Martin Article on the Admiralty

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The Admiralty was an article published anonymously in the June, 1870, issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine.[1] Its author was Sir William Fanshawe Martin, latterly a Lord Commissioner on the Board of Admiralty.[2]


Much unmerited and senseless abuse has been heaped on the old Admiralty Board as an institution, and some just reflections on its shortcomings have occasionally appeared. But statesmen, whose characters are honoured in this country, deemed the old Board to be admirably constituted for the despatch of business, and for insuring a full consideration of the manifold and difficult problems it had to decide. In such a department as the Admiralty there must be distinct branches, which ought to work with a mutual and earnest desire to assist each other in a common purpose and for a common credit. These ends were attained by the branches being severally allotted to different members of the Board, who collectively in council determined on all matters tending to change any established principle of the Service, as well as on all measures of importance. "Boards," as these meetings were called, were held daily, or very frequently, during each week; and their decisions, which were at once minuted, were paramount in every branch. The branches being superintended each by a member of the Board, measures were systematically undertaken, unexpected hindrances were encountered, and unexpected facilities were improved by a corresponding adjustment of work. Bach superintendent of a branch being a party to the decisions, an individual character was as certainly imparted to the results as if they had issued from one person only. But setting aside theory, undoubtedly this system, approved by such Ministers as Sir James Graham, Sir Francis Baring, Lord Halifax, and the Duke of Somerset, after each had enjoyed many years' experience of Admiralty business, is likely not only to possess merit, but merit of the highest order.

The question may be plausibly asked, Why, if the Admiralty was so well constituted, did it sometimes fail to work in a satisfactory manner? The reason is, that although its constitution was excellent, its composition has been sometimes indifferent. However nearly perfect the organisation of .a department may be, the purpose of the organisation may be utterly frustrated by bad administrators, just as a mechanical construction, faultless in principle, must fail if composed of faulty material. So, when the Admiralty department formerly failed, the cause was bad management, and not a defective organisation. Cabinets fail under corresponding' conditions, yet this has never been advanced as a reason for their organic reconstruction. But the method of transacting business has undergone a change which is of vital importance. The Board meetings have now been discontinued in any proper sense, and most important measures have been acted upon by some Lords, of which other Lords have known nothing. A notable instance of this has been exposed by the members of the Board themselves. Mr. Childers, in the recent debate on his Retirement Scheme, asserted that the scheme was supported by his colleagues. Evidently, from what passed on a following night in the House, the First Lord had been called upon by Admiral Robinson, the Second Naval Member of the Board, to retract the assertion. The notorious result of the altered organisation of the Admiralty is an absence of any common principle of professional policy, a want of concert among the branches, conflicting regulations, and ill-advised orders. In short, it is admitted by those who are competent to judge of the manner in which Admiralty business is conducted, that the changes in the constitution of the department would have subverted its administrative powers, even had the branches been under the guidance of the most discreet and the wisest men. The chaos into which the Admiralty is plunged, shows that the Lords are unequal to their work, as it is now conducted; and their painful sense of inadequacy creates in them, among other . mischievous consequences, an irritation which is manifested by foolish instructions, and by captious unbecoming answers to unavoidable requests for explanations. Thus official correspondence degenerates into wrangle, which, however amusing it may be at the home ports and on foreign stations, is wholly mischievous, being derogatory to one party and unimproving to the other.

This disorganisation of the Admiralty, its discourtesy, its harsh treatment of civilians, its want of sympathy for the active service, and the disdainful extinction of the naval element at the Board, have destroyed feelings the loss of which is deplorable. The professional love which has hitherto sustained the efficiency of the Navy has received a severe shock. If this feeling be destroyed efficiency must be lost, though the simple restoration of the feeling, if long absent, will not at once restore efficiency, That can be secured only by sedulous training. Lukewarm officers will not qualify themselves for duties which may be remote, nor will they excite in the men a desire to excel as sailors. Professional zeal must be a sustained feeling, if a navy is to be kept in a fitting condition to deal with an enemy in whom the feeling has never slumbered. However difficult it may be to the First Lord and the Secretary of the Admiralty to realise the fact, there is no way in which the safety of the country can be more endangered than by extinguishing this sentiment of devotion in the Navy.

