From the mid eighteenth century until the start of the twentieth century it was common for sailors to be tasked with ‘holystoning’ the deck. This was a practice where the decks were scrubbed with a soft sandstone to lighten and polish them. The task was particulalry despised, and seems to have been as much to keep men occupied than for any purpose. Despite this, it was popular amongst officers and in 1796 Admiral Vincent ordered that the decks of his ships be holystoned in both the morning and evening, a practice that could take four hours! A petition against this on HMS Eurydice in 1796 complained:
We are to holystone the decks from 4 o’clock in the morning until 8. If a man should rest he is kicked in the face and bleeds on the stone, and afterwards made to wash the stone from the blood and then reported to the captain and flogged for no provocation.
The practice also led to excessive wear of the wooden decks, but continued until as late as the 1990s in the US Navy on their Iowa class battleships which had teak decks.
In today’s postcard we see a group of sailors hard at work holystoning the deck of a British warship at the turn of the twentieth century:
The men can be seen on their knees with the blocks of ‘holystone’:
Quite why it is called a holystone is unclear. Some say it is because the blocks of stone were around the size of small bibles, whilst another theory is that originally the stones were taken from broken monuments at St. Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth or else the ruined church of St. Helens adjacent to the St Helens Road anchorage of the Isle of Wight where ships would often provision. A third theory is the name comes because you had to kneel, as if in prayer, when holystoning the deck.
Next to the men is a large and colourful flag locker:
Signal flags were used to send messages between ships at sea and each flag represented a different letter or phrase. To help speed up the sending of messages, flag lockers were provided to sort the flags into so any particular one could be quickly found, rather than having to search through hundreds of flags in the hope of finding the right one.