"Naval Administration" by Sir Vesey Hamilton
"Naval Administration" by Sir Vesey Hamilton

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






It is unnecessary in this volume to dwell at any length upon the importance of a well-ordered and efficient system of naval administration. That administration exists for the proper constitution, maintenance, and disposition of the fleet in its material and personal elements. It is the organizing force behind our Sea Power, shaping and broadly directing that maritime arm which safeguards the kingdom from invasion, protects its food supplies and its commerce, and, as a defensive force, binds the Empire itself together. It is that system and that machinery by which the fleet is created and sustained, by which it is supplied with trained officers and men, distributed throughout the world, and constantly furnished with everything necessary for the exercise of its functions in peace, and for its readiness in case of war. So great a naval function, and so vast and complex a business plainly demand a means of administration that shall be sound and sufficient in itself; and Englishmen may certainly congratulate themselves upon the finally successful conduct of their maritime affairs in the past, and upon the possession of an organization which provides for the Empire a Navy that is cheaper and move efficient than any other in the world.

I have spoken of our naval administration as a system, and a machinery. In this way I propose to regard it in the present volume. I do not intend to discuss the wisdom or unwisdom of those who have handled and controlled the means of our naval defence, nor the rectitude or vigilance of those through whose hands have passed the supplies by which that defence has been carried on. Triumphant as have been our final successes, and surpassingly beneficent as have been the results that have flowed from them, our history teems with instances of the misdirection and ill-control of our naval affairs. There was a time when the Dutch were allowed to force themselves into the Medway; we lay powerless before the strangely inert alliance of the French and the Spaniards in 1779; we despatched small, inferior, and ill-designed ships against the Americans in 1812. But these are examples of want of administrative wisdom. They do not necessarily imply the existence of a defective system, nor of inadequate administrative machinery. Yet such shortcomings and failures as these have often discredited our naval administration, and have contributed to a misunderstanding of the Admiralty Board.

Few subjects in the range of naval topics seem to me so interesting and instructive as the constitution, character, and working of that Board, and it is right that the system and machinery of its operations should be explained and described. This is desirable, too, because of the somewhat anomalous constitutional position of the Board itself, working under Orders in Council at variance with the Patent under which the Lords Commissioners exercise their powers. Want of public knowledge concerning the methods of naval administration is no new thing. In the beginning of the last century the author of "The Œconomy of His Majesty's Navy," remarked that there were then too many, "and those not ignorant persons in other respects," who could "scarce distinguish between the Admiralty and Navy officers, because both had a relation to the maritime power." There is reason to believe that like misunderstanding prevails largely at the present day.

But neither the Admiralty nor its work can be understood without reference to the conditions that have gone before. Our system of naval administration has been developed historically, and been moulded by circumstances. It is no product of the organizing skill of one or a few individuals, or of a single period. It is, if I may be permitted the expression, an organic growth, having its roots far back in medieval history or earlier, developed under constantly expanding conditions, but owing its special character to the original circumstances out of which it grew. The position of the Admiralty Board, in short, is determined by the fact that it is a body representing, and representing in a true sense, the Lord High Admiral, and its powers and operation depend more upon long uninterrupted usage than upon the instruments that actually give it authority. I shall show presently that to this very circumstance the Admiralty owes the efficiency of its character, and of the means at its disposal. Its executive operations are conducted through the working of a series of related Civil Departments, which, like itself, have been created, expanded, and transformed under conditions progressively changed.

