Customs of the Navy

Chapter 7 - More Customs

One of the oldest customs still practised is that relating to the launching of a new ship. The oldest reference to this custom is that of an Assyrian tablet, believed to have been carved about 2100 B.C., on which the inscription tells of the building of Noah's Ark, and of the launching that a yoke of oxen was sacrificed. In similar manner the Fiji islanders and the Samoans made human sacrifice to the sharks, which to them were gods, and washed down their new canoes in the victims' blood. Viking legends tell of young men being crushed in sacrifice under the keels of ships being launched.

A later development, probably about the 14th century, was the custom of toasting the new vessel from silver wine goblets. The goblets were thrown into the sea to prevent further toasts, possibly of bad omen, being drunk. For reasons of economy a wine bottle was substituted in 1690. It was usual for a prince or other male member of royalty to smash the bottle against the bow, but after 1811 the honour was given to prominent ladies. A free swing was traditional until a spectator was injured and sued the Admiralty, and from that time a lanyard has been secured to the bottle. This is not always the case, at least on this continent; Mrs. Eisenhower, launching the world's first atomic-powered submarine U.S.S. Nautilus at Groton, Conn., in January 1954, used a champagne bottle without a lanyard. Some Canadian shipyards use a form of mechanical cradle containing a champagne bottle.

The custom is partly religious and partly pagan in origin, and it is by no means correct to assume that champagne is the only liquid used; it is currently in fashion, but in the past all alcoholic beverages have been employed, and even pure water has made the occasional appearance, especially in Moslem countries. It is still very much in the nature of sacrifice to smash a bottle of good liquor or wine.

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.

The most well-known version of the 'Call the Hands' jingle is this one:

"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,
It's tomorrow morning and the sun's a-scorching your (bleeding) eyes out."

To this a brief weather report was often added so that the men would know how warmly to dress. The question may well be raised why we now pipe the dress of the day with breakfast rather than when the hands are called. Wakey, wakey is probably only a corruption of "awake ye, awake ye". The mention of a purser's stocking refers to the days in harbour when women were allowed on board, and the privilege of laying-in was accorded married couples. From this same practice we have the expression fitting double clews on a hammock, meaning to get married.

The paying-off- pendant dates from the 19th century when cleaning rags in a ship decommissioning were knotted together and hoisted as a sign that they would no longer be used. For uniformity (?) the practice is for the pendant to be the length of the ship if she paid off on the proper date, with the addition of 1/24 of the length for each additional month. Some sources say 1/12, but as foreign commissions in the R.N. until recently have been reckoned as being of two years' duration 1/24th may be correct. Still another version holds the custom more simply as one foot for each month in commission.

It is an old naval custom that when a commanding or flag officer relinquishes his command, he is pulled ashore by an officer's boat crew. In shore establishments it now seems to be the vogue to 'pull' the officer 'ashore' in his staff car or jeep.

At an officer's court martial his sword is used to signify the court's finding - guilty if pointed towards, not guilty if turned away. A similar practice has been carried out in Britain for many centuries; in procession from the court the executioner carried the headsman's axe with the blade toward or away from the prisoner, and for hanging the prisoner's hands were tied or left free.

It has long been the rule that prizes captured in action are the property of the Crown. But King John in 1205 gave a part of the value of each prize to the crews concerned, obviously as an incentive to clear the seas of foreign raiders and privateers and to improve the meager pay. During World War I for the first time prize monies were shared throughout the whole navy, and in World War II air force squadrons employed on coastal command duties were included. It is felt by some that the Canadian Government broke with tradition without adequate cause in donating their prize money to the R.C.N. Benevolent Fund; considering the numbers of servicemen involved and the amount itself it would have been impracticable to do otherwise.

It was the practice of the ancients to decorate their sails for double duty as flags, a practice which continued until the Middle Ages. 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 blue, and the rear-admiral's white; the admirals often took the title Admiral of the red, etc. In 1665 the order of seniority was changed to red, white and blue. Nelson at Trafalgar ordered all ships to hoist white ensigns. Two reasons might be offered for his action: first to confuse the enemy who for centuries had been accustomed to the British tactic of having three squadrons so readily identified, and secondly to avoid confusing the red ensign with the Spanish -- red with yellow -- as might be possible at a distance.

The flag officer wore in the foretop a distinguishing flag of the colour of his squadron defaced 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 first recorded instance of the use of a British flag or ensign at sea was in 1297 when Edward I ordered his ships sallying forth against France to wear the British standard. 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.

