"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)



The state of things which Lord St. Vincent encountered upon his acceptance of office under the Addington ministry in 1801 had grown up through a long series of years. The means at the disposal of the Navy Board had not developed with the vast business it was called upon to undertake. Commissioners of Inquiry appointed in 1785 reported that its constitution had remained unchanged for a century. The business allotted to the several Commissioners was altogether beyond their power to deal with, and most important affairs were unavoidably left to clerks who, "however honest and diligent, were not the persons who could properly be considered responsible to the public for what was done," and accordingly, by an Order in Council of June 8th, 1796, the Navy Board was instructed to carry on its work by committees. Some advantage resulted from this; but waste, extravagance, carelessness, and malversation still went on, and in the case of The King v. Owen and Mardle (July, 1801), the Attorney-General stated that the depredations upon the naval stores did not annually amount to less than £500,000. The gross corruption, profligate expenditure, and supine negligence that existed were familiar to Lord St. Vincent before his acceptance of office. "Nothing but a radical sweep in the dockyards," he wrote in January, 1801, "can cure the enormous evils and corruptions in them, and this cannot be attempted till we have peace."

The evil was truly immense, and no man was ever better fitted to deal with such conditions than Lord St. Vincent. He had reformed the discipline of the Navy, and had improved the organization of our ships and fleets, and he brought with him to the Admiralty an inflexible spirit that enabled him to deal with the mutinous spirit of the dockyardsmen as he had before dealt with a mutinous spirit afloat. Added to this, his stern integrity, if it gave him a character of severity, and a manner that was harsh at times, and peremptory, lifted him above the level of many of his contemporaries, and rendered him fearless in his conduct of affairs. Already, by the Order in Council of January 12th, 1792, an investigation of the departments had been commanded, and, after long delay, due to the urgency of the war, that investigation was at length undertaken. Rarely have greater abuses been laid bare. The Royal Commissioners appointed in 1803 to inquire into "irregularities, frauds and abuses practised in the Naval Departments and in the business of Prize Agency," presented thirteen reports (1803-6), which exposed a mass of iniquity and corruption almost incredible. They discovered a lack of controlling power in the Navy Board that laid open the way to vast peculation and fraud. Accounts both of cash and stores remained uncleared for years, and it was reported to Parliament that, at the end of 1805, the outstanding imprests amounted to upwards of eleven millions sterling (Fourth Report of the Commissioners for Revising and Digesting the Civil Affairs of His Majesty's Navy, July, 1806 (printed April, 1809)).

The sternness with which St. Vincent denounced the prevailing abuses, and suppressed the perfunctory inspection of the dockyards set on foot by the Navy Board, in order that he might himself from the Admiralty arraign the fraudulent and incapable, the vigorous spirit in which he exposed illegal gains, and attacked vested but dishonest interests, with the swift manner in which he administered punishment, exposed him to a storm of violent hate and pitiless invective that would be hard to parallel. He had essayed a task even too great for himself, and Pitt, his political opponent, won over by the mortified spleen of disappointed spoliators, and by the shameless beings who resented St. Vincent's inflexible conduct of affairs, vainly attempted to fix upon him in the House of Commons, on March 15th, 1804, the responsibility for the state of things that then existed, His naval administration became the subject of violent attack, and he left office when the Addington ministry collapsed, followed by a storm of virulent and scurrilous abuse made public in an extraordinary pamphlet literature.

The friends of Lord St. Vincent were not silent. An illustration of their defensive methods may be seen in a very singular tract entitled "Memoirs of the Administration of the Board of Admiralty under the Presidency of the Earl of St. Vincent," of which a copy is in the Grenville Library, British Museum (It is inscribed: "The whole of the impression of this tract, as I was assured by Mr. Justice Jervis (by whom it was given to me), was cancelled, with the exception of this single copy"). This tract is a vindication of St. Vincent, step by step, against "the base conspiracy of foes and rivals, of trembling guilt and aspiring ambition." "In happier times," says the writer, "some great and kindred virtue, some Patriot Minister, may catch his mantle, and, with the concurrence of all his colleagues, be able to carry the adze, or the torch into the heart of that black forest, too well guarded by the demons that inhabit it; into which the purity and virtue of modern times have only suffered the light to fall, but averted the flame, as if appalled and astounded by the fiends that yelled from its centre, and the monstrous forms that prowled in its recesses." "In the Dockyards and the civil offices of the Navy," concludes the writer, "we have groped our way, as we were able, by the casual coruscations and collusions of fraud with neglect, and of guilt with security; - and by the light of putrescence - by the lanthorn in the tail of the wriggling worm of peculation. Without a chart or a compass we have navigated the unexplored seas and streights of official plunder and contrivance, till we have arrived in the harbour and at the headlands of intense meridian ministerial iniquity, from which we observe the star of collusion pass through the line, the transit of corruption culminating in the Treasury."

