Royal Navy & Marine Customs and Traditions

To portray an accurate persona, it is necessary in all respects to conform to the established customs and practices of His Majesty's Service at Sea. The customs and practices referred to were the naval equivalent of the unwritten common law of Great Britain; and your persona is legally bound to conform to the law of the land, of which a large part is not recorded in statute form.

The study of naval customs and traditions of 1775 to 1783, like the study of the larger body of history itself, is not an exact science, and the material stated herein is the product of much research, substantiated by at least some evidence, and the assistance of the noted authority on the subject, LTCMD A.D. Taylor, C.D., R.C.N.

H.M.S. Richmond,

Craig V. Fisher



NOTE: Refer to the graphical course "Orientation to Frigate Design" for general shipboard terms, such as the term "Orlop" deck.

From the Norse came the use of a single steering oar or sweep on the right or steer board side of their vessels. Everyone followed this design. It was found awkward to put a vessel alongside a dock on the side this oar was shipped. Thus ships were put alongside starboard side outboard. A plank was put across from the dock to ship. This plank or board was called the ladeboard or loadboard, later larboard. There was doubtless much confusion over the use of the terms larboard and starboard, but after our period there came relief. The French with their high ships' sides devised a shortcut to handling cargo: they cut a loading door or ports in the ship's side. To mariners this became the portside.

From early times, to avoid collisions, ships underway or at anchor by night carried at least a single lantern showing a white light. It was not until 1845 that coloured lights were authorized for this purpose.


During our time period, men signed on for the duration of the commission of the ship in which they had elected to serve; only the Captain, his lieutenants and warrant officers were retained in the service after the ship paid off. From about 1660 to 1797 the pay of an Ordinary Seaman had remained at 19 shillings, that of an Able Seaman at 24 shillings, a month. At the end of the period this rate of pay, fixed by law, was about one-quarter the pay of a seaman in the merchant service.

Until 1825 some pay was held back as a guarantee against desertion. It was the practice to pay off the men at the end of a commission, hence the expression, a ship paying off.

At the end of a commission each man was given a pay ticket, which could be cashed at the Admiralty. But as the men had insufficient funds to go to London money lenders came to the home ports and paid as little as 60% of the value of the pay tickets. After 1728 men were paid aboard ship after returning to their homeport.

Captain Cook, on his second world voyage in H.M.S. Resolution (1772-1775), lost only one man to scurvy. In a document to the Admiralty he attributed his good fortune to the use of lemons; this resulted in their adoption for general use in British ships. Lime juice came in to use due to the plentiful supply from the West Indies, while not as effective as lemons, does have similar properties. This is where the term Limeys comes as a reference to British sailors.

From Saxon times press-gangs had functioned in order to provide seamen. It was an Admiralty rule, founded upon very old usage, that every male British subject was eligible to be pressed into service. But the principal raids by press-gangs were on experienced seafarers, particularly those serving aboard merchant vessels. There is little doubt that pressing for the naval service was legal (and incidentally the right has never been repealed or abrogated) provided the press-gangs held a warrant issued in the county and was accompanied by a commissioned officer. Click here to view a Warrant for a press-gang. There was also lawful protection documents that barred press-gangs from taking the person. These were of short tenure and only for necessary skilled craftsmen, men with connections, &c. Click here to view a protection document for a Royal Dock Yard craftsman.


Slops, a term referring to naval clothing stores, is derived from the Old English sloppe - a loose fitting and shapeless garment. Very basic slops were provided in the Royal Navy since 1632. These were offered by civilian tradesmen, slop-sellers as they were called, and were more readily patronised than the naval stores.

In 1760, other navies having uniforms by this time, officers petitioned the Admiralty for a uniform for their sailors. The unofficial uniform was described as "a little low cocked hat, pea jacket, and canvas petticoat trousers not unlike a kilt, tight stockings and shoes with pinchbeck buckles". Men did not wear cocked hats after 1780, and when worn by officers they were worn athwartships until 1795, and fore-and-aft from that year, at first for only Captains and below. Flag Officers wore cocked hats athwartships until 1825. The cocked hat for men was replaced with a shiny black tarpaulin hat with the name of the ship on a broad black ribbon. Straw hats were not introduced from the West Indies until 1802, and were in use until 1922.

Being unofficial there were numerous variations to the basic uniform described; mention has been made of coloured comforters and knitted waistcoats. Captains of ships frequently used to dress their ships' companies, or at least their boats' crews, in the particular rig they fancied.

