Giant Naval Ships: How They Get Their Names

Ever wondered about the rules of naming naval ships? Well, essentially, there isn’t any formal rule. However, how they do get their names is one that historians have pondered for many centuries.

As a leading supplier of marine products in the UK, we explore the importance a name has for a vessel, the historical naming of ships and the importance the royal family plays in the British Navy. Following our previous blogs about how a ship is made, we explore the names of some of the seas’ commanders.

What Is the Importance of a Ship’s Name?

A ship’s name is much like a person’s name, given to provide a sense of personality and an identifying word for communication and administrative purposes. With millions of boats on the waters at one time, a ship must be easily identified, so whilst it is essential to offer a unique identifier, it must also convey the type of message to passers-by. For example, many boat owners choose a bold name to convey strength on the sea. In contrast, some owners may wish to offer a more comical name for entertainment.

However, when it comes to naming a Royal Navy vessel, comedy is not a value that is considered. Instead, most active naval vessels are provided with strong, influential names to convey commanding strength at sea. Over the centuries, the Royal Navy has reused names as they left service and were replaced with newer vessels. However, no two ships are named the same within the active vessels.

Historical Patterns with Names

During the second world war, the navy commissioned many new ships, and this vast expansion led to some curious names for the vessels. For example, over 200 flower-class corvets were built in the 1940s, which led to names such as HMS Snowdrop, Tulip and Candytuft. Although these were not names of power, they signified hope in troubling times.

In previous centuries, there have been rules which were followed to name a royal navy ship. In the 18th century, ships were named after royalty or an English locality. The largest ships built in the 1700s were named after monarchs, their relatives or palaces, as seen with the Royal Anne, Royal George and Hampton Court. All the other ships of less stature were named after English towns, counties or rivers, such as Nottingham, York, London and The Humber.

Towards the end of the 18th century, there was a shift in the names, with more leaning towards creatures, gods and protagonists from classical antiquity. For example, at the Battle of Trafalgar, we saw vessels named Ajax, Orion, Mars and Sirius. Unfortunately, history is unclear regarding the deliberate transition of naming ships, but it offers insight into naval administrators’ habits.

Another interesting note to consider from the previous naming of ships was the patriarchal stance taken. After the union act of 1707, two ships, Edinburgh and Glasgow, were renamed to help incorporate the Scottish into the British Navy. After this, we saw a range of vessels being named with “typical” British characteristics, which led to the names Conqueror, Dragon, Superb, Valliant and Defiance. All these names are still in use today.

What Is the Prefix

Every Royal Naval ship is given the prefix HMS. This is because King Henry VIII first instated the Royal Navy as an official protector of the English Kingdom, which previously had been less organised. Since its first post, the Royal Navy has always taken command from the monarch. Although, as the years have gone on, the royal family plays no part in the deployment and day-to-day runnings of the Royal Navy, they still hold the ceremonial title of Lord High Admiral.

The reigning monarch usually held this post until Queen Elizabeth II gave this title to her husband for his 90th Birthday. After he passed in 2020, the title was handed back to Queen Elizabeth II, which has since been passed on to our current Monarch, King Charles III. Although the royal family’s involvement in the Royal Navy is purely ceremonial, the commandment still lies with them, which is where the prefix HMS comes from – His/Her Majesty’s Ship.

The Naming Ceremony

Every vessel commanded by the Royal Navy will go through the naming ceremony. This will be when the public officially learns of the ship’s name, and the smashing of a champagne bottle christens it upon her hull. The ceremony is also when the vessel is transported from land to sea. There are three ways in which this can be done.

Stern first. The ship is positioned with its stern facing the water and with the assistance of two concrete barricades, which will guide the vessel into the water on an extended runway.

Sideways. The vessel is held at the water’s edge, and with a slopping rail, it is pushed sideways into the water and allowed to stabilise.

Airbags. Whilst in a dry dock, the ship will have hundreds of deflated airbags placed underneath, inflating until it is time to move the boat into the water. Slowly each bag will reduce and guide the vessel into the water.

Often these ceremonies can take some time, especially the launching of the ship, which is why most of the time, the formal announcements, christening and ceremonial admin will usually take place before the actual launch.

The event is usually accessible to most of the public, with local cadets and forces playing a part in the ship’s procession and standing guard before launch.

Ship Supplies from Offshore

Although we cannot provide any assistance in naming your boat, we can offer a great range of products to help maintain the ship whilst out at sea. So, whether you’re looking for Unitor marine chemicals to help maintain your deck hardware and marine engine spares, or you need to purchase some Nalfleet marine chemicals to maintain your boilers, you can be sure we will have the products you need. Please browse through our items online or call us directly for more information on finding the right supplies for your ship.