"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)





I have now reached what is in some respects the most difficult part of my task. It is to show, as far as is possible, the working of the Admiralty "machine" which I have described. I have not entered into questions of administrative wisdom, nor the sound or ill policy of successive Admiralty administrations. There has been laid before the reader an account of Departments carefully organized to conduct a business of great complexity and of far-reaching importance to the country. In the work of these Departments errors have undoubtedly from time to time been made, but, on the whole, it must be admitted that they have acquitted themselves well, and have enabled the Admiralty Board to provide us with the greatest, and, as I believe, the cheapest Navy in the world. Our ships are the patterns which many foreign nations have copied; they are admirable both in character of design and in excellence of work, and they are constructed with a rapidity that is the wonder and envy of our rivals. In the operations of the Admiralty system, in the working of its "machinery," much must necessarily depend upon individuals. It is so in all administrative institutions. But just as a good tree will produce good fruit, it is the characteristic of a good system to produce good men, to allow them to rise, and to hold positions which their abilities best fit them to fill. For many years back we have had high-minded, capable, and far-seeing men at the head of our naval administration. There has been loyal service and fruitful endeavour, and the Admiralty system has produced the best results.

I do not say that the organization is perfect. On the contrary, from time to time, a number of defects, which are, indeed, incidental rather than radical, have been disclosed; but, at the same time, working together for a common object, the Departments have achieved results of which the country may be proud. Much is certainly due to the reforms instituted under the administration of Sir James Graham, by which the obstructive minor Boards, theoretically dependent on the Admiralty, but practically all but independent, were done away with. A better system has grown up, and the Civil administrative Departments of the Admiralty fully recognize the fact that they are constituted for the benefit, and to facilitate the equipment, of the service afloat. To this feeling, added to the zeal, energy and intelligence of the active service, we owe the present high standard attained.

It has already been suggested that there are some defects in the organization, and, I may add, in the conditions under which it is placed. It might be said, for example, in regard to the latter, that the responsibility for the design of naval guns is not easy to determine. The Ordnance Committee, an inter-departmental body, composed of naval and military officers, is "controlled by the Director of Artillery" at the War Office, and is held responsible by the Commander-in-Chief for the designs of ordnance. Yet naval ordnance is surety a business rightly belonging to the Admiralty, and for such work the First Lord is responsible, his authority being delegated through the Board to the Civil Departments. Ours is the only important Navy that has not the entire management of its ordnance. Again, it was shown in Chapter II of the Second Part, that the Director of Naval Construction is responsible for the construction as well as for the design of warships, and the manner in which his responsibility for construction is construed was indicated. But, when we remember that the Director of Dockyards is also responsible to the Controller for the building of ships and boats, the thought will naturally arise that a possible cause of friction exists, latent, but presenting a possibility of harmful influence. The system of selected firms for contracts is not without danger. There has been discrimination in former years between the tenders made, on the ground of real or supposed differences between the relative reputation or ability for the work of the firms tendering, although presumably these have only been invited to tender, and been put to the cost of preparing their designs and estimates, after the Admiralty have satisfied themselves of their capability for the work. Elements of uncertainty have thus at times been introduced into Navy contracts, and friction has arisen. The door to favouritism has been laid open, and it rests largely with high-minded officers that all works well. The country may be congratulated that the Admiralty system, often in former times abused, has, under reforms introduced from time to time, grown stronger, and produced officers devoted wholly to the public service. The system itself can, indeed, scarcely be held responsible for the existence of such conditions as I have described. They are conditions that arise almost necessarily from the nature of the business to be done.

To some extent, the reader will already have seen what are the special features and merits of Admiralty administration. It will have been noticed that the dominant characteristic is flexibility or elasticity of working. As I explained, there is no real separation of the duties of the Lords of the Admiralty. They are not heads of departments rigidly defined, and the operations they superintend are closely interrelated. Those who have written in disparagement of the Admiralty Board seem to me to have failed to understand what are its distinguishing merits. Yet the Royal Commission on Civil Establishments in 1887 reported that the constitution of the Board of Admiralty appeared to be well designed, and to be placed on a satisfactory footing. The advantage of the frequent personal contact of the First Lord with his chief advisers was pointed out, and it was urged by the Commissioners that such personal communication should be encouraged as far as possible throughout all departments, the advantages of it having been demonstrated. "It tends," says the report, "to a proper understanding between the head and its subordinates. It fosters personal responsibility, and it leads to the simplification of work, and the reduction of unnecessary correspondence." The Hartington Commission took generally a similar view.

This remark of the Royal Commissioners of 1887 points to a large advantage which is possessed by the Board of Admiralty. Matters which come before it are discussed between the members of the Board, and although the several Lords no longer reside, as in former times, at or near the Admiralty itself - a condition which might again become necessary in war time - the principle of personal intercommunication is consistently maintained. I shall not be wrong if I say at this point, that this very feature of the Admiralty Board, combined with the anomaly which exists in the disparity between the Patent and the Orders in Council under which it is administered, is at the root of a great deal of the criticism which has been directed at the Admiralty.