It is interesting to note that the pigtail or queue (the fashion for all classes from about 1785-1825) would have been the exception during our time period, except for some young officers spearheading the latest new fashion. Pressed men were often with lice and were shorn as a routine; thus wearing long hair or a pigtail was a mark of service.

A handkerchief was often worn about the neck, opened at the back like a kerchief, to protect the back of the neck from tar or tallow on the hair. It was also used as a sweatband by the guns' crews. Until the uniform was standardised in 1857 the silk, linen, or cotton material was often a colourful article; being of mostly red or blue with many different designs printed on it. Many were black or near that from being used to wipe the hands of the constant contact with the tar used on the ship's rigging.

The original use of a lanyard was to hang the seaman's knife in front of his body. It was of such a length that a man aloft could open the knife with one arm outstretched, the other holding onto the rigging. It was worn under the collar for comfort, appearance, and to prevent strangulation should the lanyard be grasped or caught below the turk's head.

There are at least four reasons for the shape of the seaman's knife blade: blunt-ended for poor stabbing qualities and so it would cause less damage if dropped from aloft, because it can be used to cut stops without damaging clothing or sails, or can be used as a screwdriver.

There was no standard uniform for officers until 1748. Prior to that year officers, and captains of ships in particular, had worn what they pleased.


The prefix vice with admiral means in place of, and therefore subordinate to, an admiral. At one time it was considered most important to protect the head and rear of a fleet of ships in fixed formation, usually with two squadrons known as the vanguard and the rearguard. The admiral commanding the rearguard was the admiral of the rear or rear-admiral. The admiral of the van was next in seniority to the admiral-in-chief (later admiral of the fleet) and bore the rank of vice-admiral. Commodore, a much more recent term not of our period, is an officer who commands a (detached) squadron of ships.

From the 14th century the term captain referred to the officer commanding the soldiers whereas the ship was under command of the master. In the last half of the 17th century the duties were combined when the soldiers were no longer a separate entity onboard. The Master remained responsible for the sailing of the ship.

Lieutenant is French in origin - (en) lieu tenant - and means holding a place or position for someone else. The obsolescent R.N. pronunciation 'le-tenant' is close, whereas the army's 'LEF-tenant' seems a corruption of the worst sort.

First Lieutenant is an appointment rather than a rank; the officer so appointed will be the senior executive lieutenant in the ship.

The rank of sub-lieutenant was not during our time period, as it came into being in 1802.

A midshipman originally was, as the name suggests, one who lived amidships, this is mid-way between the officers who lived aft and the men who lived forward. While training as an officer he worked with the men somewhat like naval cadets do today. The midshipman used to serve seven years on the lower deck and was roughly equivalent to a present day petty officer in rank and position.

The midshipman's white patch, as an insignia of rank, came into use in 1758. It has been suggested that the patch is all that remains of what used to be a white coat collar, which went out of use because the 'Young Gentlemen' used to dirty it too quickly. No support can be found for this doubtful theory. The significance of white, however, is of great antiquity; to it our word candidate is related. Candidus, Latin adjective for white, referred to the pure colour of the togas worn by those aspiring to high office in the Roman government.

Topmen, who worked aloft in the rigging, were the cream of the seamen complement. Carrying this aspect still farther we can see that the term upper yardmen for Midi's from the lower deck implies the very best men.

The title of purser is related to a bursar - a treasurer; it dates from the 14th century, and existed as a naval rank until 1852. The Pursers received no pay, but were expected to make a profit by their sharp practices. In the 18th century a purser paid two sureties, totalling as much as 2100 pounds, to the Admiralty, and in addition had to buy a warrant costing about 65 pounds. That there was a great demand for the post despite these outlays proves the expectation of making more than a reasonable profit. It has been recorded that most pursers charged slop sellers a shilling in every pound, i.e. 5%, but that they made a good deal more on sales to the men. False pay tickets, which they cashed with moneylenders, were almost an expected thing, and brought about by necessity the custom of muster by open list, quarterly and at inspections, when each man stepped before the captain and told his name, rank, and his duties on board.

The rank of Gunner dates from the early 16th century. He was a warrant officer, in charge of the ship's armament and the gunroom, not only of the muskets kept there but also of the junior and subordinate officers while using it as a mess.

The rating as it used to be known, of petty officer (literally: inferior officer) was established in the 18th century. 

