Cock of the Fleet Photograph

A regular occurrence in the Royal Navy during the interwar period was a competition to be crowned ‘Cock O’ The Fleet’. This competition was held when large fleets were in harbour and was a rowing competition between various ships. The events normally took place over a week and the fleet was drawn up in two lines opposite each other and boats rowed between them. Smaller ships entered one crew, larger ships like battleships entered a deck and an engine room crew, with each team wearing different jerseys so as to be easily identifiable. The ship with the most wins in the competition was named ‘Cock o’ The Fleet’ and was given a large cockerel to attach to its funnel in recognition of its sporting prowess. This photograph shows presumably the aftermath of one of these competitions:skmbt_c36416082312120_0001The lengths crews would go to for an edge was legendary and included shaving the hulls of the whalers to be wafer thin, a misplaced boot could go straight through! In this photograph a number of small craft can be seen, in the foreground is one of the whalers with its oar crew:skmbt_c36416082312120_0001-copyBehind is a larger motor boat, presumably a launch from one of the ships:skmbt_c36416082312120_0001-copy-2Clearly seen is the painted cockerel:skmbt_c36416082312120_0001-copy-3The ship’s gangway on the left of the photograph indicates that this was probably taken form the deck of one of the ships competing, looking down at the smaller boats below:skmbt_c36416082312120_0001-copy-4The officers and men are wearing tropical whites indicating that this is likely to be the Mediterranean fleet at play:skmbt_c36416082312120_0001-copy-5I think this photograph probably dates from the interwar period, but the competition was revived after the war and I have come across references to similar activities as late as 1997. Cock of the Fleet was one of the few sporting competitions that sailors were legally allowed to bet on. The following description comes from William Stone’s book ‘Hero of the Fleet’:

The ships would hold regattas, which I particularly enjoyed. A Royal Navy regatta consisted of a number of rowing races using different ships’ boats. Ships would enter teams to compete in each race and at the end of the competition the scores would be tallied up and whichever ship scored the most won. The winning ship was known as the ‘Cock of the Fleet’ and was given a model of a cockerel as a trophy. And there was plenty of swimming, with most ships fielding at least two water polo teams. All this when there was a general strike and major economic depression at home in Britain.

A Lambert and Butler’s cigarette card gives one possible explanation for the origin of the custom:

The term “Cock of the Fleet” has been applied to the leading ship in competitive exercises, regattas etc., for over a hundred years. Its origin dates from the “Battle of the Saints” of April 12th 1782. This is explained in extracts from a letter written by an officer who fought in HMS Formidable that day: “A shot from the Ville de Paris struck a hen-coop that had been left out on the spar deck. Out from the ruins of his home fluttered a little bantam cock and impudently perched himself on the rail of the poop. As every broadside poured into the Ville de Paris, he cheered the crew with his shrill clarion…Admiral Rodney was charmed and gave orders that the bird should be petted for the rest of his life.”

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