I believe that another great advantage arising from the Admiralty system is often overlooked. Though far from saying that the Board is always so closely in touch with feeling in the service as is desirable, I maintain that the happy blending of administrative and consultative duties tends greatly to foster the necessary inter-relation. In connection with this matter Mr. (now Sir Henry) Campbell-Bannerman, in his addendum to the "Further Report" of the Hartington Commission on the internal administration of the War Office, spoke words pregnant with truth. "At the Board of Admiralty," he said, "which I regard as being, in this respect, a model to be copied, the First Naval Lord is not divorced from executive duty. On the contrary, his duties keep him in constant contact with all branches of the naval service, and if he enjoys a certain primacy among naval members of the Board, it is quite as much on account of the importance of his executive responsibility as because of any particular function he fulfils as special adviser of the First Lord."

I have adverted, in a previous chapter, to the extreme elasticity which is possible under the Admiralty system, and before I go any further, it may be well to recount an incident which I very vividly remember. I was dining with the Lords of the Admiralty on board the Admiralty yacht at one of our ports, when, during dinner, an unusual incident occurred, of considerable importance, which seemed to call for immediate action. The First Sea Lord, recognizing the situation, after consultation with the First Lord, called upon the Secretary, and the three, retiring to an inner cabin, formed a Board on the spot; and, coming to an immediate decision, directed the Secretary to address an instruction upon the matter. The very fact that weighty business may be conducted upon such a flexible system renders that system all the more difficult to describe. Before the changes introduced by Mr. Childers, unimportant business was dismissed by the Several Lords through the Secretary. All important business, however, was brought before the Board itself; the documents relating to it were read, the opinions of the members were taken down, and a decision being arrived at, the Board stamp was affixed, and thereafter a letter went out in the name of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, signed by the Secretary. The Board, in short, was then a deciding and determining body. I have already shown that with the changes of Mr. Childers the importance of the Board meeting declined, and some went even so far as to think that it had lost its value. The system which then came into force was that papers were brought before the several Lords whose departments were specially concerned. The Lords then made their separate minutes and communicated with one another and with the First Lord, and, when a decision had been practically arrived at, it was, in the vast majority of cases, acted upon at once, and was afterwards ratified with the Board stamp.

Since that time the meetings of the Board have assumed greater importance. A large proportion of the business of the Admiralty is, it is true, conducted outside the Board, but the periodical meetings for discussion and the expression of opinion have a high value, and a very necessary function. The work conducted is both administrative and consultative. In regard to the administrative duties, each Lord, as we have seen, has a certain portion allotted to him, and for the efficient performance of those duties he is held responsible, so long as his views are not vetoed by the First Lord. His responsibility, however, would necessarily end, if - as has happened - decisions were come to on subjects affecting his Department without pains being taken to inform him thereof. In consultative duties, all questions brought before the Board are thoroughly considered and threshed out, but the First Lord has necessarily the final decision, his responsibility being that of a Cabinet Minister. The Board meetings are usually held once a week, and the most important matters brought up for consideration and decision are the Navy Estimates, designs for new ships, or any alterations in those which have already been designed, changes in general regulations, dismissals or discharges of Naval officers, and other matters connected with discipline, the Orders in Council, all general orders, circulars, and other principal orders of a legislative character, with any other consultative business that may be brought forward by the direction of the First Lord. No paper is laid before the Board except with the First Lord's approval, and a schedule is prepared beforehand of the matters to be brought up at the Board for the information of the members. Shipbuilding boards are specially called together by the First Lord; and the Assistant-Controller and Director of Naval Construction, the Director of Naval Ordnance, and the Engineer-in-Chief attend as required. Decisions arrived at by the Board, with the more important minutes of the several Lords, are printed daily in a compact form, which is sent to the members and the heads of Departments, and the papers themselves are marked, after the execution of the minutes, to any other Department which may be affected by the decision given.

Correspondence received at the Admiralty, after being registered, is marked for the Lords or Departments to which it is properly referred. As a general rule the papers are marked to the members of the Board in order of seniority, beginning with the junior. They are passed through all necessary channels, sent up with such illustrative precedents or references as are necessary, and, being minuted by the several Lords through whose hands they pass, and a decision being arrived at, either by the responsible Lord or by the Board itself, they are placed, after action has been taken upon them, in the Record Office of the Admiralty. No better system of record and reference could exist than that which prevails at the Admiralty. The papers are arranged in the most convenient form, docketed with cross references, and are made accessible, either as single papers, or as whole series referring to a particular subject, by voluminous minute books, kept upon a most admirable system. Through the machinery of the Record Office, any information lying in the huge bulk of the Admiralty papers is almost immediately accessible; and how great is that bulk will be seen when I say that documents covering a period of forty years, which were recently transferred to the Public Record Office, weighed something like one hundred and fifty tons.

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