Lord St. Vincent's Commission of Naval Inquiry paved the way for all the subsequent improvements in the Civil Departments of the Navy, though it was denounced at the time as a "drastic measure," and appears to have found no favour even with Mr. Marsden, the able Secretary of the Admiralty at the time of Trafalgar. His accomplished successor, Sir John Barrow, says that the Commissioners pursued their invidious task well and zealously. Their labours were more fruitful than those of the Commissioners for Revising and Digesting the Civil Affairs of the Navy, who presented thirteen reports on the various departments in 1806 and 1809. It was in this deplorable state of affairs that Lord Melville was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. It was an office to which he brought both talent and aptitude, and he lost no time in pushing forward naval preparations, in such a way that we were able to fit out the fleets which brought us the victory of 1805. But Lord Melville had been too much associated with the civil affairs of the Navy in their darkest period, having twice been Treasurer, to escape suspicion in a time of keen scrutiny; and, upon the evidence adduced by the Commission of Naval Inquiry, he was impeached by Whitbread and "the elect of all the Talents," before the House of Lords (April, 1806). A trial lasting fifteen days led to his acquittal, though there can be little doubt that he had been guilty of harmful negligence, and had acted contrary to the Act of 1785 "for better regulating the office of Treasurer of the Navy," which he himself had passed through the House.

The investigations of the beginning of the century were not to bear fruit until much later when Sir James Graham gave to our naval administration the form it now bears. Sir John Barrow and Sir John Briggs, Accountant-General of the Navy, and Secretary of the Commission of Naval Revision, 1806-9, lived to bear their part in the great reform. The recommendations of that Commission were, with some exceptions, carried into effect by Orders in Council in 1809, and thus some improvements were effected in the administrative machine. It was at this time that the Record Office within the Admiralty was established. It is unnecessary, however, to describe all the minor changes introduced under successive Boards of Admiralty. Many reductions were made with considerable economy, and the administration was otherwise improved through the visitation of the dockyards by the Admiralty, a practice reinstituted under the second Viscount Melville (First Lord, 1812-27) after having been dropped - save under St. Vincent - since the time of the Earl of Sandwich. To Lord Melville succeeded, as Lord High Admiral (May 2nd, 1827 - September 18th, 1828) - an office never since revived and not likely to be revived - the Duke of Clarence, afterwards William IV, whose administration, with Admiral Sir George Cockburn as first of his Council, and Mr. John Wilson Croker as its secretary, maintained - not certainly without attack - the better traditions that had grown up in the conduct of our naval affairs. But the Lord High Admiral's Council was not an efficient machinery. "I am old enough to have seen the experiment of a Lord High Admiral tried," said Sir James Graham before the Select Committee on the Board of Admiralty in 1801, "I saw a naval officer, a prince of the blood, made Lord High Admiral, with a Council, and I saw the working of it. It worked so ill that in the course of about eighteen months it came to a dead-lock, and the Duke of Wellington, no bad judge, and no bad administrator, was forced to abolish the office of Lord High Admiral and his Council, and to revive the Board of Admiralty under its present patent."

But the unwieldy character of the administrative machinery under the Admiralty on one hand, and the Navy Board and the Commissioners of Victualling on the other, still remained. When, however, Lord Grey took office in 1830, and Sir James Graham was appointed First Lord, it was anticipated that the reforms advocated by Earl St. Vincent would at length be carried into effect. Various Boards of Admiralty had debated whether the subsidiary Commissioners might not with advantage be merged in the Navy Board. But this was not enough for the new Cabinet. It was determined to do away with all divided control, and, abolishing the Board of Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy, and the Commissioners for Victualling, and for the care of sick and wounded seamen, to concentrate the whole of the civil departments under the Admiralty itself, each branch having an individual at its head. Sir James Graham did not mature his measures without full and anxious inquiry into the organization and working both of the civil departments and of the dockyards under them, and he had the great advantage of the counsel and assistance of Sir John Barrow, whose long and ripe knowledge of our naval administration, then for nearly thirty years - as Second Secretary and Secretary of the Admiralty - peculiarly fitted him to advise. The "Act to amend the Laws relating to the Business of the Civil Departments of the Navy, and to make other Regulations for more effectually carrying on the Duties of the said Departments" (2 Will. IV. c. 40) - vesting in the Board of Admiralty the powers of the Commissioners of the civil departments - provided, in place of the numerous comptrollers, deputy-comptrollers, and commissioners of the Navy, of victualling and of transports - then located at Somerset House - for the creation of five separate and independent responsible superintendents of departments, under the Board of Admiralty collectively, and the Lords of the Admiralty individually. These new officials were the Surveyor of the Navy, the Accountant-General, the Storekeeper-General, the Comptroller of Victualling and Transports, and the Physician of the Navy, whose title was altered in 1843 to that of Director-General of the Medical Department of the Navy.