Ranking as Inferior Warrant Officers were the master-at-arms (originally the small arms instructor), the sailmaker, the armourer, and the ship's cook. The master-at-arms, or in a large ship the lieutenant-at-arms (often the junior lieutenant) together with the ship's corporals, had so little to do as small-arms instructors that it became the practice to assign to them what we would now call regulating duties. After a time the original duties disappeared or were taken back by the gunner and his staff.

Until about 1800, the normal type of salute was the raising of the cap, originating with the removal of the steel helmet. Touching the brim between the index finger and thumb became a recognized alternative. This is a clear indication of the origin of the naval type of salute, hiding the sight of their tar-stained hands. Officers were permitted to salute with the left hand if the right were engaged.

For centuries the quarterdeck has been regarded as the seat of authority, though it is saluted even by the captain. The reason is that in harbour and in fair weather at sea the colours are flown from the quarterdeck. In the United States Navy officers and men coming aboard face aft and salute their ensign whereas we salute the ship (straight ahead, looking athwartship). In harbour, men should not salute as they step over the brow to go ashore. An officer does so only to return the courtesy salutes of the officer-of-the-watch and the gangway staff; it is incorrect for men to do likewise.

A gesture of intended friendship may also be seen in forms of salutes by armed vessels. When the ship that was to windward (having the weather gauge) had the advantage of speed and position, the act of letting fly her sheets was clearly one of friendly intentions. We employ the same principle in pulling boats by resting oars or tossing oars. After 1201 A.D. the customary salute by a merchant vessel to a man-of-war was to strike the topsail. Even before steam replaced sail the practice of dipping the ensign in lieu of a topsail had been introduced.

A warship, before entering a foreign port, to signify her friendly intent would fire all her guns singly, thus leaving the ship temporarily unarmed because of the time required to reload. Usually the charges were blank.

When two warships met each would steer toward the other, firing all guns singly on the beam. Later the practice developed of firing personal gun salutes, a certain number of guns depending on the rank or status of the personage saluted. You may wonder why we always fire an odd number of guns in our salutes. Although nearly all ships of the line had even numbers of guns the reason probably is that odd numbers (thirteen now excepted) have been considered lucky for many centuries. The only exception appears to be that minute guns, fired on the occasion of a sovereign's funeral, total the number of years of his or her age.

A special gun salute, the firing of a single gun known as the 'rogue's salute', is fired at colours on the day a court martial convenes at sea or on land. Formerly this was a signal to the fleet for all hands to muster on deck to witness yardarm execution. A yellow flag was flown in the ship to be watched until execution was carried out; when hauled down hands could disperse.

Piping the side is a purely nautical honour which originated in the method of arrival onboard of visiting captains and admirals, frequently portly gentlemen, who were hoisted onboard while the boatswain passed orders to the men with his boatswain's call. Where the arrival had to be hoisted aboard, the officer-of-the-watch gives the side party the order to "Hoist him in". The number of side-boys needed was a factor of the weight of the person being hoisted in, and not unusual for the higher the rank, the more side-boys needed.

The Pipe the Side call itself is performed twice, once as the boat draws alongside the ship's accommodation ladder, and again as the officer mounts the ladder and steps inboard; the procedure is reversed at his departure. When coming onboard or leaving by brow the side is only piped once.

Members of royalty, their personal representatives, and senior officers of military services were accorded musical salutes, as entitled by regulations. In the original form this type of salute consisted of a number or ruffles on drums -- three for an admiral, two for a vice-admiral, and one for a rear-admiral.

Another form of salute which originates in the showing of friendly intent is that of manning ship. All hands appeared on deck or aloft and grasped the rigging; this showed that guns were not manned and no small arms were carried.


The punishment listed in the Admiralty Black Book for sleeping on watch, a very serious offence because it endangered the ship, was at first humiliating and for repeated offences brutal. A bucket of sea-water was poured over the head of a first offender. A second time the offender's hands were tied over his head and a bucket of water was poured down each sleeve. For a third offence the man was tied to the mast with heavy gun chambers secured to his arms, and the captain could order as much additional pain to be inflicted as he wished. The fourth offence was inevitably fatal; the offender was slung in a covered basket hung below the bowsprit. Within this prison he had a loaf of bread, a mug of ale and a sharp knife. An armed sentry ensured that he did not return aboard if he managed to escape from the basket. Two alternatives remained -- starve to death or cut himself adrift to drown in the sea.

The Articles of War, a purely naval code of discipline, stem from this source. These were first written in 1661 in the reign of Charles II. The punishments listed were brutal, but the principle has remained to present times: "For the good of all, and to prevent unrest and confusion."

