Accuracy, not Brevity

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Smith-Cumming as Captain R.N. (Retired)

If one looks at Christopher Andrew’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (subscription required) for Sir Mansfield G. Smith-Cumming, the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, we find the following covering his early service in the Royal Navy:

After entering the training ship Britannia at the age of thirteen, he began his career afloat as acting sub-lieutenant on HMS Bellerophon. He served in operations against Malay pirates during 1875–6 and in Egypt in 1883. He suffered, however, from severe seasickness and in 1885 he was placed on the retired list.

I realise that brevity is of great importance in notices like this, but this is taking it too far. Smith (as he was until 1889) did not begin ‘his career afloat as acting sub-lieutenant’. He began his career in the Royal Navy when he joined the training ship Britannia at Dartmouth in January 1872, in the same term as a number of boys who went on to flag rank, and one term ahead of John Jellicoe. After the standard four terms (two years) at Dartmouth he passed out with a second class in study, which allowed him six months’ sea time out of a possible twelve towards the rating of Midshipman, meaning he had to wait six months before being promoted. He joined the corvette Modeste in January 1874 which went out to the China Station. He was rated Midshipman on 20 June. He is noted as being with a naval brigade from 3 December 1875 to 5 January 1876. This was a brigade landed in Malaya during the Perak War. Smith was later granted the Perak Medal (although I have been unable to ascertain what the nature of this medal was). The crew of Modeste was relieved in May 1877 and he returned home in the troopship Tamar. After foreign service leave he was sent to join the ironclad Bellerophon, flagship on the North America and West Indies Station, where he remained until November 1878. Between May and June 1878 he was lent to the sloop Sirius, and on 20 June of that year he passed his seamanship examination for the rank of Lieutenant, becoming an Acting Sub-Lieutenant. He attained 605 marks out of a possible 1,000, and was given a third class certificate.

So, Smith-Cumming enjoyed four years of service at sea before he ‘began his career afloat’, which perhaps might be better represented in his ODNB entry. At a later point I will go into the rest of his brief career on the active list of the Royal Navy.

Sources consulted:
The National Archives, Kew.
ADM 13/216.
ADM 196/20/123.
ADM 196/39/377.

 

 

 

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A Naval Officer at Cambridge

Wilmot Fawkes as Vice-Admiral
Sir Wilmot Fawkes as a Vice-Admiral.

In his memoirs, Thirty-six Years at the Admiralty, Sir Charles Walker, at one time head of the branch in large part responsible for manning the Royal Navy, sought to illustrate the stagnation of the Navy around 1870 on account of the congestion in the various ranks of the Fleet, which was to some extent remedied (or altered) by the introduction of a universal system of compulsory retirement in that year.

Half-pay was of frequent occurrence, even for the junior ranks, and I recollect the late Admiral Sir Wilmot Fawkes telling me that, on his being specially promoted to lieutenant for passing his examinations with credit, he was relegated to half-pay for two years. He took the opportunity of going to Cambridge University.

This is not quite true. Fawkes (of the same family as the notorious gunpowder plotter) was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant on 19 November 1867. He remained on half pay until 1 April 1868, when he was appointed to the ironclad Prince Consort for service in the Mediterranean. He served there for the whole of the ship’s commission, which ended on 20 October 1871. He then went on seven week’s full paid leave before returning to half pay, where he remained until October 1873 (which is an interval of almost two years, but not quite). Walker’s claim that Fawkes went on two years’s half pay on promotion is therefore false.

I already knew that Fawkes had at some point attended St. John’s College, Cambridge (it is mentioned in his Times obituary), where he had been a Fellow Commoner (a student who ate in the common room but did not attend on a scholarship or an exhibition, therefore someone of means). Thanks to David Underdown (@DavidUnderdown9), who pointed me towards the ACAD database, I now know that Fawkes matriculated (joined) in Lent Term 1872. So not, as Walker claimed, right after promotion, but over four years later. Sadly, it is not known when Fawkes left Cambridge. Thanks to the same catalogue we see that two of his brothers also studied there, as well as his uncle (another Fellow Commoner).

If we look at the service records of three other officers who joined the Navy with Fawkes in September 1860 (Arthur C. B. Bromley, Sir Reginald N. Custance, Sir Arthur D. Fanshawe) it would appear that he was unique in having any half pay at all in his early Lieutenant’s service, let alone the opportunity of exploiting it by attending the University of Cambridge. If a historian wants an example of a junior officer having to languish on half pay in this time, he will have to look elsewhere.