The dangerous theory that the Navy should be ruled absolutely by a Minister, in the sense that his professional advisers shall be released from responsibility, is avowedly brought into practice at the Admiralty. If the naval advisers of the Minister are to be absolved from direct official responsibility to Parliament, a great national danger is evidently incurred. Whether they are to be his colleagues or chiefs of branches only, it is of vital importance to the safety of the country that they should be accountable for the acts that emanate from the department. A civilian placed over the navy will certainly be unable rightly to decide on many professional questions, and the responsibility should rest with those who are competent to the task. A naval Lord of the Admiralty is not an executive, like an officer in commission, nor is he a clerk; and if he is not an administrator, he is a nonentity. He owes, to the Navy a similar protection to that which the Army receives from the Commander-in-Chief. The men of the highest reputation in the Navy have held, and their opinion is obviously just, that the especial duty of the senior naval Lord is to maintain the discipline and the sufficiency of the fleet. They have insisted that, when these vital points are threatened, his bounden duty is to protect them; and if he should be unheeded on matters so infinitely important, and still retain his seat, he is an abettor in producing the national mischief he foresees.

The Secretary of the Admiralty has taunted the civil branches of the naval administration with a want of ability for the conduct of business. He, and men of his class, forsooth, are to endow these branches with "commercial" acumen! Assuming the taunt to be just, though only for argument's sake, people will still ask what advantages their services will entail. In such an inquiry as his challenge provokes, the remarkable commercial history of England during the last four years must unavoidably be an element. A reference to the daily papers during that period proves that scandalous commercial events have happened so frequently, and have been marked by so much vice, or so much folly, as seriously to affect the prospects of the country. The pauperism of some classes, the ruin of others, and the depression of commerce, are consequences brought about by commercial men, and those who followed in their wake. Nothing has more frequently damaged the repute of British manufacturers in foreign countries, than the detection in their goods of a fraudulent debasement of quality and deficiency of quantity. Of course there are thousands of merchants who do honour to their country; but never was there a bolder demand on public credulity, after all we have suffered, than for a merchant of 1869 to require that a special confidence should be reposed in his class. Moreover, can the Secretary suppose we have forgotten the prodigious sums which shipowners received for transport service during the old French war, and in the recent Russian war; and the exactions insisted on for extending the periods for which ships were hired? Would he have us forget the shameful violation of contract in the supply of preserved meats; or the numerous instances of wretched material and "scamped" work in the gunboats built by contract during the Russian war?

Take again, examples from the United States of commercial cupidity. The Northern States, during their recent civil war, were plundered to such an extent by private dealers as to add seriously to their national debt. Whatever these dealers could extort from the nation, by appealing to its hopes or its fears, was inexorably demanded.

From all this we should be led to a conclusion the reverse of that which the Secretary has so offensively thrown as his own in the faces of Government officials.

In discussing the expediency of employing in a public capacity men who have commercial interests connected with warlike resources, we must contemplate the possibility of their being corrupted by an enemy. For instance, shipbuilders may derive a larger gain merely by delaying or withholding assistance from their own Government than can be earned by duly supplying it. All our laws assume that among tempted men the integrity of some may fail. Even in our Naval and Military Discipline Acts there are clauses which contemplate that officers and men may be suborned by an enemy; and the risk of commercial treason can be no more discarded from consideration than the clauses referred to can be expunged from the Discipline Acts. This general conclusion, therefore, attaches to the whole question. In all matters which affect the safety of the country, do not discard resources which you control absolutely for those which are beyond your control, even if the cost of the former should be somewhat the greater of the two.

Among other considerations, it must be borne in mind, that in this great commercial country, where the highest official emoluments are small as compared with the profits of successful merchants, we should, if we seek for merchants to fill high office, only obtain third-rate or broken-down men.

