One of the wonderful things about working here is being bombarded with questions that wrack the brain and start an ongoing research relationship with the chosen topic. Such are the Button Boys - the daredevils of the mast displays carried out by naval training establishments.
This enquiry came to me via email. The person in question wanted to know a little bit more about the term and when it died out. So the quest began, and a long-time fascination with Button Boys has now been cemented.
My research has taken me from the Caird Library, where I have read extracts from books such as HMS Ganges: Tales of the Trogs (fantastic read), to our electronic resources (we have a Royal Navy links section), and to the Royal Naval Museum itself. I have even borrowed the ear of Royal Navy gentlemen when I have had the opportunity!
Here are my findings... Imagine climbing a mast of approximately 140ft and then climbing a further 15ft up a pole to the top of the mast where a ‘button’ shaped platform awaits you. The ‘button’ platform is not a vast amount of space, so imagine your feet gingerly ensuring that they do not topple off the edge! Now - imagine only having a lightning conductor to hold onto for balance! Now - imagine letting go of the lightning conductor to salute your audience! I have just described the journey and the final gesture of the Button Boy. He truly was the star of the mast display.
In print it does sound adventurous but when you see it on film you realise that words cannot do it justice! This footage of the Button Boys at HMS Ganges really is both a beautiful and terrifying experience for the senses to behold. I sat stunned as I watched each lad climb the ropes with precision to get into their designated position, mastering the devil’s elbow and other areas with discipline.
The award for the Button Boy’s daredevil ascent and, indeed, descent!? A shilling, according to the Royal Naval Museum, who have been most helpful in my research enquiries. I now understand a lot more about the Button Boy’s role and what could motivate him.
One thing eludes me though. When did the term die out!? The Royal Naval Museum sent me the following information via email:
This was officially replaced by Procedure Alpha (manning the sides of the deck), but I am afraid I have been unable to locate a definitive date for the change. Button Boys were still being selected at HMS Ganges training establishment in the 1950s, although conventional Royal Naval vessels had long ceased to have masts at this stage.
So, we can conclude that it was not a particular event or person which caused the brave Button Boys to become a figure of the past. It was more a case of the changing face of the Royal Navy and vessels which caused the ‘lightning conductor’ salute to come to an end.
If any former Button Boys are reading this please feel free to comment on your experiences or add any wisdom to this post. I would be delighted to hear from you. I salute you! (with my feet firmly on the ground) If you do get some spare time I thoroughly recommend reading both HMS Ganges: Tales of the Trogs and HMS Ganges: Roll on my dozen, both by John Douglas. Mary (Information Assistant - Library)