Obviously the practice, which is still required by Q.R.C.N article 62.41 (3), 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. It is said that Admiral Sir Richard Grenville (1541-1591) signalled in action that his ensigns would never be struck or disappear even if his flagship were sunk. This crafty officer, immortalised in Tennyson's poem "The Revenge", assured himself of that by keeping his ship in shallow water! This is also attributed to Admiral Duncan who, in 1797, blockaded fifteen Dutch ships with his flagship and one other vessel by the expedient of signalling to a non-existent squadron over the horizon; at the same time he is reputed to have told his ships' companies that his flags would still be flying at high tide even if the two ships were sunk by the Dutch. Similarly a flag officer's flag is kept flying even if he is killed or rendered incapable of continuing in command (Q.R.C.N. article 62.21)

The custom of half-masting colours during a funeral or period of mourning dates from earliest times. We read in the Old Testament of men putting on sack cloth and ashes to appear downcast and slovenly. In the 17th century ships scandalised their yards and allowed their sails to hang in slovenly fashion. For this reason we abhor the careless practice of failing to keep an ensign or jack close-up or of permitting it to foul its staff. When we actually are in mourning we carry out the gesture of half-masting our colours.

Lord St. Vincent was responsible for instituting a guard and band for colours in 1797, after the Nore Mutinies. At first the guard and band were paraded at sunrise, but as the time varies daily the routine was established in 1844 as 0800 in summer (and in the tropics) and 0900 in winter.

The naval Queen's Colour is a silken white ensign embodying the Royal Cypher. It is mounted on an ash staff, surmounted with a gilt badge in which are combined the symbols of the Crown and the Admiralty. This feature of the colour dates from early times when military unit commanders (for example, Roman centurions) had heraldic devices mounted on poles for use in battle as identification symbols and rallying points. In ancient Egypt objects such as sacred animals or tablets bearing the king's name were carried into battle atop staffs. Similarly, in Persia, a stuffed eagle was borne into action on the end of a lance. In a later period battle flags were attached to the staffs. The earliest mention of a royal colour is from 1747.

The colour is now presented to naval commands by the ruling sovereign. It is never paraded onboard ship or abroad. It is paraded ashore, uncased, on special occasions only, accompanied by an armed colour party, and is lowered only to members of the Royal Family and to heads of foreign states or their representatives. When the late King George VI presented his Colour to the R.C.N.'s Pacific Command at Victoria in 1939 it was the first time a sovereign had personally made such a presentation outside Great Britain.

A ship's commissioning or masthead pendant is said to have originated from Blake's Whip, in commemoration of his driving the Dutch from the seas in 1653. Though it is not doubted that Blake hoisted a whip to his masthead on that occasion , the masthead pendant originated much earlier, probably in the 14th century when ensigns and pendants were first authorised in the Royal Navy. Blake had done this in defiance of the Dutch admiral Tromp who had the previous year hoisted a broom to his masthead, signifying that he had swept the British from the seas. Nowadays a broom hoisted in a merchant ship indicates change of ownership, i.e. "a new broom sweeps clean", while in the navy it is used more as Tromp did, as a sign of victory over other ships of a flotilla in all events of general drills or a regatta.

Evening Quarters was the taking up of stations in preparation for night action, and came to mean merely the formal end of the day's work.

In port it used to be the practice to fire a morning gun at sunrise and an evening gun at sunset or 2100. 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. This practice is seen now only as part of the ceremony of Beating Retreat and Sunset. The retreat is actually a military custom, which had its origin in the 16th century (the earliest record is 1554), or possibly earlier, perhaps during the Crusades. In the garrison town in England it was the custom, and very colourful it must have been, for the drum major to muster his drummers after sunset and parade into the town. The marching manoeuvres of the drummers are symbolic of the parade through the narrow twisting streets of an English town in search for their soldiers. This is the tattoo, a term derived from the Flemish expression tap toe, which was the order to the publicans to turn off the beer taps for the night. On completing the rounds a bugler would sound the first post and the soldiers were expected to follow the parade back to their barracks. Shortly after the drummers returned the bugler sounded the last post and the garrison gates were closed for the night. The same ceremony took place nightly in Canada when the gates of the forts were closed against attack by Indians. The two parts of the original ceremony are now reversed, probably only to build up to the climax of the stirring sunset ceremony.

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 no longer used in the navy in that sense. The term is believed to be a corruption of the French partir - to leave, and the complete expression is attributed to Admiral Sir William Cornwallis (1744-1819) who used to hoist the Blue Peter on anchoring to indicate that his fleet would sail again very shortly and no leave would be granted. For his pains he was nicknamed 'Billy Blue' by his sailors who failed to appreciate his keenness for action.

