The Bearded Mariner
A recent newspaper piece about me rather flatteringly began: ‘If ever an author epitomised the lure of the sea and the sagas it can serve up Julian Stockwin is your man. He has a mariner’s beard, charming becalmed persona…
Beards and the mariner have a long association. Ferdinand Magellan sported one when he circumnavigated the globe and proved that the world was round, as did Sir Francis Drake, who helped England become a mighty sea power in the 1500s. The ancient mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem wore a ‘long grey beard’ and Captain Ahab in ‘Moby Dick’ had a dark, almost sinister, beard. And of course there was Blackbeard, the English pirate with his ferocious facial hair.
One of the reasons beards were favoured by seafarers is undoubtedly the fact that fresh water was often in short supply in the days of wooden sailing vessels. A beard also gave protection against the elements, especially for those venturing into frigid waters.
But beards at sea were not always universally popular. Peter the Great, who did much to reform the Russian navy, did not believe that beards were the way to go in his modernisation. He instituted a tax on beards!
In Kydd’s day, perhaps surprisingly, the men of the lower deck rarely sported beards. One of their number acted as a barber using a cut-throat razor and they were shaved regularly. This probably reflected Admiralty concerns for hygiene as unclean beards could harbour unwanted guests…
During the 19th century, merchant marine sailors traditionally stopped shaving from the time they left their last port of call until the time they reached home. By the time a sailor returned from some faraway place, he could have grown a full beard.
In Queen Victoria’s time it was proposed that sailors in the Navy should henceforward be allowed to wear beards. ‘Has Mr Childers ascertained anything on the subject of the beards?’ the Queen wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty. ‘Her own personal feeling,’ she went on, ‘would be for the beards without the moustaches, as the latter have a rather soldier-like appearance, but then the object in view would not be obtained, viz. to prevent the necessity of shaving. Therefore it had better be as proposed, the entire beard, only it should be kept short and very clean.’
In 1869 the Admiralty officially gave permission to discontinue the use of the razor. Since that time sailors have had to request ‘permission to cease shaving’ before growing a beard and moustache (‘a full set’). If, after a period without shaving, it becomes clear that the individual cannot grow a proper full set, his commanding officer may order him to shave it off.
The future Edward VII, prevented by his mother Victoria from engaging in active service nevertheless famously sported a magnificent full naval beard as did the ‘Sailor King’ George V who did see much naval service, as a young officer in the Far East adding as well a tattoo of a red and blue dragon on his arm.
I personally did not have a beard in my early days in the Navy but grew one later, and sport it to this day.
But times are a-changing. The bearded mariner is a dying breed, largely due to operational reasons to ensure the safety of sailors using respiratory protection. A beard prevents a proper seal. (Moustaches and sideburns can still be worn in accordance with dress regulations and accommodation is usually made for personnel with religious and medical exemptions.)
The US Navy did away with beards in 1985 to emphasize ‘pride and professionalism,’ and for safety reasons. The Royal Canadian Navy has done likewise. The Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Navy are more flexible and still permit full set beards with the proviso that they must be modified or shaved off if operational reasons require it.
This full set rule is broken in November in the Royal Navy and other navies as part of the ‘Movember’ campaign against prostrate cancer. Sailors are encouraged to compete to grow the best and strangest moustaches to raise cash for this worthy cause.
Do you have a favourite pic. of a bearded sailor?
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Julian,I’m a Reenactor,and I’m planning to do an event as a RCN officer in the Battle of the Atlantic. I’ve been growing a beard for this but find very few images of officers RN/RCN with beards other than Prince Phillip. What are your thoughts as to how common this would have been for serving officers on convoy duty?
Don’t have actual figures but would have thought pretty common indeed, especially in the Sackville-class corvettes. Perhaps contact http://www.hmcssackville-cnmt.ns.ca/ ?
Re beards in the RCN
Beards are still allowed in the RCN, but as you stated Julian, must conform to the wearing of the respirator for the fire fighting gear. Now, how about a pic of you sans beard?
Jim Parker Lt(N) RCN (Ret’d)
Sans beard? That’s a tall order, will have to dig around…
I served with the US Coast Guard from the mid-’60s to early ’70s and spent time on North Atlantic Ocean Station where those so inclined were allowed to grow beards, as long as they were “neatly trimmed”.
And , as with all beards, mine included, they seem to change colour with age!
Regards, Anthony Heazell
There you go, Tom – you are a chip off Nelson’s block!
I’m not sure how much it relates, but since ancient times beards and long hair were undesired among military men because of the ease in which to grab it during hand-to-hand combat. That’s why many gladiators entered the ring with shaved heads and no beards. Best Regards to Julian and all his fans!
I served in the Royal Navy from September 1962 to February 1972, beginning as an Artificer Apprentice and reaching the dizzy heights of REA2. (I saw the demise of the tot – a sad day.)
In that time I seem to recall that a seaman could wear one earring or grow a queue and be paid the princely sum of three pence a day extra, although I never saw anyone take up either option.
Is this a memory you share?
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