History of Naval Ranks and Rates

Read about the origins of the different ranks and rates in the Navy. The history of ranks and rates within the Navy is tied to development of language and naval custom. Read More

Rank of Ensign in the RNZN

The RNZN introduced the rank of Ensign in 1968 as a result of changes to training policy and procedures. Unlike the United States Navy which replaced the rank of midshipman with Ensign in 1862, from 1968 the RNZN has kept both ranks as part of the naval command structure. Read More

History behind the rank of Chief Petty Officer & Petty Officer

The Petty Officer can trace the title back to the old French word, petit meaning something small. In medieval and later England just about every village had several “petite”, “pety” or “petty” officials/officers who were subordinate to such major officials as the Steward of Sheriff. Read More

History of Officers Uniforms

The first developments in uniforms came about from the desire of officers that their sailors have some form of uniform but it took until the mid-19th century for a proper uniform to be issued to ratings.It is important to remember that the RNZN has, with some minor changes, followed the Royal Navy.Read More

Changes to Naval Uniforms

One of the only constants in the history of naval uniforms is how many times they are changed. From the mid-18th century naval officers had a regulation uniform but ratings wore whatever they purchase, borrow or steal.Read More

Wearing of the Sword by Naval Officers

Recently there has been an resurgence in the belief that naval officers carry their swords as a mark of disgrace, usually associated with the actions of the Admiralty following the mutiny at the Nore in 1797.   This belief has no basis in fact whatsoever.   To illustrate, here is a short history of the method by which naval officers have worn their swords.Read More

Naval Dirks

The first official pattern Naval dirk was introduced in 1856.  (c)  This had a blade 1 1/8 inches wide and 13 inches long.  The grip was of white shark skin and the pommel in the shape of a lions head with the “S”shaped quillons or cross guard terminating in acorns.Read More


The cutlass is part of a large group of weapons known as backswords. These weapons were known by the names cutlass, cutlash, cutlace, coutelas, or cutilax in the 16th century. By the 18th century, the cheap cutting weapon known as a cutlass was the most common sword used on naval vessels and is the weapon that we now classify as a cutlass.Read More

Naval Cutlass Bayonets

Bayonets for Sea Service muskets differed in no way from those used by the Army during the 18th and early 19th Century. However for the 1858 Pattern Naval Muzzle loading Enfield rifle and its Snider conversion a special Bayonet was designed and manufactured based on the 1848 Naval Cutlass.Read More

History of Naval Caps

In the RN officers wore no uniform until 1748 when the Admiralty introduced uniform regulations. The three sided headdress known as the ‘Tricorne’ was worn after the style of the French with the wide4st part of the rim turned up at the back and the two sides meeting an corner over the nose.Read More

History of Cap Tallies

Ratings were wearing cap tallies in the 1840s as part of their uniform. This was during the period in the 19th century when the uniforms for ratings as we know them now were being formalised.Read More

The Tradition of Launching Ships by Women

There is a clear religious significance to launching ceremonies for the ancient sailors and it was akin to the baptism ceremony of infants in their entering the world. Wine was used in rituals and the Romans used wine as a sacrament and water to signify purification. The Vikings offered a human sacrifice to the Norse sea gods whom they believed demanded a life for every ship launched. Read More

History of Masts

A mast (old English maest; a common Teutonic word, cognate with Latin males; from the medieval Latinised form maslus comes French mat), in nautical language, is the name of the spar, or straight piece of timber, or combination of spars, on which are hung the yards and sails of a vessel of any size. Read More

History of Charters

There is no readily accessible definitive source for this tradition and custom. The custom of granting freedom of a city is old and evolves from a military, rather than a naval background.Read More


To ensure fighting efficiency there developed the method of Action Stations combined with the Watch Method when the ship is at sea and in harbour.  This meant the ship could be run at any time of the day with a routine that did not tire out the men and kept the ship to come to action stations if need be. This is because, unlike an army, the navy has to be ready to fight at any time and anywhere.Read More

Watches and Watchkeeping Aboard a Warship c1913

A continuous watch must be kept in a warship at sea or in harbour to ensure the safety of the ship and its company and to keep her in working trim to meet any contingency encountered. Therefore a portion of the officers and ratings of the ship’s company must always be “on watch”. Read about the different roles in Watchkeeping. Read More

Bells As a Way of Timekeeping

Before the introduction of a reliable clock to naval vessels, the passage of time was marked by striking a bell with paired clapper blows very time a half-hour sandglass was turned.Read More

Bells on Warships

Bells have a centuries-long tradition of varied use in the navies and merchant fleets of the world. Signaling, keeping time, and sounding alarms are important in a ship’s routine and readiness. Their functional and ceremonial uses have made them a symbol of considerable significance to navies of the world.

