Angel Gabriel Versus The Devil: The Historic Ship Names Out Of Place Today

HMS Lucifer and HMS Gabriel are just two of the strange ship names of yesteryear ...

The history of the Royal Navy dates back 476 years, in which time around 13,000 ships have served the crown. That is a lot of names to come up with. 

From HMS Vanquisher to HMS Pansy there have been an array of victorious sounding names and some that sound dubious in modern times. 

What do you think of the following?

Illustration of the Harlequinade in The Forty Thieves (1878), showing Swell, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine (above), Clown and Policeman

HMS Pantaloon 

Starting out as a civie ship, Pantaloon was purchased by the navy in 1831 and kept its civilian name. 

A pantaloon is a pair of women’s baggy trousers gathered at the ankles. It is also the name of a principal Commedia dell'arte character. 

In the 17th century, the character of Pantaloon made its way from Italy to British theatres. He was one of the five characters that made up an early form of pantomime called Harlequinade.

The Harlequinade was immensely popular until the early 20th century. The main character Harlequin was a young ambitious man who pursued Pantaloons’ beautiful daughter Columbine. The prospective father-in-law treacherously tried to stop the star crossed lovers. 

A money-obsessed tyrannous villain, Pantaloon expressed contempt for those around him but did not have enough wit to carry out his mischievous plans, he was often exposed as a fool outsmarted by Harlequin. 

Perhaps not the best character to have a Royal Navy Ship named after. There have been only two ships called HMS Pantaloon in the navy’s history. Whereas five vessels of the Royal Navy have been named HMS Harlequin. Six ships and one depot have shared the name with Harlequin’s love interest Columbine. 

Columbine is also the common name for the Aquilegia flower. The Royal Navy has a proud history of naming ships after flowers, so HMS Columbine could have been inspired by flora rather than theatre. 

HMS Gabriel 

Gabriel was a Marksman class WWI ship that was built in 1915 as part of the Emergency War Programme of ship building.

She entered service a year later in her originally intended capacity of Flotilla Leader. During this period, she was used in a number of operations and on several occasions engaged enemy crafts, albeit unsuccessfully. 

However, in the early part of 1918 Gabriel was converted into a Minelayer and ended her war service in the busy practice of laying mines.

In fact, in the short time she was used as such a vessel, she had laid no less than 850 mines. 

The ship took its name from the biblical Angel Gabriel. 

The word Gabriel translates literally as 'God is my strength' and in Jewish writings is described as the Guardian Angel of Israel.

HMS Gabriel was decommissioned after the war and was finally broken up in 1921. To date, the Royal Navy has not named another ship Gabriel.


Illustration of Clown-class gun boat 1856

HMS Clown 

Clown was the name of Pantaloon’s servant in the popular British theatre genre mentioned above. Out of the five characters in the Harlequinade only Pierrot, another one of Pantaloon’s sidekicks, did not have a ship named after him. 

HMS Clown was also the leading ship of the clown-class of twelve gunboats that were ordered by the Royal Navy in 1856 for use in the Crimea War. They never saw action in Eastern Europe, as the war ended by the time they were completed. Instead, they were sent to the Far East to fight in The Second Opium War. 

The wars were fought as the name suggests so that Britain could sell the hallucinogenic drug on the open Chinese market. The war that HMS Clown was sent to was fought in the last four years of the 1850s, the result being the legalisation of the drug trade and access to China's hitherto closed interior. 

Victory in the First Opium War granted Britain access to five Chinese ports and resulted in the handing over of Hong Kong where HMS Clown had its early demise.

The gunboat was wrecked at Hong Kong in 1871, having served 15 years in the Royal Navy. 

Similar to the insect-class of the First World War, the clown-class gunboats were designed to operate in shallow waters. Powered with steam as well as sails, the clown-class was originally commissioned to fight in the Crimean War and would have served well in the shallow coast of the Baltic and Black Seas. Their design proved to be useful in the Far East, having taken part in the Battle of Taku Forts that was fought along a river. 

