefs and that to obviate this practice buttons were placed on the cuffs. The term Wart is used to demonstrate the fact that a midshipman is an excrescence on the face of Nature.
Everything on top and nothing handy , like a Midshipman’s chest, is used to describe any gear carelessly stowed.
The old term for a Midshipman was a Young Gentleman or Reefer , and the latter word is still used to designate the coats worn by subordinate Officers who have not yet attained the dignity of their first gold stripe. The short (pointed back) type of jacket worn by these Officers when in best uniform is known as a Freezer and the reason is not far to seek. Regarding the universally held opinion as to the lowly estate of Midshipman it may not be out of place to recall that Admiral Collingwood announced that he would teach his people to touch their hats to a Reefer’s coat even if it was only hung on a broomstick to dry. From his remark it may be inferred that he subscribed to the generally accepted view concerning the small importance of Midshipmen.
Midshipmen (and boys) with squeaky voices were made to jump with straight legs from the capstan head on to the deck until the desired gruffness had been attained. This was known as Capstan Drill .
The Lady of the Gunroom was the servant who washed up and generally “did for” the members of the mess. In the old days this rating was sometimes a negro and more often than not was led a dog’s life by “The Young Gentlemen.” The term came to be applied to the general utility member of the pantry staff of the Gunroom.
In a certain battleship in 1912 a Private of Royal Marines acted in this capacity to the Gunroom Mess until eventually filed an official request “To be relieved from
Lady of the Gunroom and return to the Detachment.” He was prevailed upon to try again and, I believe, had no cause to regret his decision, as the Midshipmen played the game by him, whereby he largely profited and they obtained the services of an experienced guide, a willing servant and an indefatigable, resourceful friend.
The old term for a Lieutenant was a Luff . The First Lieutenant used to be known as the First Luff, but nowadays he is more usually referred to as Jimmy the One or Jimmy the First Person .
There are various surnames which have always bad an artificial tally attached, and I will recount those which I know, together with the reasons that I can trace.
Nobby Ewart, Hewitt or Clarke, Bandy Evans, Stinger Woods, Knocker White, Dodger Lung, Spite Sullivan, Wiggy Bennett, Nosey Parker, Pincher Martin, Dusty Miller, Ginger Casey, Cosher Hinds or Hynes, Buck Taylor, Sharkey Ward, Jumper Collins or Short, Granny Henderson or Anderson, Shiner Wright, Nigger Black, Hookey Walker, Tosh Gilbert, Daisy Bell, Spud Murphy, Jerry Ring, Guy Vaughan, Chats Harris, Jimmy Green, Johnny Bone, Kitty Wells, Harry Freeman, Bogie Knight, Rusty Steel. Tug was the nickname attached to Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson, V.C., and cannot be traced to any older origin. Since its introduction it has become the tally for all men named Wilson.
Pincher Martin was a very alert officer who was C.-in-C., Med., 1860. His brother was known as Fly Martin, after the name of a ship which he once commanded.
Charles Edward Ewart, Captain of the “MELPOMONE” in Mediterranean, 1859-62. Nobby Ewart was the famous Captain who was so keen at spit and polish that he was displeased because his private stock of poultry was not fallen in and cleaned for Sunday rounds. The person in charge had been severely punished on one occasion for neglecting this duty and on a future occasion hit on the expedient of painting the birds and falling them in on a plank by means of a tin tack through the webs of the ducks and a staple over the toes of the chickens!
Hookey Walker is probably derived from Mr. John Walker, an outdoor clerk of Messrs. Longman Clementini & Co., formerly of Cheapside. He was noted for his hook nose, and his office was to keep the workmen up to their work. It is believed that he frequently invented unfavourable reports in order to keep himself in office. I cannot find out at exactly what date this worthy flourished, but I think it somewhere about 1800.
Harry Freeman is stated by Dr. Brewer possibly to have been connected with the expression Drinking at Freeman’s Quay . Porters and carriers calling at Freeman’s Quay, near London Bridge, had a pot of beer given to them gratis. The eminent doctor casts doubts upon the truth of this practice, but I have heard that a certain drayman of the City of London named Freeman used to provide part of his wages in beer or on occasion distribute rewards in the shape of liquor to his employees.
Johnny Bone was, to use a latter day expression, an eminent Scrounger or Rabbitter and was Boatswain to Admiral Cornwallis, who remarked to Mr. Bone oil parting “I trust, Mr. Bone, you will leave me with my anchors.” Hence possibly the expression To bone something.
Stores illicitly acquired are still sometimes referred to as Capperbar .
Sharkey Ward is possibly derived from the ferocious pirate and buccaneer who was the terror of the West Indian and Caribbean waters and whose name, with that of Teach and Blackbeard, was passed down to posterity in a manner somewhat devoid of repute.
Chats Harris I conclude to be a person of somewhat unsavoury characteristics. The old English word for a louse was a Chat and in this connection the phrase Happy and Chatty may be stated to be of somewhat considerable antiquity.
Tosh Gilbert , I should say, was a gentleman highly skilled in the art of toshing, which was an old term for stealing the copper off the bottoms of sheathed ships. Ginger Casey , I think, explains itself. I have known many Caseys, but only one have I met of that name who could be described as anything but “Ginger.”
To spin a cuffer is the same as spinning a yarn, but the more improbable the story, the more does the term Cuffer apply.
