Quite Interesting, Quite Misleading

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.


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!


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.


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.

When Historians Mislead: Part II

H.M.S. Vernon, the home of torpedo training, in 1896.

In a chapter in Naval Leadership and Management 1650-1950 (Boydell, 2012) Dr. Mary Jones makes the following claim (pages 170-171), concerning the Edwardian Royal Navy:

Torpedo lieutenants were not as highly regarded as gunnery lieutenants, being thought too independent of mind:‘good, but lacking in tact and judgement, difficult to employ with others.’ was the sort of confidential report that appeared for torpedo officers.

Echoing my earlier post in this series, this would be damning if true. Sadly for Dr. Jones, her claim is rather undermined by the fact that the officer in question, Thomas W. Kemp, was not a torpedo lieutenant but a captain, and crucially was not and never had been a torpedo officer. Yet she sees fit to damn the treatment of one of the three (at that time) principle specialisations in the Military Branch of the Navy. This isn’t even a confidential report in the normal sense, but a report on Kemp made after he went through the Royal Naval War College at Portsmouth in February-May 1908 (for the record his last confidential report before attending the college, from Rear-Admiral H. S. F. Niblett in January 1908, was ‘Of sound judgement, slow but sure. I should be glad to see Captain Kemp appointed to any ship under my orders’). As in my previous post, this illustrates the dangers of relying on one example to make a point.

No doubt I will be thought churlish. But when one is paying £60 for a book the reader who is spending that much is understandably likely to place a great deal of faith in its content, and can reasonably expect a certain level of accuracy.

When Historians Mislead: Part I

Hindostan and Britannia at Dartmouth.

Part of a series on bad history.

In The Rules of the Game Andrew Gordon wrote of what he mockingly calls the ‘Dartmouth battery farm’, the Britannia training establishment at Dartmouth, ‘many would have echoed the bleak comment that “there is no period of my life that I look upon with less pleasure than I do the time I spent in the Britannia”’.

This would be damning if true. Thousands of Naval Cadets passed through the training ship system between 1857 and 1905. Would they all have ‘echoed the bleak comment’ quoted by Gordon?

Apparently not. Vice-Admiral Henry Fleet recalled ‘the Britannia days afforded a good deal of pleasure and happiness’. Admiral Sir Frederic Fisher (Lord Fisher’s younger brother) enjoyed ‘a delightful year’ in the ship. Admiral Sir Charles Dundas of Dundas wrote ‘Those of us who joined the Navy in the seventies still nurse warm recollections of the training ship’. Admiral Sir Edward Kiddle reminisced, ‘My years there were very happy ones.’ There are many more positive recollections of the ship which I could quote, but four is enough. So far, in dozens of memoirs, I have not discovered a view of Britannia anywhere near as negative as the one above.

And what of the original source of Gordon’s claim? The quote was taken from the memoirs of Captain the Honourable Sir Seymour Fortescue. What Gordon neglects to mention is that during his time in the Britannia from 1869 to 1870 Fortescue managed to contract not just scarlet fever but small pox, at the same time, and by his own account suffered accordingly. This little fact is located on the same page. What was Gordon thinking? Did he actually think that Fortescue’s unique experience was representative of the Britannia experience as a whole? Or did he think it was a great line to impress and shock the reader? Or did he actually just not read that part of the page? In any case, his assertion is both wrong and misleading. Reader beware.

Too Many Tweets Make a …

WWIIOn 27 July Dan Snow, well-known TV personality, published a startling tweet on Twitter:


The validity of the comparison to one side, Snow’s figures were completely and utterly wrong. If we ignore the vagueness of ‘1914’ and take the British declaration of war against Germany as our starting point, the historian is blessed with detailed figures presented to Parliament by the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1919. At the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 648 warships, as well as 12 in the Auxiliary Patrol, and 97 other auxiliary vessels, which gives a total of 757. At the Armistice the Royal Navy had 1,354 warships, 3,727 vessels in the Auxiliary Patrol Service, and 570 auxiliary vessels, for a total of 5,651. Not much more, one notes, than the figure of 5,300 claimed for 1914!

