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"Naval Administration", by Sir Vesey Hamilton, G.C.B. (1896)



The subject of the victualling of the fleet forms one of the most curious chapters in naval history. All the old chronicles and pamphlets are filled with the story of pestilence bred by the consumption of noisome provisions, rancid bacon, stock-fish fouled by bilge-water, maggoty bread, and sour beer not seldom stored in old oil or fish-casks. Many a time, too, even such food as this was not available, and "refuse and old stuff," or, still worse, empty bellies, goaded men, who, sometimes, as in the days of Charles I., had "neither shoes, stockings, nor rags to cover their nakedness," to "voice the king's service worse than galley slavery." How intimately mutiny and disaffection in former times have been associated with the character, or the dearth, of provisions in the fleet, is well known to readers of naval history. The picturesque conditions that arise out of "banyan days," and the eating of salt junk, weevily biscuit, and other like food, have been seized upon by the naval novelist, and, through this channel, a record of the old discomforts of the fleet is embodied in our literature ("Banyan days:" days (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays) on which no meat was issued - an enforced abstinence done away with in 1824. Some of the other discomforts alluded to yet existed when I first went to sea). It is pleasant, therefore, to note the astounding change which has passed over naval victualling, an abundance of good, wholesome, fresh food, well cooked, and decently served, now contributing vastly to the health and contentment of the men.

Before the introduction of the reforms of 1832 the business of victualling the fleet fell to the Navy Board and the Commissioners of Victualling. In Elizabeth's days it had been managed by contract under the Surveyor-General of the Victuals, and the system of contract was long continued, though from time to time the Commissioners of the Navy took the charge of victualling into their own hands. When the duties devolving upon the Navy and Victualling Boards were brought, by the reforms of Sir James Graham, under the direct control of the Admiralty, one of the five Principal Officers appointed under the Board was the Comptroller of Victualling and Transport Services, who was charged to superintend the providing, issue, and duly accounting for all the provisions, victualling stores, clothing, marine necessaries, etc., required for the use of the fleet, the marines, and the convict service, and also for troops in foreign garrisons. The transport duties were detached from his office, and placed under a Director of Transports in 1862. When the changes of 1869 were brought into force, the office of Comptroller of Victualling, with that of Storekeeper-General, was abolished, and the purchasing powers hitherto belonging to it were transferred to the newly-created Contract and Purchase Department, and the examination of accounts to the Accountant-General, while the store-keeping functions were vested in the Superintendent of Victualling, whose title was subsequently changed to that of Director. Some other changes have subsequently been made. The examination of the various store accounts, which was concentrated in 1870 in the hands of the Accountant-General, whose position, in regard to financial criticism, was strengthened by the Order in Council of November 18th, 1885, did not, under that system, work well for the efficient handling of the vast mass of stores either under the control of the Director of Victualling or the Director of Stores. In March, 1886, three months after the Accountant-General had been formally invested with his supervising function, the Admiralty accordingly transferred the examination of store accounts to the departmental officers; and, through subsequent changes, the power of "review," which remained with the Accountant-General, ceased to operate. The reasons for this alteration will appear subsequently in this chapter. The financial aspect of the question has already been dealt with in the chapter upon the Director of Stores, and will be further explained when I come to deal with the business of financial control.

Briefly stated, the Director of Victualling is responsible under the Board, and under the supervision of the Junior Naval Lord, for regulating the proper supply, care, and preservation of all victualling and clothing stores for the Navy, including the mess-traps and seamen's utensils, the interior lighting of ships, and the ships' libraries. He is also charged with the management of the victualling yards and depôts, the examination and passing of all accounts of the expenditure of victualling stores whether at home or abroad, and the appointment and arrangement of the staffs in the establishments. Further, the Director prepares the whole of the estimates for victualling and clothing, being responsible for the Victualling and Clothing Vote (Vote 2), save certain minor sub-heads (salaries and allowances, wages of police, rents, water, and contingencies, etc, and Marine clothing, appointments, allowances in lieu, and barrack stores), which are under the Accountant-General and the Deputy Adjutant-General of Royal Marines.

