Portsmouth exhibition will show the Royal Navy’s love-hate history with the Jolly Roger

For years the Jolly Roger was a flag to be feared on the high seas, its skull and crossbones signalling pirates on the horizon.

Friday, 22nd March 2019, 2:14 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd March 2019, 2:16 pm
HMS Safari's Jolly Roger, which is on display at the historic dockyard
HMS Safari's Jolly Roger, which is on display at the historic dockyard

But during the First World War, a plucky group of British submariners flew the flag in defiance of the top brass, sparking a tradition that has continued in the navy in recent years.

Now a new exhibition at the National Museum of the Royal Navy will chart the history of the Jolly Roger and its change from hated flag to adored tradition.

Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson labelled submarines as ‘underhand, unfair, and damned un-English’ upon their introduction in 1901.

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Curator Alice Roberts-Pratt with the HMS Torbay Jolly Roger

He also called for the Navy to ‘treat all submarines as pirate vessels in wartime’ and threatened to ‘hang all the crews’.

When it came to wartime in 1914, though, it was the submariners who had the last laugh.

After sinking a German cruiser just weeks after the First World War began, commanding officer of HMS E9 Max Horton ordered his signaller to make a Jolly Roger, which flew from the sub as she entered port.

‘It was a provocative response that initiated a long-standing tradition,’ says curator Alice Roberts-Pratt.

A crew with their Jolly Roger pants.

‘They didn’t get punished for it, but it was never something the admirals were happy with.’

As the war rumbled on, the crew of the E9 began to get creative, sewing symbols onto their flag that represented different achievements.

Alice adds: ‘It’s nice to picture these men out on wartime patrol sitting down with a needle and thread.’

Only a small number of other submarines adopted Lieutenant-Commander Horton’s defiant joke during the war.

But by the start of the Second World War the tradition was is in full force - and it wasn’t just limited to flags.

One picture in the exhibition shows a grinning crew presenting a pair of Jolly Roger pants.

A dress emblazoned with a skull and crossbones is also on display, given to a Wren called Lady Miers who was married to a submarine commander.

Alice says: ‘It was gifted by a friend who joked that Lady Miers’s husband, Anthony Miers, was really married to the Navy.’

New symbols were invented for each boat’s activities in what senior curator Victoria Ingles calls ‘a striking piece of folk art’.

She adds: ‘These flags are a unique visual record of a boat’s combat activities.

‘Handcrafted, they are as much a symbol of pride and a reminder of the impact of war.’

A dagger meant a sub had engaged in a covert operation, while a ram’s head signalled that the boat had rammed an enemy vessel.

Some boats even had special patches made to commemorate the unique missions they had completed.

HMS Sickle sewed an ace of spades on its Jolly Roger after a stray torpedo hit a French cliff, causing the windows in a Monte Carlo casino to shatter.

A stork and baby appeared on HMS United’s flag after the captain’s first child was born while he was on patrol.

And, notably, HMS Proteus displayed a can opener after tearing open an Italian torpedo boat that passed overhead.

Though submarine battles have been scarce since the end of the Second World War, the tradition is still alive and well in the navy.

HMS Conqueror raised a Jolly Roger after sinking the General Belgrano during the Falklands War.

The Portsmouth exhibition, called ‘Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride’, will display 15 of these flags, including one from as recent as 2003 from HMS Turbulent.

The exhibit, opening on April 6, will also show the navy’s current efforts to fight piracy, as well as its history of battling buccaneers.

Only last week, HMS Dragon seized its eighth stash of drugs from pirates, bringing its total haul of narcotics to £200m since she set sail last September.

And though they’re certainly less of a problem than they were during the Golden Age of Piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates are still a menace, according to Alice.

She says: “It’s not a problem that a lot of people think about, but there were 201 piracy attacks in 2018.

‘The total yearly cost of piracy to international maritime trade is $2bn, so it’s a serious issue.’

Despite the sometimes-serious subject matter, Alice says the exhibition is for everybody “whether you’re interested in arts and crafts or pirates themselves”.

The internationally-acclaimed Horrible Histories: Pirates exhibit will also open on April 6, giving an insight into the mysterious world of pirates across the ages.

Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride runs from April 6 to August 28, while Horrible Histories: Pirates will run for the next three years.

Both exhibitions are included in the full navy ticket to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, which costs from £31 per adult and £18.50 per child online.


Why is it called the Jolly Roger?

There are a number of theories about how the iconic flag got its name.

The popular myth is that French privateers - pirates for hire - called their bright red flags ‘Jolie Rouge’ or ‘pretty red’, although this claim is disputed.

Charles Johnson, author of “A General History of the Pyrates” in the 18th Century, claimed that the pirates Bartholomew Roberts and Francis Spriggs called their flags Jolly Rogers.

However, both pirates flew very different flags, neither of which contained a skull and crossbones, which suggests Jolly Roger was a generic term.


Decoding a flag: HMS Safari 

White bar: merchant vessel sunk

Red bar: warship sunk

Dagger: “clock and dagger” operations, usually involving going into enemy territory

Lighthouse: the submarine was used as a navigational marker for an invasion force

Crossed cannons: Deck guns used to sink vessels

White star: merchant ship sunk with deck guns

Red star: warship sunk with deck guns