Easter holiday mode at the moment, so for the next couple of weeks I’m going to re-blog some posts from the very early days of this site, which were originally seen by the relatively small number of hardy souls who, back then, managed to locate this far-flung recess of the Interweb. This one is on ship naming, and includes some of the astonishing nicknames that British seamen have come up with for the warships in which they serve. I returned to this theme in a subsequent post, when the whole ‘Boaty McBoatface’ fiasco was at its height, and recently came across a fascinating post on The Churchill Project’s site, which casts more light on the spats between Churchill and King George V over battleship naming in the period 1911-13. Obviously, some things have moved on since I wrote the original post: the US Navy has, indeed, named a new carrier Enterprise, the current Ship Names committee of the RN has kept up the improved track record of recent years by naming the first new Trident submarine HMS Dreadnought, and, rather less positively, the current HMS Nelson building, referred to below, is likely to be sold off and may well become a hotel. Be prepared for sounds of spinning emanating from the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
You can find a lot more about warship naming under the Stuarts elsewhere on this website – search for the three posts with the heading ‘the Naming of Stuart Warships’ – and much of this material will soon be appearing, in proper academic form, in my forthcoming book, Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy.
Otherwise, let’s now travel back to those heady days of July 2012…
I’ve always had something of an interest in warship names, and recently I’ve started to take more of an interest in the rationale (if any) underpinning the names that have been bestowed. (See my recent comments in this blog about the Royal Navy’s remarkable use – not once, but twice – of the name of Welsh rebel prince Owain Glyndwr.) Thus I was interested to pick up a link from Twitter to this new report on ship naming policy in the United States Navy. As I ploughed through all seventy-three pages of it, I was increasingly struck by several things: firstly, how animated some people across the pond get about perceived breaks with naming traditions; and secondly, just how formal and relatively inflexible the American system is. In the UK, such a report wouldn’t take seventy-three pages – it would probably take a couple of sentences at most, along the lines of ‘put a lot of random names in a hat and pull them out’. I jest, and do an injustice to the work of members of Ships’ Names Committees down the years, but one does sometimes wonder. For example, one could legitimately ask who in supposedly egalitarian late-20th century Britain thought it was a good idea to name a large class of major warships after dukes, and who similarly thought it was a good idea to use ‘St Albans’ as one of those names (especially when rather more distinguished ducal names like Devonshire, Suffolk, Sussex and Bedford were available). I’d also like to see how a report similar to the USN’s might explain the fact that the first three of the navy’s new nuclear-powered submarines, effectively the capital ships of today’s navy, were given such bland, largely history-free names as Astute, Ambush and Artful, before presumably a differently composed committee with a rather better grasp of history decided to reflect reality by adopting the glorious traditional capital ship names Audacious, Anson, Agamemnon – soon to be ‘rechristened’ by her crew, if what follows is correct – and Ajax. (Sadly not Agincourt: presumably no longer politically correct, n’est ce pas?) The whole notion of using alphabetical names for ship classes, like D for the Type 45 destroyers, seems fundamentally flawed, too; at current construction rates, and extrapolating the decline in ship numbers into the future, one can confidently predict that the next Z-class will be in service in about 2250 and will consist of a solitary dinghy named HMS Zebra.
On a similar theme, one could ask why the Royal Navy, apparently alone of the major fleets, bestows some of its best names on buildings. Thus a HMS Nelson is unlikely ever to be seen at sea again, given that the name is borne by the barracks at Portsmouth; there will never be another ‘fighting Temeraire’ while the name is borne by a sports centre; more mundanely, neither will HMS Ferret, the somewhat unlikely alter ego of Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire, about as far from the sea as one can get. The Dutch always reserve the name of their greatest naval hero, de Ruyter, for their largest and best warship in each generation – so even if their fleet keeps contracting, there will always be a frigate, or a patrol vessel, or whatever, named HNlMS De Ruyter. I see from the USN report that it’s generally believed that once the current USS Enterprise leaves service, a new carrier will be allocated the name almost immediately; it seems inconceivable that anyone would ever suggest the name Enterprise for, say, an office block in downtown Washington DC. It seems to me that the Royal Navy’s tradition of allocating some of its best names to ‘stone frigates’ is a sign of institutional introversion, if such a concept exists. These names are largely known only to members of the service itself, the only people who pass through the doors of the bases concerned, and thus the only ones who are directly exposed to the manifestations of the traditions of this particular ‘ship’. Surely such illustrious names should be projected outwards, at sea, as powerful symbols of a self-confident navy and nation? That thought occurred to me a few months ago when I was dining in the wardroom of HMS Nelson, surrounded by relics of the great man and the spectacular murals portraying British naval victories. It’s something of a ‘no-brainer’, as the young say. Which name is more likely to impress a foreign country about to receive a courtesy visit, more likely to alarm a foreign despot intent on doing harm to British interests, or more likely to fire the imaginations of young people when the ship visits a British port: Nelson or St Albans?