Some honourable mentions that were in the clown-class included HMS Drake, HMS Ready, HMS Handy and HMS Woodcock.


HMS Ben-My-Chree circa 1915

HMS Ben-My-Chree

Ben-My-Chree translates as ‘Woman Of My Heart’ from Manx, the language once spoken on the Isle of Man.  

Men have been naming ships after women since the beginning of time. The tradition has been carried on by the Royal Navy, usually in the form of the names of Goddesses or Queens, such as HMS Venus or HMS Boadicea. Arguably HMS Ben-My-Tree is the most romantic sounding ship to have served His Majesty. 

Built on the Isle of Man in 1907, the packet steamer was originally intended to be used for civilian purposes on the England to Isle of Man route. One year into the First World War, she was drafted into the Royal Navy and turned into a seaplane carrier. Her five decks were modified to contain a hanger that could house six seaplanes. Weighing 2651 tons and measuring 390ft, the steamer holds the speed record for crossing from Liverpool to Douglas in under three hours. 

In 1916 HMS Ben-My-Chree became the flagship of the East Indies and Egypt Seaplane Squadron, operating in the Mediterranean. 

While on a reconnaissance mission, HMS Ben-My-Chree met her fate at the French occupied Greek island of Kastellorizo. She was attacked by Turkish artillery while anchored in the harbour. 

Luckily one of the three motor lifeboats that were stored onboard remained undamaged. After 40 minutes of bombardment by the Turks, the crew were ordered to abandon ship on the last operable motorboats. Sadly this meant leaving their mascots behind - a dog and cat whose names remain unknown. 

One officer and four enlisted men were injured but there were no fatalities, including the dog and cat who also survived. The Turks bombed HMS Ben-My-Chree for another five hours until it listed (capsized to one side) in shallow waters. Later that day the captain and the chief engineer returned to the wreck to rescue the ship’s mascots. 

The ship remained in place until it was salvaged in 1920 and towed to a port in Greece. Unsurprisingly, after around six hours of bombardment by the Turks and lying listed for three years the vessel was deemed a constructive total loss and was broken up in Venice in 1923.

HMS Trump

HMS Trump 

There has been one RN ship that has shared its name with a US President (no relation). 

HMS Trump was a T-class submarine that was launched in 1944. She spent most of her career in Australia, attached to the 4th Submarine division. 

The T-class consisted of 53 members that played an integral role in the Royal Navy's submarine operations that contributed to Allied victory in the Second World War. 

The submarines that survived the war were improved for service in the cold war, their role was to counter Soviet submarine operations. 

Having survived WWII HMS Trump was rebuilt for greater underwater performance, allowing her to dive deeper and move faster. The conversion was as the ‘Slippery T’ or ‘Super T’. The conning tower was replaced by a ‘fin’ to make the vessel more streamlined. To add power and speed, extra batteries were installed, as well as additional motors. 

HMS Trump was the last British submarine to be stationed in Australia. Departing in 1969, she briefly served under the Royal Australian Navy before being scrapped at Newport in 1971.

HMS Rocket

HMS Rocket 

There have been nine ships called HMS Rocket in the Royal Navy. Sadly, none of them have made it to space. 

The first ship to bear that name was previously a civilian ship called Busy. The four-gun fireship was purchased by the Navy in 1804 and renamed. 

In the times of wooden ships, a fireship would be filled with combustibles such as gunpowder and set alight in the course of enemy ships in the hope that the fire would spread onto them. Spreading panic and breaking the other side’s ship formation were also desirable outcomes. 

HMS Rocket was sold three years after its purchase having evaded its destiny as a fireship. 

A class of destroyers launched 1894 was named the Rocket-class after its leading ship HMS Rocket. The class also included HMS Shark and HMS Surly. 

