Customs in Messes

In a commissioned ship all commissioned officers live in the Wardroom. The Captain had a separate mess with his own staff, but it is the custom for him to invite one or more of his officers in turn to dine with him each night. If an admiral is on board he also had a separate mess with his own cook and stewards.


In a commissioned ship all commissioned officers live in the Wardroom. The Captain had a separate mess with his own staff, but it is the custom for him to invite one or more of his officers in turn to dine with him each night. If an admiral is on board he also had a separate mess with his own cook and stewards. Junior officers are messed in the gunroom and warrant officers have mess on their own in large ships. The ratings are divided into messes of about eleven men and all eat at tables on the mess deck. Conditions in the wardroom amount to much the same as those of a gentleman’s club ashore with regard to social amenities, but there are hard and fast rules which must be obeyed. All officers are expected to be punctual and prompt for meals, especially at dinner, which is always more or less a formal meal.

Captain Basil Hall, R.N., who wrote an account of his career at sea, said that a wardroom officer should show the true spirit of a gentleman as it aids in acquiring the art of command. He says:

And certainly as far as my own observation and inquiries have gone I have found reason to believe that those officers who are the best informed and the best bred, and who possess the true spirit of gentlemen, are not only the safest to trust in command of others but are always the readiest to yield that prompt and cheerful obedience to their superiors which is the mainspring of good order. Such men respect themselves so justly and value their own true dignity of character so much and are at all times so sensitively alive to the humiliation of incurring reproach that they are extremely cautious how they expose themselves to merited censure. From the early and constant exercise of genuine politeness they become habitually considerate of the feelings of others; and thus by the combined action of these principles of manners officers of this stamp contrive to get through far more work and generally do it better than a person of less refinement. Moreover they consider nothing beneath their closest attention which falls within the limit of their duty and as a leading part of this principle they are the most patient well as vigilant superintendents of the labour of those placed under their authority of any men I have ever seen.

The custom of arriving at the table for dinner is for officers to remain standing till the Mess President takes his seat, when all follow suit. During the meal, conversation is subdued and certain subjects strictly taboo. No woman’s name must not be mentioned, nor must women be discussed in general. Any officer who mentions a lady’s name at dinner in a wardroom mess can be fined a round of port. The President may make an exception if the lady happens to be well known or celebrated, say, a film star or perhaps a woman politician. This is done because all conversation at the table is considered public, and it is bad form to speak of a lady publicly.

For the same reason, any officer speaking in a foreign language at the dinner table, other than of course quoting the old tag of dog Latin, may, at the Mess President’s discretion, be fined a round of port. Conversation being public should be conducted in a language understood by all. Religion and politics are barred at the table, and when it is realised that nearly all the wars in the world centred round one or the other of these subjects, it is not to be wondered at that they are left severely alone in a social gathering. It is considered bad manners when asking for food to be passed along the table to help oneself without first taking the dish or plate from the person passing it.

No member may leave the table without first seeking permission from the President. Equally, anyone arriving late must also first ask the President’s permission to be seated. Unless he has been detained on duty, he must forego any of the courses already served. No member of the mess may receive or read a message brought in during dinner without first asking permission. And if any member should light up before the President has announced: ‘Gentlemen, you may smoke”, he renders himself liable to the customary fine of a round of drinks. Should a guest offend any of these rules, he may be warned or fined, and if the latter, his host will have to pay. It is expected that all games played in the mess will be stopped one half hour before mealtime. Mess boys of the watch are required to tidy up the mess every two hours. Care in this respect insured that the mess was always neat and presentable. All officers are required to dress in complete uniform when in the mess room. A rack for the stowage of caps is installed outside the wardroom. Making a bet is also barred in the wardroom .Any officer making a bet at the dinner table renders himself liable to the fine of a round of port. This custom having originally been instituted so that arguments should not become heated, nor give reason for a quarrel.

