Fact Checking

I was flicking through volume 1 of Arthur Marder’s From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow the other day and stumbled across a paragraph which alerted my sixth sense for bullshit. Referring to ‘Jacky’ Fisher’s famous ‘Fishpond’ Marder wrote (p. 87):

Two things are beyond dispute. One is that the fear of reprisal haunted those that were not in the Fishpond. Admiral H. M. Edwards remembers how ‘not being in the Fishpond, and averse to running the risk of incurring his displeasure—in case he didn’t like the cut of my jib—I took the greatest care if I spotted him in one of the Admiralty corridors of slipping down another.’

Entertaining stuff. The source is a letter from 2 June 1948. This is exactly the sort of gossip I hoped to find when I flew all the way to California to consult Marder’s papers. However, there was hardly anything from before the 1950s and I did not find this letter. But what of the claim? ‘Admiral H. M. Edwards’ is Rear-Admiral Herbert MacI. Edwards. As far as the author can tell (consulting his service record in ADM 196/44/119) he never served at the Admiralty whilst Fisher was First Sea Lord. Moreover, from 1901 to 1907 he served as Flag Lieutenant to Fisher’s ally Sir Arthur K. Wilson, nearly six years, for which he was specially promoted Commander in 1907. He then went on to serve as head of the signal school at Chatham and then Portsmouth as Superintendent of Signal Schools.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Edwards would be summoned to the Admiralty for meetings as in the latter role he was the Admiralty’s de facto signalling specialist. It beggars belief that Fisher, as the man responsible for the fighting efficiency of the fleet, would have had nothing to do with Edwards and that Edwards, with a friend in Wilson, would have had anything to fear.

As to the corridors claim, contrary to the popular belief conveyed by bad historians of Room 40 that the Admiralty was some sort of sprawling warren, with the exception of the wings of the Old Building (the quadrangle facing Whitehall) the rest of the site was comprised of long, broad corridors. The only way Edwards would be able to slip down another corridor is by heading to the lavatory.

Having at the very least cast doubt on Edwards’ claims, one has to ask what would make such a man conjure up such a bizarre story?

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.

The Admiralty Library in 1871

IMG_2511
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.

A Killer Ship?

Oliver,_1917,_IWM_ART_1763
Oliver during the Great War.

In his unpublished memoirs Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry F. Oliver mentioned a yarn from his early days afloat: ‘Achilles [an ironclad] paid off soon after I went to Sea, after years in commission, she had killed a man for every month she had been in commission by accidents aloft.’ This is a pretty wild claim, and fortunately one that does not appear to have been repeated elsewhere. Part of my first book (on the Royal Navy of the late 19th century) will examine how dangerous the twilight of the age of sail was, and Oliver’s statement is a good place to begin.

Possibly the most definitive record of numbers killed from accidents aloft would be the ship’s logs, which will presumably be at The National Archives, Kew. These are voluminous tomes however, and require a lot of effort to both photograph and then peruse. Casualty returns would have once been made, but I do not know whether these still exist. There are also a series of Statistical Reports (also rendered as Returns) on the Health of the Navy, which became an annual publication in 1856, which were conveniently printed by Parliament. They are a very handy tool, but are sometimes vague, depending on the year. Summaries are given for each specific station and two arbitrary statistical ‘stations’ called the ‘Home Station’ (incorporating all the Home Ports and Channel Squadron) and the ‘Irregular Force’, comprising ships on detached service or in transit.

Using the 1878 Statistical Report and an 1881 Navy List we can see Achilles was commissioned on 17 May 1877 at Devonport, and was recommissioned on 1 September 1880. Oliver, according to his service record, had gone to sea in the Agincourt on 23 July that year, so we know that he was telling the truth when he says Achilles was paid off shortly after he left H.M.S. Britannia. Looking at the various Reports we find that in 1877 Achilles suffered four deaths by violence (which incorporated drownings and falls from aloft), and six in 1878. There were nine deaths in total aboard the ship in 1879 but only four deaths in the whole Mediterranean Squadron on account of falls aloft, so the number of deaths in Achilles from aloft must be four or less. In 1880 there were five deaths in the ship, but for some reason these are not divided by old or new commission, which is normally the case. The ship was therefore served a 39 and a half months’ long commission, but at the very most could have only suffered 21 deaths (and likely several fewer, and how many of those were on account of work aloft one can only guess).

One conclusion is clear – Oliver’s claim that that Achilles had killed a man aloft for every month of her commission is clearly untrue. In his defence, however, he was writing over 60 years after the fact (and lived until he was 100).

A Case of Mistaken Identity

german-navyI happened to be looking through The National Archives website to try and find their page on ‘Surgeons at Sea’ the other evening, and considered the logical place to begin would be their list of online collections. One might be surprised to see that to illustrate ‘Royal Naval Air Service Officers’ Records’, a photograph of ratings aboard ship is used. This anachronism is nothing, however, compared to that used for ‘Royal Naval Air Service ratings’, which would appear to be of two officers of the German Imperial Navy! One would hope that The National Archives would have access to better, and more appropriate, photographs.

updateUpdate, 07/12/16: Blogging makes a difference. As a direct result of this post, the images have become somewhat less inappropriate.

One of our Records is Missing

tnapicAs some of you know I’ve been working on transcribing a First World War diary for some time, and am currently tidying up the text and filling in some gaps before a final push to get it published. One of the jobs is to make sure that every person mentioned has a little note explaining who they were: name, rank, years of death and birth. To that end, on my last visit to The National Archives at Kew I collected as many service records as possible. However, I’ve only just finished cataloguing them in the past week (on which more in due course), and have found quite a few glaring omissions, one of which I found just this morning.

One of the officers who needs a note is Commander Frederic Gerald Stuart Peile, who served as navigating officer, Commander (N), of the dreadnought battleship Emperor of India in the Grand Fleet from September 1914 to December 1915, in which capacity he is mentioned in the diary. Normally his service record in the ADM 196/4# series would be expected to have his date of death. So I plugged in Frederic Peile into my laptop search engine and nothing came up. ‘Bother’, thought I. I tend to always be in a rush at archives, so It is always possible that in my haste I may have missed a record or two. Just to be sure, though, I checked the The National Archive’s Discovery catalogue. There was no mention of his ADM 196/4# service record.

I therefore proceeded to the index in ADM 196/57. Peile is mentioned there. Plenty of his term mates from his 15 January 1895 entry to H.M.S. Britannia are listed in the relative section of ADM 196/46. So where is Peile? Was his page just missed when the records were microfilmed, or when they were digitised? Or was his entry trashed, as occasionally happens. Time to inquire of the Discovery team at Kew, who will hopefully supply answers, and also the record.