It has often been said that the noun banger appeared as British slang for sausage in the World War One trenches. But, in fact, it was in use in the British Navy before the outbreak of the war. On 27th July 1904, The Tatler (London) published The real letters of a midshipmite [= midshipman], sent “by a proud mother”, which contained the following, written from China:
We got the commander’s permission to use the barge and sailed round the point into a little cove out of sight of the ship and anchored in about 4 ft. of water. […] We were watched while we were feeding by the whole of the inhabitants of the village near—all sorts of old men and women and kids of all sizes. We threw bread for the kids to scramble for. We had bangers again and yet again; I feasted royally. Afterwards the Chinamen rushed and picked the remaining fragments out of the saucepan. They had most probably never tasted Oxford sausages before, but they knew that they were good to eat and acted accordingly.
Naval Occasions and Some Traits of the Sailor-man, first published in 1914 by William Blackwood and Sons (Edinburgh and London), was written before World War One by Lewis Anselm da Costa Ricci (1886-1967) under the pen name of Bartimeus. The author explains that he “has strung together a few sketches of naval life afloat in the past ten years”. In one of these sketches, The Argonauts, Bartimeus writes:
Ghost-like figures came splashing from pools, sliding down from trees, floating shoreward on improvised rafts, to gather round the fire and fizzling frying-pans. Tinned sausages (“Bangers”) and bacon, jam, sardines and bananas, cocoa, beer, and sloe-gin: the Argonauts guzzled shamelessly.
The same author wrote, in The Long Trick (George H. Doran Company, New York, 1917):
“It’s a topping day, too,” added Malison from his vantage astride the coir-hawser reel. “Too good to waste onboard. The footer ground’s bagged―let’s have a picnic in one of the cutters. Have tea ashore, an’ fry bangers over a fire.”
It has also often been said that bangers were so called because they were bad-quality sausages containing little meat and packed with scraps, cereal and water, which caused them to pop and hiss when cooking. This is a folk-etymological explanation of the word, based on the verb bang, in the sense to make a sudden loud noise. On the contrary, the bangers consumed in the Navy seem to have been good-quality sausages particularly savoured. In The Long Trick, Bartemius thus defined bangers in a footnote:
Tinned sausages. A delicacy peculiar to Gunrooms of the Fleet.
And, in Under the Periscope (W. Collins Sons & Co., London, 1919), Mark Bennett wrote:
The meal was laid by the cook, who bore in the eggs and sausages with the air of one who has achieved a culinary triumph.
“Just look at those sausages,” said Seagrave sitting down. “They look as if they’d spent their palmier days on a cab rank.”
“You’ve been spoilt,” replied the skipper. “You’ve been brought up on Service bangers, and now you think that our best Vienna sausages, provided by me at great personal expense, are beneath you.”
The word banger was only one of the Navy slang terms for the edibles, as is shown by the following passage from Naval Language, published in The Spectator (London) of 24th January 1920 (and it is as difficult to know why banger became naval slang for sausage as it is to explain why cheese came to be known as hymn-book…):
In describing his food the Blue really lets himself go, and his names for it are legion. Ship-on-the-rocks and Fanny Adams are two that come to my mind, while a further selection was given to me the other day when I asked one of the Boys what was the best kind of supper to order for the winning Boy’s cutter crew. His answer was: “Oh, just a tin o’ sharks, a couple of bangers, and a bit of ’ymn-book.” It sounds an indigestible meal, but it was only Navy for a tin of sardines, a couple of sausages, and a bit of cheese.
The following is from The Derbyshire Times of 7th February 1941:
Nowadays the food in ships is as wholesome as any, but many of the old nicknames still remain. For instance, roast meat and potatoes is still “schooner on the rocks,” and roast meat is just “burnt offering.” Canned meat is not so popular, and is dubbed “Harriet Lane.” Salt beef is “salt horse.” In the Navy tinned sausages are known as “bangers,” and the untinned ones as “growlers.” The pudding or sweet is referred to as “afters.” A poached egg on toast is “a sailor on a raft,” and if you get it scrambled he’s been “wrecked.”