Death of an Unknown Naval Officer, 1874

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The Commissioner’s House (photograph possibly reversed). Photo: Nova Scotia Archives.

Whilst idly reading the Statistical Report on the Health of the Navy for 1874 today I stumbled across this rather grotesque report and accompanying commentary on a case from Halifax, northern headquarters of the Royal Navy’s North American and West Indies Station. The identity of the poor patient is unknown (according to my database he does not appear to have been a member of the Military Branch). The suggestion ‘that he had long been living freely’, carrying with it a hint of alcoholism or even sexual promiscuity, does not strike one as a satisfactory reason for what seems to be a very painful death. The account reads as follows:

 

‘From its history, its appearance, its severe and intractable form, the peculiar parts implicated, and the hard unyielding swelling of the tissues affected, its true nature and, character was rather that of “malignant facial carbuncle,” or the “malignant pustule,” than mere phlegmonous erysipelas, so called. The case was that of an officer who had lately come out from England to join the Royal Alfred on her arrival at Halifax from Bermuda, and it was while he was waiting at Halifax for the arrival of that ship that the disease began. The ship arrived on the 20th of June; he was attacked on the 17th, therefore as he did not come under my care till the 21st, I did not see him in the early stages of the attack. It began with an irritable pustule of the lower lip, which he ascribed to smoking a short pipe. There had also been a slight fissure on the lip, which he thought had imbibed some of the oil or the tobacco. The lip rapidly swelled, and the inflammation extended on the following day to the upper lip and left cheek. These symptoms were accompanied by great nervous depression and anxiety, and with considerable constitutional disturbance. He then came under the care of the surgeon of the Niobe, who admitted him into the sick quarters. The swelling and inflammation of the lips and face steadily increased, and the inflammatory action assumed an erysipelatous appearance. On the 20th, the whole left side of the head and face was enormously swollen, of a hard diffuse brawny structure, and of a dark dusky red colour, which when cut into by the bistoury gave the sensation of incising a hard fibrous tumour. The disease steadily advanced, nothing seemed to check its progress, till the whole face, head and neck were enveloped in one huge brawny dark-red swelling. Delirium with fitful intervals of consciousness set in on the 22nd, and became confirmed on the 23rd. Coma supervened on the 24th, and he died early on the 25th.’

It was reported that he was apparently in robust health previous to the attack, but that he had long been living freely, He was residing in the Commissioner’s house in the dockyard while waiting the arrival of the Royal Alfred, and as the drainage of that house was very defective, and its proximity to a mast-pond containing almost stagnant water which at times gave out the most offensive putrid-like odours, was most unwholesome, a depraved condition of health may have been induced, or even blood poisoning caused, the result of which was this malignant disease.

Thank you to Halifax Shipping News (@HfxShippingNews) for linking to the Nova Scotia Archives.

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‘The Thing is too Absurd’

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The Admiralty in the mid-19th Century.

It is an article of faith that the non-Naval officers recruited to ‘Room 40’ were sometimes poorly acquainted with Naval terminology. It has been claimed by one who was there that ‘messages were sent to O.D. [Operations Division] talking about ships running in and out sometimes “athwartwise”’. This, claimed William F. Clarke, ‘lessened our reputation with the authorities’.

Compare and contrast then to this anecdote from the Royal Navy of the mid-1870s. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, Second Naval Lord from 1875 to 1877, told a commission in 1887:

On one occasion in the absence of the First Sea Lord I had to do his business, and a firm in the city wrote to say that one of their ships, the Great Queensborough, I think she was called, or the Great Queenstown, had sailed on a certain day from England for Australia, that six or eight months had elapsed, and they had no account of her, and would the Admiralty allow some ship to call at the Crozet Islands to see if there were any signs of her being ashore there, and so forth. Tho Crozet Islands are about 100° to tho westward of Sydney, Australia, and about 40 degrees to the east of the Cape. I thought that I had heard something said at the Board about ships going out. That was not my branch, and therefore I sent this matter down to the proper branch to ask for information, and for tho branch to report. Up came the paper to me, and on the back of it there was this recommendation: ‘Wolverine had orders to sight the Crozet Islands on the outward voyage; submitted whether telegraphic orders be sent to the Pearl to do tho same on her way home.’ Now that submission was made by one of the most experienced clerks of the Admiralty, and I suppose anything so silly, from a naval point of view, can hardly be believed. What he suggested was that I should tell that ship that she was to beat up nearly 3,500 miles dead to windward against the heaviest gales that blow in the southern oceans to look at the Crozet Islands. His mistake was perfectly reasonable from his point of view. How was the poor man to know that the road out to Australia was not the road home? But to a sailor’s mind the thing is too absurd.

