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.

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