Strenuous efforts have been made by interested people to decry the Dockyards. Every isolated case that appeared against them was perpetually thrust into notice; whilst the many advantages they have secured for the country have seldom been represented. The object of the efforts to disparage the dockyard establishments has been to throw the work hitherto performed by them into the hands of great private firms. Arrangements already made, or in progress, unmistakably show that these firms must virtually consider themselves subsidised by the certainty of inheriting future Government work, for obviously the reduction of the dockyards is a prospective benefit to them. The disposition to depend less upon the dockyards than it has been our policy to do, is not warranted by any just economical considerations, nor by any sound consideration respecting our preparations for war. The price of work executed in them as compared with the work done in private yards, is a favourite topic for the interested detractors of the dockyards to dwell upon. But the work in dockyards is the cheaper, if its superior fitness for its purpose be rightly estimated. Durability is a quality in every estimate of the sort; in ships of war and their equipment, durability and strength are of all qualities the most essential; and in these, no private shipbuilder would venture to compare his work with that done in a royal dockyard.

Hitherto a spirit has prevailed in the dockyard establishments which has made them thoroughly reliable. When great efforts were required of them, they never disappointed the Government, nor thought of giving only a "fair day's work for a fair day's pay." Whatever could be done by men, was cheerfully done by them, and the amount of work they accomplished was acknowledged by all candid witnesses to be prodigious. The existence of this admirable spirit cannot be disputed; and to discard the extraordinary reservestrength to be derived from it is unworthy of officials who comprehend the vital necessities of England, and have no other end in view than her continued prosperity. A vast number of the men who were animated by this spirit have been discharged under very afflicting circumstances; and the tradition of their wrongs will impress dockyard men with entire distrust of Admiralty justice, and render them resentful for years to come. The temper provoked by this treatment of their fellow-workmen may influence them when their cordial efforts are again besought to avert a threatened war by a speedy preparation for it, or to bring an existing war to a successful end. We shall have no compensation for this loss from the private builders, who will exact from the nation whatever its exigencies compel it to pay. When threatened by a foreign combination, or stricken by some catastrophe in the progress of a war, a Government which has relied upon private firms must succumb to their demands, however enormous those demands may be. Therefore no English Government with a due sense of the difficulties which from time to time may henceforth, as they have hitherto, beset the country, would ever venture, by crippling the dockyards, to place private firms in a position to add to the distresses of the country. If beguiled into relying principally upon these private establishments, the country, in the day of her extreme need, will hold the same relation to them as the owners of a derelict ship hold to exacting volunteer salvors. Besides the inefficiency and eventual extravagance that will be occasioned by impairing the capabilities of the dockyards, and by fostering at their expense the private shipbuilders, there are other reasons why such a policy would be most hazardous. There have been occasions when the Government deemed it necessary to prepare for rapidly arming, without indicating to the world their impression of such a necessity; and doubtless many occasions will again arise for similarly-concealed preparations. The gravest consequences may in such cases turn upon betraying no appearance of menace or of alarm. Whilst the Government control efficient dockyards, unnoticed measures may be so advanced that at the proper time an armament may be developed with a rapidity that can be produced only by well-considered arrangements, imparted to none but trustworthy public servants. By acting on this principle of preparation and of concert with reliable officers, Prussia heaped upon Austria the humiliation, disaster, and debt which, had the principle been neglected, it might have been her own lot to incur. The principle is as suitable to maritime as to military States; and by its application or the neglect of it, the wisdom or the folly of an Admiralty may be measured. If we depend in a great degree upon private builders for the first effort, progress towards armament cannot be made without attracting the notice of foreign Governments, and plans cannot be matured secretly for the prompt equipment and combination of ships. Of course the first effort may not be successful, however well made; but it may be disastrous if ill made, as in the case of Austria. At any rate, it will affect the succeeding events of a war. Now, for England to commence a war with advantage, and during its progress to remedy disasters and to pursue successes with rapidity, she must, as a base of operations, have well-placed arsenals with numerous readily-accessible docks, and with an ample complement of trained artificers; and these arsenals must, as already shown, be under the control of the Admiralty.

