Boaty McBoatface and other unusual ship names

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 Sketch of the unpronouncable Tyrrhenia leaving Liverpool by EW Barrett, 26 January 1924. Merseyside Maritime Museum collection

Just across the river from Merseyside Maritime Museum, Camell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead has produced many well-known ships over the years – HMS Ark Royal and Mauretania II to name just two. However the most recent ship built there was possibly more famous than any of these, years before it was even launched - quite an achievement. But then this is RSS Sir David Attenborough, the £200million research vessel that the British public wanted to call Boaty McBoatface.

I must admit that on hearing the news that Boaty McBoatface was leading the public vote to name the Natural Environment Research Council’s new polar research vessel, my first reaction was that one of the other suggestions, Henry Worsley, would be the most appropriate name and a fitting tribute to an inspiring man. Even the man who originally suggested Boaty McBoatface later apologised.

However as the news spread and made headlines across the world, the name grew on me. One argument in its favour is that it could help get children interested in and excited by polar research. Would anyone have heard of it if it wasn't for the name? Genius. So in defence of Boaty McBoatface, here are some other unusually named ships which feature in Merseyside Maritime Museum's collections.

Lancashire Witch no. 7

Sailing ship
Lancashire Witch No. 7, reproduced with permission of Stuart Wood

The Lancashire Witch was a pilot boat, launched in 1863. The name may sound a little scary, but the Liverpool pilots actually provide a helpful service in guiding visiting ships through dangerous waters at the entrance to the Mersey. So many visiting captains in the 19th century would have been grateful to see this particular witch swooping towards them! Other pilot boats from the Liverpool Pilotage Service with memorable names include Nelly No. 1, Alice No. 2 and Betty No. 3 (all launched in 1766), and Teaser No. 2 (launched in 1846).

RMS Tyrrhenia

This Cunard ship (pictured above) was launched in 1922 as a passenger liner crossing the Atlantic. However, passengers had trouble pronouncing Tyrrhenia, so the ship was renamed Lancastria just two years later. The Lancastria was requisitioned by the Government in March 1940 for use as a troopship in the Second World War, and was sunk later that year.

City of London

Ships are often given names that imply speed or other impressive attributes, such as Rapido, so it always amuses me when they are named after large static entities. The Maritime History collection includes a painting by JE Rooney of the City of London being towed by the tug Fighting Cock.


A century before 'Dora the Explorer' became a popular children’s cartoon, her steam coaster namesake was exploring the Welsh coast, mainly carrying groceries and provisions for David Jones and Company of Liverpool to Aberdovey, Barmouth and Porthdinllaen. The vessel, launched in 1901, was named after the daughter of Owen Jones, a partner in the firm.

Empire Ken

Possibly the most British sounding ship in the British Empire.

large ship

Empire Ken, from the Archives Centre