Royal Navy Sailor From HMS Bulwark Sporting A Full Set Beard

The Beard: A Royal Navy Tradition

Royal Navy Sailor From HMS Bulwark Sporting A Full Set Beard

When razors finally flood the streets of Hoxton and Shoreditch and the hipsters emerge clean shaven, rightful ownership of the beard will return to the Royal Navy.

For over three millennia seafarers have been pictured sporting full sets - with pottery from ancient Greece and Phoenicia often painted with the exploits of bearded sailors.

Leaping forward to 1519 the face of the man who led the first voyage to circumnavigate the globe, Ferdinand Magellan, was festooned with grey hair. However with only 18 of the 237 men returning alive from the expedition it's little wonder shaving wasn't a priority.

Getting to the Brits, Sir Francis Drake - sailor, privateer, slaver and scourge of the Spanish - carried off a particularly fine, pointy example. Buried at sea in 1596 wearing full armour and with a full set, to this day divers continue to look off the coast of Panama for his lead coffin.

Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral
Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral

Amongst the sailing, and piratical fraternity beards were still very much the order of the day in 1716 when a certain Edward Teach rose to notoriety. Better known as Blackbeard his short but spectacular career saw him terrorise the Caribbean, described by his contemporary Captain Charles Johnson thus:

"So our Heroe, Captain Teach, assumed the Cognomen of Black-beard, from that large Quantity of Hair, which, like a frightful Meteor, covered his whole Face, and frightened America more than any Comet that has appeared there a long Time. This Beard was black, which he suffered to grow of an extravagant Length; as to Breadth, it came up to his Eyes; he was accustomed to twist it with Ribbons, in small Tails."

Blackbeard, Captain Edward Teach
The Infamous Blackbeard, Captain Edward Teach

In the 1870s the facial furniture of Royal Navy sailors came under the scrutiny of none other than Queen Victoria herself.

Whilst her personal preference was for beards without a moustache, those "offering a rather soldierlike appearance", she ordered the First Lord of the Admiralty that in the case of sailors only "an entire beard... kept short and very clean" would suffice, adding that "on no account should moustaches be allowed without beards. That must be clearly understood."

It was an order Victoria's grandson George, later King George V, took very seriously. Handed over to the Navy to educate at the pre-pubescent age of 12 the young man grew a cracking beard in his late teens. 

Serving on the likes of HMS Bacchante, and later commanding Torpedo Boat 79, HMS Thrush and finally HMS Melampus in 1891, his natty beard proved something of a trademark.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia with his cousin King George V
Tsar Nicholas II of Russia with his cousin King George V

Almost a century later, having sunk the Argentine flagship, the General Belgrano, and triumphantly flying a Jolly Roger, HMS Conqueror sailed into her home port of Faslane with the majority of her officers gathered atop the fin wearing neat full sets.

Current Royal Navy rules set exacting standards for those sailors who wish to continue the tradition, all clearly laid out in 'The Queen's Regulations for the Royal Navy', paragraph 3818.

First up, the gentleman in question must request the permission of his Commanding Officer to grow a beard and it must be "kept neatly trimmed especially, at the lower neck and cheekbones."

Not only that but "It is within the subjective judgement of the Command to define an acceptable appearance of a beard, as much depends on the features of the individual."

Bearded Royal Navy Padre

Not permitted, however, is 'Designer Stubble', defined as hair shorter in length than 2.5mm, nor 'Extended or Hipster Beards', defined as being more than 25.5mm in length.

"A beard should be of a length that does not extend beyond the top part of the collar front of a service shirt. More specifically, if the Naval serviceman was wearing a shirt and tie, the beard would not obscure the knot of the tie. The breadth of the beard should not exceed the maximum width of the line between the Naval serviceman’s ears."

Also out are 'Beards taking an excessive time to grow', so bad news for the more follicly challenged. If you can't "grow a sufficiently thorough beard" in a fortnight the Captain will be waving a Gillette (other brands of razor are available).

Operational reasons have also seen blanket orders for sailors to shave, usually when conditions mean breathing apparatus may have to be worn. Whiskers can prevent the rubber of gas masks forming a good seal around the face, leaving the wearer at risk.

It's partly for this reason that since 1985 the likes of the US Navy has insisted that all its sailors are clean shaven.

So Britain may have a shrinking Royal Navy, down to just 77 ships from a peak of 1,400 at the outbreak of the Second World War, but at least when it comes to beards Britannia still rules the waves.

As for the Royal Marines... well that story will have to wait for another day.

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