The term Bum boat is still with us and is probably an abbreviated form of Bombard boat which was so called because provisions and liquor used to be carried by these boats in large receptacles, shaped like and called after the old‑fashioned bombard or mortar. Receptacles so named are referred to by Shakespeare.
A Bombard was also the old name for a type of two-masted vessel in use in the Mediterranean.
Concerning Mother Carey’s Chickens , better known as Stormy Petrels, Captain Glasscock writing in 1826 concerning sailors’ superstitions, describes how the “TIGER” East Indiaman, eastward bound for the Cape, was persistently followed by bad weather, and when off the Cape nearly foundered. A passenger called Mother Carey appeared to have a peculiar affinity to the birds, and was concluded by the ship’s company to be a witch. The sailors were debating the question of putting the good lady overboard, when she settled the matter by springing over the side and going down in a blue flame! The birds, which had assumed monstrous proportions, vanished in a moment and left the “Titan” to pursue her voyage in peace. These birds it appears have been known as Mother Carey’s Chickens ever since.
To marry the Gunner’s daughter was an expression which meant being laid over a gun to receive a flogging.
To buy goose meant to receive a flogging, although when used in the following sense “I see no reason to buy goose for you,” it means, I see no reason why I should stand a rub for your misdemeanours. Goose without gravy was a flogging of so light a nature that blood was not drawn.
Up to quite recent times many old fashioned Captains referred to their ship’s companies as “My People.” In many old logs we find the expression in frequent use and see references such as The People engaged in knotting and splicing the rigging. .
Captains still refer to my ship, my boats, my First Lieutenant, etc., but in the days when Masters were borne on the books of ships, no Captain ever spoke of him as “My Master”! He was always referred to as the Master.
A Stone Frigate is a term used for a shore appointment.
To Strike down is the correct term to use when lowering such articles as ammunition, stores, provisions, etc., into their respective magazines or store rooms in order that they may be stowed.
The word Starboard is derived from the old Saxon steeraboard or steerboard, which was a paddle shipped on the starboard quarter to act as a rudder.
Larboard was the opposite side, and corresponds with the term port. I have heard it suggested that the term Larboard was a corruption of Leeboard, but cannot vouch for this. The Italians derived the word Starboard from Questa borda - meaning “This side,” and Larboard from Quella borda ‑ that side, this being abbreviated to Starborda and Larborda. The term Port is not of very modern origin, as it is mentioned in Arthur Pitt’s voyage in 1580. I don’t know whether there is any truth in the suggestion that the term Port was derived from the custom of preferably placing this side toward the shore when going alongside, owing to the fact that the leeboard could be easily unrigged so as to avoid being damaged, while the steerboard would be required to navigate the slip into the required position.
Flying the blue pigeon is sometimes used as an expression for heaving the lead. With a good swing the lead can be made to emit a cooing sound rather like a wood pigeon.
To Splice the Main Brace . There are many different explanations concerning the origin of this expression but it is generally considered that this operation was one of such rarity that it merited the serving out of an extra tot. The Main Brace, being one of the heaviest pieces of running rigging in the ship, was probably seldom spliced, but presumably renewed instead. While serving in North Russia I have seen the main brace spliced by order twice in one day, on the news of the declaration of Peace, on July 19th, 1919. The expression was certainly well known in 1750.
In 1917, H.M. ships Sir Thomas Picton and Earl of Peterborough (Monitors) were lent to the Italians to carry out a bombardment and were supplied with a large carboy of wine by the Italian Commander‑in‑Chief, and Chief of Staff, and the main brace was spliced during the evening. I do not know of any other occasion when H.M. Ships have ever spliced the main brace with liquor supplied by a Foreign Government.
Short Service Men were often referred to as Selborne’s Light Horse . Short service, was introduced when LORD SELBORNE was First Lord.
To settle a matter with a loose foretopsail means, of course, to end or evade an argument by departing.
To pay one’s debts with the topsail sheet means to depart without settling one’s dues.
A rope is said to hang Judas when it is insecurely belayed or False when taking any strain.
To Sway the main rather infers to swagger, or to assert oneself in an aggressive manner, and probably derives its origin from the fact that in former days everything appertaining to the mainmast, in sail drill, was particularly the charge of the Executive Officer.
To trice your ears out on a bowline means to listen attentively. The weather leeches used to be hauled out by bowlines to enable a ship to sail closer to the wind. The bowline bridles were secured to the cringles on the leech by the well‑known bowline knot.
As long as the maintop bowline meant any long, drawn out affair, and was often used to describe an interminably long glory. The main top bowline was generally regarded as the longest rope in the ship.
To hoist a stocking to your jib , or a bonnet to your topsail , means to expedite one’s movements in the same way as the speed of a ship used to be increased by an additional spread of canvas laced to a sail. Those for the jib were called Stockings, and those for the topsails Bonnets.
A ship’s masts or funnels are said to Rake when they lean aft. Should they lean forward, they are said to have Bos’un’s Pride , or to tumble forward. This expression is due to the fact that the Bos’un was the Officer who used to be (under tire Navigating Officer) in charge of the ship’s rigging, and whose particular duty it was to square yards and set up all rigging after the completion of any evolution aloft. Thus any very conscientious Bos’un might be over‑zealous in setting up or squaring off the rigging, with the result that he might give Bos’un’s Pride to a mast or spar, due to an excess of zeal.