In his evidence Hornby proposed an influx of Naval Officers at all levels of the Secretariat of the Admiralty to prevent this kind of mistake from occurring. Calling for a division between Naval work done by Naval Officers and pure administration done by the Civil Service, the former under a Naval Officer as Permanent Secretary, with Naval Officers as heads of Secretariat branches, one may see, quite clearly, a precursor to the Naval Staff.

‘A Mere Barony’: More Duff History

Rosslyn_Erskine_Wemyss,_Baron_Wester_Wemyss_by_Sir_William_OrpenIn a letter to the Times of 9 November 2016, by and large repeated in a letter to the Telegraph on 2 November 2018, Lord Lexden, the historian of the Conservative Party, wrote:

Sir, When we fall silent at 11am on Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, we should spare a thought for Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. Lloyd George instructed Wemyss, his representative at Allied HQ in France, to ensure that the armistice took effect at 2.30pm. The prime minister planned to announce it triumphantly in the House of Commons. Wemyss defied him, telephoning George V to fix the eleventh hour for the cessation of hostilities.

A furious Lloyd George withheld the £100,000 grant awarded to other service chiefs, and while they received earldoms he got a mere barony.

Quite apart from the crassness of asking us to spare a thought for Wemyss when our thoughts ought to be elsewhere at such an important hour, Lord Lexden’s final paragraph is completely incorrect. The other service chiefs at the time of the Armistice were Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Frederick Sykes, Chief of Air Staff, who was succeeded in early 1919 by Sir Hugh Trenchard. In August of that year Parliament granted sums of money to leading naval, military and air officers of the War. The largest sums were given to the Commander-in-Chiefs of the British Expeditionary Force and Grand Fleet, Sir Douglas Haig and Sir David Beatty. Each received £100,000 apiece, and also earldoms. No service chief received £100,000. Wilson and Trenchard each received £10,000 each, and were given baronetcies in December 1919, not earldoms. Sykes received a knighthood and no grant and no title. Whilst Wemyss may have felt justly slighted at not receiving a grant, his ‘mere barony’ (the same dignity Lexden holds), conferred a month before Wilson and Trenchard were given their baronetcies, and special promotion to Admiral of the Fleet in November 1919, means he is far less deserving of our thoughts than Lexden would have us believe.

 

The Admiralty Library in 1871

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The Admiralty, Whitehall, in 1850.

Apologies for the lack of writing recently – RL has intervened. Work, illness in the family, bad historians, all conspiring to distract me from this website. Whilst going through my collection because of the last mentioned excuse, I came across a docket about the state of the Admiralty Library in 1871. It may prove of interest to archive-dwellers everywhere.

On 17 November of that year the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Admiralty, Vernon Lushington, asked the Chief Clerk, Thomas Wolley, ‘to report to me confidentially upon the position, work &c of the Librarian’. This position had been formally established by order in council in 1862, when the Library at the Admiralty, Whitehall, contained ‘above 25,000 books volumes of valuable books, that above 500 books are annually presented or purchased for the same, exclusively of parliamentary papers and newspapers’. As there was ‘no established officer to compile catalogues, classify the books and papers for reference, and generally superintend the Library’, the Admiralty appointed a Librarian, with a salary of £150 a year, rising £10 a year to a maximum of £250.

In 1871 the Librarian, Mr. R. Thorburn, had an assistant, his son, paid 30s. a week. He reported that the Library now consisted of ‘upwards of 30,000 volumes’, contained in 17 rooms, ‘mostly occupied’, across the Admiralty estate. Books, parliamentary papers and Hansard were constantly added. Ten daily and 11 weekly newspapers and their contents had to be catalogued. In addition a new catalogue of the Library was in preparation, ‘which of itself is a work of great labor, making 1272 pages of manuscript’. Searches had to be made as ‘information is often requested that could not possibly be found under any given heading’. He wrote:

It is perhaps not known that the Library is a very extensive one, rich in Naval History, Voyages, and collateral subjects, and may be considered of great and increasing value for reference.