The King's Rules and Admiralty Instructions (K.R. & A.I.), which made their first appearance in 1731, contain general regulations, including discipline, governing the naval service.

A punishment which was particularly harsh and usually fatal was keel-hauling, awarded for serious offences, and discontinued in the Royal Navy about 1720. It was still practised in the Dutch and French navies until 1750.

Execution by hanging at the yardarm was the normal punishment for mutiny in the fleet. The last execution was carried out in 1860. As a capital punishment it was by no means instantaneous as is said to be with the case with our modern practice. The prisoner's hands and feet were tied, and with the noose about his neck a dozen or so men, usually boats' bowmen (the worst scoundrels in the ship) manned the whip and hoisted him to the block of an upper yard, to die there by slow strangulation.

The most common type of punishment, inflicted for almost any crime at the discretion of the captain, was flogging with a cat-o'-nine-tails (1). This was carried out "according to the customs of the service", namely at the gangway. The indicted was given twenty-four hours in which to make his own cat. He was kept in leg-irons on the upper deck while awaiting his punishment. When the cat was made the boatswain cut out all but the best nine tails. If the task was not completed in time the punishment was increased.

With heads uncovered to show respect for the law, the ship's company heard read the Article of War the offender had contravened. The prisoner was then brought forward, asked if he had anything to say in mitigation of punishment, then removed his shirt and had his hands secured to the rigging or a grating above his head. At the order "Boatswain's mate, do your duty" a sturdy seaman stepped forward with the cat -- a short rope or wooden handle, often red in colour, to which was attached nine waxed cords of equal length, each with a small knot in the end. With this the man was lashed on the bare back with a full sweep of the arm. After each dozen lashes a fresh boatswain's mate stepped forward to continue the punishment. Each blow of the cat tore back the skin and subsequent cuts bit right into the flesh so that after several dozen lashes had been inflicted the man's back resembled raw meat. After each stroke the cords were drawn through the boatswain's mates fingers to remove the clotting blood. Left-handed boatswain's mates were especially popular with sadistic captains because they would cross the cuts and so mangle the flesh even more.

After the man was cut down he was taken to the sick berth, there to have salt rubbed into his wounds. This was done not so much to increase the pain as for its antiseptic qualities.

From 1750 into the 19th century twelve lashes were the maximum authorised for any one offence.

Until the end of the 18th century the punishment for theft, a hateful crime against one man or many in a ship at sea, was for the thief to run the gauntlet (or gantlope). The offender first received a dozen lashes in the normal manner with a thieves' cat, with knots throughout the length of the cords, and while still stripped to the waist passed through two lines of all the ship's company, to be flogged with short lengths of rope. Lest he move too fast to benefit fully from this ordeal the master-at-arms marched backwards a pace ahead of him with the point of his cutlass against the thief's chest. And to prevent him stopping a ship's corporal followed him in a similar manner. On completion of the course the thief was given a further dozen lashes.

Another form of punishment was flogging around the fleet. The offender was secured to an upright timber in a ship's boat, and when it pulled alongside each gangway a boatswain's mate entered the boat and inflicted a certain number of lashes. For added effect the boat was accompanied on its rounds of the fleet by other boats, each with a drummer in the bows beating a roll on his drum.

Flogging was not abolished in the British forces until 1881 in response to strong public opinion.

Until suppressed in 1811, it was a common practice for boatswains' mates to carry and use on their men colts or starters, small whips somewhat like knouts or knotted ropes, which they carried concealed in their hats. The boatswain's mark of authority was the bamboo cane or rattan he always carried, and with which he summarily executed punishment.

A punishment awarded by messdeck court martial for cooks who spoiled a meal was to be cobbed and firked, that is beaten with stockings full of sand or bung staves of a cask. This practice was officially disallowed after 1811.

A form of corporal punishment, i.e. "birching or caning on the bare breach" (K.R. & A.I.) remained until recent years as a punishment for boys. Birching was suspended in the service in 1906, but caning is still administered occasionally as a punishment for boys, cadets and midshipmen.


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.


For ease of arrangement the expressions given in this chapter are listed alphabetically.  In compiling of such a section, it is difficult to decide what to include and what to omit; these are considered to be the most common of naval expressions that require explanation.

Andrew Miller or The Andrew: Either means the Royal Navy.  The antecedent was a press-gang officer who was so efficient, ruthless and zealous in recruiting seamen that it was alleged he owned the navy.

