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Fouled Anchors

Last modified: 2018-01-13 by rob raeside
Keywords: anchor: fouled |
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Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom
[Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom] image by Tom Gregg

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I am writing a paper on the origin of the "Fouled Anchor" as a universal naval symbol.

I know that it was the personal seal of Lord Howard of Effingham (helped to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588), and then became the official symbol of the British Admiralty. I believe a variation of the seal had been in use by the Lord High Admiral of Scotland about a century earlier.

My essential question is: why the "Fouled Anchor"? A fouled anchor is a condition at sea that is to be avoided, as it may cause the vessel at anchor to "drag" its anchor, thus endangering the vessel.
Dick Katzman, 10 December 1999

The Oxford Companion to ships & the sea, edited by Peter Kemp, 1976, has the following explanation:

The use of the foul, or fouled anchor, an abomination to seamen when it occurs in practice, as the seal of the highest office of maritime administration is purely on the grounds of its decorative effect, the rope cable around the shank of the anchor giving a pleasing finish to the stark design of an anchor on its own.

Jarig Bakker, 10 December 1999

Helene Philibert, "Those Carried in the Tops of Ships," US Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1931, quotes Cmdr C. N. Robinson's book The British Fleet [no date given] as follows:

[Up to the late Tudor or Stuart period] the Admiralty badge was a crescent moon with a golden star between the horns, but about that time the crescent was replaced by the anchor which was also used a seal with a motto round it according to the fancy of the Lord High Admiral. When the Earl of Northumberland was in office, the anchor had a cable festooned about it in a wonderful manner. The Duke of York put this anchor into the Admiralty flag. About 1720 the foul anchor which had before been the badge of the victualling officer was taken for the Admiralty and it was put into the seal, badge and flag. In 1815, the clean anchor was restored to the flag, but the foul anchor remains the badge at Whitehall.

Joseph McMillan, 11 December 1999

For the record: Robinson, Charles Napier (1849-1936) wrote 'The British Fleet' in 1894; it was largely a study of the development of materiel and naval administration.
Source: The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea, 1976
Jarig Bakker, 12 December 1999

The word is associated with the unfortunately all to frequent and dreaded cases when weighing anchor where the forecastle officer reports to the bridge that the anchor is foul. This means that somehow the cable has got itself wrapped around the shank of the anchor making it impossible to hoist through the hawse pipe, or some sort of obstruction such as a cable has become fouled in the flukes making it impossible to break free, and so forth, causing much strife and trouble to get the anchor clear again. The seabed, particularly in anchorages, seems to be strewn these days with all sorts of rubbish making life difficult for the mariner. Impractical it certainly is, but not for use, and in the couple of instances where I found my anchor to be foul I can assure you there was nothing at all pleasing about its appearance!

I have often wondered why the Admiralty chose a fouled anchor as its badge.
Andries Burgers, 25 May 2007

I think because it has a pleasing appearance. At the beginning of the 18th century the Admiralty Seal was a clear anchor entirely surrounded by cable. This was changed to a foul anchor in about 1725, but the older design continued to be used as a stamp on Admiralty books until 1859. This slightly faded was on the Admiralty Instructions of 1844. The later design is surely an improvement on the older one, and the unfortunate name 'foul anchor' is not really warranted since the cable is not long enough to foul anything.
David Prothero, 28 May 2007

Back in the 1970s, one of my duties as an Officer, HM Customs & Excise, was ‘Deputy Admiralty Marshal’. It was one of several ‘agency’ roles laid to me, along with ‘Official Receiver of Wreck’, and ‘Assistant Registrar of British Shipping’ at the time.

During the five-or-so years that I was responsible for these duties, as Deputy Admiralty Marshal, I had to arrest several ships that were berthed at Middlesbrough Dock/Teesport – my ‘patch’. I would receive a telephone call from a source, annoyingly always late on a Friday afternoon, to go and arrest such and such a vessel berthed locally, on account that it/the owner(s) had transgressed some maritime law e.g. non-payment of Light Dues/Fairways Buoys, or there was some dispute as to the mortgage-shares in ownership etc.

On boarding said vessel, my first direction was to draw a ‘fouled anchor’ symbol (in chalk) above every exterior on-board doorway so that every crewman, of whatever nationality, would understand that the vessel was now under arrest, pending resolution of the dispute; I would then seek out the vessel’s Master and inform him that the vessel was under arrest, then proceed to ‘nail’ (or sellotape!) a copy of the arrest-warrant to the mainmast! On return to my office, I would finally telephone the local Chandler and direct him to go and disable said vessel so that it could not sail whilst under arrest – the Chandler would attend and physically remove the ship’s wheel, or propeller.

Until now, 35 years later, I had always assumed that the fouled anchor-symbol just showed that the vessel was not to be moved, but now (thanks to this website) I realise that it may also have meant that the vessel was ‘forfeit’ to The Admiralty (and hence, The Crown) pending resolution of the dispute.
Douglas Stuart Summers (ret’d.), 24 December 2013

The flag of the British Lord High Admiral was, of course, used by the Admiralty for many years prior to 1964 while the office was “in commission” (that is when the powers attached to the .office of Lord High Admiral were vested in the Board of Admiralty). Anyway, while there is reference to a flag bearing an anchor dated 1623, the form is uncertain, however, I have just discovered that the first instance when the fouled (or foul) anchor was positively known to have been used on a flag was in 1633 when it was listed in a survey carried out at Deptford – see Perrin p. 84.

Visual evidence – a painting by W van der Velde the Younger – dated 1672 shows the cable in the style still I use today (and on a red field),  but I have no idea whether the flag of 1633 was the same. The painting is “Royal Visit to the Fleet” which hangs in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and the anchor (at least in this picture) is definitely golden. The ship is not named, but appears to be a typical three-decker, 100 gun first rate of the period, and shows (as one would expect from a painter of this calibre), all the flags and pendants correctly detailed.

The only time (at least according to all my sources) when the Lord High Admiral’s (or Admiralty) flag bore an upright anchor was between 1685 and 1688 (when King James II was his own Lord High Admiral - see James II 1685).
Christopher Southworth, 18 December 2017