To set up backstays for anyone, means to smooth over the results of their faults, and again refers to the fact that the duty of the Bos’un was, after an evolution aloft, to square off the yards and rigging and see that all was left shipshape.
A black dog for a white monkey meant a quid pro quo.
A Banyan Party nowadays has come to mean a cheery party, possibly in connection with a picnic. Banyan Days were formerly Mondays. Wednesdays and Fridays, and were days on which no meat was issued. This restriction was removed in 1884. The term is derived from a religions sect in the East who believed it wicked to eat of any creature endued with life. It would appear that the present meaning of the term is derived from the fact that men were accustomed to save up odds and ends of their rations in order to make delicacies to tide them over the fast days.
Like a pusser’s shirt on a handspike describes any gross misfit or any badly fitting suit of clothes or sail.
A King John’s man is a person of particularly small stature.
Dodging Pompey is skulking from any particular duty. Some say that the town of Portsmouth is so called for the following reason, and I am indebted to the Town Clerk of Portsmouth for this information. Some years ago, Miss Agnes Weston, in the early days of her career, was talking to an assembly of sailors and she told them the story of Pompey, the Roman General ‑ of his battles and the success he won on the field of battle, and of his subsequent decline in popularity when he entered the political arena, and his ultimate murder, and thereupon somebody in the room exclaimed Pour old Pompey . This seems to have amused the audience, the exclamation caught on, and from that day it has been associated with the name of Portsmouth in the Services and locally.
Others consider that the nickname of Pompey it the drunkard’s inarticulate method of pronouncing the words “Portsmouth Point,” which was the neighbourhood at which the sailor in olden days spent his time in hilarious conviviality. I am inclined to believe the latter explanation as it is certainly of older origin.
Regarding the name of Guzzle for Devonport, the following is the explanation rendered by the Town Clerk of Plymouth, who considers that in the old days, after cruising about for long periods on indifferent and insufficient rations, the Navy always looked forward to good food in the shape of Devonshire cream and butter when they put in at Plymouth.
A Tom Cox’s traverse is described by Admiral Smith, writing in 1867, as Up one hatch and down another, or three turns round the longboat and a pull at the scuttle. I have also heard that it was the name of a tyro in navigation who took three weeks beating round the South Foreland. In any case, its meaning is the longest possible method of getting on with a job of work.
It is better than two nibbies in a hook pot . A nibby is the slang term for a ship’s biscuit, and a hook pot was an article which only disappeared in recent years. A ship’s biscuit was placed in a hook pot to soak in front of the fire, and was the least hospitality which could be offered from one person to another.
Touching ship’s biscuits, it is very rare to hear broken ship’s biscuits referred to as Midshipman’s nuts , and in present‑day gun rooms among the customs which have died out is the ancient one of making Midshipman’s goose or Crab , which consisted of pickles, salt beef, salt pork, ground biscuit, and any other commodity which came handy, including cheese.
Legs like a Torpoint ropemaker is one of the many time‑honoured jests borrowed from the West Country, and means a person who is bandy‑legged. It was described to me by an old West Country boatswain as a person who is so bandy‑legged that he carries his knees a‑burton , and his calves before‑all . This affliction was presumably caused by the practice of straddling the rope while working the Top at some West Country rope walk.
To pull one’s pound refers to the fact that a certain weight of rations were issued in order that a man’s strength might be maintained so as to enable him to do hard manual work. Thus, Lend us your pound here was a request for a man to turn to and exert his utmost strength.
To Lend a hand is to assist in the operation in progress.
To Bear a hand is to be quick or smart in the performance of any task.
Handsomely means slowly or with caution, and Roundly as quick as possible. Both orders are in common use for hoisting boats or working Tackles.
To be at Loggerheads with someone is a well‑known phrase which has been borrowed from sea parlance. Loggerheads were balls of iron connected together by an iron bar about three to four feet in length. The balls when heated were used for melting pitch. The balls being so immovably connected were somewhat similar to two persons between whom no chance of a rapprochement existed; they were, moreover, when in use kept at a very high temperature.
The expression Wash out , when used in the sense of to cancel or in erase, came into the Service when slates were used instead of the present‑day signal pad and message forms. Its use, alas, has grown until the expression is so hackneyed and misused as to be offensive.
Tom Pepper was a person who, according to nautical tradition, was kicked out of hell for being a bigger liar than His Satanic Majesty. The term is mentioned by J. A. Gardner in his “Recollections,” and appears to have been in use in 1787.
A Rogue’s Yarn is a coloured strand laid up in a Dockyard‑made rope, not only to identify its place of manufacture, but to prevent its illicit sale. The following coloured yarns denoted the “Rope walk” at which the rope was laid up: Portsmouth ‑ blue; Devonport ‑ red; Chatham ‑ yellow; and Haulbowline ‑ black.
Andrew Miller is still a slang term for His Majesty’s Navy as a whole, and in my manuscript which disappeared in 1914, it was stated that Andrew Miller was believed to have been a particularly zealous Officer who worked the Press Gang at one time. Officers zealous in these matters were not popular along the waterside of the British Isles, and in support of this I might mention a Tyneside song which I collected some years ago, concerning Captain John Rover, who died on 20th May, 1782. and was buried in Newcastle Cathedral. He made a considerable stir in the Tyneside district during his life, and his funeral was largely attended, but whether as a matter of relief or regret I am unable to state. I am indebted to the Senior Verger, Newcastle Cathedral, for much information concerning him.
