I am always on the lookout for heraldry-related literature, especially if it can be read online for free. Yesterday I discovered that the county of Somerset and the former county of Middlesex have – or at least had – their own heraldry societies, and each publishes on its website a large back-catalogue of society journals – the Somerset Dragon and the Seaxe respectively.
The Seaxe‘s 34th edition (from September 2000), contains an article about the heraldic badges used by HMS Magpie, which the late Duke of Edinburgh once captained.
HMS Magpie and her Badges by Roland Symons
It has become the fashion recently for Royal Naval badges to be redrawn or even completely changed. Some have been altered for aesthetic reasons, some to reflect in status and some because the original design is now considered ‘politically incorrect’! The badge of HMS Forward for example originally consisted of a hunting cap and horn but, being the Royal Naval Reserve Establishment in Birmingham, it now carries the crest of the City of Birmingham. This may be current fashion but one change of badge design came as a result of a schoolboy’s initiative in 1952. There have been seven Magpies in the Royal Navy. The first was a re-named prize – a four-gun schooner captured at Perros in 1807. The last was a sloop of the Black Swan Class, launched in 1943. She saw active service in the Atlantic, the Arctic and off Normandy whilst in 1944 she formed part of Captain F J Walker’s Second Support Group and, along with HMS Starling, HMS Kite and HMS Wild Goose, helped in the sinking of U238 and U592 in that year. In January 1943 had been granted a badge consisting of a magpie volant proper. In September 1952 a pupil from Monkton Combe Junior School, in Bath, saw HMS Magpie at Gibraltar. The badge of the School happened to be a magpie and this appeared on the cover of the School’s magazine. And so, armed with a copy of the magazine, young Michael Swift boarded the Magpie! This contact led to links being forged between the School and the ship. The captain of the Magpie, Commander Graham Lumsden DSC, was rather taken by the design of the magpie used by the School and which had been designed by the art mistress, Miss Bulmer. He enlisted the support of a previous captain of HMS Magpie, HRH Prince Philip, in an effort to get the ship’s badge changed and in January 1953 a letter arrived at Monkton Combe Junior School stating that His Royal Highness feels that your magpie is nicer than the present ship’s badge and he has asked me to write to the Admiralty to suggest that it might be substituted for the one in existence. In May 1953 this was achieved and a new badge and a new badge was granted; this could be blazoned as white within an annulet black a magpie statant rousant proper.
Apart from the bird being turned around to face the right way, the badge was that of Monkton Combe Junior School. Sir Arthur Cochrane, however, surrounded the badge with a black annulet. An annulet is symbolic of unity and friendship, here officially linking school and ship, but it may also be derived from the ‘magpie’ found on a shooting target. Sadly, in 1956, HMS Magpie went into reserve and then to the breakers’ yard in 1959. One of Magpie’s final appearances was to ‘act’ the part of HMS Amethyst in the film The Yangste Incident – and when Amethyst moves in that film, it is in reality Magpie! As a token of her friendship with Monkton Combe Junior, the School was presented with with the ship’s bell and Division Trophies -the former is still used for the christening of children of staff members! In 1970 another chapter in the story was written when the Magpie’s badge made an appearance in the South Atlantic, this time on a postage stamp – the ascension 2s.6d. issue, being one of a series featuring Royal Naval badges. In 1988 Monkton Combe applied for a Grant of Arms and to accompany it, the Junior School asked for its badge to be registered on the same Grant. There was a moment of worry – could the School retrieve its magpie from the Royal Navy? Thanks to the efforts of Hubert Chesshyre a design was produced which satisfied all concerned. It is blazoned within an annulet embellished in chief with a fleur-de-lys Azure a magpie proper. Somewhere amid the cast-off clothing of the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal there are two rather small sweaters featuring the new badge of their father’s old command. They were given by the School as presents in 1953! and, of course, there was the Warship Class diesel locomotive named Magpie but that is a story for the Editor to tell !
The Editors Tale is unfortunately all too quickly told. When the Railway Modernisation Plan of 1955 got under way the Western Region of British Railways (the old Great Western Railway) surprisingly obtained authority to pursue the development of diesel traction, based on a German technology, which was completely different from that authorised for the rest the country. As part of this development several hundred highly individual locomotives were built between between 1958 and 1963, including a batch of 71 intended for hauling express trains between London Bristol and the West of England. The WR in a characteristic gesture of defiance to the dictates then coming down from the British Railways Board gave these engines names commemorating well-known warships primarily of the World War II period. No.829 which was built at Swindon and entered service in 1960 was Magpie, the name being carried on impressive aluminium plates on either side of the locomotive. Many of these engines were also adorned with beautiful cast plaques bearing the appropriate ship’s badge but in the case of Magpie this was regrettably not to be. The arrival of the new 2,200 hp diesel-hydraulic locomotive was reported in the Monkton Combe School Magazine at the time and the School’s Railway Correspondent commented: These diesels will go on running for forty or even fifty years yet, so let’s hope that the then headmaster will acquire the name-plate or any other part of value to go with the bell of its fellow Warship! His prophecy was unfortunately to prove highly inaccurate, the bitter internal politics of British Rail eventually leading to the damning of the “Warships” on the grounds of high maintenance costs and they rapidly disappeared from the scene. Magpie fell victim to the cutter’s torch in 1972, being then just under twelve years old. The nameplates almost certainly still exist, such items nowadays commanding very high prices – but regrettably one did not find its way to Monkton Combe.
It is fascinating to have uncovered this story so soon after publishing my grandmother’s memoir relating to the ship. Unfortunately I have not found any articles about the Pelican‘s badges just yet.
- Light shines for HMS Magpie – Royal Navy, 13th January.