By the dispositions thus taken the Board of Admiralty and the subsidiary departments acquired the united and flexible character they have to-day, that character which they possessed before the civil departments had attained their magnitude and semi-independence, and were yet closely in touch with the Admiralty, holding the means - when they exercised them - of controlling and supervising the business for which they were responsible. Once again that close organization for discussion of the conduct of affairs, which fall often under the care of several branches of the administrative machinery, had been built up. Great as was the advantage thus won, the reorganization brought a further gain in the considerable economy that was effected through the abolition of sinecures and redundant posts, which the existence of a complex set of individual branches had involved. Sir John Briggs, Accountant-General of the Navy, prepared, in June, 1834, a statement of the reductions that had been effected in the naval departments since November, 1830, from which it appears that an economy of £253,342 had been made. But the merit of the reorganization effected by Sir James Graham is not to be estimated by the pecuniary saving it made possible, but by the fact that it struck at the root of abuses of long and slow growth which endangered our naval efficiency. Sir John Barrow, writing in 1847, said of the new system: "On the whole, I can venture to say with great confidence, and after the experience of fifteen years since the plan was put in operation, under half-a-dozen Boards of Admiralty, Whig and Tory, that it has been completely successful in all its parts; and the proof of it is, that no fault has been found with it, nor has any alteration of the least importance been required" ("Autobiographical Memoir," p. 424). This is an opinion, confirmed by many others drawn from long experience at the Admiralty, that may be expressed with still greater confidence to-day.

Under the system that existed from the introduction of these reforms until the year 1869, the Board met sometimes daily, but at all times frequently during the week for the discussion and consideration of business. It consisted of the First Lord, with authority paramount and supreme, superintending and generally directing the work of the departments, with responsibility inseparable from such a position, and of four Naval Lords, of whom the first was the professional adviser of the First Lord, and a Civil Lord. The five subsidiary Lords specially directed and supervised the work of the five Civil Departments, which were under as many permanent "Principal Officers" - the Controller or Surveyor of the Navy, the Accountant-General, the Storekeeper-General, the Controller of Victualling, and the Director-General of the Medical Department. There were also two secretaries of the Admiralty Board - the First or Parliamentary Secretary, who attended the meetings and noted on every paper read the decision arrived at, and the Second or Permanent Secretary, who had general superintendence of the office. By the machinery thus created provision was made for the transaction of vast and complex business demanding subdivision of labour, and yet so interwoven in its common object and practical execution, that it called for ample means of discussion among the chiefs of departments, and for unity of general direction and control.

For nearly forty years the method of conducting Admiralty business was unchanged, but under Mr. Childers a new system was introduced, with the practical effect that the reforms of 1832 were partially and temporarily set aside. The fresh changes were laid down in a memorandum of December 22nd, 1868, given effect to by an Order in Council of January 14th, 1869. It was felt that the position of the Controller was anomalous and unsatisfactory, because, acting under the First Naval Lord, who was specially concerned with the efficiency and strength of the fleet, he was directed by the person most interested in increased expenditure, and yet who was the only member of the Board in a position to enforce economy. Accordingly the Board was reconstructed, and afterwards consisted of the First Lord, whose position was for the first time defined, responsible for the business of the Admiralty, and (as his assistants) the First Naval Lord, the Third Lord and Controller, the Junior Naval Lord, and the Civil Lord, with the Parliamentary and Permanent Secretaries. The First Naval Lord was responsible to the First Lord for business relating to the personnel and for the movement and condition of the fleet, and the Junior Naval Lord was his assistant. In the same way the Third Lord, in whom were now vested the duties of the Controller, was responsible to the First Lord for the material side of the Navy, and the Parliamentary Secretary, assisted by the Civil Lord, for the finance of the department.

