Superstition and Silliness — the tale of the so-called HMS Friday
By Tom Lewis
Although sailors of the past, and perhaps the present, have been seen as superstitious, they are generally sensible, realistic people, as indeed dealing with the perils of the deep dictates. However, one story of a naval attempt to combat superstition goes a little too far. It goes something like this:
One hundred years ago, the British government sought to quell once and for all the widespread superstition among seamen that setting sail on Fridays was unlucky. A special ship was commissioned, named “HMS Friday“. They laid her keel on a Friday, launched her on a Friday, selected her crew on a Friday and hired a man named Jim Friday to be her captain. To top it off, HMS Friday embarked on her maiden voyage on a Friday, and was never seen or heard from again.1
Lloyds of London began refusing insurance to any ship launched on Friday 13th.2
On logical grounds alone this might well be dismissed. We might argue that navy high commands are not known for spending thousands of taxpayer dollars or pounds to combat superstitions, even in the somewhat more religious days of a few centuries back. Additionally, naval captains are not “hired”. They are appointed, and only after a lengthy winnowing process that sees them spend many years climbing the ladder of promotion. In any navy there are no boxes of spare naval commanders or captains stored on shelves. To casually find one with the “right” surname is doubtful indeed.
The surname “Friday” is not a common one. Robinson Crusoe’s “Man Friday” was found by the shipwrecked castaway on a Friday — that was not his surname. Indeed, a search of the State of NSW — a State of around six million people, returned a total of six people in its telephone directory3 with that name. The population of Britain in 1811 was around 18 million people, in 1850 around 27 million, and by 1911 about 45 million.4
was tortured and slowly burned at the stake. As he died, he cursed the young King and
older Pope, both of whom coincidentally were dead within a year.
The story does not suggest when the momentous event of “HMS Friday” being commissioned took place, but we might suppose it would not have occurred in recent history, or it would be very well known, given the rise of newspapers and the printed word. So we presume the launch of the ship took place back in the Nelsonian era or before that. But to suppose that out of the small populations of that time that there would exist a naval person named Friday who was also a ship commander is more than a little doubtful.
Lloyds of London have an extensive website5 with a search engine. Nowhere is there any mention of insurance being refused for such a reason.
Finally, we might suppose that if the Royal Navy built such a ship, it would be well-recorded. A search of the Royal Navy’s rather magnificent website6 returned 42 hits for the term “Friday”, but a ship or captain of that name was not one of them. There are a number of other compiled lists of RN vessels. One of the best, J.J. Colledge’s Ships of the Royal Navy, in two volumes, gives us thousands of ship names for the hundreds of years of this institution, together with names from Commonwealth navies as well. HMS Friday is not listed anywhere.
So, not even a good story. But should we really launch a ship on a Friday?
Colledge, J. J. Ships of the Royal Navy: an historical index. (Volume 1: Major ships.) David & Charles: Newton Abbot, 1969.
Colledge, J. J. Ships of the Royal Navy: an historical index. (Volume 2: Navy-built trawlers, drifters, tugs and requisitioned ships.) David & Charles: Newton Abbot, 1970.
Wood, A. Nineteenth Century Britain. London: Longman,1970.
1 Urban Legends and Folklore with David Emery. http://urbanlegends.about.com/ cs/historical/a/friday_the_13th_ 3.htm. 16 June 2003.
2 Superstitious City website. http://www.moodmapper.com /feature1.asp?feature_ID=80
3 http://www.whitepages.com.au/ wp/
4 Wood, A. (1970) Nineteenth Century Britain. Longman: London. p. 449.
5 http://www.lloyds.com /index. asp.