Thanks to the joy that is the #PetsOnShips hashtag on Twitter, one often sees photos of cute animals in a maritime setting. In my own research on the 19th century Royal Navy I’ve found mention of cats, dogs, and a surprising number of bears, all kept as pets on board British warships. All manner of other creatures, great and small, have been documented as going to sea (some, sadly, staying there!).
As far as the Royal Navy is concerned the end of pets on ships began on 4 May 1975, when all cats were ordered to be landed during a rabies epidemic sweeping Europe. Over continued health fears, in October 1977 the end came for the rest of the Fleet’s pets. Pictured is the Royal Navy’s last sea going dog, Muttley, apparently rated Ordinary Sea Dog.
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In his influential book Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution Dr. Nicholas Lambert refers (p. 245) to a November 1911 ‘secret rendezvous at Plymouth Dockyard’ between retired Lord Fisher, a former First Sea Lord, and Winston Churchill, the new First Lord of the Admiralty. In my article on Fisher and Churchill’s 1911 correspondence (Harley, ‘“It’s a Case of All or None”: “Jacky” Fisher’s Advice to Winston Churchill, 1911’, The Mariner’s Mirror, 102:2, 186), I described Lambert’s choice of words as ‘a touch melodramatic’, as both were present at the launch of the battleship Centurion at Devonport Dockyard on 18 November. Arthur Marder rightly described the meetings as secret insomuch as they ‘did not appear in the newspapers’ (Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, II, 401).
In Lambert’s defence, last year (after several unsuccessful attempts) I was able to consult the visitors’ book of H.M.S. Enchantress, the Board of Admiralty’s yacht. Fisher’s name does not appear in it for that weekend, although this is by no means proof of any kind of conspiracy to suppress knowledge of any meeting which may or may not have taken place on board.
Quite why any secret meeting would need to take place is another question. As Lambert states, and I illustrate quite clearly in my article, Fisher and Churchill were corresponding nearly every day, and had spent a weekend together only a few weeks previously. The final nail in the coffin of any notion of a ‘secret rendezvous’, however, is the above photograph of the two apparently arriving at the launch of Centurion, which I only came across last week (despite its caption, it has been lazily dated by Getty Images to 1 January 1911). From left to right are George Lambert, Civil Lord of the Admiralty (a stalwart supporter of Fisher); Lord Fisher; Winston Churchill; Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge, Churchill’s Private Secretary (whose prematurely white hair earned him the name of ‘the Silver King’). If this is a secret rendezvous then I shudder to think what a non-secret one would look like.