Arguably, though, it was ever thus. I’ve been working for some time on aspects of ship naming in the later Stuart period, and next week I’ll present some of my findings. In the meantime, during the course of my research for Britannia’s Dragon I came across a wonderful critique of early nineteenth century Royal Navy naming practice from the United Services Magazine for 1830, which also has a nice anecdote about the US Navy during the War of 1812. Some edited highlights follow; the full text can be accessed via Google Books (beginning at p.289). The author seems to have seriously confused the order of First Lords of the Admiralty (indeed, he might even have invented a couple) and got his chronology hopelessly muddled, but the general thrust is amusing and evidently has more than a grain of truth to it.
The method of naming His Majesty’s ships is most capricious; indeed, it may be doubted if there exists any rule at the Admiralty to regulate this particular duty, although the matter is by no means of immaterial consequence. Seamen attach great faith to particular names…some consideration has frequently been accorded to the prejudices of seamen in favour of celebrated ships. The Endeavour, in which Cook circumnavigated the globe, and effected several great discoveries, was preserved till very lately as a hulk at Sheerness; and it is supposed that the Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, has now scarcely one of her original planks remaining, yet the government have wisely determined that she shall not be razeed, broken up, or destroyed, so long as a timber remains to awaken recollection of her glorious exploits. The Americans knew so well the importance of exciting enthusiasm by these means during the late war, that they named even the guns of their ships after heroes and battles. Thus, the President had her main-deck battery baptized Washington, Saratoga, Orleans, and even Nelson, Rodney, Duncan, and Napoleon; thus supplying the deficiency in their own warlike nomenclature, by adopting the stirring names contained in the histories of other nations…
…might not the naming of His Majesty’s ships be conducted upon some intelligible principle? Hitherto it appears to have depended entirely on the whim or eccentricity of successive first lords. It may afford amusement to trace the capriciousness of their taste through the ranks of our Navy List. Some years ago the First Lord of the Admiralty, being a mighty fox-hunter, introduced his whole pack into the navy! While this nautical hydrophobia lasted, the seas were covered with the Boxer, Borer, Bruiser, Tickler, Cracker, Pincher, Dasher, Brisk, Hasty, Havock, Pelter, Rover, Rolla, Snapper, Surley, Swinger, Ranger, Hearty, Jasper etc etc, of which many still remain as the canine ornaments of our navy. The administration at length changed, and the new first lord [Lord Sandwich?], fresh from the groves of Alma Mater, determined to neutralize the vulgarity of his predecessor’s nomenclature, by a copious introduction of classical names…[such as] Andromache, Andromeda, Bellerophon, Bucephalus, Cadmus, Calliope, Daedalus, Euryalus, Eurydice, Hebe, Helicon, Hyperion, Iphigenia, Maeander, Melampus, Pelorus, Pegasus, Polyphemus, Prometheus, Semiramis, Terpsichore, Agamemnon, Zenobia, cum multis aliis. One hundred of these academic argosies remain still upon the Navy List as testimonials of his lordship’s literary attainments, and puzzlers for the pronunciation of ‘Poor Jack’. The latter, however, readily metamorphoses any appellation of this description into some humorous term of his own. Thus Bellerophon became Billy Ruffian; Agamemnon, Eggs and Bacon; Andromache, Andrew Mackay; and Polyphemus, the Polly Infamous!
