Bad Referencing

For my research I am naturally interested in all references to naval education and training. If I see a reference to a primary source given in a secondary source I always try to follow it up, not only to see if it is given correctly but also to see if there is anything else germane to my book which the author may not have considered relevant to theirs. Sometimes this does not always work out. Last week I came across the following quote in Dr. Harry Dickinson’s doctoral thesis, ‘Educational Provision for Officers of the Royal Navy 1857-1877’, pages 80-81:

There is also evidence that not only were officer numbers unsatisfactory but that the quality was poor. Testimony to the Tarleton Committee of 1872 portrayed a picture of young officers in the 1850s spending inordinate lengths of time as Midshipmen, either lacking the ability or the inclination to pass for Lieutenant. A letter to the committee of 19 March 1872 cited the cases of officers who were still Midshipmen at ages ranging from 22 to 26 years old and suggested that

it is not unreasonable to suppose that such officers are of no use to the Service even if they eventually pass, and if they are entering without intention of passing they are probably setting a bad example to younger officers.59

Endnote 59 is the same as endnote 58, which gives us:

H Vansittart Neal to Tarleton Committee. 19 March 1872. Microfilm Section, Central Library, Liverpool

Tarleton Papers Reel 5/10 MS 165

I have been carefully through Reel 5/10 twice now and there is no letter from H. Vansittart Neale, who at any rate was a relatively junior civil servant at the Admiralty who would never be expected to pass such scathing judgement on officers (and as far as I can tell was not even in the Commission Branch which dealt with officers in 1872, but in the unrelated Legal and Miscellaneous Branch).

Moving on to Dickinson’s monograph, published by Routledge as Educating the Royal Navy, we see the same in much similar form on page 62:

Neither did they produce the numbers required to properly man the fleet, indeed evidence offered to the Rice Committee later in the century suggested that over the decade from 1847, about one-third of the naval cadets entering the service were either discharged at their own request or as unsuitable.39 Even when young officers of this period remained in the Service, it was argued, the quality was often poor, with one witness noting that there were still plenty of midshipmen aged between 22 and 26 years either unable or unwilling to pass for lieutenant. ‘It is not unreasonable,’ he suggested, ‘to suppose that such officers are of no use to the Service’ and that ‘they are probably setting a bad example to the younger officers’.40

Note how the Tarleton Committee of 1872 in the text of the thesis has now become the Rice Committee of 1875. Endnote 39 gives us ‘Report of the Committee on the System of Training Cadets on Board HMS Britannia (The Rice Report), C 1154, 1875, para. 1831.’ Endnote 40 on the other hand gives us, ‘First Report of the Committee appointed to consider and arrange the Establishment at Greenwich Hospital for the Education of Officers of the Royal Navy, (The Tarleton Report), 1872.’ I have a copy of the first report of the Tarleton Committee and it is not a long document, which makes Dickinson’s curious omission of a page number not as serious as at first glance it might appear. This quotation does not appear at all in it (nor, in fact, do any quotations from anyone else). Neither does it appear in the Rice Committee’s report, nor any of the other major reports on education in the Royal Navy in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The upshot of this is that there is an important quotation (for my purposes) which has been attributed to two different sources and appears in neither. Dr. Dickinson clearly realised that something was amiss when converting his thesis into a monograph and altered the context and endnotes accordingly, but to no avail. To say that this kind of sloppiness is unfortunate is an understatement, and it is regrettable that it wasn’t caught by him, his university or his publisher. I can still quote it, but by making it clear that it is unlikely to be written by the author mentioned in the thesis, nor that it can be found in any of the sources cited by Dickinson. All in all, extremely unsatisfactory.