The dominant character of the conduct of Admiralty administration is the flexibility of its working. The members of the Board are not, in a rigid sense, heads of departments. Subject to the necessary (constitutional) supremacy of the Cabinet Minister presiding, they are jointly co-equal "Commissioners for executing the office of High Admiral of the United Kingdom and of the territories thereunto belonging, and of High Admiral of the Colonies and other dominions." They are in direct and constant communication with the First Lord and with one another, as individually with the Civil Departments under their control. It will be seen in this volume that, from this constitution and system of working, results, and always may result, a sound and efficient naval administration. That administration, be it noted, is carried on under the responsibility of the First Lord, whose power, as related to his necessary responsibility, has tended to increase. The Board of Admiralty, as Sir James Graham said before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, in 1861, could indeed never work unless the First Lord were supreme, and did exercise constantly supreme and controlling authority. If then, on one hand, we regard the Lords of the Admiralty as executing the official functions and powers of a single individual, and as still possessing in a large measure the rapid decision and means of action which are possible to an individual, it must not be lost sight of, on the other, that the First Lord, through the incidence of constitutional responsibility, occupies a position closely analogous to that of the Lord High Admiral himself, and that therefore the other Lords are, as it were, from this point of view, the Lord High Admiral's counsellors, without the restrictive limitations which were imposed upon these.

Until the beginning of the fifteenth century, the naval business of the country was conducted by the king's council. The executive control of the fleet was vested in "Keepers of the Sea," afterwards designated "Admirals" - who also exercised judicial functions - and there were "Keepers of the King's Ships," and "Keepers of the Sea Ports," even in the days of John. The admirals were appointed to localized fleets, and it is clear that Sir William de Leybourne, who was described at the assembly at Bruges, March 8th, 1287, as "Admirallus Maris Angliae," never executed such functions as were afterwards conferred upon the Lords High Admiral. John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, eldest legitimized son of John of Gaunt by Katherine Swinford, was appointed "Admiral of England," in 1406, with the view of removing the maladministration of the Navy which had so disastrously affected the commerce of the country during the latter part of the fourteenth century. Other admirals followed in the persons of the Earl of Kent, Sir Thomas Beaufort, John, Duke of Bedford, John Holland, Duke of Exeter, and his son, William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, with increasing powers. The office of Lord High Admiral thus created, confiding to its holder, under the crown, the naval administration of the kingdom, was retained by individuals until 1628, and has continued existent, chiefly in commission, to the present time. It is worthy of note that the functions now exercised, under Patent, by the Board of Admiralty, are conferred by reference to the Patents of the Lords High Admiral, which carry us back still earlier for authority to antecedent usage. The first Patent, however, bearing special resemblance to the present one, was that conferred upon the Earl of Warwick by Henry VI.

The naval business of the country had so far increased by the reign of Henry VIII, that the administrative machinery called for expansion, and to that time we date the reorganization or actual establishment of the Admiralty and the Navy Board. There was now a large array of civil establishments, including victualling, ordnance, and subsidiary branches, with dockyards or storehouses at Woolwich, Deptford, and Portsmouth. The existence of the ordnance branch is noteworthy. In this matter the navy was not yet dependent on the War Department. The Navy Board was organized to take charge of the civil administration under the Admiralty, while the directive and executive duties of the Lord High Admiral remained with the Admiralty Office. A Surveyor of Marine Causes, a Treasurer, and a Comptroller of the Navy now appear, and the Trinity House "at Deptford Strond" was incorporated. The organization which grew up under Henry VIII took definite shape during the reign of his successor, when the constitution was revised, and the civil administration vested by ordinances in a Board of Principal Officers subordinate to the Lord High Admiral. We can henceforth trace distinctly the work of civil administration going forward under the Navy and Victualling Boards, apart from, but subject to, the Admiralty itself, up to 1832, when Sir James Graham succeeded in putting an end to the then practically divided control.

A further step was taken in the reign of James I to advance the work of the Admiralty by the appointment of a council of officers and men of rank - forerunner of the Admiralty Board - to assist Buckingham, who succeeded Nottingham as Lord High Admiral in 1619. Buckingham was stabbed to the heart at Portsmouth, in 1628, by John Felton, a discontented officer who had served under him, while fitting out a second expedition for the relief of Rochelle, and the office of Lord High Admiral was then for the first time placed in commission, the commissioners being the great officers of state. During the Commonwealth the affairs both of the Admiralty and Navy Boards were conducted by committees of Parliament, and the service gained much from the administrative ability of Blake; but, at the Restoration, James, Duke of York, was appointed Lord High Admiral, and to him was due the reconstitution of the Navy Board, and the appointment of three commissioners to act with the Treasurer of the Navy, the Comptroller, the Surveyor, and the Clerk of the Acts. It may be noted here as significant that the Comptroller of the Navy, as directed by his patent, was in confidential communication with the First Lord of the Admiralty; and the general practice grew up that the naval estimates of the year were first made by these two, without any consultation with the rest of the members of either the Admiralty or Navy Boards.