Banyan party: Until about 1880 Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were meatless days.  This practice probably was carried out as a food conservation measure.    In times when food at sea became plentiful and wholesome banyan days were occasions of feasting.  The term still relates to feasting in the sense of a picnic or beach party.

Bitter end:  The inboard end of a ship's hempen anchor cable was less often used than the outboard end, and so was known as the better end, later pronounced bitter end, and meaning the very end or the extreme end.

Bloody: Is said to be a contraction of  ‘By Our Lady’ (the Virgin Mary) but more than likely is just a seaman's colourful epithet having the same force and origin as flaming.

Bum-boat - the small craft used by local tradesmen in ports throughout the world. Probably the original term was boom-boat, i.e. permitted by the executive officer to secure to the ship’s lower boom in order to conduct business. It has never been considered advisable to allow civilian tradesmen onboard.

Capstan drill: A former custom was for older hands to take the boys and young ordinary seamen to this form of drill, to deepen their high-pitched voices by jumping off the barrel of a capstan while keeping their legs straight.

Clear one's yardarm: In communications parlance this means no signals, i.e. flag hoists remain unexecuted. In normal usage it suggests that more than reasonable steps have been taken to avoid embarrassing mistakes or omissions.

Cock of the walk:  Used in naval and civilian circ1es alike, though in the navy with the special connotation of winner, as in a regatta (common oar powered boat races while in port), sports meet, or combination of these events.  The expression cock of the barracks is more commonly used in shore establishments.  The winning ship hoists at her yardarm a large, brightly painted galvanised iron silhouette of a "male domestic fowl" (Oxford Dictionary).  It is a common practice, if the winning ship has won every single event as well, to hoist a broom at her masthead commemorating a clean sweep of the seas. By the bye, the winner in the regattas took all the money bet by each of the participating ships.

Conning: Derived from cunning, in reference to the skill of the master in manoeuvring his ship, especially in action. Thus we say, "You have the con," when we exchange Officers of the Watch (not deck in our period).

Crowsnest: The foremast lookout position now replaces a cage in which were carried ravens as an early type of direction finder.  When out of sight of land a bird would be released, and as it headed for the nearest land the ship would follow the direction of its flight.

Crushers: Regulating petty officers, the descendants of the ship' corporals and if heard, not of our period. 

Devil to pay: Trouble’s ahead. The devil in wooden ships is the longest seam in the hull and is the most difficult to caulk or pay. The same term appears in the old expression “Between the devil and the deep blue sea” - which is the hazardous position assumed by a man who is paying the devil seam.

Dog watch:  There are various ideas about this common term: a corruption of docked or dodge perhaps. The name probably comes for DODGE WATCH: by making in this way a total of seven watches to the day, men would be enabled not to keep the same watch each day. A dog watch being two hours long while all other watches are of four hours' duration gives rise to the common naval expression of derision to a junior: "You've only been in the Navy a dog watch".  In the Royal Navy, the two Dog Watches are the "First" and the "Last" not the "First" and the "Second".

Dutch courage:  The uninhibited courage shown by a man who has had one too many. This refers to the old Dutch custom of issuing tots of schnapps before battle.  The Dutch had every right to base similar sardonic remarks on the British rum issue.

Dutchman's pendant and Irish pendant.  These two are included only to differentiate, as many seamen use them synonymously.  While the former refers to a gash rope's end not secured in a seamanlike manner -- a dig at the Dutch -- the latter refers to the frays and tatters of bunting that develop in the fly of an ensign or flag that is exposed to strong winds for any length of time.  The reference is to untidiness born of a carefree nature in the Irish.

Jacob's ladder: The name for a boat ladder, taken of course from Jacob’s dream in the Old Testament of a ladder which rose from earth to heaven; to the uninitiated the length of both would appear to be similar.

Jaunty - master-at-arms: A corruption of the French gendarme policeman through the old R.N. term John Damme, to its present form.

Joint: In reference to a meat dish, refers to the old practice of serving whole portions of meat, bone and all, which the diner held in both hands.

Make and mend: Before the times when uniforms were issued the men made their own. When hands could be spared from work about the ship the pipe was make “hands to make and mend clothes”. Later it was the practice for two or three men, more expert tailors than their fellows to obtain permission to form in partnership what was called a jewing firm, in the figurative sense of unscrupulous dealers.  The expression make and mend today bears little relation to its original use.  Now it means a half-holiday granted in harbour; at sea a pipe down is used instead.  Makers is the usual slang abbreviation.

