Published: March 27, 2024

Earliest known example of a Royal Navy submarine Jolly Roger to join new display at Submarine Museum

Unveiled for Easter at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport, this new interpretation covers the fascinating history of the Jolly Roger and its place in the Royal Navy. The earliest known surviving example, flown over 100 years ago from HMS E54, will join the collection alongside a Jolly Roger from HMS Thorough. You can explore the little-known cultural history of the Jolly Roger flag and create your own.

Inspired by the imaginative and resourceful iconography hand-stitched by submariners during deployments, visitors can also create their very own Jolly Roger with a special interactive that allows flags to be projected onto an adjoining wall.

History of the Jolly Roger flag

Commonly, the Jolly Roger is thought of as a pirate flag, but Royal Navy submarines have been flying the flag for over 100 years in both defiance and in solidarity with the Silent Service. The tradition started in 1914 as Lieutenant Commander Max Horton, the captain of HMS E9, flew the flag as the boat returned after sinking the German warship SMS Hela. This was Horton’s defiant response to comments of Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson who likened submariners to pirates:

“Submarines are underhanded, unfair and damned unEnglish… treat all submarines as pirates in wartime… and hang all their crews.” Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Arthur Wilson, 1901

Whilst 17th century pirates raised their flags to frighten ships, submarine crews hoist theirs on return to base to show pride in the successes during a wartime patrol. Each flag is a unique visual record of the history of the boat as well as a striking piece of handcrafted folk art.

Alexandra Geary, Curator (Artefacts) from the National Museum of the Royal Navy explains:

“Each action a submarine carried out had its own symbol. These symbols would either be painted or sewn onto a bit of black material. A dagger, for example, would denote a secret mission; a bar signifies the sinking of an enemy merchant ship; a lighthouse that the boat was used as a navigation beacon, and we even have a symbol of Popeye character “Eugene the Jeep” as a nod to the popular utility vehicle.

Visitors are intrigued by our Jolly Rogers and enjoy deciphering their meanings. They give a fascinating insight into the often secret and mysterious world of the submariner under the waves and out of sight.”

How to see it

The new display opens from Wednesday 27 March and is included in a Submarine Museum ticket. Entry to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum is included in an Ultimate Explorer ticket to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. The Ultimate Explorer Ticket is the best value option for 12-month entry to all the attractions at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard including The Mary Rose, HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, HMS M.33, the galleries and exhibitions of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport, Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower, Gosport and a Harbour Tour. It is valid for multiple entries throughout the year, with family tickets available.

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