Until very recently victuals and provisions in warships were not only of poor quality but were low in quantity. Not at all surprising is the fact that rationing had its origin at sea. Fresh food was used as long as it lasted and was restocked wherever possible, but by and large dried provisions such as salt pork and beef and dried fish had to be used. An interesting feature of Nelson's flagship VICTORY, now preserved in a graving dock in Portsmouth dockyard, is the manger, right forward on the lower gundeck, in which were kept several pigs and sheep plus a flock of chickens. Despite the obvious undesirability of having this livestock in an already over-crowded messdeck their presence meant the occasional morsel of fresh meat. Just a few feet abaft the manger is the galley, such as it is -- a combined barbeque, oven and boiler for vegetables. The latter 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. Sir Martin Frobisher (1535-1594) of North West Passage fame, is quoted as saying "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. In 1824 when the use of tea became common in the navy the suppertime ration was cancelled.

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. This mixture is called grog after the nickname of the admiral, 'Old Grog', in deference to his cloak of program material. In 1850 the ration was reduced again to the present half-gill.

Brandy was in use from 1650 to 1687, to be replaced by rum after the capture of Jamaica. It seems possible that rum may give way to beer if the stowage problems can be solved; it is already an authorised issue for R.C.N. ships on repayment through the canteen. At the time of writing (1955) the R.N. is studying recent experiments at producing a dehydrated beer for use in ships. Expense of dehydration seems to be the chief disadvantage of this method.

The inscription in brass letters on the grog tub "The Queen, God Bless Her" 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. Of course bells were not sounded between pipe down and call the hands, hence the expression silent hours. Warming the bell at one time meant to strike it before the correct time, but now it means to do anything early.

Prior to 1797 bells were sounded normally, one to eight, throughout the dog watches; it is said that the signal for the Nore Mutiny to commence on the 13th day of May of that year was to be "five bells in the dog watches", i.e. 1830, but that an officer who heard of this intention had only one bell sounded. It is a matter of historic fact that his action had no effect on the commencement of the mutiny, however the custom remains.

The Seaman's practice of wearing earrings probably comes from an ancient eastern custom of wearing amulets as charms and insignia of rank. More recently they appear to date 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 latter notion probably has its origin in the old practice of biting the ear of a fallen prize-fighter to bring him to consciousness. The occasional earring, of plain yellow gold, is still seen in the navy, worn usually on the left ear lobe only.

Beards have long been popular with seamen as a sign of manhood. The ancient Hebrews, and also Greeks and Romans, associated beards with wisdom. In some navies moustaches alone are permitted. Beards are nowadays officially discouraged for reasons of self-preservation in modern naval warfare.

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. Nowadays tattooing parlours abound in all seaport towns. 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 Orientals and 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.

As late as 1866 the normal launching method for the Whitehead torpedo was by underwater discharge. The first above water discharge was carried out in the torpedo trials ships ACTEON about 1880 by tilting a mess table toward an open gun port -- an idea obviously taken from the method of burial at sea.

A funeral on shore with full naval honours means a procession commanded by a lieutenant, a band with drums muffled in black cloth, the body borne on a field-gun carriage and limber manned by thirty-two men on drag ropes, a funeral firing party of at least twelve men, a mourning party of relatives, shipmates and friends, and an escort of at least twenty men. The constitution of the parties is based on the rank of the deceased; the figures and ranks quoted are the minimum. In addition a guard is paraded for a deceased officer above the rank of lieutenant. The cocked hat and sword of a deceased senior officer are carried on top of the coffin on the gun carriage, and his decorations and medals are borne in the procession on a blue velvet cushion.

The whole procession slow-marches to the cemetery or ship's side where the funeral firing party opens out to form a lane; they turn inwards and rest on their arms reversed as the procession passes through the ranks. Over the grave, or after the body has been committed to the deep the funeral firing party fires three volleys of blank cartridges. In the case of a senior officer the same gun salute he was entitled to when living is fired in minute guns.

A naval funeral is without a doubt a most impressive and dignified ceremony. 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.

An interesting naval practice, indulged in chiefly by senior and commanding officers, is that of using biblical references for signaling and message purposes. A few examples will serve to illustrate: to compliment a ship on her gunnery another might signal, "Exodus 15 verse 8" -- "And with the blast of thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as a heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea". Or, in flattery to the senior officer of a formation: "Exodus 25 verse 38" -- "Of a talent of pure gold shall he make it, with all these vessels". For a promotion to lieutenant: "Exodus 37 verse 3" -- "And he cast for it four rings of gold, to be set by the four corners of it; even two rings upon the one side of it , and two rings upon the other side of it". Such use of references out of the context is not only quite permissible in this form of repartee but is indicative of imagination and skill. There is an indexed book available for reference; this of course makes the custom somewhat prosaic.

The saying of prayers in the navy and in ships at sea is very old indeed. In the 17th century hymns and psalms were sung on changing watches, and in the 17th and 18th centuries prayers were said before going into action. Outstanding in our naval history are the prayers of Sir Francis Drake before entering Cadiz, Spain, on 19 April 1587:

O Lord God, when thou givest thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through Him that for the finishing of thy work laid down His life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.

and of Admiral Nelson on the morning of the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805:

May the great God whom I worship, grant to my country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious victory; and may no misconduct in anyone tarnish it; and may humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen, Amen, Amen.

