Posted by: Footler PJ16 OCT 2008
Last Thursday, 16 October 2008, was the 50th birthday of the BBC television programme Blue Peter, sparking reminiscences about that baby elephant, “here’s one we made earlier”, the antics of the presenters and their pets and the occasional double entendre.
But what of the programme’s title? The series was named after the blue and white signal flag hoisted by a ship to call everyone aboard before leaving harbour. Its use by the BBC was intended to suggest a thrilling voyage of adventure and discovery for the viewers.
Some say the name of the flag comes from the French word partir, meaning to go or leave, and others suggest it may have something to do with the heraldic term, “blue pierced white”. In any event the blue peter started off as a blue flag with six white balls in the centre. Some time around 1756 the balls were replaced with the white square we know today.
The first use of signal flags at sea is lost in the mists of time but we do know that flags and pennants (or pennons) were widely seen on medieval ships. Pennants were long flags, often tapering and divided at the end. They were originally the personal flags used by knights.
As seaborne trade flourished the use of signal flags grew in importance. But ships of the Royal Navy found they had difficulty communicating with the merchant ships they were supposed to escort. A Code of Signals for the Merchant Service was introduced.
This was followed in 1854 by the Universal Code, then the Commercial Code in 1857. Lastly came the International Code which first appeared in 1870. Most of the changes since then have been due to the requirements of electronic communications.
One oddity of the 1857 code was that although the flags represented letters there were only 18 of them — the consonants from B to W. Apparently the lack of vowels was to prevent rude sailors from signalling objectionable four-letter words to one another.