He ended his report with a plea:

In consequence of the distribution of the Admiralty Library over the several rooms and garrets of the building, more time is occupied and labor expended in searches for answers that would result in a library placed in one or more contiguous rooms.
I believe it is from this distribution of the Library that its extensive character is not generally known.

Forty years would elapse until the Admiralty Library found a proper home. In 1910 the collection was moved into the new processional arch across the Mall, now known as Admiralty Arch, and on 20 September 1911 a 100 foot reading room was given a grand opening by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna. Today the Admiralty is no more, Admiralty Arch has been sold off, the Admiralty Library broken up, and I just discovered that the successor Naval Historical Branch has made up elements of its history. But that story is for another post.

Bad History and Anti-Semitism

Earlier today I was reminded of a quote concerning the Admiralty war room at the outbreak of World War One. It can be found in Nicholas Lambert’s 2005 article ‘Strategic Command and Control for Maneuver Warfare’ (Journal of Military History). The quote is from the diary of Captain Philip W. Dumas, about to take over as Assistant Director of Torpedoes, and according to Lambert it reads:

The scene was wild thousands of telegrams littered about and no-one keeping a proper record of them. [Director Operations Division Arthur] Leveson shrieking—a disheveled looking man—and the only person with his head screwed on the right way seemed to be [Assistant Director Operations Division Philip] Vyvyan.

There are a couple of things wrong with this. Vyvyan was called Arthur, not Philip, and was Assistant to the Chief of the Staff, not Assistant Director Operations Division (that was that other notorious diarist Herbert Richmond). But what is most surprising is the description of Leveson as ‘a dishevelled looking man’. On referring to the Dumas diary it is very difficult to see how Lambert could have possibly read that last word as ‘man’. In fact it looks very much like Dumas calls Leveson ‘a dishevelled looking jew’. The reader can judge for themselves:

Dumas

One thing is for certain, and that is that ‘man’ does not appear in that sentence, whilst it would appear from a look at his writing that the j, e and w match that word letter for letter. If anyone else has another suggestion I am more than happy to hear it. Quite why Lambert felt the need to be so creative one can only imagine.

Leveson can of course mean ‘Son of Levi’, but in this case Dumas was wide of the mark: Arthur Leveson’s parents had married in 1860 in the Parish church of Savenake, Wiltshire, and his father Edward had become a Freemason in 1857.

As to Dumas, his diary is informative but one can tell he had an unpleasant side. On 4 August we find him writing ‘there is a notice in Prince Louis’ office that no telephone message is to be sent to his house because he has German servants though it doesn’t say so’. The German-born Admiral His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg was First Sea Lord at the time, and despite having been a British subject for over 40 years at this point was accused of holding pro-German sympathies. The innuendo in Dumas’ writing is as thick as a knife.

Quite Interesting, Quite Misleading

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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.

The Introduction of the Rank of Sub-Lieutenant

A tweet from the interesting account @OnthisdayRN on Twitter this morning makes the following claim with regard to the introduction of the rank of Sub-Lieutenant:

The problem with this tweet is that it is inaccurate on two important counts:

  • The rank of Mate was replaced by that of Sub-Lieutenant on 16 April 1861. The change was made in an order in council of that date concerning relative rank, and then promulgated in circular No. 462 of 7 May 1861. Sadly the original paperwork on the introduction of the rank does not seem to have survived in Admiralty papers at The National Archives, although there is a May 1861 docket concerning who had been given commissions as Sub-Lieutenant by that point.
  • The change from a single ¼-inch stripe of braid to a ½-inch stripe of lace was made on 26 March 1863 in an Admiralty memorandum (No. 32. E.) of that date (copy in TNA, ADM 1/5832). This is when Lieutenants, Commanders and Captains ‘shipped an extra ring’.

Neither of these events took place on 16 May 1863 as the tweet claims. As the saying goes, ‘A lie is half way around the world while the truth is putting on its trousers.’ The tweet by @OnthisdayRN is surely no lie, but it certainly has gained traction whilst the truth no doubt will not. The account owner must be aware of their error by now but has not moved to correct it. Certainly the Captain of Britannia Royal Naval College, Jolyon Woodard, should have been aware of the inaccuracy of the tweet after yours truly pointed it out, yet chose to endorse it by replying to it.