A variety of origins have been proposed for the term, including that such stones were taken from broken monuments of St. Nicholas Church in Great Yarmouth or else the ruined church of St. Helens adjacent to the St Helens Road anchorage of the Isle of Wight where ships would often provision. The US Navy has it the term may have come from the fact that 'holystoning the deck' was originally done on one's knees, as in prayer. Smaller holystones were called "prayer books" and larger ones "Bibles". Holystoning eventually was not generally done on the knees but with a stick resting in a depression in the flat side of the stone and held under the arm and in the hands and moved back and forth with grain on each plank while standing or partially leaning over to put pressure on the stick-driven stone. Holystoning continued on teak-decked Iowa class battleships into the 1990s.
Holystoning was a routine activity on Royal Navy vessels until the early 1800s. The practice reached its height in 1796 when Admiral St Vincent recommended to his captains that the decks of all ships in the fleet be holystoned "every evening as well as morning during the summer months." For a ship of the line, the practice could take up to four hours.
St Vincent's successor, Admiral Keith, rescinded the order in 1801, finding that "the custom of washing the decks of ships of war in all climates in every temperature of the air, and on stated days let the weather be what it may" was so onerous as to be damaging the health and lives of the crews. The practice was subsequently limited to once every seven to fourteen days, interspersed with sweeping.
Holystoning the deck was part of Queen Victoria's regulations for British-owned Emigration vessels in 1848, "11. Duties of the sweepers to be to clean the ladders, hospitals, and round houses, to sweep the decks after every meal, and to dry-holystone and scrape them after breakfast."
Holystoning continued as part of Navy routine throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but was ultimately regarded merely as a means to occupy an otherwise idle crew. Its lack of utility was evidenced in contemporary accounts including an 1875 British Medical Journal advice which warned against having patients "set to useless tasks simply to keep them employed, such as sailors have to do in holystoning the decks."
Holystoning was banned in the US Navy as it wore down the decks too rapidly and caused excessive expense, but the practice may have disappeared slowly. A 1952 graduate of the Naval Academy recalls of his Youngster (sophomore) cruise to England in the summer of 1949 aboard the USS Missouri:
It was with a stick in the depression of what we were told was brick normally used as insulation in the boilers. A group of 30–40 would stand behind an estimated 4–5-inch board and would move the brick back and forth in coordination with the others while the person in charge would establish the cadence, and then command 'shift' when we would all back up one board and repeat the process. As I recall, sea water and sand were used to aid the effort. The result, once finished with a sea water rinse and a sun bleach, was a clean white deck, just in time for our arrival in Portsmouth, England.
A photo on the US Navy's Navsource purports to show Navy Midshipmen holystoning the deck of the same ship in 1951.
In popular culture
Six days shalt thou labor and do all thou art able,
And on the seventh—holystone the decks and scrape the cable.
- Dean King, John B. Hattendorf, and J. Worth Estes, A Sea of Words, Holt & Co., NY, 1997, p. 238
- US Navy Office of Information - Origins of Navy Terminology page
- "Army & Navy: No more holystone." Time. June 8, 1931
- Petition, HMS Eurydice, 1796. Cited in Lavery (ed.) 1998, p. 425
- Lavery (ed.) 1998, pp. 419–420
- Kennerley, Alston (2008). "Aspirant Navigator: Training and Education at Sea during Commercial Voyages in British Merchant Ships, c. 1850 to 1950". The Great Circle. Australian Association for Maritime History. 30 (2): 64. JSTOR 41563271.
- "The Treatment of Dipsomaniacs". The British Medical Journal. London: British Medical Journal. 1 (741). 13 March 1875. JSTOR 25240702.
- archive article (fee)
- photo archive of the USS Missouri
- Dana, Richard Henry, Two Years Before the Mast (1840), Chapter Three. Online at Bartleby's Great Books Online
- Moby Dick on IMDb
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on IMDb