A Gobby was a Coastguard, when this force was under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty, and open to Officers and men of the Royal Navy, who were time expired or pensioners, but still fit for coastguard duties. The Coastguard Force is at present under the order of the Board of Trade, and is not so popular with the Naval Service and in consequence the term is not us much in evidence.
A Gobby Ship was an old expression denoting a Soft number, and was a harbour service ship to which “Reserve fleetmen” were drafted on mobilisation. These ships only proceeded to sea on special occasions such as test mobilisations and royal reviews, and we‑re regarded as more or less time‑serving appointments, with no prospects whatever for any Officer with ambition.
To Celebrate the Siege of Gibraltar is an excuse for a tot. The various sieges of Gibraltar have covered such a period that one is certain to be in order, in the matter of the date, should one care to celebrate it.
Gibraltar has withstood thirteen sieges. The SUFFOLK (late 12th Foot) was the senior regiment during the last and most famous siege (from 11th September, 1779, to 12th March, 1783) and was rewarded by the crest of the Castle and Key and the motto “ Montis Insignia Calpe,” which insignia was granted to the Rock by Henry IV of Castile in 1462 after its capture from the Moorish King of Granada. The Suffolk Regiment served as Marines under Sir George Byng and in the Channel Fleet about 1712.
Mundungus . Often used to describe any useless and unwanted material of a small nature. It is the correct description for the dust of unmanufactured tobacco leaves and is a dutiable article.
A Killick is the most ancient form of anchor known, and I personally have found it in what must have been almost its original form in the Western Isles of Scotland, Newfoundland, North Russia, China and Japan. A Leading Seaman is commonly called by this title.
A Raggie is a friend with whom one shares a rag bag for polishing gear. To Part brass rags is a sign of the dissolution of that friendship.
Chioque or Shyoake is a beverage well known to the merchant seaman both on the “Barbary coast” in San Francisco and in Australian ports. It was the accumulated heeltaps of all the glasses and was usually retailed at about fourpence per gallon. Of course only the disreputable bars dealt in this commodity.
Sucking the monkey is the unlawful or illicit obtaining of liquor, and derives its origin from the old pattern rum tub which was known as a Monkey.
Monkey is also a nautical diminution, e.g.: Monkey boom. Monkey gaff. Monkey jacket, Monkey Axle., Monkey tail. etc.
Saltash luck . Those seamen who know the West Country, and I presume there are a few who do not, will unhesitatingly agree: that a Wet shirt and no fish is very typical of the luck of a Saltash fisherman.
A Smart Ticket is the old name for a Hurt Certificate which is a document granted to an Officer or man who is injured or wounded in the performance of his duty. He cannot be granted this certificate if injured owing to his own negligence, and the Officer issuing the document must certify as to the sobriety of the claimant at the time the injury was received. Smart Money was the monetary compensation awarded on the production at the Smart Ticket.
To have one’s boots chalked . It used to be the practice for the Captain of a top or turret to try and chalk the soles of one’s boots when going; aloft for the: first time or an entering the turret, and if he succeeded the victim was supposed to pay his footing.
A Gibby has been the: sailor’s name for many years for his spoon. His knife is a Skinine ; the word, however, is fast dying out. It may have been derived from the: Gaelic word “skian,” meaning knife. His fork is a Port oar . This, on the face, of it, is quaint, as it is presumed that he used his fork with his heft hand, and. strictly speaking its should therefore be a Starboard oar.
Gib was an old term for a staff with a crook.
Mess traps of this nature are a comparatively recent article of supply in the Service, and formerly were either dispensed with altogether or bought as private property.
A receptacle which is empty is said let have a South wind in it, and a mixture which is half spirit and half water is known, as a Nor’Wester . The more northerly the wind stands, the more the proportion of spirit. An East wind has never been popular, whereas a wind to the South’ard of West in home Latitudes, although wet, both meteorologically and according to this definition, contained a lesser proportion of spirits, and lacked popularity for that reason.
The term White mice is an epithet applied to those deservedly unpopular persons, happily rare, who at various times have been employed by the Police: and others to spy on their shipmates. They are also known as Narks , which, in thieves’ jargon, also means informers.
To walk round someone Like a cooper round a cask means, to completely vanquish an opponent or to be able to deal with him at one’s leisure and with little fear of retaliation.
Ullage is the residue remaining in any box or cask whose: contents save: been taken into service. It is also an expression of contempt for a person who is slow witted and of little use.
An Urk is a similar type of witless individual, but the term is more forcible and is of modern origin.
A Winger is the general term to denote any boy or very young seaman who is adopted as a particular friend by an old and staid seaman. The term is far from being a complimentary one.
To Go to wind’ard of anybody derives its origin from the time when the weather gauge was the all‑important thing in Naval tactics, and is synonymous with the term to Lee bow somebody.
It was at the battle of the 12th April, 1782, that Rodney’s Flag Captain, Sir Charles Douglas, burst unceremoniously into the Admiral’s cabin, and in the excitement of the moment announced to the Admiral that “God had given him his enemy on the lee bow.” (De Grasse off Martinique.)