Mess: A word that causes considerable doubt in many ships.  Some cynics think it refers to the normal state of the messdecks. Actually it is the anglicised form of the Spanish word for table ­ mesa. Mass has the same derivation.  Until the last century a seamen's mess was nothing more than a table; even benches were not provided until the 19th century.

King's hard bargain: Originally a British army term, found in use during our period, now rarely heard in that service or the R.N.  It is customary in law to give consideration to make a contract legal and binding.  So it was that the old-type recruiting officer used to give a new recruit a shilling on enrolment.  To refer later to the same man as a King’s hard bargain, because of laziness or incompetence, meant in effect that the sovereign had lost on the transaction.

Room to swing a cat: Referring to the foul berth of a ship at anchor it means that there is no room to swing even a cat-o'-nine-tails.  (The feline mammal has never been a favoured pet at sea, except in the merchant service; whenever a cat is mentioned in this or any book about the navy almost invariably the reference is to the instrument of punishment.)

She and He (in reference to a ship): The weight of evidence seems to be in favour of calling a ship she though there are examples of the masculine being used: merchantman, men-o’-war. In the navy officers in particular are apt to call a naval vessel he because of the practice of referring to the commanding officer by the name of his ship.  An example of this is the answer to a boat hail given by the coxswain of a boat carrying the captain of a ship, the name of his ship being shouted in reply.

Ship’s people: Ship's company.  Evidence of this term used in calling the ship's company to attention at divisions. A more usual custom is to call them by the name of the ship, e.g. Richmond's.  On the same subject, it is quite usual for a captain to refer to “my people”, “my ship”, “my boats”, etc. These phrases no doubt brought about the jocular term for the captain, The Owner.  Until recent times captains assumed that every article brought on board was their personal property.

Snotty: A midshipman.  At the time when midshipmen joined their first ships as boys of twelve or thirteen, and often too poor to afford handkerchiefs, it is said that they would dry their tears of homesickness and wipe their noses on their sleeves, and to curtail this practice three large brass buttons were sewn on the cuff of each sleeve.  It was after l857 that this became the rank insignia for chief petty officers. It is because of the youthful age at which midshipmen joined the navy that the officer appointed in charge of them has always been known as the Snotties' Nurse.

Son of a gun: A uncomplimentary expression dating from the times when women were allowed onboard and between decks.

South wind: The correct retort to “how's your glass?” might be “there's a south wind in it” meaning it is empty.  A nor’wester is half spirit and half water, while a north wind is neat spirit -a bitter wind.

Spitkid. A kid is a small tub, usually of wood, or any small container. The naval expression “as handy as a cow in a Spitkid is adequately descriptive of clumsiness.

Sun is over the foreyardarm: A phrase meaning it is late in the forenoon.  At a time when naval officers indulged in heavy drinking, the Admiralty directed that no officer was to partake of liquor until the sun was over the foreyardarm.

Swallow the anchor: A very old phrase meaning to retire from sea service.  The idea seems to be that once swallowed it is of no further use.

Two hands for the King:  The normal practice of a man aloft in a ship's rigging is to hold on with one hand and work with the other ­ “a hand for the navy and one for myself”. A man completely dedicated to naval service is alleged to work with both hands at all times.

Very good: Is said by a senior, normally an officer, when a report is made by a junior.  Very good sir, in lieu of Aye aye sir is not used in the navy although proper usage in the army.

Winger: An uncomplimentary term in its original sense, as a boy or young seaman befriended by an older man. 


Generally speaking the customs practised by officers were those of polite civilian society, with modifications to suit naval circumstances, plus other changes caused through historic development.

The name wardroom itself bears discussion.  Before about 1700 each officer lived and messed in his own quarters, cramped as they were.  The captain's cabin, on the other hand, was known as the Great Cabin. Under it was the wardrobe, a locker often used to stow articles of value taken from prizes. When not in use for that purpose the officers used it to hang their spare uniforms.  It is first spoken of as being used as a general officers' mess about 1750, at which time it was of much greater size than a locker, and was renamed the wardroom.

Until the mid-l9th century the gunroom was where the small-arms were stowed.  Here the gunner lived, together with and in charge of the non-commissioned junior officers.  Toward the end of that century it was thought advisable to have the warrant officers mess separately; it was as late as 1948 that warrant officers' messes were abolished.

The firm rule about not calling anyone a liar in the mess is obvious and sensible -- it avoids trouble and bad feelings.  Likewise,  is the rule regarding not drawing swords in the mess -- to discourage duelling.  In fact the rule usually observed is that one does not ever wear a sword in a strange mess; to do so in your own is frowned upon.

