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Ship-Shape and Boaty Fashion

RRS Sir David Attenborouigh
The RRS Sir David Attenborough, image courtesy of Natural Environment Research Council

It’s been over a year since 'Boaty McBoatface' first made an appearance across social media. As part of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) #NameOurShip campaign, a poll was launched for the public to vote for the name of NERC’s new £200m research ship, to be operated by the British Antarctic Survey. Of the 70,034 names entered by the public, ‘Boaty McBoatface’ stood-out as the clear winner with a staggering 124,109 votes.

The new ship’s actual name is the RRS Sir David Attenborough, reflecting the name’s popularity in the poll and the significance of Sir David Attenborough as an inspirational science communicator who has taken so many of us to deep dark oceans, inhospitable ice caps and bewildering rainforests, without us ever leaving the sofa.

It was decided that 'Boaty McBoatface' would live on in the form of a high-tech remotely operated undersea vehicle, which will be deployed from ships such as the RRS Sir David Attenborough (it’s currently on the RRS James Clark Ross)

Oddly-named ships, however, are not just a crowd-sourcing phenomenon of twenty-first-century social media. We asked Dr Craig Lambert, who specialises in naval logistics, merchant shipping and maritime communities over the period c.1300-c.1600, about the process of naming ships. Dr Lambert is currently working on an AHRC-funded project entitled: ‘The Evolution of English Shipping Capacity and Shipboard Communities, 1400-1577'. This will, among other things, produce a free-to-access searchable website of English, Welsh and Channel Islands ships that sailed over 1400-1580

In the absence of crowd-sourced polls and the internet, we asked how ships were named between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.

“The simple answer is that we don't really know”, said Dr Lambert. “I would presume that the owner was the person who named the vessel, although ships tended to have numerous owners so they would have to settle on a name that was agreeable to all.”

There were ships from Cornwall called Barry

“There are instances of single owner vessels however and when we can identify the owner it looks as though local factors played a part. So a ship might be named after a local church, abbey or monastery. In Hull and Whitby you get ships called 'Hilda', which refers to St Hilda's abbey in Whitby. In Fowey in Cornwall a few ships were called 'Barry', after St. Barry an early medieval saint supposedly buried in the town; and in Newcastle you get a few ships called 'Cuthbert' after St Cuthbert. But more generally religious names were obviously used as way of seeking some kind of divine protection during the voyage.”

“After 1500 animal names also became more common. Some, like Sparrowhawk and Falcon, represented speed, while others, like the Dragon, might have related to power.”

“By the Tudor period Greyhound became more common, and this may have reflected the fact that the greyhound was used as a royal badge by the House of Tudor, as was the Red Dragon, which also might also help explain the increasing use of the name 'Dragon'. The use of 'Elizabeth' as a ship name increases after Elizabeth I comes to the throne.”

“Henry VIII had a ship called the Peter Pomegranate, most likely because the Pomegranate was the symbol of Aragon which he chose to associate with after his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, but also as a nod to St Peter, who was a fisherman by trade. Queen Mary also adopted the pomegranate as a royal badge.”

Amongst the vast array of names, most vessels in the late middle ages (1300-1500) were actually named after saints.

“The most popular name was variant forms of Saint Mary. But George, Christopher, Ann, John and Nicholas were also common”, explained Dr Lambert. “Shipowners also named their vessels after theological practices or doctrines, so, for example, a common name of this sort is The Trinity.”

The Mary-Rose (c.1510) is an example of a ship that is likely to have been named after Christ’s mother, Mary.

Image of the Peter Pomegranite
The Peter Pomegranate, from the Anthony Roll. The Anthony Roll is a record of Tudor navy ships of the 1540s. The roll was presented to Henry VIII in 1546, and it was kept in the Royal Library.

“As we move into the Tudor period - even after the Reformation - ship names remain fairly static: with Mary, Trinity, Ann and George still being popular choices. This suggests that maritime communities were conservative in religious beliefs.”

The RSS Sir David Attenborough is a polar research ship that will be operating in the extreme environment of Antarctica, which was unmapped territory during the period of Dr Lambert’s study. Mariners, however, still faced challenging and often treacherous environments during their voyages.

