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Crossing the Line Ceremony on HMS Ajax, 1936

Posted by Dean Stoker, on August 3rd, 2022


This post presents photographs taken during HMS Ajax’s first commission, from April 1935 to August 1937, during which she travelled 61,217 nautical miles on a cruise of South America. They are taken from the remarkable photograph albums of Ship’s Petty Officer James Edward Harvey. Two posts dedicated to his albums have already been published: HMS Ajax and the Patagonian Indians (1936) and A Whale of a Time: HMS Ajax in the Antarctic, 1937.

 The ‘Crossing The Line’ ceremony is an initiation ceremony for sailors, who have not crossed the Equatorial line of zero degrees latitude. These fledgling sailors are known as ‘pollywogs’ and upon completion of tasks set forth by King Neptune & His court, they become ‘shellbacks’. The longer a shellback serves, the higher-ranked he becomes in Neptune’s Court.

This is an outline of the ceremony.

  1. King Neptune comes aboard ship, any pollywogs posing as sailors must be brought in front of the court & answer for their crimes & pay homage .
  2. Higher ranking shellbacks dress up & make up Neptune’s Court, normally consisting of King Neptune, Queen Amphitrite, Herald, Secretary, Judge, Davey Jones,  Chief Police, Chief Bear, Doctor, Barber, Trident Stamper, Policeman, Bear
  3. After the show, pollywogs receive a subpoena from Davey Jones to appear before the court & answer to the charges read out to them.
  4. After breakfast, which is normally made inedible, pollywogs are made to perform tasks witnessed by the assembled court. These tasks may vary from ship to ship.
  5. Pollywogs must kneel before the King & kiss the royal baby’s belly.
  6. Pollywogs must wash in a bath of sea water, to emerge as shellbacks & receive their certificate of achievement.  

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