It is customary for officers, and for men as well, to remove their caps (cover) before entering a mess other than their own; this custom applies equally to officers’ messes, and should be observed when passing through seamen's messdecks except on duty. The customary rule applies to cabins and onshore buildings as well.  This is the same as the practice ashore -- you do not wear a hat in someone else’s home, and though you may wear it in your own home you would not normally do so.

All wardroom drinking is social, solitary drinking is considered taboo.  It is customary to provide drinks for other officers, particularly one’s friends, and then to toast the others with “cheers” contracted from the Englishman’s “cheerio”.   In the R.N. it is a custom that foreign languages are not spoken in the mess unless foreign guests are present.

At a mess dinner it is forbidden to pro­pose a toast before the Loyal Toast to the Sovereign, except that foreign heads of state are toasted first if foreign guests are present.  In civilian circles it is permissible to drink toasts in water; naval superstition presupposes death by drowning for the personage toasted.  Likewise a glass that rings tolls the death of a sailor; stop the ring and the Devil takes two soldiers in lieu.  This will explain why naval officers never clink glasses in drinking a toast.

At mess dinners it used to be a custom  to propose what was known as the toast of the day. The list that seems to be most commonly followed during the AWI period  is:

Monday - our ships at sea

Tuesday - our men

Wednesday - ourselves, because no one else is likely to bother

Thursday - a bloody war or a sickly season (to ensure quicker promotion)

Friday - a willing foe and sea room

Saturday - wives and sweethearts - may they never meet (reply is made by the youngest officer present)

Sunday - absent friends.

The then King of England, Charles II (1660 - 1685) is credited with authorising the drinking of the Loyal Toast while seated.  When he rose in one of his ships to reply to a toast while seated, he struck his head on the low ceiling, not being used to the low head room these war ships had.  He is reputed to have added “Gentlemen, your loyalty is not questioned”. Officers do not stand even when the National Anthem is played, except of course when the sovereign, a member of the Royal Family, or a foreign head of state is present, or when foreign guests are present and the head of any foreign state is toasted first, so our own sovereign will not suffer offence.  Except for this ancient privilege of drink­ing the health of His Majesty while seated in naval messes, all toasts are drunk by naval officers while standing. Military officers of the Commonwealth conform to this practice when dining with us.

The Port or Madeira decanters are unstoppered, passed always to the left, and then stoppered, before the Loyal Toast is drunk.  This practice suggests that the  wine is served only for that purpose. If the port is passed again the decanters remain unstoppered until they are removed.  The origin of the custom of passing the port always to the left is uncertain.

The custom at an officer's wedding of forming an archway of swords, with their cutting edges upwards in the quinte or fifth guard position, symbolises the guarding of the couple as they enter upon their married life.

Finally two customs by which deference is shown to senior officers.  A junior officer always enters a boat or coach first and leaves last.  Although confusion exists on this point, a junior should precede his senior over the brow on going ashore and follow the senior officer onboard.  This works at its best when a senior officer and his staff are calling because it enables the captain to greet the officer and lead him to his cabin without having to become ensnarled in staff officers.  On departing the entourage can dis­appear over the brow or down the ladder, leaving the senior officer to engage in parting conversation with the captain.

Henry VIII ordered that “no captain shall take the wind of his admiral”, by which was meant the junior officer should pass to leeward of his senior so as not to inconvenience him by cutting off the wind from his sails.  Similarly it has long been the custom to request permission to cross a senior's bows, though the necessity for such a manoeuvre should be avoided if at all possible because it might require the senior to shorten sail or reduce speed to avoid collision.  Officers observe this seamanlike practice in the mess: if they reach in front of another officer they say, “may I cross your bows?” 


The word knot as a unit of speed has an interesting beginning.  The first method of calculating the velocity of a ship was by Dutchman's log. A chip of wood thrown from the fore-castle was timed as it passed down the side of the ship; the cal­culation of speed was based on the length of time the chip took to travel between the forward and after marks, since distance divided by time equals speed.  But it was from a later type, the hand log, first used in the 16th century, that the word knot develops.  A triangular piece of wood called a log-ship is weighted at the bottom, and slung by means of a three-legged rope crows-foot, one leg of which is secured to the log-ship with a removable wooden plug, in such a way as to present resistance to the water when towed astern of a ship on a log-line.  This plaited line of about l50 fathoms is marked every ten fathoms.  In the days of sail the hand log was streamed once an hour by the midshipman-of-the-watch and the boatswain's mate.  The latter rigged the log with a plug in securely enough to remain in against the water pressure to be expected, and streamed it astern,  As the log-line slipped through his fingers, at the first knot that passed after the log was clear of the wake, the boatswain's mate called out “turn” and the midshipman inverted his hour-glass.  When each subsequent knot passed the boatswain's mate sang out its number. As the last of the sand fell into the bottom half of the glass the midshipman gave the order “check”; the boatswain's mate stopped letting the line run out, noting the number of the knot nearest his hand.  Comparing the number of the knot against the time on a chart gave the speed of the ship.  By jerking the log-line the plug was removed and the log recovered.  Thus it was that knots in a line became associated with nautical miles per hour.  Thus you will understand from this description that the land-lubber’s ‘knots per hour’ is meaningless.

