In this festive guest blog, researcher Sarah Penny uncovers some memorable historical Christmas celebrations on board Royal Navy ships. 

"Christmas, Christmas, ‘long as Andrew bides, 
‘Long as men in rig of blue ride the ocean tides, 
Shall the ancient festival still be kept alive, 
Christmas Day - breezy day – December twenty-five."
Ballads of the Blue

Christmas is almost upon us and the musical traditions of the season are in full swing! Whether you’re attending a local carol concert or nativity, catching a few bars of a busker’s festive tunes as you walk across the high street, or watching a pantomime – performance will undoubtedly play some part in your build-up to Christmas. 

Music and theatre in the Royal Navy

For centuries, music and theatre has also played an integral role in the social and cultural lives of Royal Navy personnel at sea. Throughout my PhD research with the AHRC project ‘Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space,’ I have uncovered 20th century examples of SODS Operas, concert parties, and ritual performances, many of which tie into yearly celebrations. 

Performances of familiar melodies by costumed company members in a mess rigged with evergreen, flags, and paper chains were not just welcome additions to the operational programme at Christmas but celebrated practices. Below are 19th and 20th century accounts from the Caird Library and Archive of companies keeping their theatrical (and festive!) traditions alive. What strikes me about these extracts is the resourcefulness shown by participants. Their ability to make, mend, and modify the finite resources around them to stage shows and fashion costumes, demonstrates the significance of amateur dramatics in the Royal Navy as both a craft and creative practice.

Nailing the Emblem of Yule Tide to the Mast
Nailing the Emblem of Yule Tide to the Mast

‘Christmas in the Navy – How “Jack” Keeps up the Merry Festival’

From Navy and Army, 26th December 1914 

‘Nearly every ship in the Service has its “funny party” and these having dressed themselves up in the most outrageously comical garbs, wend their way to the vicinity of the Captain’s cabin door. The ship’s band also assembles there... then Number One pokes his head out and asks if everything is ready. The answer being in the affirmative, the captain makes his appearance, followed by all the other officers according to rank, and the procession starts. The “funny party” begins to contort itself while the band strikes up “The Roast Beef of Old England” the bluejackets’ rendering of which is not quite the orthodox one. It runs:- 

"The roast beef of Old England is jolly good stuff, 
But that which we get is most horribly tough, 
And the worst of it is we do not get enough
Of this good old roast beef of Old England. 
What Oh! The old English roast beef,”’

The Arrival of the Ship’s Postman. Father Christmas Receives the Season’s Greetings.
The Arrival of the Ship’s Postman. Father Christmas Receives the Season’s Greetings.

Account of Christmas 1914 on HMS Kent

Recorded by Christopher McKee in Sober Men and True: Sailor Lives in the Royal Navy, 1900-1945:

‘Xmas Day. Simply great. Ship’s company made up a ‘hurrah party’ with a tin whistle and mouth-organ band, assisted by the drums. They borrowed various officers’ old uniforms and togged themselves up. Stoker Potter got into Commander’s clothes. At 10 [A.M.] all officers went round the ship headed by Commander Potter and his tin orchestra; then came the captain and other officers, followed by the funny party.’

‘Theatricals of the Men’

Extract from Journal of Edward Newell Harrison, clerk in charge HMS Assistance 1850-52: 

‘The most trivial cold or other complaint induced despondency, and an attack in the joints of the legs and limbs attended with extravasation of blood, for which it may be remarked there was some difficulty in accounting, excited the most discouraging apprehensions. Under these circumstances, I was not a little delighted when informed that they had contrived, in imitation of the officers, to get up a play, and had appointed Christmas Eve for its performance. In due time two farces were announced for representation the “First Floor” and the “Benevolent Tar” and these went off with unbounded applause in a stifling atmosphere between decks, though outside the thermometer stood at 30°– ’ 

Find out more about the AHRC ‘Amateur Dramatics: Crafting Communities in Time and Space’ project

If you would like 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