Why are beards traditional for men in the Navy?

Beards are common today, but they were actually the exception rather than the rule during the Age of Sail.

This article was first published in the January 2016 issue of History Revealed

Sailors aboard the HMAS Battaan, 1950. (Photo by Alan Lambert/The AGE/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

The current regulations were developed in Victorian times and, perhaps surprisingly, the Queen herself took a personal interest in the matter.

At first – under Queen’s Regulations, 1861 – officers, petty officers and seamen of the Fleet had been forbidden to wear either beards or moustaches, but this was changed with the 1869 Admiralty Circular Letter No. 36, which permitted ‘a full set’ (both moustache and beard, required to meet).

Victoria was unamused as she preferred beards without moustaches, but was willing to accept them together.

The Royal Navy is still the only British armed force that allows beards (with the exception of one army rank, the Pioneer Sergeant).

Each sailor must apply for “permission to stop shaving”. After a few weeks, the Master at Arms then decides, at his own discretion, if the sailor has enough facial hair for ‘a full set.’ If the beard is scrappy or looks daft in any way, the sailor is ordered to shave it off.

Designer stubble, ‘hipster’ beards and anything taking “an excessive amount of time to grow” is generally off limits.

While on land, Royal Marines are expected to follow army regulations when it comes to facial hair, so they must remain smooth-chinned, though a moustache is acceptable.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Sandra Lawrence. For more fascinating questions by Emily, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.

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