The Evolution of Maritime Uniform
The fall of the Roman Empire left all the southern part of Europe clear for the encroachment of the Northern barbaric races. The Scandinavian Norse-men, or Vikings, were one of these and they moved into and occupied all of Northern France. The French King at that time was in no fit state to resist them. He made peace and granted them large territory, later named the Duchy of Normandy, and they became known as the Normans. And there our story begins.
When a Norse Chief died he was placed in his ship, which was set on fire and cast adrift on a stormy sea. It became his funeral pyre and his entrance into Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain or the Vikings paradise and the Home of the Heroes, where they would dwell for ever with Odin, their God. But with a vast territory in Northern France in their possession a ship was of little use to them. The horse had replaced the ship in their lives.
When the Norman, William the Conqueror, set out to invade England in 1066 it became necessary to assemble a fleet of some sort to transport his invasion force, but once the conquest was complete there was no need to maintain the fleet and so it was dispersed. These ships could not be said to have been a permanent navy in the modern sense of the word and after the conquest they were put to other uses.
Henry II had extensive possessions in France which he had acquired through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquataine. These, together with the original Duchy of Normandy, comprised almost half of present day France, and he found it necessary to have a personal small fleet of ships to take him quickly to France to supervise his French possessions.
King John was by far the least popular of the English Kings. He was continually at loggerheads with his Barons and was responsible for losing almost all his French possessions. Now the boot was on the other foot: England, instead of having subjects on the Continent had enemies and was in danger of attack, and King John had to make provision for a fleet to be always at the ready to defend the country.
King Richard, or to give him his popular name of Coeur de Lion or Lion Hearted, must be given the credit of seeing the value of maritime forces in support of his land forces, for when going on his crusades in 1196 he is said to have built a fleet of 70 ships.
He also built a fleet of 45 galleys for service around the coast, with a flotilla of 45 specially used for service around the Irish coast, under four Commanders. These galleys were propelled by square sails or banks of oars, similar to the galleys in the Mediterranean where sea warfare was well established from the days of the old Roman Empire.
These were the first Royal Naval establishments, and so it was to continue. Merchants of the Cinque Ports of Hastings, Dover, Hythe, Romney and Sandwich had to supply Naval service when called upon, just as the Barons would have to supply land forces. That was the beginning of a permanent Naval force.
It is evident that some kind of distinctive form of dress would emerge for members of this infant force. There is no record extant as to what they wore but one thing is very likely, that officers wore some sort of distinguishing mark with gold braid and lace, and a cocked hat resplendent with feathers. As gun powder and cannon began to make their appearance on ships, gunnery and navigational officers began to be differently dressed with special insignia of their rank.
In the year 1805, many years after King John, during the Battle of Trafalgar, the Admiral Lord Nelson stood on the quarter deck of his ship, the flag ship Victory, dressed in his finest uniform - white hose and britches and a coat decorated with gold braid and lace, and on his breast the four "Stars of Chivalry". He was very conspicuous indeed and his flag captain Hardy suggested that he should change to a plain coat so as to be less conspicuous. Nelson refused to take the advice. This was the cause of his death as it made him an obvious target for a sniper shooting from the enemy's crosstrees. He was shot in the chest and died shortly afterwards. But his death had not been in vain. Victory had been won and the enemy had surrendered.
By the middle of the 19th century the Royal Navy had laid down a set of rules whereby their officers could be distinguished by a series of gold braid rings on their sleeves. The rank of Captain was denoted by three rings; a Commander wore two and a Lieutenant one.
After 1861 the new rank of Sub-Lieutenant was introduced with a single sleeve ring. The number of rings for more senior ranks was then increased. The Captain was given four, the Commander three, the Lieutenant two and, of course, the Sub-Lieutenant one. The uppermost ring was surmounted by a curl.
At the end of the First World War, King George V expressed a wish that, in recognition of the heroism of merchant seamen, the British mercantile marine should in future be known as the Merchant Navy. The Mercantile Marine Uniform Act 1919 laid down the uniform and braid for masters, officers and petty officers. It became a criminal offence for a person to wear the Merchant Navy uniform if not entitled to do so.
In the Merchant Navy a diamond was worn between the rings, instead of a curl above. Officers were allowed to wear a single breasted patrol jacket with standup collar and patch pockets with no rings on the sleeves. Marks of rank could be worn on shoulder straps. As more and more specialised officers were needed further distinctions were added. Engineers inserted purple between the rings. Doctors inserted a red ring; Pursers a white ring, and later still Radio Officers got a wavy stripe. During the War, owing to the shortage of gold braid, the stripe only went halfway around the sleeve. Of course in the Royal Navy some parts of the uniform entailed frockcoats and dress uniforms but that did not apply to the Merchant Navy.
