Naval Customs, Traditions & Terminology
A FEW NAVAL CUSTOMS, EXPRESSIONS, TRADITIONS, and SUPERSTITIONS
by Captain W. N. T. BECKETT M. V. O., D. S. C., ROYAL NAVY
This document is a retype of an original that was apparently published before 1925 by the aforementioned suppliers of uniform to the Royal Navy.
It is not published for profit, but is intended simply as a record of the content of the original in order that the it does not get lost in history. The copier gratefully acknowledges this fact.
Every effort has been made to replicate the layout, spelling, capitalisation, and punctuation of the original.
As it appears usual to write a preface forward, I feel bound to comply with the custom, and wish to explain that this small work is written with the object of dispelling the illusion that “Tradition and Custom count for nothing and it is a pity that Nelson is not buried deeper.”
To those who think matters over, the above oft heard statement merely gives pain. To the other type I can only repeat the words of the distinguished officer who wrote “Whispers of the Fleet” (the late Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock). “So long as the wind and weather last, so assuredly the seaman in command will weather the lubber - and believe me, Sir, the mainsheet, though in a different form, still drives the King’s ships to windward”.
In view of the numerous distinguished seaman who have compiled textbooks and manuals it would be an impertinence for me, in this respect, even to try and follow in their wake, but my hope is that someone with greater talents, more opportunity, and fuller scope, may be stirred into activity, and put into print such knowledge that all the world may learn the origins and customs from which spring our present day nautical language, expressions and phraseology. I will not say in this case that “Small beginnings make great ends”, but would have you believe that chance actions lead to much reflection. In support of that remark I would mention that the origin of my work, in the field of nautical research, was occasioned by my old friend and instructor, Professor Callender, who threw a hammer at me for remarking that St. Paul in his last journey made a poor landfall when he hit Malta. The hammer missed me, but a train of thought was started of which this little work is the outcome.
This pamphlet is compiled from notes which were put together to form the basis of a short lecture. For the lack of style I claim indulgence, as I find “The mightier weapon” tiring to wield and uncertain in it’s effect.
In this predicament I feel that I can count on the sympathy of “Those who go down to the see in ships,” who are frequently forced to put pen to paper for the benefit of “Higher Authority” after they have ceased for the moment “To occupy their business in great waters.”
My sincere thanks are due to Professor Callender for much help and valuable criticism, also to Commander C. N. Robinson, R. N. , Mr. John Masefield, Mr. H. Hodges (for permission to make use of their well known works), Mr. J. W. Culling, Director of Victualling, Surgeon Rear Admiral Sir Arthur Bankhart, K. C. V. O. , Sir Conrad J. Naef, C. B. , C. B. E., Accountant General , Mr. G. E. Manwaring, of the London Library, Mr. D. B. Smith, Secretary of the Admiralty Library, the late Editors of both the “Mariners Library” and the Naval Review, and to my numerous helpers both in H. M. Service and the Merchant Service. Finally, I would tender my thanks to an unknown Naval Officer who served some time in the eighteenth century and who wrote copious notes on these subjects, but neglected to tally the manuscript, which came in to my hands in 1912 and was destroyed by enemy action in 1914.
W. N. T. Beckett, Captain, R. N.
NAVAL CUSTOMS, EXPRESSIONS, TRADITIONS AND SUPERSTITIONS.
Prior to commencing, I would ask you to transport yourself to the year 2025, and imagine that you are sitting in your Club reading the back files of one of our present newspapers. In glancing through the paper, you see the following notice:-
“In flying over London today, Flying Officer John William Jones, in endeavouring to make a forced landing, crashed in St. James’ Park. The pilot was seriously injured and his passenger, killed. The Pilot subsequently reported, when in Hospital, that his engine conked.” You will perhaps be
ps be puzzled by the expression conked, and you will hail a fellow crony in your Club and ask for enlightenment, and will probably receive a reply of this nature:- “My dear fellow, I don’t know. I wish I did, but in those days, nobody took the trouble to write down for the benefit of future generations the meanings of words which were in everyday use.” This is the position in which most students and searchers in the field of old Naval expressions find themselves at the present time.
THE ORIGIN OF THE NAVY
In dealing with this subject, I think it only fair to make some reference to the origin of the Navy, and to the type of ships of which it was composed. The English man-o’-war’s man traces his descent from the institution at least nine centuries old - namely, the Anglo-Saxon Buscarles or Butsecarles and he connects through the Cinque Ports Navy directly with the Royal Navy of our own times. The Butsecarles were a Naval fighting force which corresponded to the Huscarles or Royal Bodyguard of landsmen, who were troops of Canute, Godwin and Harold. They were picked men and maintained to fight the King’s ships, and were usually quartered near the mouth of the Thames and along the south coast of England. In peace time, as a rule, those of the Buscarles who were not actively employed in warlike operations were used either as sea police or for manning the ships on the King’s private affairs. This force was kept until the reign of Henry I., when they were amalgamated with the Cinque Ports
Navy from which they had up to this time been entirely separate. From the Buscarles we learn that in the 11th Century the ships were each under a Batsuen or Boatswain or Husband who commanded her crew in action, and acted at all times as Master, Pilot, or Steersman for which service he was paid 10 Marks. In the Merchant Service at the present time the person charged with the outfitting of the ship is still called the ship’s Husband. Edward The Confessor’s principal ship carried a Rector or Captain, as well as a Boatswain or Steersman. The rowers, who took orders from the Boatswain, were paid 8 Marks a man, and were provided with provisions and clothing. The latter consisted of rough woollen cloth dyed blue; we thus see that Blue, even at this date, was considered an appropriate colour for use at sea. In this respect we
can go back still further, namely, to about 55 AD, when we find a class of ship named the Pictae which rowed 20 oars a side and was coated with wax below water. In order to be invisible at sea they were furnished with grey blue sails and manned by oarsmen dressed in a similar colour. With such ships, the Counts of the Saxon shore watched the coasts, and later, Carasausius and Ellectus held British seas against all comers. This is probably one the earliest examples of camouflage in maritime affairs which is mentioned in history.
