Although we don't know the exact reason why Lowestoft trawler LT472 was named "Excelsior", it was certainly a popular name in Victorian culture, but with perhaps a surprising American connection.
"Excelsior" is a Latin word meaning "ever higher", often loosely translated as "onward and upward".
In 1882 the American State of New York officially adopted a seal originally designed in 1778. The design shows the goddess of Justice, blindfolded and holding scales in her left hand (symbolising freedom before the law). Next to her is the goddess of Liberty, holding a pole with a liberty cap (symbolising freedom from Britain after the American War of Independence). Between them is a shield, bearing a picture of the sun, the Hudson Highland and two boats sailing on the Hudson River. Above the shield is a globe, with the western hemisphere showing, and above that a bald eagle. Under the shield is a curving ribbon upon which is written the New York State motto — "Excelsior".
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) saw a picture of the seal on a scrap of newspaper and was reportedly inspired to write a brief poem. "Excelsior" was published in 1841. The poem describes a young man carrying a banner, emblazoned with the word "Excelsior". The bearer goes through an Alpine village, and ignoring dire warnings, struggles on up the mountain, climbing higher and higher, until the inevitable happens. At day-break he is found "lifeless, but beautiful" by a faithful Saint Bernard hound, half-buried in the snow, "still clasping in his hands of ice that banner with the strange device, Excelsior!" The original draft of Longfellow's poem is now in the library at Harvard University. To read the full text, click here.
The poem was very popular with American readers for many years and was even satirised. An illustration used in the first edition of "Ballads and Other Poems" became a familiar sight.
American author and amateur mathematician Samuel Lloyd (1841-1911) devised a number of intriguing chess problems. Possibly the best known is the one he christened "Excelsior", after the Longfellow poem. The problem, first posed in 1861, is shown in the diagram below. It is white's turn to move and will checkmate black in five moves, whatever the defence. Lloyd's puzzle is whether it is possible for white to pick a piece that will not give mate in the main line. If you would like to see his solution, click here.
Several composers set Longfellow's "Excelsior" to music but the most famous piece was by Irishman Michael William Balfe (1808-1870). Balfe composed a symphony and several operas, although the "The Bohemian Girl" is his only major work that has endured. In an era before electronics, a popular form of Victorian and Edwardian family entertainment was to sing songs around the pianoforte in the parlour. Many of these were, by today's standards, melodramatic, unbearably poignant or just plain cheesy, with titles like "Break the News to Mother" (sung by a young soldier dying on the battlefield), "The Wreck of the Hesperus" (based on another Longfellow poem), "Give Me a Ticket to Heaven" (a little girl tries to catch a train to see her dead mother) and "Come into the Garden, Maud" (Balfe's famous lovesong). Balfe's setting of "Excelsior" was another one of these enormously popular songs. Sheet music would have sold in quantities like iTunes do today. The "Excelsior" music for duet and piano is still available - for details, click here.
Roll on another hundred years; in the late 1970s, parlour songs enjoyed something of a revival, thanks in no small way to the charismatic duo Robert Tear (tenor) and Benjamin Luxon (baritone). Taking time off from their careers on the stages of Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and the New York Metropolitan Opera, they performed (in character) many old classics in front of new generations of audiences. Often they were accompanied by André Previn at the piano; they were also popular on television. A very young Andrew Pinder (now the Excelsior Trust's webmaster) was working in London at the time, and well remembers their moving rendition of "Excelsior" at a concert in London's Festival Hall. A copy of their recording for EMI is in his possession.
Today, the name "Excelsior" lives on. In an abbreviated form, it is used for a Microsoft spreadsheet program, an international logistics company, and London's largest exhibition centre, to mention but three.
So next time you see our ship, look out for "that banner with the strange device - Excelsior!".