Vyol or voyal?

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    Malcolm Lewis

    John Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail page 266, refers to a rope called a ‘voyal’ leading to a viol block, when used for weighing anchor prior to the introduction of the continuous messenger system (page 264). Peter Goodwin in his recent book HMS Victory – Owner’s Workshop Manual page 73, refers to the continuous messenger seen aboard today as: ‘sometimes called a vyol (sic)’.
    The word is assumed to derive from the shape of the block, what I know as a snatch block, which has a similar appearance to a viola or violin. I cannot find a reference in the OED. Can anyone say what is considered to be the correct spelling please?
    John Harland told me in correspondence that the voyal was ‘quite put away’ once the continuous messenger system was introduced. Maybe the word did continue in use for a time as an alternative to the term ‘messenger’.

    Harland, John and Myers, Mark (illustr) Seamanship in the age of sail : an account of the shiphandling of the sailing man-of-war 1600-1860, based on contemporary sources, (London, Conway Maritime Press 1985)
    Goodwin, Peter HMS Victory Manual : an insight into owning, operating and maintaining the Royal Navy’s oldest and most famous warship (Sparkford, Haynes 2012)
    Malcolm Lewis

    Editor’s note:
    There is a discrepancy between the title of Peter Goodwin’s excellent new book as shown on the front cover – HMS Victory 1765-1812 Owner’s Workshop Manual – and that given above which is from Haynes’ online catalogue checked in the Bodleian Library catalogue and on Amazon UK; this difference may confuse staff if asking for it in a bookshop]

    Frank Scott

    The full version of the OED (on-line edition) does provide some excellent guidance on the wide variety of spelling. I am quite wary of the OED as an authority for maritime words, but I have checked almost all the sources given below, and in this case it seems to be accurate.
    Viol, noun : Forms: also vial, violl, vyoll; voyol, voyal.
    Etymology: Of obscure origin. Naut Obs
    1627 J. Smith, Sea Grammar vol.ii, page 8 : ‘The violl is fastened together at both ends with an eye or two, with a wall knot, and seased together.’
    1667 J. Dryden and W. Davenant [eds.], Shakespeare’s Tempest Act I. sc.i: ‘Must within. Our vial’s broke. Vent. within. ‘Tis but our vial-block has given way.’
    1685 N. Boteler, Six Dialogues about Sea-services pp.235-6 : [Captain: ‘When the Main-capstan is not able to purchase in the Cable, by reason that the Anchor is let fall into such stiff Ground, as that they cannot wey it; then for more help, they use to take a Hawser, and open a Stroud thereof… and so put in Nippers (which are small Ropes with a small Truck at one end, and with them they bind fast this Hawser to the Cable; and then they bring it to the Jeer-Capstan, and heave upon it: and this Work is termed the Violl, and will purchase far more then the Main-Capstan can: And this Violl is fastned together at both ends with an Eye and a Wale-knot, or else with two eyes seized together.’] 1

    1711 W. Sutherland, Ship-builder’s Assistant p.153 : ‘Viol cabl’d, as big as the Fore Stay.’
    ibid: p165 : ‘Viol, a large Hawser used to heave in the Cable.’
    1769 W. Falconer, Universal Dictionary of the Marine (1780 edn.) : ‘Voyol, a large rope used to unmoor, or heave up the anchors of a ship, by transmitting the effort of the capstern to the cables.’
    1841 R. H. Dana, Seaman’s Manual p.133 : ‘Viol, or Voyal, a larger messenger sometimes used in weighing an anchor by a capstan.’
    [Cf. 1867 W. H. Smyth, Sailor’s Word-book p.713 : ‘Viol, or Voyal, a large messenger formerly used to assist in weighing an anchor by the capstan.’]
    1869 Victor Hugo (trans. W. M. Thomas), Toilers of the Sea p.191 : ‘Its chain was there, and… might still be of service, unless the strain of the voyal should break away the planking.’

    b. attrib., esp. in ‘viol-block’:
    1667 Dryden & Davenant [see sense a above].
    1694 in Navy Board Letters, vol.XXIX, no.833 : ‘Blocks. Vyoll, of 54 inch’.
    1751 T. Smollett Peregrine Pickle, vol.II, chap.lxxii, p.273 : ‘He may man his capstans and viol-block, if he wool; but he’ll as soon heave up the Pike of Teneriff, as bring his anchor aweigh!’
    1794 D. Steel Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship, vol.I. p.157 : ‘Voyol or Viol Block is a large single-sheaved block… It is used in heaving up the anchor.’
    [1867 W. H. Smyth Sailor’s Word-book, ‘Viol or Voyol Block, a large single-sheaved block through which the messenger passed when the anchor was weighed by the fore or jeer capstan.’
    ibid : ‘This voyal-purchase.’]
    Frank Scott

    Editor’s note:
    This is available as an electronic resource at Early English Books Online at:

    Malcolm Lewis

    Thank you Frank. So in the 17th century it could have been spelt ‘Vyoll’ (ref: 1667 Dryden and Davenant) but by the mid-18th century (the time of Victory)it was most likely spelt ‘Voyal’ or ‘Viol’ (ref: Smollett and Steel).

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