Although the glass referred to was probably graduated for about three or five minutes, a half-hour glass was used aboard ship until 1857 to mark the passage of time.  The ship's bell was struck at the time of turning the glass, a custom instituted in the 13th century.

Whistling is forbidden in most ships if only for the reason that it can often be confused with the sound of the boatswain’s call used for attracting attention before making a pipe. A former reason for the no-whistling rule was that it was the custom to whistle a wind when becalmed in a sailing ship; if perchance a gale ensued the assumption was that they overdid it. So sailors, being superstitious, rigidly curtailed their whistling habits.  At the time of whistling for a wind it was customary to drive a knife into the mainmast on the bearing the wind was desired.

Records indicate that tobacco was introduced in the navy in 1798, mostly for chewing, but was known and used on shore long before this time.

The broad arrow or crowsfoot on government stores, not just naval gear, was the personal mark of the Commissioner of Ordnance during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603). The mark was authorised for use by the Royal Navy in 1698.

A custom less practised at the present time is that of hoisting between the masts of a ship, or at the yardarm, on the day of marriage of a member of the ship's company, a garland of evergreens, symbolising continuing fruitfulness.

During the AWI period,  the marines in a ship lived between the officers and the men.  The small-arms racks were kept nearby since the marines were the soldiery of the ship.  The marines' mess is traditionally called the marines' barracks.

The naval Tudor crown, shown here, is referenced in the Sailing and Fighting Instructions published in l746. There it gives the  use of the Tudor crown as an award to a ship's company for being the first to board successfully an enemy man-of-war. The normal place for the naval crown now is at the top of ships' crests or badges.

A British warship is known even today in writing as H.M.S. RICHMOND or the RICHMOND, or even the RICHMOND  (with her name in italics); but a ship’s name should never appear in quotation marks. In referring to her captain, he is called simply RICHMOND or RICHMOND in writings.

By traditional right the starboard side of the quarterdeck belongs to the captain, though it may be used by any officer so long as the captain is not on deck.  Presumably the starboard side became the captain's choice because it was farthest from the noise and turmoil of loading the ship on the port side.

The seaman’s hammock was first introduced to the old World by Christopher Columbus who had discovered them in the West Indies in l493.  They appeared in service in the British navy in 1597.  Until well into the 19th century these and the sailors' trousers were made of heavy brown canvas from damaged sails.  On clearing a ship for action the lashed hammocks were placed in the netting along the upperdeck bulwarks to protect exposed guns’ crews from musket fire.

The anchors and cables, and other heavy rigging, in ships before the advent of steam propulsion were worked by hand-operated capstans of massive size.  A fiddler used to sit atop the capstan playing tunes to which the men sang; this was the beginning of the sea shanty, singing was not done aboard a British war ship.

A custom adhered to by navies in naming their ships is that a name is only repeated in a later vessel if the predecessor went out of service honourably -- through being sold to another owner, scrapped, or lost by enemy action. The name of a ship destroyed by fire or lost in collision or grounding is not repeated.  It would perhaps be more appropriate to decide each case on its merits, but the custom seems quite inflexible. The Richmond name lives today as a modern active duty frigate in the R.N.


Repair to the Site Index Page | Repair to the Computer Based Training Index Page
one aboard a British war ship.

A custom adhered to by navies in naming their ships is that a name is only repeated in a later vessel if the predecessor went out of service honourably -- through being sold to another owner, scrapped, or lost by enemy action. The name of a ship destroyed by fire or lost in collision or grounding is not repeated.  It would perhaps be more appropriate to decide each case on its merits, but the custom seems quite inflexible. The Richmond name lives today as a modern active duty frigate in the R.N.


Repair to the Site Index Page | Repair to the Computer Based Training Index Page