Snow subsequently claimed that the figure came from the ‘historical branch guys at Dartmouth’, i.e. Britannia Royal Naval College. One can hardly blame the man for accepting their total if he was referring to archival staff at the college. It is staggering however that they gave him such wildly inaccurate information in the first place. Later that day Snow was gracious enough to post a correction, using an image provided by me:


But as one can see, its nominal reach was minuscule compared to the original: 15 retweets and 69 likes as opposed to 311 and 543 respectively. Given that Snow has 190,000 followers it is more than likely that thousands of people will have seen the incorrect figure of 5,300 ships, posted in the early afternoon. By the same token it is fair to assume that fewer will have seen his correction tweeted at 11.22 at night.

This little episode reinforces my belief that any historian, be they popular, amateur, or academic, has a responsibility to be as accurate as possible. This does not apply just to Snow (who should have double-checked his information before publishing it) but whoever gave him the figure in the first place. How many people will now have that figure of 5,300 imprinted on their brain, ‘because the guy off the TV said it’? Even if it is one, that is one too many.

Corrected: Lamentable lapse in grammar spotted by Jonathan Boff.

The Countess Mountbatten and I

CountessMountbattenViâ Twitter I’ve just learned of the death of the Countess Mountbatten at the age of 93. She was the eldest daughter of Admiral of the Fleet the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, murdered by the I.R.A. in 1979. She herself was injured at the same time, and one of her sons, her mother-in-law, and another child were killed. Her husband and other son were also injured in the attack.

I contacted the Countess three years to ask her for her help. Her paternal grandfather, who died two and a half years before she was born, was Admiral of the Fleet the Marquess of Milford Haven, First Sea Lord from 1912 to 1914. My research into the Military Branch officers of the Royal Navy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led me to conclude long ago that I had to consult every significant body of naval papers in the U.K. The papers of Milford Haven (until 1917 styled Prince Louis of Battenberg) are in the possession of the Hartley Library at the University of Southampton, which institution did not, and still does not, allow the photography of documents—only (in 2014) photocopying. When one is travelling hundreds of miles at great expense to study archival documents time is literally money. The Milford Haven papers are extensive, and to go through them would take time which I simply never have.

To this end, I wrote to the Countess to ask if she could possibly intercede on my behalf with the Hartley Library in order to obtain a special dispensation for me to photograph the Milford Haven material. I realise this was something of a forlorn hope, and also extremely conceited, but one has to try all avenues to emulate what Matthew Seligmann called Arthur Marder—‘a tenacious scholar’. Not too long afterwards I received a handwritten note from the Countess lamenting the fact that I had not included a phone number or an email address with my letter—this from a 90-year old!—and she would be only too happy to try on my behalf when she next saw someone from the University of Southampton, by coincidence not too far away. I was then asked to telephone the Countess by a secretary, who informed me that despite her representations the library would not deviate from its policy. Three years later this is still the case.

Years pass. Last month I visited the University of California, Irvine, to consult the papers of the afore-mentioned Arthur Marder, courtesy of a generous grant from the Society for Nautical Research. At the fantastic special collections there (photography allowed, staff extremely helpful) I discovered a large tranche of photocopies from the Milford Haven Papers, along with a covering letter from an archivist at the Earl Mountbatten’s home, Broadlands, which reveals that the Milford Haven papers had been discovered in four boxes in 1968, two each found in a separate cellar. I took 320 photographs of this material—under the current Hartley Library regime I would have have had to pay 50p a scan, by the staff, which translates to £160. Photocopying, by the staff, is charged at a rate of 50p a page up to 50 pages.

It had been my intention to write to the Countess and inform her about my good fortune in finding this alternative source for her grandfather’s papers, and also to update her about the state of my research, which she had been kind enough to wish me the best of luck with. When I spoke to her three years ago this month I had had nothing published. In the past year I have had four pieces appear in print, and will be presenting a paper at the United States Naval Academy in September, which will have benefited from insight I have gained from the Milford Haven material. I kept putting off writing to her, a prevarication I completely despise myself for. As long as I research naval history this failure will haunt me, and quite rightly.