Among the numerous Naval Stores carried in H.M. ships, we find Shovel Navigator . These tools have nothing to do with the Navigating Officer, but take their name from the time that the Lincolnshire canals were constructed about 1830, for inland navigation, and this peculiar type of tool was used in the work, and the workmen came to be known as Navvies (an abbreviation from Navigators). In H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, our first entirely oil‑fired battleship, a Shovel Navigator, suitably mounted, used to be displayed, surmounting the motto, “Lest we forget.” This motto of course referred to the remembrance of the heavy manual work, and consequent dirt, entailed by “Coaling ship,” which was always treated as an important evolution.
A Channel fleet dish‑up is the somewhat unhygienic method adopted, due to shortage of water, of using the same water for washing up all plates and mess utensils, and almost corresponds to the shore term of a “lick and a promise.” During the long blockades oft Brest, under Admiral Cornwallis, the shortage of water was often severely felt, and it is possible that the term originated at this time.
We talked just now of a Cooper , which most useful rating is unfortunately dying out of the Service, owing to the prevalence of tinned provisions. In fact, universally, coopering is no longer the job it formerly was, but there are few Coopers now who know that the small anvil that was part of a Cooper’s tools is properly called a Cooper’s Study.
A clumsy, awkward person is described as being as handy as a cow in a spitkid . Kid is the term for any small wooden tub. Spitkid is the name given to the wooden tubs, of about two feet in diameter, which are issued for use as spittoons in the men’s smoking places. In the older ships, where the smoking places were always very crowded, there was often great difficulty experienced in accurately hitting off the interior of this receptacle, and in some ships it was customary to allow a margin of 12 inches outside, this area being bounded by a chalked circle. Woe betide the man who not only missed the spitkid, but failed to register in the circle. His crime was unforgivable. He was generally sentenced to carry a spitkid for so many days or weeks, and his shipmates were expected not to neglect their opportunities. I remember the case of one Able Seaman, a Gunlayer First Class, whose appearances were so frequent at the Captain’s defaulter’s table for the crime in question that eventually the exasperated Captain reduced the man to the rating of Gunlayer Second Class, “For being a damned bad shot.”
We frequently use the term W‑a‑i-s-t-e‑r (not W‑a‑s‑t‑e‑r). It was formerly thought, “That he who was not good enough for anything else was good enough for the waist.” In other words, an unskilled rating who did the coolie work in the waist, whereas the smartest of the older men were stationed on the fo’csle and the smart young ones on the upper yards.
A Donkey , being the almost universal beast of burden, the term is used to denote a Naval artisan’s tool chest, a sailmaker’s or tailor’s sewing machine, or any mechanical contrivance which saves manual labour.
A straw‑filled mattress is known as a Donkey’s breakfast.
While speaking of Upper Yardmen , I will refer to an expression which is almost dead, namely, to be‑ able to do something Because you wear the tuck . I learnt this from a very old sea officer, whose explanation was as follows: The Royal Yardmen of a ship considered themselves, very naturally, as the salt of the earth, and in consequence, before the Uniform Regulations were unforced, they used to wear a tuck or pleat in the backs of their jumpers or coats, which was fastened in the centre with a little bow. They had exclusive use of certain public houses ashore, and took care that folk who, in their opinion, were less worthy, did not intrude. They were particularly careful when onshore to dress themselves in the height of nautical fashion so that everyone should know exactly what they themselves thought of their own prowess. Cmdr. Robinson, who is one of the greatest authorities on old customs connected with the Navy, tells me that he can find no trace of this in the many hundreds of prints in his possession, nor, as a Midshipman, does he remember seeing a jacket of this nature or hearing the expression. Nevertheless I am certain that the custom was in vogue at one period, although it may not have been universal. The expression finally came to mean that unless you are particularly smart you need not expect any extra privileges.
The term Fanny Adams came into use in the Navy about the year 1867, when tinned mutton was introduced as a part of the ration. The nickname is ascribed to the fact that a somewhat notorious murder took place on April 24th. 1867, at Alton, Hants. The murderer was Frederick Baker, aged 29, a solicitor’s clerk, and the victim was Fanny Adams, a child aged 9. Baker subsequently cut up the body and tried to conceal his crime, but was tried at Winchester Assizes on December 5th, 1867, and in due course hanged. In private life he was Secretary to a Debating Society and a Sunday School Teacher. Prior to the issue of the present‑day Mess Traps, the men were accustomed to use the empty Fanny Adams tins, and the name “Fanny” thus came to be applied to the present receptacle which is now officially issued. Tinned mutton is no longer issued as a ration, but the nickname is still applied to a corned beef which is in general use today.
In the Merchant Service the nickname of “Harriet Lane” is more usually heard. She was murdered by one Henry Wainwright, a brush maker, of 215, Whitechapel Road, who buried the body September, 1874. H. Wainwright and Alice Day, his accomplice, were tried by Lord Chief Justice Cockburn., 22nd Nov. ‑ 1st Dec. 1874, also Thomas Wainwright. Day was discharged for lack of evidence. Thomas Wainwright received 7 years for being an accessory. Henry Wainwright hanged at Newgate, December 21st. 1875.
The arrest of the criminals was largely due to the efforts of one Alfred Philip Stokes.