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History of Ship Badges

In terms of ship’s badges it does not appear to have been formalised in the Royal Navy until the end of the First World War. By October 1918 a Charles ffoulkes was appointed to be the Admiralty Adviser on Heraldry to the Ship’s Badges Committee.  The committee meet in December 1918 and the first Order promulgated. Read More


Every ship in RNZN service has an internationally recognised callsign.  For ships this is four flags or characters, for shore establishments, it is three flags or characters. This is a way to tell another ship or those ashore who your ship is.Read More

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.Read More

The White Ensign

All ships and establishments of the Royal New Zealand Navy wear the New Zealand White Ensign, which is derived from the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.  The New Zealand White Ensign was submitted to Her Majesty the Queen for approval, which was given on 20 June 1968. This is seen as an important milestone in the development of Royal New Zealand Navy.Read More

The New Zealand White Ensign

All ships and establishments of the Royal New Zealand Navy wear the New Zealand White Ensign, which is derived from the White Ensign of the Royal Navy. With one exception the White Ensign is not permitted to be used or worn by other organizations and can only be paraded with the approval of the Chief of Naval Staff.Read More

British Naval Ensigns

Although the custom of flying a flag betokening the nationality of the ship upon a flagstaff placed at the stern is of considerable antiquity, as shown by its frequent appearance in representations of ships in old seals, it does not seen to have become universal earlier than the beginning of the 17th century.Read More

Battle Ensigns

At one time the Royal Navy used to fight under the Red, or White, or Blue Ensign. It is clear that the sole object for which the three colours were formerly used was to distinguish the divisions of the Fleet, which often numbered as many as 200 sail. A variety of ensigns much increases the danger of confusion in action.

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Queen’s Colour

The first naval colour was presented to the Royal Navy in 1924 and the New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy in 1926. In 1924 King George V presented a special colour to the Royal Navy, for use on important occasions. This was known as The King’s Colour and since then each of the Royal Navies of the Commonwealth, has been graciously presented with a special colour.Read More

Distinguishing Flags And Pendants

Except when replaced by a distinguishing flag, all ships in commission wear a small pendant known as a Commissioning Pendant, which also doubles as a Commanding Officer’s pendant. In this latter capacity it is similar to the Squadron Commander’s pendant in the Air Force. The Commissioning Pendant has its origin in the large pennant worn by the ‘Royal’ ships of Henry VIII.Read More

New Zealand Coat of Arms

The New Zealand Coat of Arms represents the sovereign nature of New Zealand and the Government’s authority. It is for government use only and is found on a range of documents and papers of constitutional significance, from Acts of Parliament to passports.Read More

The Boatswain’s Call

The use of the boatswain’s call in English ships can be traced back with certainty to the days of the Crusades, AD 1248. In former days it was worn in English ships and fleets as an honoured badge of rank, probably because it has always been used in passing orders. As long ago as 1485 it was worn as the badge of office of the Lord High Admiral of England, and by his successors in office up to 1562. Read More

Jack Speak – Naval Slang

Read a list of naval slang with the relevant definition. For example, ‘Taken Aback’ – A ship is said to be taken aback when through a sudden wind shift or careless steering the sails billow in reverse. It has now come to mean taken by surprise or given a shock.Read More

Splice the Mainbrace

For a naval officer, it was considered good form to reward the ship’s company with a drink after hazardous or difficult task aboard ship. Originally, it was an order for one of the most difficult emergency repair jobs aboard a sailing ship; it later became a euphemism for authorized celebratory drinking afterward, and then the name of an order to grant the crew an extra ration of rum or grog.Read More

Mascots in the Navy

As long as there have been sailors there have been mascots. While animals as mascots are better known, many ships also had inanimate mascots. The New Zealand Division of the Royal Navy had mascots such as cats, birds, and dogs but it is not known if any were taken into combat. The depot ship Philomel had a bulldog as a mascot.Read More

Pelorus Jack: A Potted History of two Dogs

Pelorus Jack the first joined HMS New Zealand on 4 February 1913 as a puppy prior to the ship’s world cruise of that year; he was donated to the ship by a New Zealander, a Mr Pomeroy, who was living in England at the time. During the cruise he was presented with two silver dog collars (one is now in the Auckland Museum and the other is in our collection on display at the Navy Museum). Read More

Naval Superstitions

Read a list of naval superstitions, such as: It is unlucky to start a voyage on the first Monday in April because it is believed that this was the birthday of Cain & the day Abel was slain.Read More

Jenny BEM and her Side Parties

Jenny led a side party of girls who attached themselves to ships when they arrived in Hong Kong, taking over the domestic economy and husbandry of each vessel. They washed and ironed, cleaned ship, chipped rust and painted, attended as buoy jumpers, and, dressed in their best, waited with grace and charm upon guests at cocktail parties. Read More

Rum – Origins of ‘Nelson’s Blood’

Legend has it that Pusser’s Rum is sometimes referred to as ‘Nelson’s Blood’, because after the great Admiral Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, in which his body was preserved in a cask of spirits, holes were drilled into the sides and the liquid drained. Sailors essentially drank his blood during the long journey. Read More

RNZN and the Rum Issue

In the 17th century beer was an integral part of the sailors’ daily ration. After the capture of Jamaica in 1655 by Admiral Penn, rum began to supersede brandy. Read about the history of the Rum Issue, how rum was measured and the end of the Rum Issue in the RNZN.Read More

Crossing The Line In 1799: Plebeian Moral Economy On The High Seas

The venerable ceremony of crossing the Line, that ‘Ancient Custom of the Sea’ as it was called even in Cook’s time is capable of being interpreted in a number of ways. It may be seen simply as theatre, a form of amusement for actors and audience alike. It is this meaning to which the ceremony has mainly been reduced today. Read More

The Loyal Toast

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.Read More

Discipline, Punishment and Desertion

All officers and ratings aboard HMS New Zealand were subject to The King’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions as related to offences and corresponding punishment. Both of these documents specified rules and punishments for any infractions of the rules or orders. Note that while flogging as a physical punishment was long gone by 1913 but still remained on the books. Read More