It is considered very bad manners to enter a strange mess wearing a sword. The reason behind this was that any aggrieved party was thus prevented from arriving onboard with the express intention of forcing a quarrel. Also, no officer may draw a sword in the mess without previously asking permission, on pain of buying drinks all round. The origin of this custom was to prevent any hasty action when tempers ran high, particularly in the days when duelling was prevalent. In fact, an official ban on duelling continued to be included in the King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions up until 1936. The relevant Article began with the words: “Every officer in his Majesty’s Fleet is hereby ordered neither to send nor to accept a challenge to fight a duel.” Occasionally, the Wardroom Mess President may lay himself open to a charge of transgressing the rules it is his duty to administer, and must thereby suffer the appropriate punishment. Thus, if he should leave the table at the conclusion of dinner and absentmindedly omit to have the wine decanters removed, his seat may be taken by any other officer present, who can pass the wine round – to be paid for by the President. It should be noted that the quality of food and manner of service in any mess depends largely upon the interest of the mess members. They cannot blame anyone else for a poor mess. The criterion of a mess is that it shall be one in which any member is proud to bring a distinguished guest at any time and know that he or she will receive dignified hospitality. This type of mess is not obtained except by sincere co-operation of all members.


The drinking of health has always been looked upon as a ritual of some importance. In the wardrooms of different ships, various toasts are honoured each evening. In port, Thursday was Guest Night and the meal was usually somewhat fuller than on the everyday nights. The sovereign is the first toast every night. All refrain from smoking until after this has been honoured. When a meal is completed the wine decanters are placed in front of the Mess President, who removes the stoppers, placing them in front of the table. He then passes the decanter to the officer on his left, who passes it to the next man – on no account must the decanters be crossed – and so on till the decanters have travelled around the mess, each officer filling his glass with which wine he prefers. It is not considered good form to accept a glass of wine from anyone with which to drink the loyal toast, the idea being that it is an honour to pay for the wine on this occasion. When all glasses are filled and the decanters returned to the front of the president, he carefully replaces the stoppers. This action is to emphasize the fact that the principal object is to enable the mess to drink the loyal toast only.

With all glasses filled, the president raises his glass, saying to the Vice-President, who sits at the opposite end of the table, “Mr. Vice – The Queen.” The Vice-President raises his glass and says, “Gentleman, the Queen.” All raise their glasses and say “The Queen” and drink her health. It used to be correct to add “God bless her” but this custom seems to have fallen into disuse in ships, though it is frequently done ashore. After the toast has been drunk, should the wine be passed around again, those who did not drink the loyal toast cannot partake. If by some extraordinary, and unthinkable, quirk of circumstance the mess is composed entirely of teetotallers except for the Mess President, which means that there is only one person to drink the Sovereign’s health, he is entitled to a glass of port at mess expense so that his messmates may give proof of their loyal sentiments.

Along with these traditional mess customs certain slang terms connected with drinking are still current today. Thus, while in ancient times a ‘long ship’ was a vessel rowed by the Vikings, the term had become wardroom slang, although seldom heard, one hopes. For a ‘long ship’ signifies a vessel lacking in the Navy’s traditional hospitality. Put more bluntly, that her officers permit a long time to elapse between drinks. In contrast to this implied parsimony, it is always possible in the wardrooms of HM ships and establishments to ‘celebrate the siege of Gibraltar’, for this remark is used as an excuse to offer a guest a drink. The various sieges of the famous Rock, some fourteen in all, covered such a lengthy period of time that one could celebrate the affair on any day of the year. It is, however, a convention afloat that one does not drink in a naval wardroom until ‘the sun is over the foreyard’. In sailing warship days, when the sun had reached that altitude in the morning was considered sufficiently advanced to take a ‘nooner’.

Sailors are somewhat less superstitious today than were their forebears afloat. But it is still possible for a visitor to a naval wardroom to earn himself a black look if he allows an empty glass to ring. For thus, it is said, he has sounded the knell of some unfortunate sailor who will die by drowning. But if the offender quickly reaches out and stops the glass from ringing he can breathe more easily. For now, as the old superstition has it, ‘the Devil will take two soldiers instead’. It is generally known that naval officers are privileged to remain seated when drinking the health of the Sovereign. The exact date when this privilege was accorded is not available. Some authorities state that it was William IV, the Sailor King, and others affirm that it was Charles II when on returning to England in 1660 aboard the Naseby, which had been re-christened the Royal Charles who bumped his head on a low beam in the cabin when responding to a toast. Rubbing his head ruefully, he exclaimed: “When I get ashore I will see that my naval officers run no such risk, for I will allow them from henceforth to remain sitting when drinking my health.”

