Quite Interesting, Quite Misleading

Bridge
Cyprian Bridge, a Naval Cadet of the 1850s.

And so, more Fake News! This time from QI, who tweeted on Wednesday:

Sadly, this is completely misleading. The ‘entrance exam for the Royal Navy’ is ridiculously vague. In the 1850s there were seven types of officer one could enter the Navy as (Military Branch, Masters’ line, Accountant, Medical, Engineer, Naval Instructor, Chaplain). This is to ignore the entry requirements for the lower deck. We will presume that the reference is to Naval Cadets of the Military Branch, the boys who were destined to one day command ships and fleets, and also the most numerous class of officer. Now to establish the entry requirements, which were divided into academic and medical, for two entrance examinations, not the one stated in the tweet.

Academic

The academic requirements from 1849 to 1857 remained the same, and exceedingly short (and also covered the medical!):

They must be in good health, fit for Service, and able to write English from dictation, and must be acquainted with the first four Rules of Arithmetic, Reduction, and the Rule of Three.

In 1857, with the introduction of a training ship (forerunner to today’s Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth), the requirements became more involved:

  1. To write English from Dictation, and in a legible hand.

  2. To read, translate, and parse an easy passage either from a Latin or French author.

N.B.—The aid of a Dictionary will be allowed for these Translations.

And to have a satisfactory knowledge of

  1. The leading facts of Scripture and English history.
  2. Modern Geography, in so far as relates to a knowledge of the principal Countries, Capitals, Mountains, and Rivers. To be able to point out the position of a place on a map when its Latitude and Longitude is given.
  3. Arithmetic, including Proportion, and a fair knowledge of Vulgar and Decimal Fractions.
  4. Algebra, including Fractions.
  5. The First Book of Euclid to Proposition XXXII. inclusive.

Candidates above the age of 14, in addition to the Examination required for those between the ages of 13 and 14, must have a knowledge of:

  1. The use of the Globes, with correct definitions of Latitude, Longitude, Azimuth, Amplitude, and the other Circles of the Sphere.
  2. Vulgar and Decimal Fractions.
  3. Algebra, including Simple Equations.
  4. The First Book of Euclid.
  5. A practical knowledge of the Elements of Plane Trigonometry, and its application to the Numerical Solution of Easy and Useful Problems.

As Drawing will prove a most useful qualification for Naval Officers, it is recommended that Candidates for the Service should be instructed therein.

Now, what did Naval Cadets who went through the ordeal say? The Honourable Edmund Fremantle was ‘asked to write a few lines of dictation’. Cyprian Bridge realled, ‘We had to write from dictation about a passage which in print would probably have taken up some twenty or thirty lines’. Evelyn Wood (who later left the Navy for the Army and became a Field Marshal) had to listen to a ‘half page from the Spectator’ and write it down.

This myth probably stems from Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher who claimed ‘all the entrance examination I had to pass was write out the Lord’s Prayer, do a rule of three sum and drink a glass of sherry!’. No mention of chairs, and he also had to do maths and drink!

Medical

The medical strictures were simple all through the 1850s. As we have seen, from 1849 to 1857 the candidate had to ‘be in good health, fit for Service’. In the 1857 regulations this became:

The candidate must be in good health and fit for the Service, that is, free from impediment of speech, defect of vision, rupture, or other physical inefficiency.

In 1851 it had been decreed that ‘The Medical Examination is to be conducted by such Naval Surgeon as the Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth may direct.’ Now let us see what the various memoirists made of it. Cecil Sloane-Stanley recalled ‘I was made to cough and jump and perform various athletic movements for the doctor’s edification in a state of complete nudity’. The Honourable Victor Montagu had to undress and ‘was put through various exercises’. And then we come to James Gambier.

If the medical examination had not been a farce, of course I should never have got into the Service, for I was so short-sighted that I knew no one across a dinner-table. But the examining doctor, a beetle-browed, frowsy old Scotchman, satisfied himself in respect of our sight by spreading out his fingers within about ten inches of our noses. Then he jammed a finger alternately into each ear and, roaring in the other, asked if we could hear. I said I could hear quite plainly. After this he banged each boy separately in the back, and then, producing from a cupboard a thing like a fog-horn, listened to our breathing. Finally he started us all racing round the room and skipping over the backs of chairs—an amusing spectacle—all of us naked as we were born. That ended the examination, and we were pronounced fit to serve the Queen.

That Gambier was accepted despite severe short-sightedness suggests that the surgeon was less than competent, which may explain the jumping and hither and thither he and other candidates were subjected to.

Conclusions

There was no single entrance examination for Naval Cadets. It did not necessarily involve writing out the Lord’s Prayer, nor jumping over chairs, neither of which at the same time, nor was it confined to anything like these two activities. Could a candidate be made to do either of them? Evidently so. Was it the norm or was it prescribed? Evidently not. Quite interesting, but also quite misleading.

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