Upon the passing of the Test Act in 1673, the Duke of York, unable to subscribe to it, resigned his office, and Prince Rupert was placed at the head of a new Admiralty Commission; but shortly afterwards Charles himself, through his Privy Council, assumed the administration of the navy, and exercised it until his death (1685). At this time the civil business of the Navy, including victualling and transport, was conducted by the Navy Board, but Victualling Commissioners were appointed in 1683, and a Transport Board was instituted in 1689. During the reign of Charles II, great disputes had arisen between himself and his brother as to the exercise of the large powers of the Lord High Admiral, but, when the latter came to the throne as James II, he exercised both the regal authority and that of Lord High Admiral, which was vested in him as sovereign, and personally administered the Navy through Pepys and the Navy Board until 1688. James II was certainly one of the ablest of our naval administrators. Both as Duke of York and as king every act shows his high administrative capacity. The instructions and standing orders which he drew up for the guidance of the Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy (printed in 1717) are the expansion of earlier regulations, and give a clear view of the several duties of the Treasurer, Comptroller, Surveyor, and Clerk of the Acts, as well as of the Storekeeper, Clerk of the Cheque, and other officials at the yards. Signing himself "your affectionate Friend," James charged the Principal Officers - Lord Berkeley, Sir William Penn, Peter Pett, Sir George Carteret, Treasurer-Comptroller, Sir William Batten, Surveyor, and Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts - with the duty of seeing to it that there was honest dealing at the dockyards, and that the sick and maimed were relieved from the Chatham "Chest," and also of reporting upon the conduct of officials, and suspending the prodigal. Upon the return of ships to port, strict inquiry was to be made as to the behaviour during the voyage of the "standing officers," and the unfit were to be certified. The Principal Officers and Commissioners, thus admonished, were to be in constant communication among themselves, consulting and advising "by common council and argument of most voices," living as near together as they conveniently could, and meeting at least twice a week at the Navy Office, and the times of their meetings were to be made public ("The Œconomy of His Majesty's Navy Office," by an Officer of the Navy, London, 1717.). No instruction could have been sounder. The naval transactions of this period are admirably reflected in the famous diary of Pepys, and in his "Memoirs of the Navy," printed in 1690.

After the Revolution, in 1690, a declaratory Act was passed (2 William and Mary, sess. 2, c. 2), which is the original authority for the present constitution of the Admiralty Board. It pronounced that "all and singular authorities, jurisdictions, and powers which, by Act of Parliament or otherwise" - that is, by usage - had been "lawfully vested" in the Lord High Admiral of England, had always appertained, and did and should appertain to the Commissioners for executing the office for the time being, "to all intents and purposes as if the said Commissioners were Lord High Admiral of England." Two years later the House of Commons recommended the constitution of a new Commission of Admiralty, and that "for the future all orders for the management of the fleet do pass through the Admiralty that shall be so constituted."

In 1701 the Admiralty Commission was dissolved, and the high office was unwillingly accepted by Thomas, Earl of Pembroke, who was succeeded in the following year by Prince George of Denmark, husband of Queen Anne. The prince's naval administration as Lord High Admiral was not a great success, being discredited by the incapacity of George Churchill, younger brother of the Duke of Marlborough, the leading spirit in his council, who had formerly held a seat at the Admiralty, and now leapt at a bound to the rank of Admiral of the Blue. "The prince," says Burnet, "knowing little of naval affairs, was imposed upon by men of evil designs, who sheltered themselves under his name." At this time the traditions of the naval administration were preserved by Josiah Burchett, the naval chronicler, who had been Pepys's body-servant, and afterwards secretary to Russell in the Mediterranean, and who, as joint-secretary and secretary, was at the Admiralty from 1695 to 1742.