To the scholastic reign a Parisian government succeeded, and the navy became inundated with Gallicisms. L’Oiseau, Le Belliqueux, Le Genereux, L’Impetueux, Le Courageux, L’Espiegle, L’Espoir, Le Foudroyant, Le Sans Pareil, L’Imperieuse, La Dedaigneuse, etc. If ‘Poor Jack’ mangled the classics, he made some sort of atonement by murdering the French. Thus Belliqueux was transformed into Belly Squeaks, Genereux into Jenny Rooks, and Dedaigneuse (being a heavy sailer) into Dead Nose!
A bragadacio next became lord of the ascendant, and our wooden walls were disfigured by such buckram names as Impregnable, Invincible, Implacable, Terrible, Redoubtable, Magnificent, Formidable, Powerful, Dreadnought, Infernal, etc. Fortunately this boasting gentleman ‘died in his youth and beauty’s pride, and a naturalist reigned in his stead’. This was the glorious era of ornithology, conchology, ichthyology, and natural foolery, which introduced Bustards, Buzzards, Crocodiles, Reindeer, Racoons and Rattlesnakes.
Finally, Lord Melville invented the less objectionable custom of naming most of our ships of war after rivers. His lordship appears to have been born under Aquarius or Pisces, he has such fondness for streams. We have now not only most of the celebrated rivers of antiquity, such as the Tigris, Indus, Euphrates, Ganges, Orontes, etc, but nearly every petty rivulet in the United Kingdom, the Spey, Tay, Dee, Tees, Liffey, Slaney, Tyne, Wye, etc. Nay, so determined appears his lordship’s predilection for fresh water, that he will not permit even a cataract or lake to escape notice, and we have accordingly launched Niagara, Ontario and Huron!
It has been the practice of several administrations to direct that vessels captured from the enemy, and annexed to the British navy, shall retain their original foreign names. This may partly account for the numerous French appellations before mentioned; but however commendable such a custom may be in general, yet its adoption has frequently led to singular misconstruction among uneducated seamen. How frequently must the pious inhabitants of Devonport have been shocked at hearing drunken sailors, in all the innocence of ignorance, cursing the Salvador del Mundo, and the confinement of a guardship, little thinking that by such expressions they were blaspheming the saviour of the world! We remember one of the Trafalgar heroes, in his account of the battle, boasting that a broadside from his ship shivered the stern of St John, while another discharge had nearly sent the Santissima Trinidad (Holy Trinity) to the devil! The Cacafuego, a small vessel captured from the Spaniards, was for many years employed in the British navy under the same name, although it is not possible to make a translation of the term fit for English readers. Suffice it to say that the power of emitting fire is conveyed by that appellation in the grossest manner, and our tars invariably preferred using the corresponding English terms, according to the most literal version of the phrase…
What we desire is, that [ship naming] may be organised as a system, and not left to chance as at present. It is true, we have even now a Rodney, Nelson, Duncan, Howe, Trafalgar, etc, but why are we not to have a St Domingo, Dogger Bank or First of June? Why do we exclude the names of Drake, Collingwood, ‘the gallant good Riou’, the heroic Harvey, the brave Parker, the slain heroes Abercrombie, Moore, Cooke and Duff, or the living heroes Saumarez, Lynedoch, Sydney Smith, Cockburn, Exmouth and Keats? Surely such names as Picton, Maida, Vittoria, Badajoz, Albuera, Navarino, Lissa, Busaco, Toulouse and Salamanca, ought not to be forgotten or displaced by such unmeaning titles as Skipjack, Pickle, Snapper, Monkey and many others which now dignify the British Navy List.
One of the historic names which I most regret to loss of is “Warspite”. I’ve never come accross the phrase in any other context but a warship name (although I would welcome correction) but it carries an unapologitic menace, only hightened by a slightly archaic ambiguity. Can a name be too aggressive for a warship?
It’s one of my favourites, too. But I guess we won’t see it at sea again for quite a while due to yet another completely barmy policy that the RN seems to have adopted, namely that it won’t re-use the names of decommissioned nuclear subs while the previous ones are still around. ‘Dreadnought’ has been laid up for 32 years, for goodness sake, far longer than she was in service, while ‘Valiant’ would have made a far better name for the third Trident boat than ‘Vigilant’. Previous generations had no such qualms about renaming old ships and hulks to free up the names for newer ships. As it is, some of our very best warship names are effectively and literally ‘tied up’ as rusting hulks in Plymouth and Rosyth!