In 1866, a plant for preparing tinned beef and mutton was installed at Deptford under the direction of a representative of Messrs. Hogarth’s of Aberdeen and issues to the Fleet commenced from this source in 1867.
Salt Beef was not issued after 1904, although existing stocks were used until exhausted, and lasted till about 1913. Salt Pork was withdrawn in 1926.
Jack Shilloe , Jack-a-lift (abbreviated from Jack outside the lift) is a devil-may-care, reckless individual, sometimes described as “One who would spit to windward and call the cat a long‑tailed ‑‑‑‑‑‑d.” Of course, to spit in any way promiscuously entailed the direst penalties, and to abuse the ship’s cat or cast reflections on its parentage was a method of ensuring a run of ill luck.
A Fork in the beam, most of us have suffered from and has been handed down from the time when in the same Mess, i.e., the Midshipman’s berth, were men over 40 years of age and boys of 11 and 12. When the grog had circulated of an evening, and the talk became neither prudish or refined, it was considered high time that the “Youngsters”, as they were termed, should leave the “Oldsters” to themselves. A fork was put in the beam, and the last youngster to leave the mess was generally hauled back and Firked or Cobbed for his slackness in obeying.
There is an old saying that if one goes to sea and meets with bad weather someone has neglected to pay for his amusement when on shore. As late as 1913, when coming home in a certain ship from Vigo, we encountered heavy weather in the Bay. In accordance with the Gunroom custom, we decided to hold a sing‑song on rounding Ushant, but owing to the weather, the Gunroom piano would not remain upright, while the water was up to the coamings of the mess. Lots were ordered to be drawn by the junior members of the mess so as to discover who had contravened the ancient custom and made himself a Jonah by perpetrating the aforementioned crime. Strangely enough, the lot fell on the Assistant Clerk, who was tried by Gunroom Court Martial, and although ably defended by his confrère the Captain’s Clerk, was universally found “Guilty.” He duly received a dozen with a dirk scabbard, and by eight o’clock that night the weather had sufficiently calmed to allow the sing‑song to take place. This is a fact, but I do not know whether there is any connection between the justice meted out to the Assistant Clerk (who ultimately confessed to the charge being true) and the change for the better in the meteorological conditions.
Breadcrumbs was the order to junior members of the Gunroom to stop their ears. Fishbones , to shut their eyes. Match Boxes , to shut their mouths and maintain strict silence. The order Match Boxes cannot be of very ancient origin, as “Friction Matches “ of any sort were not invented until 1829.
A Spithead Pheasant , or a deep‑sea or one‑eyed steak , is a kipper. In the days before the use of the pipe degenerated, Boatswain’s Mates have also been known as Spithead Nightingales .
The Cook of the mess is still entitled by custom to what are known as Plushers which is a term undoubtedly derived from the French word “Plus,” and generally means the residue of any rum apportioned to the mess after each man has had his share. The term is generally used for perquisites.
When passing a dish at the table, and a person helps himself, leaving the person passing it to hold the dish, is at sea considered so inexcusable as to warrant the person passing the dish to drop it, the charge for breakage being made against the one who helps himself from the dish with out holding; it. The latter may, however, claim exemption should he make use of the expression Excuse the Marine . The reason for this; is that when the ship is rolling it is often necessary to hold your food with one hand and feed yourself with the other. If one spends one’s lime holding dishes for others, one is apt to lose one’s own share. Owing to the fact that a Marine in former times was looked upon very much as a soldier and not versed its sea manners and customs, he was held excused.
A Dead Marine , of course. is well known as an empty bottle that has done its duty and is ready to do it again; but some have been known to suggest that the term is derived from the fact that an empty bottle always floats head up, and it leas been rumoured that a Marine will do this even when dead, owing to the traditional size of his feet. I think the former explanation is certainly the most just and decidedly the most apt. It is supposed that the Duke of Clarence made use of this term on one occasion and the event is commemmorated in verse by Colonel W. Drury, R.M.
A Soldier’s Wind is a breeze which enables a boat to reach its objective without wearing or tacking. Another old term for sailing with the wind abeam or on the quarter was Lasking .
A Smart Nipper means, nowadays. a boy with his wits about him, but we can trace it back to the time when the anchor was weighed by means of a messenger which was nippered to the cable. It was the duty of the boy’s to pass and cast off the nippers as necessary.
The Devil to pay and no pitch hot . The “Devil” is one of the hardest seams to paint, being the upper outboard strake. If the pitch was not hot, the job was rendered even more difficult.
Between the Devil and the Deep Sea does not refer to His Satanic Majesty, but to the aforementioned plank, meaning a person who was in this position had nothing between him and a watery grave.
To Go through the Hoop was formerly a method of gauging hammocks so that they should have a uniform appearance when stowed in the nettings. If any doubt existed as to the size of a lashed up hammock, it was put through a hoop, and if it failed to pass, the owner was punished. A hammock that went through too easily and presented a skimpy appearance was, and is still, known as a Greyhound lash‑up .
The Sun is over the fore Yard-arm meant that the sun had attained sufficient altitude and the day was sufficiently far advanced, to take what is known as a Nooner .
In this connection, I might refer to the expression a Long Ship , which means that the hospitality of the mess is somewhat meagre, and presumably originated with the idea that it was a far cry from the Wardroom pantry to the Mess.