It is true that in most of the old time warships it was practically impossible to stand upright between decks except right amidships; and as most vessels of that era had a ‘tumble-home’ i.e. the ships side timbers curved inwards above the waterline, anyone seated close to the side would find it impossible to stand at all. Indeed Captain Pellew, one of Nelsons ‘band of brothers’, complained in one ship he commanded that the ‘tween deck space was so low, his servant had to dress his hair through the sky light’. Charles II might have well bumped his head, but that William IV should have been so clumsy seems doubtful, for he had been a sailor for years and was used to the peculiar inboard shape of ships. While a serving naval officer in the West Indies he had in fact acted as best man at the wedding of Captain Horatio Nelson.

Another school of thought believes that when George IV, while Prince Regent, was dining onboard a warship, he exclaimed as the officers rose to drink the kings health, “Gentleman, pray be seated, your loyalty is above suspicion.” Since the Prince Regent was continually at variance with his father over political matters and was closely associated with the Parliamentary Opposition to the kind, it is a matter for speculation as to whom their loyalty was directed. For in the Navy, generally, loyalty to the person of the sovereign took precedence over the ties of service to a political party. The last theory is that the custom originated in the Restoration Navy among gentleman volunteers, who formed the first considerable mess on board ship before the wardroom mess existed. Not being seamen by upbringing, they are likely to have found it difficult to keep their feet in seaway. It was one of them who wrote:

Our paper, pen and ink, and we

Roll up and down our ships at sea.

In 1964, on the occasion of the Tercentenary of the Corps, the privilege of drinking the loyal toast seated was granted by the Queen Elizabeth II to officers and non-commissioned officers of the Royal Marines. Two years later the Queen extended the privilege to chief and petty officers of the Royal Navy when dining formally in their messes, both ashore and afloat.

Whatever the truth of its origin, this particular naval custom goes by the board if the National Anthem should be played while the loyal toast is being drunk when the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, or any other members of the Royal Family is present. For then all naval and marine officers, ratings, and other ranks, must stand like everyone else, unless Royal Personage has expressed the wish that they should remain seated. The late Marquis of Milford Haven gave this ruling on 4th June 1914, at which date he was the first Sea Lord.

Officers who serve in the Royal Yacht Britannia, however, make a practise of standing when drinking the loyal toast. They do this to emphasise the honoured distinction of serving in a royal yacht. The custom of toasting in military messes is not in all respects uniform, but in the Navy the rule never changes. Each night a secondary toast is honoured.

This is a list given by an old officer, which dates from the time of Lord Nelson:

Monday night “Our Ships at sea.”
Tuesday night “Our men.”
Wednesday night “Ourselves” (as no one is likely to concern themselves with our welfare.
Thursday night “Bloody war and quick promotion.”
Friday night A willing foe and plenty of sea room.”
Saturday night “Sweethearts and wives.”
Sunday night “Absent friends.”

In most wardroom messes today, only the Saturday night toast is honoured. These secondary toasts differ in different ships. It is often the custom for the Mess President to call upon the youngest officer present to reply for the ladies on Saturday night, and many a clever and witty speech is heard on these occasions.


At the mess the chaplain usually says grace, but if he is absent, then the Mess President takes his place and acts for him. In olden days, when the food problem was more difficult, the grace would give us an idea as to the state of the larder. If rations were short, the grace would run: “Messing three among four of us, Thank God there aren’t more of us.” If things were short indeed, then “Messing four among two of us, thank God there are but a few of us” showed that the mess was on half rations.


It is always recognised that the guest of an officer is also a guest of the mess. Should the host be called away on duty or the guest arrive on board before his host, it is up to anyone in the mess to act as host and entertain the guest till his host arrives. Any member of the mess should take the opportunity of contributing to the guest’s comfort and entertainment. If there is only one officer in the mess when a visiting wardroom officer or guest of the mess enters, it is that officer’s duty to act as host until others entertain the visitor. On guest nights it is usual to make conversation as general as possible. Therefore, conversation should not be limited to service trivialities and monotonous talk of shop; neither should a guest in any walk of life be ‘talked down to’. On guest nights, if a Royal Navy band is in attendance, it is the custom for the Mess President to invite the Bandmaster into the mess to have a drink. A chair is provided for him to the president’s right and the bandmaster’s glass filled by giving him a ‘backhander’. This means placing the glass at the left of the decanter to be filled. By doing so the port does not have to be passed anti-clockwise. For when the decanters are placed on the mess table after the last course has been cleared away, they must always be passed from right to left.