Portsmouth and Plymouth fulfil these conditions. They are admirable as places of refuge for disabled ships, and they are equally good as places of departure for refitted squadrons; they are controlled by the Admiralty; and as regards deep docks, basins, factories, and plant, they are, or shortly might be made, equal to what would be required of them during an active war. There is yet another essential for establishments which this island should ever have ready, as the primary movers when she is required suddenly to arm. They must be kept vitalised by fitting complements of artificers, for their fullest powers cannot be speedily elicited by adding artificers not specially trained to naval dockyard work, even if such imperfectlytrained men could be at once found. It is therefore indispensable for the instruction of the men we must depend upon, that the dockyards during peace should undertake, in all but rare cases, the building, repairing, and fitting of our ships. Having a nucleus of highly-trained artificers, as many temporary hands may be added as can be advantageously employed.

Let us now consider the means and positions of private yards for fitting out and for sustaining fleets in a serviceable condition, with the least possible detention of the ships from active service. No one of them is an easy refuge for distressed ships from a probable scene of action, nor could ships refitted in any one of them .readily resume positions in which they are most likely to be required. They are all approached by long channels, that are dangerous for crippled ships; in them ships of war can be served only in turn with other customers; and their docks and basins are far inferior to those of naval yards for ships of war. Moreover, the resources of private yards, considerable as they may be, are not "reserve" resources; nor can they, at a "word of command," be transfered from one work to another. The power of each such yard is measured by the wants of its ordinary customers, and it is commonly fully occupied with work which it is bound to complete within a given time; whereas in a Queen's yard, at a moment's notice, its whole strength may be applied to accomplish whatever may be the most urgent of the ever-varying requirements incidental to a state of war.

Undoubtedly the private yards are important auxiliaries, and in material resources they should be to the Queen's yards what the men of the "Naval Reserve" are to the men of the Navy. To say that no intention of abolishing the dockyard exists, is very short of being a satisfactory reply. The temper of these establishments, and the scale upon which their skilled artificers are maintained, essentially affect our power of dealing with any threat of war. The arsenals of France confront at short distances the vital parts of our coast, and flank the English and Irish Channels. This fact, and the knowledge of the consummate warlike energy of the French, make it evident that our arsenals should be so maintained that, when needful, work may be accomplished in them with unsurpassable celerity. As a matter of economy, no less than of national safety, the power to command this celerity of work is of exceeding importance. It enables a fleet to perform an amount of service which would otherwise require a much larger fleet. Indeed ships detained in port for repairs, when they are wanted at sea, are less useful than blockaded ships, for these at least detain an equal force of the enemy to Watch them.

Even if, in the qualities of gallantry, seamanship, gunnery, and discipline, we were matchless, still while our enemies can equip and refit fleet's more rapidly, and therefore have their services more constantly, we cannot command the seas. Let England, depending for food and revenue upon sea-borne commerce, remember that, for her, blockaded ports would represent famine, pestilence, and bankruptcy. If her whole population were under arms, and directed by a Wellington, it would be of no avail; for under the supposed conditions she would be strangled by an enemy she cannot reach.

The full cost of the reckless reduction in the dockyards cannot be now estimated. It may be known after some experience of an unlooked-for war, during which we shall have been subjected to extortionate prices, paid by money borrowed at extravagant interest. Probably in that day disgrace and disaster may quicken our apprehension as to the magnitude of the crime which is committed by inadequately preparing for the expansion of our national forces. We have had marvellous instances in this country of a reckless disregard of preparation, and of the penalties we have endured in purse and in reputation as consequences of our neglect.

The disgraceful impotence we exhibited at the commencement of the Russian war made us the laughingstock of the world. And it might have been presumed that the penalties we then endured in loss of life, treasure, and in reputation, and dismay, would have been an indelible warning for the future. Although then dealing with an enemy unable to cope at sea with the combined fleets of France and Great Britain, our naval resources were taxed to the utmost. Had France and Russia united against us, the consequences would inevitably have been very disastrous. Considered merely in a pecuniary point of view, the panics which have resulted from apprehended war, by affecting commerce and the Funds, and the preparation for actual war under the extravagant conditions inevitably attendant upon an armament, have cost more by millions than would have been paid for maintaining during peace the proper nucleus of a war establishment.

