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.
Admiral of the Fleet Sir William H. May, whose career in the Royal Navy spanned nearly fifty years, wrote in his privately-printed memoirs:
I was promoted to Lieutenant in August, 1871. At that time lieutenants just promoted were generally three or four years on half pay before getting a ship, and the half pay was 4s. a day at the average age of 22. Luckily, Lord Clanwilliam, who was just about to turn over the command of the Hercules to Captain William Dowell, recommended me to fill a vacancy there was for lieutenant, and I was duly appointed after having been only four months on half pay.
May had actually been promoted on 7 September 1871, not in August. He spent two days short of seven months on half pay between appointments upon promotion, not four. And then we move onto his claim regarding the half pay of other Lieutenants. In 1871 forty were promoted. Three did not serve in that rank and retired. 17 carried on in their new rank straight away. Of the others, no one was kept on half pay longer than 14 months—nowhere near May’s ‘three or four years’.
I’ve pointed out before (on this site, and elsewhere) the perils of relying on memoirs, but this is a particularly inaccurate passage by anybody’s standards.
For his actions at the Bombardment of Shimonoseki in Japan on 6 September 1864 Midshipman Duncan G. Boyes, Royal Navy, was awarded the Victoria Cross. The relevant part of the despatch of his Commander-in-Chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Augustus Kuper, read:
Mr. D. G. Boyes, midshipman of the Euryalus, who carried a colour with the leading company, kept it with headlong gallantry in advance of all, in face of the thickest fire, his colour-sergeants having fallen, one mortally, the other dangerously wounded, and was only detained from proceeding yet further by the orders of his superior officer. The colour he carried was six times pierced by musket balls.
On 22 September 1866 he and two others were presented with the V.C. in a ceremony on Southsea Common. However, less than five months later, on 9 February 1867, Boyes and Midshipman Marcus McCausland of H.M.S. Cadmus were tried by court-martial. The charges preferred were:
Disobedience of Commander-in-Chief’s Standing Order, by breaking into the Naval Yard at Bermuda after 11 p.m., they having been previously refused admittance at the gate by the Warder, on account of their not being furnished with a pass.
The sentence is short: ‘Prisoners pleaded guilty, and adjudged to be dismissed from Her Majesty’s Service.’ Some commentators smell conspiracy in Boyes being court-martialled for what the Times not so long ago called a ‘midsjudged prank’ (21 July 1998). What no one has until recently noticed is that Boyes was already on thin ice. Referring to his service record we find that less than two weeks before he was presented with his Victoria Cross he was deprived of three months’ time towards being examined in the rank of Lieutenant, and in December he lost another three. His partner in crime, McCausland, had already lost eleven months’ seniority. Another fact not remarked upon is that McCausland was restored to the Service less than six months later. He was killed fighting slavers off the East Coast of Africa in 1873. For whatever reason Boyes received no similar second chance. Instead he moved to New Zealand and committed suicide in 1869.
On 10 January 1912 Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, minuted on a paper regarding the proposed installation of electric light at the Royal Marine Light Infantry’s depot at Portsmouth:
No question of electric light.
Let a hundred incandescent burners be issued and warn the men that if they break them they will be the sufferers.
Report to me upon the experiment.
It will reveal a very low standard of discipline and intelligence if the Royal Marines could not be trusted with incandescent burners. They are not school boys, and their Officers ought not to give colour to the suggestion. A decent educated self-respecting lot of men will use with care what is designed for their comfort.
Whether the Marines at Forton Barracks ever got electric light is unknown. After the First World War, with the amalgamation of the Light Infantry and Artillery the Portsmouth Division moved to the latter’s barracks at Eastney. In 1927 Forton was recommissioned as H.M.S. St. Vincent, a training establishment for boys. Ironic in light of Churchill’s 1912 reference to school boys.
Taken from First Lord’s Minutes Vol. I at the Admiralty Library.
On 17 April 1885 Captain Lewis A. Beaumont, Private Secretary to the First Lord of the Admiralty (then the Earl of Northbrook), wrote to Admiral Sir Alfred P. Ryder, then on half pay:
The name of the Admiral to succeed Sir George Sartorius as Admiral of the Fleet will not appear in the London Gazette of to day because the Queen has not yet approved, or rather her approval has not yet reached the Admiralty.
I believe you will think the selection a good one.
On 1 May Ryder was gazetted an Admiral of the Fleet, dated 29 April. His reaction has not been recorded, but he presumably believed the decision to be ‘a good one’.
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.
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.