To take the can back for anyone means to take the blame for someone’s faults, and at the same time to gain no advantage by so doing.
A Shifting Backstay is the expression used to denote a person who is made the tool of another. It is sometimes used to describe a fair-weather friend. ‘
Two hands for the King . In the Merchant Service the expression is One hand for the ship and one hand for yourself , but in the Royal Navy the expression has long been current. Two hands for the King - in other words, to get on with the job, no matter what the consequences to yourself may be.
Cutting a Dido is an expression of comparatively recent date, and dates from the time when the “Dido,” which was a particularly clean ship serving on the Mediterranean Station about 30 years ago, had, on certain occasions, paraded round the Fleet before coming to an anchor, in order to display her extraordinarily smart appearance.
To Sham Abraham means to malinger, and derives its name from a ward in Bedlam which was appropriated for the reception of idiots. This ward was named “Abraham,” and is cited by a writer named Burton in the “Anatomy of Melancholia,” written in the year 1621.
In everybody’s mess, but nobody’s watch , is an expression which describes a workshy, fair-weather friend
One of My Lord Mayor’s men is synonymous with the term a King’s hard bargain and dates from the time when the Lord Mayor, who, as Chief Magistrate of the City of London. frequently gave the option to delinquents appearing at his Court of serving in His Majesty’s Navy or being committed to gaol. It is worthy of remark that the two were considered similar punishments. Even Dr. Johnson once remarked, although he knew nothing of nautical affairs, that he “Could not understand why people’ should go to sea when there were plenty of gaols on shore.”
Different ships , different long splices, is the nautical equivalent of “Autres temps, autres moeurs.”
A Rat in the forechains . To tell this to a Thames Bargee is to bring down on one’s head a storm of invective which there is no stopping and is due to the fact that rats are commonly believed to leave a sinking ship; there is another and less polite cause. If, however, one wishes to get the better of a bargee one has only to ask him, “Who ate the puppy pie near Marlow Bridge?” The story is this: At Marlow Bridge there formerly stood an inn noted for its pies, and the pantry window was so placed that bargees passing through the bridge used frequently to steal the pies. Mine Host discovered this and one day made a pie from a litter of drowned puppies and left it in a tempting position near the window. The bait was taken by a passing bargee, who ate the pie with relish, until subsequently informed by the innkeeper of the nature of its contents. This remark has been known to leave a Thames bargee speechless .
A Dover Court was all talkers and no hearers, and I have heard it suggested that it originated from the maritime Courts held at Dover in which even to-day one hears English, French, Dutch and Flemish spoken by foreigners who are sometimes forced to attend for crimes committed in connection with the North Sea Fishery Act.
A Scarborough Warning is to let something go by the run and without seeing that everyone was clear, i.e., with no warning at all. The expression is of very ancient origin, as is also Jedburgh Justice , which in the old moss trooping days meant to hang first and try the case afterwards.
A Parliament heel was the name given by sailors to the method of inspecting, cleaning and ascertaining the rottenness of the ship’s under water timbers by heeling her over whilst still afloat, and shows that even in former days that august institution was not held in particularly high esteem by the men of His Majesty’s Navy.
It was during an operation of this nature that the “ROYAL GEORGE’ foundered with the loss of Admiral Kempenfelt and most of her ship’s company.
To Do Something for Toni Collins, or Tom Collins , whether or no (i.e., is agreeable or not). Tom Collins was a man of peculiar character who, I think, flourished about the middle of the 18th Century. He, apparently served as Captain of the Heads and to‑day a ‘Job for Tom Collins’ or “To see Tom Collins” amounts to the same as Hobson’s Choice, i.e., a matter of necessity and that there is no way of getting out of it.
A Galley packet is nowadays known as any “Buzz” started by the Cook’s mate. The galley was formerly the only place where smoking was permitted and was the spot where the men foregathered to yarn and smoke.
Scaldings is the warning cry of any man carrying a hot dish from the galley, or any liquid which is liable to burn a person if spilled over them.
A Purser’s name is a fictitious name given, for instance, when a man is arrested by the civil police, and certainly traces its origin to the fictitious names placed on the list by unscrupulous Pursers in order that they might draw the pay end allowances.
To Risk the run is an old term which was in use with the old sailing convoys and meant that if a ship Risked the run she proceeded without escort. In sailing orders issued to me at Portsmouth during the war I remember on one occasion that I was most strictly enjoined to allow no ships to Risk the run, and it is the only time that I have even seen this phrase used in present day documents.
To Swallow the anchor is a thing that comes to every body sooner or later on leaving the sea for good. It implies that you will have no further use for one of the most trusty implements used in connection with the sea.
A Full Due is an expression meaning for ever or for a very long period, e.g., anything lost overboard and irrecoverable, is said to have gone for a full due. Likewise a rope which will not be used for a long time may be belayed for a full due.
To be Gazetted . This term is derived from the word “Gazette,” a small coin used in the Adriatic and Levant and formerly the price of the first Venetian newspaper.
The Dutch, being a seafaring nation, it is only natural that some of our nautical expressions should be described as Dutch.
A Dutchman’s log is a crude method of computing the speed of a ship through the water. It consists of dropping a floating object overboard at the stem and noting the interval of time taken for it to pass the stern. Thus by a simple calculation the speed of the ship through the water is arrived at providing the length of the ship is known.