On the other hand, we may point to instances of vast expenditures of life and treasure having been avoided by possessing the means of promptly arming. Take, for example, the wonderful rapidity with which tho fleet was fitted out on the occasion of the Spanish armament in 1790. It inspired the people of Great Britain with confidence • whilst the Continental nations— which secretly encouraged the aggressions of Spain towards us— were filled with dismay. France, ostensibly neutral, had commenced an extensive armament, under pretext of guarding her own interests, but in reality to support Spain. When, however, it was seen how Great Britain was prepared to crush any efforts made against her, the threat of war ceased. And it is well known what weight the prompt and formidable manifestation of the naval strength of Britain gave to Lord St . Helens, our Minister at Madrid, in his demands for the restitution of the places seized by Spain, and in dictating the apology to be offered to the British nation. The armament of the following year produced a similar result. At that time Great Britain held the highest rank among nations, on account of the rapidity, often experienced, with which she could bring her fleet into activity. But what now is the comparative weight of a British Minister at any capital in Europe or America?

The First Lord of the Admiralty, in his reply to "friendly" questions, has failed to free himself from the reproach of having improperly discharged 1361 workmen, and thereby inflicted an unnecessary calamity upon them and their families; and from a charge also of having committed a gross political blunder, by the reduction he has made in the aggregate strength of the dockyards. No doubt previous Governments had determined that Woolwich Dockyard should at a proper time be closed; but this measure was not intended to be carried into effect until the basins and factories at Chatham were much further advanced than they are. We have now parted with Woolwich, while Chatham yard is unequal to what would be required from it in the event of an armament, and especially in the event of a North Sea war, in which the formidable and newly-created German navy would take a part. Seeing that we exist by naval supremacy, is it not amazing that whilst this foreign maritime power is being developed close to our eastern coast, we should reduce our means of conducting a North Sea war? To talk of our present satisfactory relations with Prussia as any justification of inertness with regard to permanent preparation, is absurd. Are not her relations with Russia satisfactory? It is a maxim of international policy at least to consider friends as possible enemies, and the maxim is as sedulously obeyed by Prussia in her naval as it has been in her military affairs, with so remarkable a proof of wisdom.

Ten years ago the German desire for a fleet was derided in England. Nevertheless the desire has, within that short period, advanced so far towards accomplishment, that instead of being a subject of derision, the German fleet must be an element in the political considerations of the future, that may exceedingly perplex British statesmen. The efforts of Prussia to become a great naval power cannot be concealed. She has already formed a considerable fleet of modern construction, and her capabilities for equipping ships are rapidly increasing; whilst by her recent conquests and vast extension of coasts, she possesses Baltic and North Sea harbours. And let it be remembered that in her commercial marine, Confederated North Germany has an ample nursery for seamen.

Her means, therefore, of creating and sustaining a navy, are commensurate with her maritime ambition. To what purpose may she appry this prodigious power? The canal which is on the eve of being constructed between the Baltic and the North Sea will enable Prussia to move her fleet from the one sea to the other without the risk of a dangerous navigation, and without encountering strong works and torpedoes in the Sound and Belt.

It is evident, from a consideration of her warlike means and resources, and from her strategic position, that she must soon have an exceeding influence over the destinies of Europe, and over our own destiny in particular. And concurrently with the progress of the Prussian canal, the military railways of Russia will be in course of rapid construction; so that, by a combination of these Powers, an overwhelming naval and military force might be launched against unprepared England, and be sustained from a base very near to our coasts. Thus the attitude she is assuming may threaten the safety of England, and the Government may prove to have committed a grievous error in discarding Woolwich whilst Chatham Dockyard is yet incomplete. Instead of the artificers being discharged, they should have been employed to make good any deficiency in the fleet, which it is highly improvident to allow to exist. Looking to the strength of foreign navies, it is obvious that we are right in adding to our force of those heavily armed and armoured ships, which for the future must do the pounding work that has hitherto been done by ships of the line. By them we must preserve our supremacy at sea, but they are not fit for cruisers. Unfortunately we are nearly destitute of ships of this class; and without cruisers of great speed, a contemptible Central American State may commit such ravages upon our commercial marine as that of the Northern American States suffered in their late war by the depredations of the swift Confederate cruisers. This want is especially to be heeded, since the late American war has shown how easily a belligerent without ships can be provided with them; and since also a desire exists on the part of America to retort upon us our imputed complicity with the inflictions she suffered. To this retort we shall be exposed sooner or later, by persistence in the false economy of the Admiralty. Yet the men wanted in the dockyards for this important work were discharged, to add to the crowd of starving mechanics in our streets; and Government timber, with which the needed ships ought to have been built, was sold at a loss in a glutted market. Mr. Childers retorts upon his predecessors the charge of having improperly reduced the artificers by asserting that they had discharged many others before he came into office. He is, however, convicted by his own defence. That his predecessors had recently reduced the artificers should have been a caution to him to be exceedingly circumspect before he made further reductions, instead of being a lure to him to pass the limit which others, willing to make all safe reductions, had drawn. If he were justified by the reduction made by his predecessors, so his successors might be justified in making still further reductions. And so the country suffers by the importunity for office.

