In nautical slang, a holy-stone was a piece of sandstone used by sailors for scouring the decks of ships. The terms bible and prayer-book were also used, as Admiral William Henry Smyth indicated in The Sailor’s Word-Book: an alphabetical digest of nautical terms (1867):

– Bible. A hand-axe. Also, a squared piece of freestone to grind the deck with sand in cleaning it; a small holystone, so called from seamen using them kneeling.
– Prayer-book. A smaller hand-stone than that which sailors call “bible;” it is used to scrub in narrow crevices where a large holy-stone cannot be used.
– Holy-stone. A sandstone for scrubbing decks, so called from being originally used for Sunday cleaning, or obtained by plundering church yards of their tombstones, or because the seamen have to go on their knees to use it.

However, according to a letter published in The Spectator of 5th April 1890, the term holy-stone did not originally have any religious connotations:


Sir,—In the review of Mr. J. J. Hissey’s “Tour in a Phaeton,” in the Spectator for March 22nd, you quote his statement from some old book that “holy-stones” were so called from sailors at the time of the Commonwealth having used fragments of Yarmouth gravestones to scrub the decks of their vessels; adding: “But we have a strong impression that the friable sandstones thus used were called ‘holy’ because sailors are on their knees when they use them.”
I believe you will find the correct spelling to be “holey,” the stones used by preference being full of holes, like a sponge, and that any derivations of the name “holy” were simply inventions to account for what sounded a remarkable name.—
I am, Sir, &c.,

E. P. B.

holy-stone - The Spectator - 5th April 1890


And indeed, in northern England, holy-stone also denoted a stone with a natural hole in it, used as an amulet or charm. In A Glossary of North Country Words, in use (1829), John Trotter Brockett wrote:

– Holy-stones, holed-stones, are hung over the heads of horses as a charm against diseases, and to scare the witches from riding the cattle: such as sweat in their stalls are supposed to be cured by the application. I have also seen them suspended from the tester of a bed as well as placed behind the door of a dwelling-house, attached to a key—to prevent injury from the midnight hags of “air and broom.” The stone, in all cases, must be found naturally holed—if it be made it is thought to have no efficacy. See Adder-Stone.
– Adder-stone, a perforated stone, imagined by the vulgar to be made by the sting of an adder. Stones of this kind are suspended in stables as a charm to secure the horses from being hag-ridden; and are also hung up at the bed’s head, to prevent the night-mare.

Francis Kildale Robinson also noted, in A Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases (1855):

– Holy-stone, a flint or pebble in its natural state with a hole through it, numbers of which are found on our coast. They are also called “lucky stones,” and are hung by a string to the street-door key to insure prosperity to the house and its inmates, as the horseshoe is nailed behind the door for the same purpose!

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