The preparation of the estimate for the wants of the year is one of the moat important duties of the Director of Victualling. The chief victualling yard at home is that at Deptford. The other principal yards are at Portsmouth and Plymouth, with a small depôt at Haulbowline (Queenstown), and there are depôts abroad at Gibraltar, Malta, Halifax, Bermuda, Jamaica, the Cape of Good Hope, Trincomalee, Hong Kong, Esquimalt, Bombay, Ascension, Coquimbo, and Sydney. The extent of the reserve stocks to be kept in hand at the depôts is in the discretion of the Admiralty Board, and is varied from time to time, dependent upon the number of ships and the minimum stock on the stations, or upon other causes, and calculated on the average issues. The maintenance of these reserves, as affected by the amount to be consumed, which, of course, is calculated upon the vote for men, is the basis of the estimate prepared by the Director of Victualling. If at any depôt the stores should be depleted, his estimate will provide for making good the deficiency; if there should be a surplus, the vote will be proportionately reduced. The reserve stores and the quantities to be eaten are thus inseparably bound together, but, for the efficient supply of the service, they must be regarded independently. The first consideration is of the quantity likely to be consumed, and this is arrived at by experience of previous years, and by accounts furnished regularly by the depôts at home and abroad. Many disturbing circumstances have to be weighed in forming the estimate, as, for example, the amount of local purchases abroad, the number of men paid allowances in lieu of being victualled, the amount paid to the men as "savings," - that is, money allowance paid for any article of ration not consumed - the condemnation of stores in all parts of the world, and waste and loss of stores on board ship and during transport. Having taken into consideration the number of men, and disturbing elements such as I have indicated, the Director of Victualling - having before him estimate stock valuations taken towards the end of the year, in anticipation of the annual stock valuation made on April 1st - is able to frame his estimate for the Victualling Vote. The general arrangement made for supply is in view of time of peace, but the Admiralty has, necessarily, in consideration the contingency of war. The Director of Victualling is in communication with the Director of Naval Intelligence and the Director of Transports upon matters relating to this contingency, and the commanders-in-chief on foreign stations have instructions in this regard. As a matter of fact, there are stations where a much larger supply of stores is maintained than is called for by the ordinary victualling of the fleet, Malta is an example, where large stocks are kept up by arrangement between the Admiralty, the War Office, and the Colonial Office.

The preparation of the estimate is the first step in the victualling of the fleet, hut the Director of Victualling is not a purchasing officer. The work of purchasing is undertaken by the Director of Navy Contracts, upon whom the Director of Victualling indents for necessary supplies, providing a specification setting forth exactly what is required. In this way the clothing and other stores are bought, by contract, but the system varies a little in regard to some perishable articles, such as fresh provisions, meat, and vegetables, both at home and abroad. But here, again, the work is carried on largely by running contracts through the Director of Navy Contracts. There are, of course, some classes of stores in regard to which it is necessary to look well ahead in order to buy them advantageously. Certain victualling stores - biscuit, chocolate, mustard, pepper, cooperage articles, and oatmeal - are manufactured by old custom in the victualling yards; biscuit and cooperage articles at Deptford, Gosport, and Plymouth, oatmeal at Deptford and Plymouth, and chocolate, mustard, and pepper at Deptford. The Navy biscuit is famous for its quality, it having appeared, for example, upon the Transport inquiry after the Egyptian campaign, that the biscuit was of much better value than could be bought elsewhere. Mustard and other stores continue to be manufactured as in former times, the mustard, at least, having originally been introduced as an anti-scorbutic.

An interesting justification of these manufactures will be found in John Stuart Mill, who quotes Mr. Babbage's maxim that Government can purchase any article at a cheaper rate than that at which it can manufacture such article itself; but points out, nevertheless, that it has been considered more economical to build extensive flour-mills (such as those at Deptford), and to grind corn, rather than to verify each sack of purchased flour, and to employ persons in devising methods of detecting new modes of adulteration which might be continually resorted to (The whole quotation, a very interesting one, will be found in the "Principles of Political Economy," vol. i. p. 137. There is a biscuit now at the Admiralty which was baked at the Royal Clarence Yard in 1852, and was in the possession of a naval officer until 1894. It is still perfectly fit for consumption).

The principal victualling yard, as I have said, is at Deptford, and there, as at the other receiving yards, all stores sent in are inspected by the proper officers, and are thus either passed or condemned, the Director of Victualling, through his officers, being responsible that no defective stores are accepted for the fleet. The vast bulk of the victualling stores - all the clothing material, for example -is passed through the Deptford yard. It may be interesting in this connection to note that the total loss through condemnation of stores, principally of those returned from ships, is about one per cent, on the gross amount, not allowing for money received for such rejected stores as are sold out of the service.