Naval regulations are still quite explicit about the responsibilities of the captain for holding divine services.

The practice of receiving officers at the gangway of a ship is very old and used to be attended by much pomp and ceremony. Some captains used to require that all officers be on deck to receive them no matter what hour of the day or night they returned.

Until quite recently the sailors' Christmas celebrations were in no way interfered with by the officers. This was wise as men and women were often killed in the festivities. Through the years these orgies reverted to innocuous pranks and colourful parading; part of this was the ancient Roman custom of exchanging clothes and duties during the festive of the Saturnalia, now followed in the R.C.N. in its present form, that of the captain and the youngest man onboard changing places for the day, and the officers serving Christmas dinner to the men.

Without a doubt the most entertaining of naval customs is that of the ceremony of Crossing the Line, a practice which had its origin in the pagan initiation rites of the Vikings. The next recorded instance, somewhat obscure in detail, is that a variation of these rites was performed by the ships' companies on crossing the 36th parallel of north latitude and entering the Straits of Gibraltar. Some centuries later the ceremony became one for crossing the equator. A summary of the events of the present-day ceremony as practised aboard R.C.N. ships may be of interest.

The night before the ship is due to cross 'The Line' a quaint ceremony takes place on the forecastle in which the Bears, as agents of the Secretary of State of King Neptune's Watery Realm, board the ship, in theory via the hawsepipes; with a little ingenuity this can be very effectively staged with curtains of spray illuminated by coloured lights. The Bears should be received onboard by a member of the ship's company who has previously been granted the Freedom of the Seas, and by him conducted to the captain on the bridge, there to deliver a Royal Proclamation regarding the ship's entry into Neptune's Kingdom, and the holding of the Royal Court on the morrow to initiate all novices into the Mystic Rites. The Bears may then make their exit by the way they came.

For the next day, that on which the ship crosses the equator, a canvass bath of suitable size should be rigged. Above one side of the bath rig a ducking stool and thrones for the King and Queen Amphitrite. To commence the ceremony the Royal Bugler sound Clear the lower deck and Officer's Call to the vicinity of the bath -- dress of the day: bathing trunks -- and then the Royal Procession makes their Stately Progress from the Royal Robing Room to the Royal Bath. This is always a high point in the ceremony as the members of the Court will have gone to considerable pains concerning their costumes and appearance. Extreme latitude in this matter is customary, though it is usual for the King to have a bushy grey or black beard, a crown of course, and a trident.

The actual ceremony will usually commence with the investiture of some such decoration to the captain as The Insignia of the Most Exalted, shipboard personalities as have already crossed the line the Equatorial Star or the Equinoctial Cross might be in order. Engineers' workshops often will produce suitable decorations.

At this point, in regal and flowery language, His Majesty King Neptune I (By the Grace of Mythology Lord of the Waters, Sovereign of all Oceans, Governor and Lord High Admiral of the Bath, to give him his traditional titles) will address the Novices as to their impending fate, warning them that none shall be overlooked, and that all "shall be initiated into the Mystic Rites of the Freedom of the Seas, according to the Ancient Customs of our Watery Kingdom".

The Judge's Clerk will then call each candidate in order, to be represented by the Judge to Their Aquatic Majesties, and to be examined and prepared for the Rites of Initiation by the King's Most Eminent Physician (note: formal medical training is NO qualification for holding this appointment in the Royal Court). The treatment normally consists of an enormous pill concocted in the chief petty officers' mess with the willing cooperation of the galley and sick bay staffs. About all that can be said about the pill is that it will not be toxic but almost certainly laxative. As if this were not enough a tonic, similarly of doubtful content, will be administered by the Doctor's Assistant; a large galley syringe, as used for icing cakes, proves most effective for this purpose. The Doctor may also use a wooden mallet to sound the back, chest, and probably head of the victim, who is then certified fit for the ordeal and is passed on to the Royal Barber and his nefarious assistant. These will lather his face, and probably more, and then shave him with a large wooden straight razor. During this he will be pushed over backwards into the canvass bath, there to be ducked several times by the Bears.

From time to time, should the Secret, Po1ice report that some Novices are hiding, the King may interrupt the proceedings to make public announcement of the offence and order his police to arrest the offenders and bring then before Him.

When the greenhorns have all been dealt with ac­cording to custom it is usual for the shellbacks to apply to re-qualify, following which formalities are relaxed and the whole Court will probably take a plunge into the bath. It is needless to say that the ceremony is one of great amusement and much good-natured skylarking. We normally commemorate the occasion by a-warding a Crossing the Line certificate specially produced for that ship and that cruise.

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