The Battle of Trafalgar. Credit: Michael Rosskothen/Shutterstock 

Naval History

From HMS Cockchafer to HMS Pansy: Why Would You Call A Ship That?!

Would you rather serve on HMS Fearless or HMS Pansy?

The Battle of Trafalgar. Credit: Michael Rosskothen/Shutterstock 

For all of his accomplishments, Winston Churchill was perhaps not best known for his judgement in the naming of ships, having once been adamant that HMS Pitt would be a fitting title for a battleship.

If you’re not sure of the problem with that, try saying it, or indeed spitting it out, aloud.

That, and the added risk of sailors coming up with their own nickname for such a titled ship using uncouth words rhyming with it.

That was reportedly the view of King George V who, the story goes, is said to have twice rejected the HMS Pitt suggestion from Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty and who wanted to name a battleship after William Pitt, the Prime Minister in the seat during the Napoleonic Wars.

The King was said to be intuitively aware of what ‘the men of the lower deck’ would make of such a named ship, given the propensity of crews of the age to find lewd or scatological epithets for the vessels on which they served.

Churchill had more luck at naming submarines, aptly calling a T-class sub HMS Tiptoe for its ability to sneak up on the enemy undetected. It also made for a beautiful badge of a tiptoeing ballerina in a pink tutu.

One can only guess at how the valiant submariners felt about having to sport such a delicate motif on their uniforms.

Tiptoe was scrapped in 1975 but anyone with a penchant for nostalgia can visit her anchor which is on display in Blyth, Northumberland.

HMS Tiptoe and badge

The naming of a ship, whether it is a military sub or a royal research vessel, is a big responsibility, so big that at times, the entire nation has been asked for their suggestions.

If given the opportunity to get creative, the British public is excellent at naming ships.

Who could forget that in 2016, when asked to name a 200-million pound polar research vessel, the nation did not disappoint, with 124,109 people voting for Boaty Mcboatface. 

The National Environmental Society eventually overruled the popular vote, calling the flagship vessel the more reserved and respectful title of RSS Sir David Attenborough instead.

However, the will of the people could not be completely ignored and a leading autonomous long-range boat that is carried on RSS Sir David Attenborough was given the name that the public demanded. Somewhere in the arctic, proudly roaming the ocean, is Boaty Mcboatface. 

The process of naming Royal Navy ships is less democratic than that.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, walking the deck of HMS Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Conference, 1941. 
Prime Minister Winston Churchill, walking the deck of HMS Prince of Wales during the Atlantic Conference, 1941.

How Does A Navy Ship Get Its Name?

Established in 1913, the Ships’ Names Committee, which became the Ships' Names and Badges Committee of the Royal Navy after an amalgamation in 1983, is responsible for the creative process of naming her Majesty’s ships, submarines and stone frigates. 

One rule is to never name a vessel in honour of a living person.

Every rule has an exception and in this case, the exception is that only senior members of the Royal Family have ships named after them. 

It is also preferable to use a name with historic significance that has already been used before to carry on the tradition. Names that decry battle honours are in high esteem. For example, there have been five ships named HMS Trafalgar.

The Battle of Agincourt has given its name to seven ships, with the newest one an Astute-class submarine currently under construction, ready to hit the water in 2024. 

Currently, the Royal Navy is the smallest it has ever been with 76 commissioned ships. 

For many centuries the British Navy has been the envy of the world, with a historically vast fleet and with a powerrful presence in the furthest corners of the globe. 

Historically there have been over 13,000 ships that have served the crown.

Guided in the process by 476 years of naval history and traditions, the naming committee has many names to chose from.

HMS Trafalgar
The launch of HMS Trafalgar, 1841

Why Are Some Ships Called HMS Vanquisher and Some HMS Pansy?

Capital ships (battleships, battlecruisers and aircraft carriers), as well as destroyers, tend to get the imposing names such as HMS Vanquisher and HMS Onslaught. The latter was originally meant to have been called HMS Pathfinder but the name was changed during construction, probably because they realised they were building a destroyer and not a scout cruiser. 

Ships in a class tend to follow the naming convention for that class. The class is usually named after the leading ship of that class. For example, HMS Fearless was the leading amphibious assault ship of the two Fearless-class landing platform docks which also included HMS Intrepid. There was also the Tribal-class of destroyers named after communities around the world and the Crown Colony-class consisting of cruisers named after colonies. 

There is no Hogwarts class in the Royal Navy, yet there have been a few ships with supernatural names: HMS WitchHMS WizardHMS WaterwitchHMS VampireHMS FairyHMS Unicorn and HMS Magic. 

The Royal Navy did have a Dance-class consisting of 20 trawlers serving during WWII. Most of the ships were named after foreign dances such as the Argentinian HMS Tango and the Polish HMS Mazurka. The most patriotic sounding trawler was HMS Morris Dance named after the traditional English folk dance where the dancers prance around with sticks, swords and ... white handkerchiefs. It is probably the least intimidating of dances, on a completely different scale to the bloodcurdling terror induced by the haka dance of the Maori.

While on the subject of the indigenous people of New Zealand, HMS Maori also served in the Second World War as part of the Tribal-class destroyers. 