“Many sailors died though freezing temperatures and bad weather”, explained Dr Lambert, “notably in the Muscovy voyages of the 1550s.”

“The Muscovy voyages set out from Europe to find the North-East passage to China, where cold and ice were the main dangers of these voyages.”

“In 1553 the crews of the Bona Confidential and the Bona Esperanza decided to winter over in the White Sea, off the northwest coast of Russia. A will was found on the ship dated to January 1554 - so some of the crew at least managed to get through September 1553 to January 1554. The ships were eventually found in the Varzina Estuary in the spring of 1554 by Russian fisherman, but no one was left alive on board. On the return back to England in 1556 both the Bona Confidential and Bona Esperanza were lost with all hands during a violent storm.”

The phrase All Hands means the entire crew of a ship, including the officers

“When Francis Drake undertook his Circumnavigation in 1577, he and his crew faced multiple dangers. Through the Magellan Straits the threat came from cold and storms, but as they sailed into the Pacific and towards South-East Asia the danger came from tropical heat and fever. Supplies were an ever present problem and maintaining a healthy crew was difficult. The voyages to West Africa, which began in the 1530s, and the Indian Ocean in the early 1600s brought with them the dangers of fever and scurvy.”

Clearly ships faced extreme environments, though they lacked the sophisticated state-of-the-art design and equipment that ships today have.

“Most of the ships that early explorers took with them were ordinary trading vessels. They might be overwhelmed in the knowledge that many would die, but they were essentially the same ships that would move goods between Bristol and Spain, or fish the seas from Dogger Bank to Newfoundland Bank. Healthcare was provided by surgeons, but mariners only provided basic nursing care for crewmates. English voyages to the Indian Ocean could have a 60% mortality rate.”

Not only was the risk of death extremely high, the mariners were poorly equipped.

“The mariners often went to sea poorly clothed", explained Dr Lambert. "Most of them only brought one set of clothes, which after a few months was torn, constantly wet and encrusted with salt. By the early seventeenth century those organising voyages to the Indian Ocean and other faraway places encouraged mariners to purchase more and better quality clothes for the voyage.”

Despite the hazardous conditions, seafaring was a central feature of English life.

The Mary Rose, image courtesy of the Mary Rose Trust
The Mary-Rose, image courtesy of the Mary Rose Trust

"In the late Middle Ages and Tudor period ships formed an essential part of life: they freighted goods across Europe and beyond, they were the tools of the fisherman - an important occupational group that provided nourishment for the nation and fish for religious days, and as the crown relied on requisitioned merchantmen and the crews that manned them helped the English crown achieve its martial and diplomatic aims. Seamen were suspicious men that faced dangers every day. When voyages of exploration were extended across the globe they faced new challenges, but rose to the task admirably. In a period were religion played a vital part of everyday life the naming ships reflected this. God could act in events of the time and so naming a ship after a saint might afford some extra protection during a voyage. A local saint might intervene directly to protect a ship that bore his or her name. We know ship owners became attached to names. In the summer of 1364 the Margarete, commanded by John Frensh, sank in Bay of Brittany. Six years later however Frensh reappears in the records as commander of another Margarete. Clearly he had an attachment to Saint Margaret. Naming might also reflect the politics of the time. When Henry Tudor took power in 1485 ship owners associated themselves with the new dynasty by incorporating imagery from Tudor badges in their ships’ names."

Drawing to a close, Dr Lambert highlighted the centrality of ship-naming in English culture.

"In short, the naming of ships was a practice that was inextricably linked to the cultural view of the time. It is not surprising, for example, to find that ships sailing from Protestant ports in the Netherlands, places where the reformation took a stronger hold than in England, rarely used saints’ names."

Given how few of us today come into contact with ships, the popularity of the #NameOurShip poll is remarkable. Perhaps the practice of naming ships is embedded in our cultural memory. It begs the question, then, what do the names RRS Sir David Attenborough and Boaty McBoatFace really reveal about our culture?


You can read Nerc's blog 'Planet Earth Stories' here

List of ten ship names

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