There has been an intention to abolish the office of Naval Superintendents of Dockyards, and this mischievous project may be revived. Should it be carried into effect in the great outfitting ports, the link will be wanting which has hitherto connected the dockyards with the fleet, and by means of which the incessant business in which both must co-operate has been so advantageously conducted. The result will be, that when some considerable pressure of work is thrust upon the dockyards, they will be in a state of utter confusion and insubordination. The Government expectations of progress in the work will on some emergency be disappointed, and the blame which should rest upon mischievous administrators will be heaped upon those who are the unhappy executives in disorganised departments. Whilst work is hindered, and time lost in accusations mutually bandied between a frightened Government and indignant officers struggling to expedite an armament under an impracticable system, the enemy's fleet may be sweeping the Channel. The principle of having a naval chief in the dockyards had worked so well previously to Sir J. Graham's administration, and had produced such good results under the most trying conditions to which this country had ever been subjected, that he carried the principle still further, and for the Commissioner, who was a naval officer holding a civil office, he substituted a Superintendent, with his flag flying. The proposed scheme must have emanated from a brain wholly uninformed as to the necessities of the Service.

A very objectionable change has just been made in the dockyard administration, by abolishing the Storekeepers, and transferring their departments, as well as that of the Engineers, to the Master Shipwright. This will increase a previously-existing evil, for the Master Shipwright has been so much confined to his office that he could not sufficiently supervise the building and equipping of ships.

It is, moreover, fatal to the important principle (so essential for any effectual control of expenditure), that the person issuing stores ought not to be he who expends them. The Master Shipwright may henceforth charge stores to any work upon which he may be employed; and certainly the effect of this cannot be to furnish the House of Commons with more lucid or more reliable accounts.

It has been attempted to make official capital by contrasting the vigilance of the present Admiralty with the negligence of their predecessors. A keen desire to serve such a purpose was exhibited by the false colouring given to two cases of Admiralty subordinates having taken bribes. The attempt, however, failed to show that these dishonest men had, or could have had, any influence prejudicial to the public interests. The fact is, they attempted to defraud a merchant, not the public, by leading him to believe they could cause his tender to be accepted. The crime of these two worthless men was that of obtaining money under false pretences. So far as integrity is concerned, the point to be remembered is, that in all cases of actual corruption, the contractor, if not primarily the corrupter, is a participator in the corruption.

When the dockyards and other establishments shall have been abolished or reduced to skeletons, there will be free commercial competition for Government orders. Let Mr. Bright, the chief of the Board of Trade, and a representative commercial man, explain the principle upon which the country may thus be served. He has candidly informed us that infamous frauds were simply too often "ordinary effects of competition in trade."

From the time of the preposterous assumption of the command of a fleet by a Civil First Lord, defended by imputing jealousy to the admirals commanding the squadrons about to be combined, until the monstrous proposal to subject officers on half-pay to the "Discipline Act," the Admiralty have made a series of blunders which could not have occurred when the Civil First Lord had responsible professional advisers. More, no doubt, might easily be said, but enough has been advanced to show the danger to our Naval Service into which the country is drifting. However vain the hope may be that these observations will effect their purpose,* still the convictions of the writer prompt him to make an effort to avert the mischief that must result from a persistence in the course that has been inaugurated by the present Admiralty.

  • The official experience of the writer entitles his opinions to great weight.— ED: B. M.


  1. pp. 763-771.
  2. Rasor. p. 170.