In March 2016 I released a Call for Participation asking Royal Navy personnel to share their stories of shipboard entertainment. One naval theatrical tradition I wanted to learn more about was ‘Crossing the Line’.

You are ‘captured’ by the Bears and brought before Neptune’s court. You are tried and found guilty of not paying adequate homage and then dunked in a pool of foul water, shaved and given a particularly disgusting pill to cure you of your evils. It’s great fun!

Robert Brown, HMS Birmingham, 1981

The call was circulated as part of my PhD research within the AHRC funded project ‘Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space’. I had found many materials from the Caird Library and Archive relating to the practice of Crossing the Line in the 19th century, but was keen to discover how and why ‘Crossing the Line’ had been maintained by companies in the 20th century.

Caricature of Crossing the Line
Caricature of Crossing the Line, 1 September 1825, by George Cruikshank

What is 'Crossing the Line'?

‘Crossing the Line’ is activated by companies when a ship crosses the Equator. It is a rite of passage that has evolved over centuries of practice and is still performed by service personnel at sea today.

The ceremony plays an integral role in fostering a sense of community and camaraderie among companies, by initiating the novices or ‘pollywogs’ of the ship; people who have not yet crossed the Equator, into ‘the Ancient Order of the Deep.’

On the day of the crossing, a procession of Father Neptune and his royal court takes place; of company members who have adorned costumes. Members of the royal court coerce the ‘pollywogs’ after the procession to complete a series of uncomfortable tasks until they are finally submerged into tanks of water. The company collectively re-emerges as ‘trusty shellbacks’ and the newly initiated receive certificates.

Crossing the Line Certificate, HMS Kent
Crossing the Line Certificate, HMS Kent, 31 March 1939 [Pamphlet PBA3730, Caird Library]

Tales from the 20th Century

The following anecdotes and photographs of ‘Crossing the Line’ have been generously shared by people who responded to my call in March. These provide a unique glimpse into the production and performance of this ceremony in the latter half of the 20th century.

On the evening prior to the ship reaching 0 degrees latitude [,] Neptune’s helpers, a mix of bears and policemen [,] scoured the ship issuing court summons to ‘Equatorial Virgins.’ The following afternoon a stage, thrones and ducking pool was rigged… I enjoyed being a bear [,] as I had crossed the line before and happily took part…When all Virgin’s [sic] had been dunked, the day ended with a flight deck barbeque at sunset.

Jim Stroud, HMS Victorious, January 1964

Her Highness Amphitrite seated on a car of state drawn by a sleuth of bears
Her Highness Amphitrite seated on a car of state drawn by a sleuth of bears, January 1959, HMS Centaur. Photograph courtesy of Jim Stroud

The Captain and Colonel were honoured guests of King Neptune and his Queen. They observed the official trials and conviction of the first-timers and then made a timely retreat, before the free-for-all started. There was a general feeling of excitement and anticipation…First timers who had not been selected for the official trial were eager to observe and later take part in the activities.

Graham May, HMS Bulwark, 1961

The bath and shaving ritual, HMS Centaur
The bath and shaving ritual, HMS Centaur, January 1959, photograph courtesy of Jim Stroud

This [sentence] usually included administration of a pill (piece of soap or similar) washed down with some liquid, before being ‘shaved’[:] face covered with shaving foam and scraped with a large wooden ‘razor’ before being tipped backwards of the chair into the pool by two ‘bears’. In my case I grabbed both bears, pushed them into the pool and a tussle ensued, in which the bears both got ducked as well (more than I did) and I escaped the pool; as the saying goes, ‘Exit stage left, pursued by bears’!

Tim Stoneman, HMS Charybdis, 1982

Find out about our Waterline photo collection, including many of Crossing the Line ceremonies

 

More about the AHRC 'Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space' project

If you would like to share your stories of 'Crossing the Line' or want to know more about my research on 20th century shipboard theatricals, please contact me via Twitter @SarahLouPenny or email s.penny@warwick.ac.uk

Sarah Penny, PhD Researcher, University of Warwick