The ninth and final ship to bear the name was an R-class destroyer that saw service in the Second World War. She was built by Scotts Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, having served in the Indian Ocean during the war, she made her way back to Scotland in 1967 to be scrapped.

Lucifer, King of Hell by Paul Gustave Doré, 1832-1883

HMS Lucifer 

From HMS Witch to HMS Vampire or HMS Sea Devil, there have been an array of Navy ships with fantasmagorical names. HMS Lucifer - the ship sharing its name with the devil sounds like the most evil one of them all. 

The term Lucifer wasn’t always another name for Satan, originally it meant light-bringer. 

In Latin astronomy it was the term for Venus and the religious and mythological figures sharing the name with the planet. Due to the discontinuous appearances of Venus in the sky, mythology surrounding the figures involved a descent from the heavens to the underworld. That is how the fallen angel got one of its nicknames. 

There have been six ships in the Royal Navy bearing the name HMS Lucifer. The first was an 8-gun fireship that set sail in 1778. Sure, it is just a coincidence that the number six is associated with the antichrist and flaming fires is what hell is made of. 

The second ship that was called HMS Lucifer was also a fireship. After that there had been an array of various vessels sporting the name including a bomb vessel, a paddle gunvessel, a destroyer and a steamship. 

Not surprisingly the name wasn’t very popular in the last two centuries. 

HMS Fairy circa 1914 - 1918

HMS Fairy 

From HMS Witch and HMS Wizard to HMS Vampire there have been an array of Navy ships with fantasmagorical names, including five called HMS Fairy. 

The first one was an 18th century ship sloop with three masts giving it the ability to sail backwards. As technology progressed so did the capabilities of the ships called Fairy. During the Second World War the last ship to bear the name was a US built minesweeper that was leased to the Royal Navy for the duration of the War. Its predecessor, the fourth ship to share its name with a magical woodland creature was a WWI destroyer. 

Usually, destroyer class ships are given ominous sounding names that would make the enemy tremble in fear, such as HMS Vanquisher or HMS Onslaught or even HMS Dragon. 

HMS Fairy sounds like it would be better suited to helping one get to a ball by turning a pumpkin into a carriage rather than ramming German U-boats in the Belgian coast which is what she did in the First World War. 

The magical sounding ship was a 30-knot C-class destroyer launched in 1897. She sank in May 1918 after sustaining heavy damage from German submarines. For her valiant service, she was awarded the honour battle "Belgian Coast 1914–17". 

HMS Race-horse and HMS Carcass enclosed in ice, 1773

HMS Carcass 

Today HMS Carcass sounds macabre. The connotation of a dead body of an animal may not sit well with the modern Ships' Names and Badges Committee. However, in the historical nautical terminology carcass used to mean the framework of a ship, as well as an iron case or shell filled with combustible and other substances such as gunpowder, sulphur or broken glass, intended to set fire and wreak havoc on the enemy’s defence. 

The name did not prove to be a popular one, there having been only three HMS Carcass in the history of the Royal Navy. The most famous HMS Carcass was commissioned in 1759. 

A young Horacio Nelson served on board HMS Carcass as a midshipman, an officer of the lowest rank, on an exhibition to the arctic in 1773.

The expedition managed to reach within 10 degrees of the North Pole but had to turn back due to fear that the ship would get stuck on the ice permanently. According to Commander of the ship Skeffington Lutwidge, Nelson and a companion used the opportunity to chase a polar bear on the ice. When asked why, the reply was "I wished, Sir, to get the skin for my father.” 

After returning home to Britain, the ship went on to have an international career. HMS Carcass was commissioned to the African coast. After a series of refits, the ship went on to serve in North Africa and the West Indies. 

In the 18th century the ominous-sounding HMS Carcass gave its name to an Island full of penguins and sheep in the Falklands. The ship surveyed the island in 1766 , placing it on a map along with its own name. The nearby islands were named after its accompanying vessel HMS Jason. The most northeasterly point of the Falkland Islands, McBride Bead, was named after the captain John McBride.