By this disposition of affairs the flexible character of the administrative machinery was impaired. Literally construed, the Order in Council fixed the distribution of business, restricted each Lord to that assigned to him, and practically rendered the meetings of the Board valueless. As a matter of fact, the Board meetings, which had been 249 in 1866, fell to 33 in 1870, and of these none lasted more than half an hour - many of them much less. Thus the constitution and usage of the Board were entirely changed, and affairs soon became greatly embarrassed. In the absence of meetings for discussion, decisions were arrived at seriously affecting the Controller's business in his absence, and without the hearing of his objections. In the next chapter I shall take occasion to refer to Mr. Childers' minute on the loss of the Captain. But the most serious effect of the reconstitution of the Board was to reduce the naval element within it, and Mr. Childers himself, recognizing the want, said to Sir Sydney Dacres on the day when the Russian note arrived, "Recollect that the first thing which must be done is to put another Naval Lord into the Admiralty." At this time a temporary office of "Chief of the Staff" was created, the Contract and Purchase Department was formed, taking the duties connected with the purchase and sale of stores, executed by the late Storekeeper-General and the Controller of Victualling, and the Store Department was transferred to the Admiralty at Whitehall and placed under the Controller. I may here say that the location of the Civil Departments at Somerset House was a serious disadvantage, and that their transference to the Admiralty and Spring Gardens by Mr. Childers proved greatly beneficial.

The changes introduced at this time into the working of the Admiralty were condemned by many witnesses before the Select Committee of the House of Lords deputed to inquire into the working of them in 1871, and Mr. Goschen, appointed First Lord on Mr. Childers' resignation, found it necessary to modify the system. All the Lords were made directly responsible to the First Lord, but none were designated as his assistants, and a Second Naval Lord was appointed. The Controller lost his seat, though "retaining his right to attend the Board, and to explain his views whenever the First Lord shall submit to the Board, for their opinion designs for ships or any other matter emanating from the Controller's Department," and remaining responsible to the First Lord for the material, with a permanent Deputy Controller. At the same time a Naval Secretary was added to the Board. The Board now resumed its consultative function, and the work was divided into three principal sections, the three Naval Lords taking charge of the personnel and the movements of the fleet, the Controller, as has been said, of the material, and the Parliamentary Secretary of the finance; while the Civil Lord and the two other secretaries assumed any duties assigned to them. These changes were embodied in the Order in Council of March 19th, 1872. In the same year steps were taken to bring the First Naval Lord and the Controller into closer relations, and the position of the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary was strengthened by his being empowered to sign, in lieu of one of the Lords, all orders for payment of money. In November, 1877, the office of Permanent Secretary was abolished, the duties being merged with those of the Naval Secretary, but, by an Order in Council of March 10th, 1882, this arrangement was reversed, a revived Permanent Secretary displacing the Naval Secretary.

A further reorganization of the Board took place by virtue of the last-named Order, the Controller resuming his seat, with an additional non-parliamentary Civil Lord, "possessed of special mechanical and engineering knowledge, as well as experience in the superintendence of large private establishments," as his assistant. In 1885 this new appointment was abolished, and, in the same year, the Accountant-General of the Navy was appointed to act as deputy and assistant of the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary. He was charged with the preparation of the Navy Estimates, with the financial review of expenditure under the estimates, with advising and deciding as to any redistribution of votes or transfers, with satisfying himself that expenditure was properly allowed and brought to account, and with advising on all questions of naval expenditure, and was to be regarded "as the officer to be consulted on all matters involving an expenditure of naval funds."

This somewhat tedious survey of the recent changes in our naval administration has been necessary to an understanding of the constitution of the Admiralty Board and of the methods of its working, which will be described in this volume. The dominant characteristic of our administrative machinery, as I have said, is the flexibility with which it operates, and the rapidity with which it can act. The Admiralty Board draws this great advantage from the fact that it has developed historically as the representative of a single individual, without the evils that would beset such an administration. The advantage was jeopardized or temporarily lost when the civil departments grew so great that they escaped control, and again when Mr. Childers essayed to regulate the work by what Sir Spencer Robinson described as "cast-iron rules." The system of the Board is probably not without some disadvantages, but, as Lord George Hamilton said before the Royal Commission on Civil Establishments, 1887, "it has this advantage, that you have all departments represented round a table, and that if it is necessary to take quick action, yon can do in a few minutes that which it would take hours under another system to do." "The constitution of the Board of Admiralty," said the report of that Commission, "appears to us well designed, and to be placed, under present regulations, on a satisfactory footing." The personal communication it provides for "tends to a proper understanding between the head and his subordinates, it fosters personal responsibility, and it leads to the simplification of work and reduction of unnecessary correspondence." It secures, moreover, a proper relation between the executive and civil functions, and, in this respect, as Mr. Campbell Bannerman said, in his addendum to the Further Report of the Hartington Commission, 1890, the Admiralty Board is "a model to be copied." (Some account of the places and buildings in which the work of the Admiralty and Navy Boards has been carried on will be found in Appendix I.)

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