Customs in Aubrey’s Royal Navy: A Random Collection

By act of Parliament in 1760 the cost of pay and victuals of one able seaman per hundred borne was set aside for the relief of poor officers’ widows. These imaginary men were known as widows’ men. This odd form of charity was abolished in 1823.

From the 17th to the 19th centuries, a British Fleet consisted of three squadrons, and ships of each wore in the maintop and ensign of a different colour to distinguish them in battle. The squadron commanded by the Admiral-in-chief wore red, the vice-admiral’s white, and the rear-admiral’s blue; the admirals often took the title Admiral of the red, etc.

The flag officer wore in the foretop a distinguishing flag of the colour of his squadron emblemed to show his rank. The flags flown to-day by flag officers are those worn in the fleet commanded by the Admiral of the White.

By order-in-council in 1864 the three-squadron policy was abolished; the white ensign was assigned to the navy as Nelson had wished, the blue to the government vessels and those commanded and partly manned by naval reservists, and red to vessels of the merchant fleet. The blue ensign is now assigned also by special warrants to the owners of registered yachts belonging to certain yacht squadrons.

The word jack is said to result from the signature Jacques of King James I in whose reign (1603-1625) the Union Jack was designed.

The practice of wearing two or more large ensigns in action is to prevent an enemy from assuming a ship has struck her colours in surrender when in fact the ensign has been shot away. Ensigns also aid in identification. Similarly a flag officer’s flag is kept flying even if he is killed or rendered incapable of continuing in command.

In port it was the practice to fire a morning gun at sunrise and an evening gun at sunset. At the time of firing the evening gun sentries were to discharge their muskets in a volley to show that their powder was dry and the muskets were in good working order.

The Blue Peter, the flag ‘P’ of the international code — a blue flag pierced with a rectangular white center, is the universal signal for a ship about to sail, though its use in the R.N. is limited to one or two recorded instances ONLY. Admiral Sir William Cornwallis (1744-1819) use to hoist the Blue Peter on anchoring to indicate that his fleet would sail again very shortly and no leave would be granted. The flag was used extensively by merchant ships.

Until very recently victuals and provisions in warships were not only of poor quality but were low in quantity. Vegetables were cooked in salt water and the steam was cooled in a copper condenser fitted on top of the boiler. This yielded about a gallon of distilled water per day on which the surgeon had first call for mixing his medicines.

If provisions were lacking liquor certainly was not. Fresh water, even in casks, would not keep for long and in an early century wine or beer was substituted. The usual ration was a gallon per day per man. The common saying was “We’ll sail as long as the beer lasts”. As there was nothing else to drink except rain-water or melted snow the remark seems an obvious one.

Shortage of stowage space, a problem even in modern warships, caused the introduction of rum in the 18th century. This was issued twice a day, at lunch and at supper; the daily ration was a pint for a man and half a pint for a boy.

Admiral Vernon in 1740, while commander-in-chief of the West Indies squadron, ordered his captains and surgeons to make recommendations regarding the rum issue. The resulting mixture is called grog after the nickname of the admiral, ‘Old Grog’. In 1850 the ration was reduced again to the present half-gill.

The inscription in brass letters on the grog tub “The King, God Bless Him” originates from the custom, regrettably no longer observed, of toasting the sovereign with the first sip of a tot. When all hands had worked in repairing the mainbrace, the heaviest piece of rigging in the ship — an evolution not often carried out — it was usual to issue an extra tot of rum. Thus developed the custom of Splice the Mainbrace.

The custom of using the ship’s bell to mark the passage of time probably dates from the 13th century when it was used in conjunction with a half-hour glass; a bell was sounded each time the glass was turned and the number of bells was progressive throughout a watch. These glasses did not disappear from the navy until 1857. Warming the bell at one time meant to strike it before the correct time, but now it means to do anything early.

The Seaman’s practice of wearing earrings dates from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), not so much in loyalty to the queen as to satisfy a fisherman’s old superstition that pierced ears would improve their eyesight and make them more lively. The occasional earring, of plain yellow gold, is still seen in the Royal Navy, worn usually on the left ear lobe only.

Tattooing of seamen began among Roman Catholic sailors, usually in the form of a crucifix, as a means of identification for their bodies so they would be assured of the sacred rites and burial. The idea was taken from the natives of some regions of the South Pacific. One particular design which is considered a charm is that of a pig; it used to be on the foot but now normally appears just above the kneecap. Among seamen the principal idea of tattooing now seems to be decoration.

Burial at sea, a simple yet most impressive and dignified ceremony, is the most natural means of disposing of a body from a ship at sea. It is still the custom to sew the body into a hammock or other piece of canvass with heavy weights, formerly several cannonballs, at the feet to compensate the tendency of a partly decomposed body (as would be the case in the tropics) to float. To satisfy superstition, or to ensure that the body is actually dead, the last stitch of the sailmaker’s needle is through the nose. Ensigns of ships and establishments in the port area are of course half-masted during a funeral.

It is a custom of the service for the coxswain or master-at-arms to auction a deceased man’s kit to his shipmates, all proceeds being applied to the man’s estate. Many articles sell for several times their original cost, only to be returned to the auctioneer for resale.

The saying of prayers in the navy and in ships at sea is very old indeed. In the 17th and 18th centuries prayers were said before going into action. Naval regulations are still quite explicit about the responsibilities of the captain for holding divine services. It is of note that the ONLY flag that is allowed to fly above the Royal Navy ensign at the gaff position is the church service pennant during religious services aboard ship. Additionally, the design is one of historic note in that it is the St. George’s cross from the British commissioning pennant combined with the Dutch commissioning pennant. It originated from a truce with the Dutch not to fire on each others vessels when this pennant was displayed during religious services of either.

Courtesy of Craig V. Fisher (with LTCMD A.D. Taylor, C.D., R.C.N.) and HMS Richmond.
Image: A Marine and a Sailor of the Pallas by Gabriel Bray. Courtesy of The Sailing Warship and the Marine Art.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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