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Archaic language used in 19th/20th century naval letters and documents


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I've just been trying to do a bit of research online about the French schooner "La Rose", because I've just bought the Panart/Mantua kit!

I didn't hold out much hope - after all, I had no evidence that there ever actually was a 'La Rose' in history.  BUT ...
Apparently there really was a French schooner called 'La Rose', and I found specific references to her carrying 'wines and brandies' from Bordeaux to Guadeloupe in 1800, and being captured in October 1800 by Capt Cunningham (HMS Clyde), and then being captured again (by the Brits) off one of the Caribbean islands in 1804.  By then she was a privateer, with a crew of 50 and a brass nine-pounder on board.
I'm still looking.  I'd love to find out when & where she was built, and what eventually happened to her.  But that's not the main reason why I'm posting this.

It's the language used, back in 1800, in the official letter that Capt Cunningham sent to his superior officer, Earl St Vincent reporting the capture.  His letter starts "My Lord, I have the honour to transmit, for your Lordship's information ..."

It reminded me of the time, as recently (?) as 1959/60, when I was working in the Admiralty, in the division that dealt with ships' complements.  Whenever I had to write to the captain of a naval ship, the letter had to start with the words "I am commanded by My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty to acquaint you that ..."

At the time, I thought it was silly and archaic. Now, I think it was sweetly traditional, and polite, and in its way rather beautiful.  I don't know if official Admiralty letters are still phrased like that.  I hope so.
But probably not!

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I have the Honour of presenting to your Excellency the following example from whence i am endeavoring to extract a meaningful presentation of the process described concerning the masting of ships.


Others for greater Ships, add the Breadth to the Length, and to that the half Breadth, which Sum they divide by 5, and the Quotient is the number of Yards; as a Ship 114 Foot long, and 34 Foot in breadth, the Breadth added to the Length, and the half Breadth added together, make 165; that divided by 5, yields 33, and so many Yards is the length of that Mast; the Fore Mast must be a Yard shorter at the Head: that is to say, besides the height of the Step, which in most Ships standeth higher from the bottom of the Ship than the Step of the Main Mast; the Fore Mast must be shorter by that difference, and one Yard more; the bigness of the Ship considered, may be 4 Foot shorter at the Head...


Yours faithfully,

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John -


It is with great humility, Sir, that I beseech your mercy for my regrettable lack of civility in my prior communication.  With your forbearance, i am, indeed, sir, partaking of a long term project to assemble in what one would desire to be a utilitarian manner a consolidation of many of the period works concerning the masting and rigging of sailing vessels.


Translated - Yep!  I fortunately have a couple of examples from the manuscript which provide a good starting point.  The example above is drawn from The Sea-Man's Vade Mecum of 1707.  It is actually more understandable than some that I have encountered!


I remain, Sir, your humble and obedient servant....

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Unto Wayne Esq of Arkansas, part of one of Her Britannic Majesty's recalcitrant colonies -

Sire, you present an interesting formula, which in modern terms might, I believe, be expressed as:-

where M=Main mast length, L=ship length, B=ship beam, F=Fore Mast, S=step height of Fore Mast above that of the mainmast.
The unit may be feet, although the formula would appear to work also in metric measure.

Just trying to be helpful ...

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I agree, Brian. Patrick O'Brian/ Patrick Russ steeped himself thoroughly in the language of naval letters of the early 19th Century to produce his novels of the period, and I found this one of the many attractions of the books. It not only provided a vivid feeling of being there at the time (unlike the usual distancing effect that modern language has on many historical novels), but it also did display the sensitivity to civility that existed at the time. And of course it also allowed the letters that were so often quoted verbatim in the novels to merge seamlessly with the dialogue.


Unfortunately for me reading the biography of him by his step-son took away a bit from the image of civility and kindness that I had associated with the author. But then, as the biography made clear, the books were more a fantasy projection of the man he would have liked to have been. So in an odd way that may be one of the reasons for liking the books: an offering of a world where sensitivity to civility is more the norm.


I remain, sir, most humbly, obediently and courteously yours,



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I'm not sure if the Admiralty still uses the same fomal language, but they did in 1945.  The photo is of a letter sent to my father from the Admiralty, notifying him of his award of the Distinguished Service Cross.  And it finishes with "I am, Sir, your obedient Servant".  Apologies for the poor quality of the picture, it's part of a larger display and difficult to photograph.





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