From the death of Prince George in 1709 to the present time - with the exception of a short period, from May 2nd, 1827, to September 19th, 1828, when the Duke of Clarence was Lord High Admiral - the office has remained in commission. The eighteenth century was a great period in our naval history. It witnessed the victories of Rooke and Shovell, of Sir George Byng, of Anson and Rodney, of Hawke, Howe, and many more. It saw our country raised to the splendid position of undisputed mistress of the seas. But it is not necessary, for the purpose of this book, to deal with the special administrative acts of successive Boards of Admiralty. Prominent in the roll of First Lords, distinguished either as administrators or individuals, stand the names of Edward Russell, Earl of Orford (1697, 1709, and 1714), the victor of La Hogue; James, Earl of Berkeley (1717); George Byng, Viscount Torrington (1727); John Russell, fourth Duke of Bedford (1744); John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich - "Jemmy Twitcher," - whose industry, says Walpole, was so remarkable that the world mistook it for ability (1748, 1763, and 1771); Anson (1757); Hawke (1766) ; Keppel (1782); and Howe (1783); the second Earl Spencer (1794); and the great Earl St. Vincent (1801). During this long period, which brings us up to the eve of Trafalgar, the naval administration remained unchanged in its principles, the successive Boards of Admiralty exercising the powers conferred upon them by long usage and under Act of Parliament. The several lords usually lived in close relation among themselves, and the flexibility of the system - to which I have drawn attention as its dominant feature - rendered easy the processes of administration within the Admiralty itself.

But, as I shall show in the next chapter, the relation between the Civil Departments and the Admiralty Board had become strained. With growing importance the Departments had escaped largely from Admiralty control, and gross abuses existed within themselves. St. Vincent, on board the Ville de Paris, before Cadiz, August 27th, 1797, wrote to Lord Spencer: "You may rest assured the Civil Branch of the Navy is rotten to the very core." By Order in Council of January 12th, 1792, the Admiralty had been called upon to investigate the condition of every department; but the time was one of great stress throughout the naval machine, and to attempt drastic reforms at such a juncture was felt to be dangerous, if not impossible. The Finance Committee pressed urgency upon the Admiralty afresh in 1798, and it was with the purpose, in fitting season, of waging war with the Civil Departments that St. Vincent went to the Admiralty in 1801. The Civil Departments, many of which were thus to be assailed, had increased in number with the growth of the Navy. In 1782, when Keppel was First Lord, there were thirteen departments in all. The Navy Office itself, located in Seething Lane, was charged with shipbuilding, repairing, and fitting, and the mustering of ships' companies. The Victualling Office pursued its work on Tower Hill, with a subsidiary branch at Deptford, and the Ordnance Office, in the Tower, had supervision of warlike stores. The Pay Office, in Broad Street, dealing with wages, half-pay, and pensions, was afterwards removed to Tower Hill, in order to be near the guard, and within recent years it remained, as a warehouse, on the east side of Trinity Square, still retaining the benches upon which the seamen sat. On Tower Hill, also, were the Sick and Hurt Office, which dealt with the sick and maimed, and had officers at the ports, and the Receiver's Office, charged with the receipt of sixpence a month, deducted from seamen's wages both in the Navy and the merchant service, for the support of Greenwich Hospital. That institution received superannuated seamen, and the "Chest," at Chatham, issued gratuities to the sick and maimed. The Trinity House, in Water Lane, examined the qualifications of navigating officers, and the Marine Office, at the Admiralty, administered the marine establishments. Finally, the Court of Admiralty, at Doctors' Commons, was charged with the trial of maritime offences, the Board of Longitude with the discovery of the longitude, and the Royal Naval Academy, at Portsmouth, with the education of youths for the service. The Transport Board, which for some time had offices at the Trinity House, abolished in 1724, was called into existence again in 1794, and, later, receiving charge of business connected with prisoners of war in 1796, and of the work of the Sick and Hurt Office in 1806, continued its operations until 1817, when its functions were transferred to the Commissioners of the Navy and of Victualling ("The British Fleet." By Commander C.N. Robinson, R.N. Pp. 124-126).

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