Beside the Boatswain already mentioned, we find the Cogswain, who apparently was the Officer in charge of a Cog, a different type of vessel manned by 39 mariners, with one Master in charge and two Constables as assistants.
This vessel was popular in the reign of Edward I., at which time the term Rector was going out of use. I will deal later with the powers and position of the Boatswain when we meet him subsequently. The old Saxon type of ship called a Bus has its memory perpetuated at the present day. On the east coast, up to very recently, a sailing drifter was frequently referred to as a Herring Bus. In 1645, during the Long Parliament, instructions were issued for general Courts Martial to be held for the trial of Captains and Commanders, and for the ship Courts Martial on Officers of junior rank. The Boatswain and Gunner were authorised to serve on the court on a Ship Court Martial. Courts Martial probably originated from the Court of Chivalry, of which no trace now remains except as found in the court of the Earl Marshal. The jurisdiction of Courts Martial were prescribed by an Act of Richard II., 1377-1399.
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 ThePeople 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 froth 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 Castille 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 Fxle., 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 commemorated 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 Torn 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. SUPERSTITIONS.
Fishermen have a superstition that to see a Hare an the way down to the boat brings bad luck, and if one looks at some of the old books concerning witchcraft it will be seen that it was a common belief that witches frequently disguised themselves as hares.
A fisherman wears earrings to make him lively and particularly to improve his eyesight. The fact that the ear had to be pierced may have had something to do with this, as we find that in the old prize fighting days it was a common practice to bite the ear of a man who had been knocked out in order that he might be brought round and so continue the fight.
Many fishermen are averse to using white stones for ballast or a knife with a white handle, but none have been able to tell me why.
Of course, sailing on a Friday or the 13th of the month is of Biblical origin and is well known to everybody. To carry a Parson is often thought to be unlucky, as the Devil was considered to specially lay for the Padre and to visit the ship in order to compete with him, and it was an these grounds that his presence was considered undesireable.
To bring wind it was customary to stick a knife in the mast with the handle pointing to the direction from which the wind was desired. I have heard that this belief was founded on the idea of a storm accompanied by lightning springing up from the wished for direction.
In the West Country I have heard the belief expresses that the souls of old sailors inhabit sea gulls. Of course, the legend of the Ancient Mariner is well known to every-body, but there is a quaint similarity between this belief and that held in North Russia, where it is thought that for three weeks after death the soul of the departed enters into a pigeon. In many other countries similar beliefs also exist.
During the Dwina River campaign I know that villagers who frequently had relatives fighting on both sides were most careful to feed any pigeons that were about and were highly incensed by the fact that British Officers frequently shot these birds for the pot.
To permit a glass to ring is supposed to sound the knell of a sailor who will die by drowning. If, however, the ringing is stopped “The Devil will take two soldiers in lieu.” In conclusion let me quote an extract from a letter of JOHN PAUL JONES to the Naval Committee of
Congress and dated September 14th. 1776, regarding his opinion of what he considers desirable in a Naval Officer:
“It is by no means enough that an Officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner; he must be that of course, and also a good deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and nicest sense of personal Honour. Coming now to view the Naval Officer aboard ship and in relation to those under his command, he should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward be only one of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well-meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid blunder. As he should be universal and impartial in his rewards and approval of merit, so should he be judicial and unbending in his punishment or reproof of misconduct.
In his intercourse with subordinates he should ever maintain the attitude of the Commander, but that need by no means prevent him from the amenities of cordiality or the cultivation of good cheer within the proper limits. Every Commanding Officer should hold with subordinates such relations as will make them constantly anxious to sit at his table, and his bearing towards them should be such as encourages them to express their opinions to him with freedom and to ask his views without reserve. The Navy is essentially and necessarily aristocratic. True as may be the political principles for which we now contend, they can never be perfectly applied or even admitted onboard ship, out of port or off soundings. This may seem a hardship, but it is nevertheless the simplest of truths. Whilst the ships sent forth by Congress may and must fight for the principles of human rights and republican freedom, the ships themselves must be ruled and commanded at sea under a system of absolute despotism.”
I believe this letter is used, as a preamble for the Articles of War of the United States Navy, and I can only think of one better, namely, our own, which is more than 500 years old and states that “It is the Navy whereon, under the good providence of God, the wealth, safety and strength of the Kingdom chiefly depend.” The periodical reading of the Articles of War dates from an order issued by the Lord High Admiral of CHARLES II., and the fact that the Articles of War have been read is considered of such importance that a notation to the effect that they have been read quarterly to the ship’s company has to be signed by the Captain when the ship’s ledger is closed.
Fur the benefit of, and as a sop to those, whose “Principles” and views are to be deplored and who still consider that “The Service has gone to the Devil” and yet do nothing to rectify the matter, I suggest that they lay to heart the following line attributed to Captain Marryat, which were engraved on a board and formerly were displayed in the old Admiralty wailing room, where Officers of a bygone period were detained when Waiting on My Lords in order to seek employment. The board and words now hang in the office of the Drafting Commander, Royal Naval Barracks, Portsmouth. In sore affliction, tried by Gods command, of Patience, Job, the great example stands; But in these days a trial more severe Had been Job’s lot, if God had sent him here.