When the Commissioners of Irish Lights took over from the Ballast Office they continued the practice of the Navy except that a Lighthouse surmounted the various rings.
When the Irish Naval Service came into being the international method of distinguishing officers by ring markings was continued and a star was worn above the rings. The highest ranking officer is the Commodore who wears one broad ring surmounted by a star.
During World War 2 a fleet was established under the name Irish Shipping and the international method of sleeve ring markings was adhered to.
The cap or 'deep sea bonnet', as it is sometimes called in the Merchant Navy, was another issue. In the old days high ranking officers such as Admiral wore all kinds of elaborate head gear; indeed Admirals still do on special occasions but now the peaked cap is the usual standard dress. In both Services the cap badge is the foul anchor surrounded by a wreath of laurel leaves and surmounted by the Crown. A wreath of laurel leaves is sometimes worn around the peak of the cap. In the Merchant Navy some of the leading companies instituted their own distinguishing cap badges. In the Lighthouse Service the cap badge originally was a St George's Cross surrounded by a wreath of laurel leaves but from 1970 the St Patrick's Cross has been used.
All that is very fine but there is many an officer on his bridge who in foul weather does not care what kind of cap he is wearing. In my young days coasting skippers very often wore a bowler hat on the bridge. Indeed Captain Turner of the ill-fated liner Lusitania always wore a hard hat.
A generation or so ago it was easy to imagine a ship's officer standing on his bridge looking forward across the foredeck with its masts and derricks and perhaps a few sampson posts, and a very neat and tidy 'Bristol fashion' picture it presented. Looking aft a similar picture presented itself. Near at hand he saw the boatdecks and above them the company's funnel displaying proudly the company's colours and logo. He would indeed be an unfeeling man if he didn't feel proud of himself and his ship. But now the days of the beautiful cargo steamers like the Clan Line or the Blue Funnel Line are gone, to be replaced by these awful ugly container ships that look for all the world like barges loaded with large crates.
To finish our article let us paint pictures of ships at sea - perhaps an old collier outward bound from some of the Bristol Channel coal ports. She may be bound for Arklow, Dublin or any of the east coast ports. The Captain, or 'Old Man' as he is likely to be called, stands on the bridge peering over the dodger into the teeth of wind and rain. He is always nervous at sea and if there are other ships' lights around he is reluctant to leave the bridge and he is always glad to pick up the Tuskar Light. If he is bound for any of the southern ports the Lightships would be a welcome sight.
Perhaps his ship is one of the Limerick fleet such as the Maigue or the Lanahrone bound for Limerick from Antwerp. If so, he is on one of the most hazardous trips and requires great navigational care. The steady passage of lighthouses at Fastnet, Bull, Skelligs and Inishtearaght light his way to his home port.
Or he may be the Master of a large tramp steamer homeward bound from a long voyage and, like the Master of the coaster, he stands on the bridge peering into the darkness. He is beating his way up the English Channel and he doesn't feel at all happy. He would much prefer to have miles of ocean around him than the busy waters of the Channel.
He pays frequent visits to the wheelhouse and warns the man at the wheel to "watch your steering". An elegant cruise liner coming out of Southampton blows disdainfully at him as if he had no right to be there at all. Life for him at present is a series of worries. Although he knows well where he is, he cannot resist taking a bearing on Beachy Head and the Channel Islands lights. The crew below have no worries, for they are homeward bound.
This was in the days of the 'donkey's breakfast' when you dumped your bed after every voyage and purchased a new one for the next voyage - they only cost 10/= (ten shillings).
That last may seem strange to present day seamen as they are supplied with proper bunk size mattresses that are the property of the ship. But up to the Second World War the 'donkey's breakfast' was the responsibility of the seaman to provide. It was, just as its name implies, only a large sack filled with straw. Is it any wonder that after a voyage of several months duration it was only fit to be dumped?
Well, the Old Man navigated her safely out of the Channel. He could now leave the ship safety in the hands of one of his officers and go below for a few hours sleep after a hard night.
They made port without incident and duly paid off. Perhaps they will meet again on some other ship and if they do we wish them 'Bon Voyage'.
© 1995 Jim Dillon