Toasts for visiting guests

The custom of toasting the sovereign of visiting guests by a special drink is very ancient. In olden days it was customary for the host to take a sip of the cup to show that it was not poisoned. This custom still prevails in the principal restaurants today, when a sip of wine ordered is poured into the glass of the host before filling the glasses of the guests. It is thought by some that the intention is to allow the host to verify his choice of wine, but this is not so. The custom is very old. In Anglo-Saxon days it was the custom to place a piece of toast in the glass with certain wines and beverages. Addison relates the following incident in the Tatler of the June, 1709, No. 24: “It happened that on a public day a celebrated beauty of her admirers took a glass of water in which the fair one stood and drank her health to the company. There was in the place a gay fellow half-fuddled who offered to jump in, and swore though he was apposed in his resolution, this whim gave foundation to the present honour which is done to the lady we mention in out liquors who has ever since been called a ‘toast’.” At officer’s dinners given in honour of visiting foreign officers, toasts are drunk first to the head of the state or country. Thus, if a French admiral would be given a dinner by our admiral, he or she would propose a toast to the President of the French Republic, and shortly afterwards the French admiral would propose a toast to Her Majesty the Queen.

The Gunroom

The junior officers’ mess is called the gunroom. All below the rank of sub-lieutenant are members. The president is usually the senior sub-lieutenant. Some of the customs prevailing in this mess are strange to landsmen. In olden days, when there were men much older in the mess, men of forty and over sat at meals with boys of eleven and twelve. Then the grog had circulated of an evening and the talk became rough and possibly lewd, it was considered time the youngsters as they were termed, should leave the mess to the oldsters. A fork was put in the beam and this was a tip for the youngsters to make themselves scarce, for the last youngster to leave was generally hauled back and ‘firked’ or ‘cobbed’ for his tardiness in obeying orders. If any subject was under discussion that was not suitable for them to hear, “breadcrumbs” was the order for the junior members to stop their ears with their fingers. In olden days the senior midshipmen would plug the ears of the younger members with dough. The cry “fishbones” called on them to shut their eyes and “matchbox” closed their mouths and enjoined strict silence.

Cobbing or firking was the term used for unofficial flogging. The punishment was carried out with either a stocking filled with sand or half a bung stave of a cast. This latter was the more effective as the bunghole caused blisters on the posterior of the culprit which soon became exceedingly painful, but were never of sufficient soreness to call for attention by the sick bay steward. The stocking full of sand showed no trace of being administered, but nevertheless could be very painful. This punishment was prefixed with the cry, “Watch here, Watch there,” and everybody within hearing was bound to take off his hat under penalty of receiving the same treatment. The last blow of this flogging was always the hardest, and from this fact the old naval expression arose of “getting the purse.” There was a similar punishment in the Army known as Sling Belting. This was administered with the sling of an old firelock. After the year 1955 there will be no gunroom aboard Her Majesties ships. Cadets will not leave Dartmouth College until they are eighteen years of age. They will then be drafted into Her Majesty’s ships as sub-lieutenants. No doubt there will be a senior and junior mess, but the old happy days of the gunroom will have passed.

Social usage ashore

Admiral Nelson’s letter to a young friend who had just been appointed midshipman sums up the main tenets of a naval officer. This is what he said: “As you from this day start the world as a man I trust that your future conduct in life will prove you both an officer and a gentleman. Recollect that you must be a seaman to be an officer without being a gentleman.” It has always been the custom in naval training to impress upon the men in the Navy the heritage they possess. Superior behaviour is insisted on and honesty of purpose, consideration for others, a conformance with the best social usages of time, proper respect for age and office, chivalrous regard for women and a readiness to assist the unfortunate and helpless. In short, men of the Navy, both rank and ratings, are trained to face life with a strong sense of decency and fair play. Naturally his code of life cannot be expressed in rules, and perhaps the custom of a naval officer, a gentleman and a King of England will not be out of place here. These customs and traditions are, in the main, observed as faithfully in the wardroom messes of naval shore establishments as they are on board actual warships, since the former are considered as much ‘ships’ as those that float and fight.