Illness or Alcoholism?

In The Rules of the Game Andrew Gordon cites the example of Rear-Admiral Leicester C. Keppel as an example of the ‘opportunities for for action, adventure and sudden death available to personnel on remote stations, far away from the main fleets, in the middle years of Victoria’s reign’. He then cites Keppel’s entry in Who’s Who, which is certainly interesting. Gordon then goes on to write:

The details of this much skirmished officer’s later career become vague, suggesting that some recurring illness, or alcoholism, may have precluded further promotion; but greater (and less deserved) honours might have come his way had he had the good fortune to serve in safe, glamorous flagships rather than remote, treacherous backwaters.

So in the space of a few lines Gordon insinuates an officer might have been a drunk or an invalid, and damns all flagship officers as unworthy of any rewards.

If he’d actually bothered to study the career of Keppel, and understand the mechanics of promotion in the Royal Navy, a different picture emerges. Keppel received his promotion to Commander (at the relatively young age of 32) from his uncle, Admiral Sir Henry Keppel, in a haul down vacancy on the China Station. This system was notorious because Commanders-in-Chief could promote their relatives over the heads of dozens, if not hundreds, of their contemporaries, in the almost-certain knowledge that the Admiralty would confirm their selection (despite repeated attempts to abolish it, exceptions continued to be made as late as 1908, if not later). So much for undeserved honours.

As to Keppel’s later career, he held two appointments during the 1870s as a Commander: the first in the Coast Guard (an immediate reserve for the Navy as well as a coast-watching service) and then in the screw gunvessel Avon on the West Coast of Africa. His services there apparently merited his selection for promotion to the rank of Captain in 1880. But despite his uncle obtaining his promotion to Commander in 1869, his ten years spent in that rank meant that he could never rise any higher, contrary to Gordon’s claim. Keppel was placed on the retired list on reaching the age of 55 on 27 August 1892, as per the regulations. Promotion from Captain to Rear-Admiral was by seniority. When he retired there were still 29 Captains above him on the list. The next above him, Arthur K. Wilson, wasn’t promoted until 20 June 1895. Keppel’s career wasn’t a victim of illness or alcoholism, as Gordon would have it. If he was indeed a victim, then it was of the system as it then stood.