A Dutchman’s tackle (or purchase) is a means of expediting the work done by a purchase (or Tackle) by reversing its “Mechanical advantage” and making; it do the work required while: it is being “Overhauled.” A good example of this was the “Gun-loading cage purchase” of the old twelve-inch turrets.
The term is also used to describe a purchase (or tackle) whose efficiency is reduced to a minimum owing to friction, e.g., the hauling part of a tackle being lead round a cleat instead of through a block in a seamanlike manner.
A Dutchman’s Breeches denotes a patch of blue sky to leeward during a storm. Being to leeward its presence is of no material benefit at the moment, but is a hopeful sign of better times to come, in the same way that the patches in a Dutchman’s breeches are a sign that the owner thereof has observed their state of disrepair and is dealing with the situation even though his sartorial efforts do not materially assist in benefiting his personal appearance.
A Dutchman’s pendant is the term used to describe any stray yarn or rope’s end flying loose aloft. This is sometimes wrongly described as an Irish pendant , which ought only to be used when referring; to the frayed “Fly” or end of an ensign, pendant or flag.
The same rule applies to the term a dead man , which strictly speaking refers to any yarn or other untidiness lying about on a level with the deck.
A segment of the full arc of a rainbow is known as a Windog and by many it is supposed to be a sign of the approach of gusty, squally weather. ‘
A flat calm is sometimes referred to by the expression the wind is up and down the mast .
To Hog out (say a boat or mess) is derived from the old Hog, which was a stiff brush made of birch twigs and used to scrub a ship’s bottom.
To bear up , as is well known, means to keep further off the wind, the tiller being borne up to windward. The helmsman in ancient days also had to walk up hill to do this when the ship was heeling over. Merchant Service Officers s have informed me that with them the order refers to the ship’s head and is equivalent to Luffing.
To Warm the Bell or Flog the Glass is to advance the clock or to be previous over a job. Generally used in calling; one’s relief to take over the watch. An illegal and unpopular practice which is of little real use, as it is apt to be returned.
Room to swing a cat . This expression is certainly of nautical origin and referred to the cat o’ nine tails.
The cat is out of the bag , which is a term in common use on shore, may also have been derived from the fact that the Naval cat o’ nine tails was kept in a red baize bag or cover. The usual practice was for the weapon to be produced from the bag while the culprit was being seized up to the gratings and when no chance remained of him escaping punishment.
The: Bitter (or Better ) end was the inboard end of the hemp cable which was secured to the Bites. It was also the better part of the cable, as it was least subjected to wear and tear.
To be sick of the lay is best described in modern parlance as bring “fed up” and a probably derived from the old term “Lay days,” which were a specified period allowed for the uncongenial task of loading and discharging cargo or stores. In the Merchant Service: if the lay days were exceeded without excuse demurrage could be claimed.
Touch and go . When a slip touches ground and goes clear.
Martinet means a strict disciplinarian and takes its name from the French Marquis de Martinet, which still is the nickname in the French Navy for the cat o’ nine tails.
Ditty Box is the receptacle in which a sailor keeps his private small effects and used formerly to be a bag made of “Dittis” or “Manchester Stuff,” in which needles, thread, etc., were kept. Much ink has been spilt over the origin of this term and by many it is believed to be derived from the word “Dight “ (to clean, repair or make good) still in common use in Scotland.
A Snob in Naval parlance means a shoemaker, and a Jew a tailor, while the Indian word Dobhey is used both for men who do laundry work and also for washed clothes.
A Goffer is a non-alcoholic drink such as lemon squash, etc.
Men who privately combine to work at shoe‑making, laundry, tailoring, etc., or manage a bar for soft drinks are said to run a snobbing, dobhey, Jewing or Goffer firm , as the case may be.
The present-day sailor seldom makes his own clothes, but refers to his repairing gear as his Jewing bag or, more usually, as his house-wife.
To be Yellowed or on the Yellow list was the old phrase whereby an Officer announced that the Board of Admiralty had intimated that he would receive no further employment. Nowadays the expression is To get a blue ticket .
Kagg is a Naval argument and its origin is a mystery. More often than not a Kagg fulfils the well-known definition of “a positive assertion, a flat contradiction and personal abuse.”
To Lurk has its shore-going equivalent of “to sting,” and the expression may be used in many ways, e.g., “To lurk someone for a glass of port,” “To be lurked to take a patrol,” “To lurk someone to keep a middle watch,” etc.
Stepney . It is an old tradition of the East End of London and of many seamen that all children born at sea belong to Stepney parish. The old rhyme runs “He who sails on the wide sea is a parishioner of Stepney.” This rather wide claim to the parochial funds has often been made by paupers who have been born at sea and who used gravely to he sent to Stepney from all parts of the country; but various decisions of the superior Courts have at different times decided against the traditional law cited in “ Thornbury: Old and New London.” vol. 2, page 142.
From time to time the Rector of Stepney has been notified of births and baptisms which have taken place at sea so that they might be included in the parish registers. Such cases, however, are becoming more infrequent than formerly, and it is customary now to note these events in the ship’s log and in due course to inform Somerset House.
A good dressing down is described in nautical language as A dose from the foretopman’s bottle .