The stores being, as I have described, estimated for, purchased, and received at the yards, the work of issuing them begins. The Director of Victualling is responsible for the filling up of the foreign depôts, as of the depôts at home. Monthly accounts of the stores from abroad apprise him of the stocks in hand, and, without requisition being made, he issues the supplies in accordance with the necessities to the various depôts. Demands for victualling stores are then sent to these depôts from ships in all parts of the world, and, provided they are such stores as are allowed, they are delivered into the charge of the ships' paymasters. The victualling officers at the depôts have no discretion in regard to the quantities issued, and it would be a mistake to give them any. Commanding officers of ships, or commanders-in-chief on stations, being responsible for the efficiency and readiness of their ships, can alone be responsible in this matter. Some years ago there was a condemnation of 50,000 lb. weight of biscuit rendered unserviceable in the Hecla and Neptune in the Mediterranean, which biscuit had been taken on board in accordance with the requisition of the commander-in-chief. It is impossible to take such power away from the commander-in-chief. It is his responsibility to have his ships in a proper state to carry out the orders of the Admiralty, and he must therefore be prepared for contingencies. As Mr. Yorke, the present Director of Victualling, said before the Select Committee on the Navy Estimates, 1888, in relation to this case, it was no mistake to have an excess stock in view of possible contingencies, "because you might as well say that a man was foolish for having insured his life because he had not died." The condemnation of stores afloat is made upon the survey of officers appointed by the commander-in-chief on the station where the complaint arises. If they are destroyed, the responsibility rests with him; but if, otherwise, they are returned to the victualling yard, they are re-surveyed by the officers of the yard under the responsibility of the Director of Victualling.

I have alluded above to the question of "savings," a matter which largely affects the issue of victualling stores. It is open to a man, in regard to most classes of food, to take a money payment in lieu of a certain proportion of his ration, and officers and men who live on shore, and are borne upon ships' books, also receive an allowance in lieu. Another interesting point that deserves to be noticed here is that, while a marine afloat is victualled in the same manner as a bluejacket, his treatment ashore is that of a soldier, his ration then being of bread and meat, for which 4½d. per diem, whatever may be the value of the rations, is deducted from his pay, and he also has an allowance of 1d. a day for beer.

Though the Director of Victualling has no practical discretion, through his officers, in regard to the issue of stores to ships, provided those stores are in accordance with the Queen's Regulations, he checks the consumption very carefully. This is done by making a critical scrutiny of the periodical accounts of ships' paymasters, and of other officers throughout the world who have victualling stores in their possession, By careful examination of these individual statements of paymasters and storekeepers, ship by ship and day by day - which accounts are of the expenditure of stores, and are not pecuniary accounts - and by investigating the condemnations made, economy becomes possible. It is the duty of the Director of Victualling to carefully watch and check condemnations, and to see that stores are not irregularly dealt with; and the quarterly accounts which reach him are the means of his doing so. The system is a good one, forming an excellent barrier against peculation and fraud.

Up to 1869 the store accounts, as I have said, were wholly in the hands of the Comptroller of Victualling, but from that time to 1885, they were dealt with by the Accountant-General, The arrangement presented anomalies, for it left, practically, to the Accountant-General the consideration as to what points should be referred to the Director of Victualling. There were many matters which could only be treated satisfactorily by the officer in charge of the Department, and when the examination of accounts was re-transferred to the Director of Victualling in 1886, some irregularities, as is not surprising, were discovered. The arrangement then made was that the accounts, having been examined by the Victualling Department, should go for final review or audit to the Accountant-General of the Navy, but this system was considered unsatisfactory on the ground that the Accountant-General, as an Admiralty officer, could not fitly review Admiralty accounts. Accordingly the executive heads of the Victualling and other Departments presented a memorandum upon the subject in November, 1886; but, before further action could be taken, the Treasury directed that thenceforth the accounts should be passed before the Parliamentary Comptroller and Auditor-General for a test audit. The intermediate "review" of the Accountant-General would then have become a cause of friction and delay, as forming a double and yet inconclusive examination of the accounts within the Admiralty itself; and the Board therefore dispensed with this "review," and the Accountant-General of the Navy ceased to have any control over the expenditure of victualling and other stores. It consequently became a duty of the Director of Victualling to furnish the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Public Accounts Committee with any explanatory information called for in connection with victualling store accounts (In Part II. chap. iv. will be found the judgment of the Treasury Committee of 1889 upon the audit of store and expense accounts).

In addition to the examination of store accounts which has been described, the Director of Victualling prepares at the end of every month a statement explaining how the Admiralty stands in regard to the Victualling Vote, taking into consideration outstanding liabilities, in order to show how the money voted is running off. He is further responsible for the supply of "mess-traps," or crockery, and so forth, to the ward-room, gun-room, and warrant officers' messes of Her Majesty's ships, for the interior lighting of ships, or for allowances in lieu, for the provision of soap and tobacco, for ships' libraries, and for many other items under the sub-heads of the vote, such, for example, as the stock, plant, and farming operations at Ascension. His duties, it will be seen, involve a wide survey of the necessities of the fleet, and an adequate system of supply. His department is subdivided for its efficient operations into two branches, the first, or executive branch, dealing with main executive questions, and with estimates and expenditure, and the second, or accounts branch - added after the transfer of the accounts from the Accountant-General of the Navy in 1886 - with the office regulations and the depôt and ship accounts. As will be seen, the Department of Victualling is one of the first importance, in relation with subsidiary establishments all over the world, and is admirably organized for the rapid carrying on of its complex work.

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