Generally, destroyers during the Second World War were organised in a less thematic way, simply with a letter to distinguish their class. For example, the L class, know as the Lafoyers after the flotilla leader of the same name, consisted of eight destroyers including HMS Lightning, HMS Lively and HMS Lookout.

During the Second World War, 294 of Her Majesty’s ships were named after flowers, hence HMS Pansy.

The Flower-class corvette was also referred to as the Gladiolus class after the leading ship.

Corvettes, traditionally, the smallest class of vessel considered to be a proper warship, have been vital during the war effort, despite their size and fragile-sounding names - especially during the Battle of The Atlantic when they acted as anti-submarine convoy escorts. 

HMS Rockrose British Flower-class corvette
HMS Rockrose British Flower-class corvette

Some RN ships could make the enemy tremble with fear with the mere mention of their names. HMS Fury, HMS Venomous, and HMS Violent being prime examples. Seeing HMS Onslaught on the horizon, the other side knew what was coming. With HMS Conflict they could probably guess. 

There were ships in the Royal Navy that you knew you can trust such as HMS Honest, HMS Brilliant and HMS Hero. While other vessels that have served the crown such as HMS Clown, HMS Impulsive,  HMS Inconstant and HMS Terrible sound a lot less reliable. 

Five RN navy vessels have been called HMS Spiteful. They would probably get along well with HMS Arrogant, HMS Insolent and HMS Vindictive.

HMS Vindictive
HMS Vindictive

An array of names might these days be considered somewhat sexually suggestive, starting with the HMS Spanker.

Of course, anyone in sailing circles will know that a spanker is a fore-and-aft sail, set from the aft of the aftmost mast, so there is a maritime connection there.

The first Spanker vessel weighed 500 tons, had 24-guns and was built in 1794.

Carrying on tradition is an important part of the naming process of the Royal Navy and three Spankers were commissioned in the following centuries.

There have been four Spankers in the Royal Navy.

Of course, you would expect the names of many sea-faring vessels to have a connection to the sea and all that goes with that, be it connected to sailing or maritime activities, such as fishing for instance - perhaps apt names for naval vessels who aim to lure and catch an enemy?

To rival HMS Spanker, there are other top names that sound salacious, but no doubt owe their existence to sea-faring traditions buried in the annals of history, including HMS Virile, HMS Teaser, HMS Tickler, HMS Thruster, HMS Thrasher and HMS Flirt. And last but not least, HMS Cockchafer. 

One meaning of the word 'teaser', for instance, is a lure or bait trailed behind a boat to attract an unsuspecting fish beneath the waves when fishing, so it's not such an ill-fitting name for an anti-submarine frigate.

Many of these names were not original, meaning that there have been several ships with the same name dating back to the 16th century when these words did not have the connotations that they do today. 

For example, there have been six RN ships called Flirt. The first one was built in 1592 when the onomatopoeic word 'flirt' meant to move erratically or spontaneously (presumably through rough seas), rather than courting ladies on the shore. 

The Royal Navy started officially referring to its vessels as His Majesty's Ship at the end of the 17th century. The first ship to be called HMS Flirt was a 14-gun brig launched at Dover. She then became a whaler, until 1803 when she was captured by a French ship called Blonde. Blonde conquered Flirt as she was returning home from a voyage.  

As for HMS Cockchafer, it belonged to the insect-class, a class of 12 well-armed gunboats that were built around the First World War and needed to be small enough for action in shallow rivers or inshore.

Like it’s HMS counterpart, the cockchafer beetle, otherwise known as a May bug, is also small but mighty, known for causing irreparable damage to gardens, woods such as oak, and for sometimes sinking its sucking and piercing mouthparts into a foe much bigger than itself.

In Victorian times, the cockchafer also featured in a host of cultural references, from games played by children, to a sign of the spring season, to nursery rhymes including one that begins: "Cockchafer fly ... Your father is at war ..."

Such was the menacing reputation of the cockchafer beetle in the Middle Ages, when communities were at a loss to control their huge numbers, that a French court even put them on trial, declaring them 'outlaws'.

HMS Cockchafer was the only one out of its class to survive the Second World War and was sold for scraps in 1949.

Some of the other ships in the insect-class that did not make it were called HMS Moth, HMS Grasshopper, HMS Gnat, HMS Bee, HMS Ladybird and HMS Tarantula.

HMS Spanker

The Flower-class corvette HMS Pansy survived WWII and went on to be called USS Courage. 

HMS Pansy was ordered in 1939 and laid down in Northern Ireland before being commissioned in 1940 under a different name. 

Legend has it that the crew threatened mutiny at the prospect of having ‘Pansy’ written on their caps. The name was changed prior to the ship being launched and she sailed as renamed HMS Heartsease.

The naming committee went with the term for a wild pansy instead.

There were 294 flower-class corvettes that needed to be named.

Names for wild pansies include Johnny jump up, heartsease, heart's delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, and love-in-idleness. With such a rich bouquet of contenders, the naming committee was spoiled for choice.

They settled on HMS Heartsease.

HMS Heartsease served as an escort ship before being transferred to the US Navy in 1942. The Americans renamed her USS Courage.

She escorted convoys from the most southern and northern points of the world from Greenland to Argentina before being given back to the British at the end of the war. She was sold into civvy fleet in 1946.

There are many other names, too many to mention, that may sound strange in modern times but owe their titles to a rich and deep heritage and history of British culture.