A Brief Look at the Effects Of

Sir John Fisherís

Reforms on the Engineering Branch

By the late J. David Perkins


The Fisher Revolution
The Selborne Memorandum Engineer Officers
The Lower Deck
The Cawdor Memorandum
The New Engineers

The Fisher Revolution

Wherever he went and whatever his rank, "Jackie" Fisher caused things to happen. Fisher was a charismatic leader who had little use for the "establishment", embraced technology and understood men. Vernon felt his hand at an early date as did Excellent and both were considerably improved by the experience. He introduced modern concepts, swept away ineffective traditions, instilled pride of service and encouraged the adoption of modern equipment and methods. Technical ability, theoretical knowledge and practical leadership mattered far more to Fisher than breeding, manners and a personís social standing. As Third Sea Lord he wrestled with modernising the fleet by encouraging technical innovation and the application of advanced engineering concepts. When in command of the North America and West Indies station he took the opportunity to study the United States Navy which itself was undergoing modernization and a widesweeping series of reforms. While in command of the Mediterranean Fleet he became aware of the plight of the engineer officers who were pressing for equality with executive officers. Despite their importance to the modern warship engineers were still very much second class members of most wardroom messes, being considered little better than "civilian" technicians. When he was made Second Sea Lord in the summer of 1902, Sir John Fisher, with the co-operation of the First Sea Lord, Lord Selborne, launched a series of ambitious and far sweeping reforms the first of which is known as the Selborne Memorandum.

The Selborne Memorandum

Engineer Officers

Announced on 25 December 1902 one of the primary objectives of the Selborne scheme was the unification of officer training and complete integration of the executive officer and the engineer. From the term of 1903 onwards all Executive Branch cadets would, upon promotion to Sub-Lieutenant, have the opportunity to become engineer officers as an option to the already existing choices of navigation, torpedo and gunnery. Their names would appear in the Executive Branch section in the front of the Navy List with the letter "E" in parenthesis after their rank to denote their speciality. The Engineer would at last become an executive officer with complete interchangeability being possible at the commander level. Conceivably, the engineer could aspire to become Admiral of the Fleet.

Essentially the scheme was a success. From then onwards all officers would be drawn from the same range of backgrounds, enter the navy through a common set of circumstances and share a common educational experience in their formative years. This would eventually eliminate much of the stratification that existed in the late-Victorian wardrooms. Commonality of training also went a long way toward producing a more capable and better educated officer. However, the five year training course, much of it of a practical nature, hitherto given to young men who wanted to become engineers, would be substantially diluted to the detriment of the trainee and the service.

Predictably, resistance to the scheme was immediate and substantial and the idea that an officer without executive experience could aspire to senior command positions was a particularly sensitive point. In the end Fisher was forced to make some concessions, one being that once a young officer opted to become an engineer he would be obliged to remain one for the rest of his career. Other more radical aspects of the scheme, such as the integration of the Marine officer into the shipboard watchkeeping roster and the elimination of the Paymaster Branch never reached the implementation stage.

The problem remained of what to do about the old-style engineers. In March 1903 an Order-in-Council granted the existing engineers Executive Branch ranks but preceded by the word "Engineer". However, this only went part way toward their assimilation, they were still listed in the Navy List in their own section separate from the Executive Branch and they still wore civil branch rank lace.

Table Of Revised Engineer Officer Ranks

Old Ranks

New Ranks

Engineer in Chief Engineer Vice-Admiral
Chief Inspector Of Machinery Engineer Rear Admiral
Inspector of Machinery Engineer Captain
Fleet Engineer Engineer Commander
Staff Engineer


Engineer Lieutenant (2 Ĺ Stripes)

Engineer Lieutenant

Assistant Engineer Engineer Sub-Lieutenant
Engineer Student Engineer Cadet

It took a while for the Selborne scheme to mature but in 1910, following the graduation of the last term of long course engineers, the RNEC Keyham was closed and all engineer officer training transferred to the RNCs at Dartmouth and Osbourne. It was not until 1913 that the first of the new engineers made their appearance and by the outbreak of war there were still only 16 Lieutenants (E) in the fleet. The Selborne scheme engineers were not particularly well thought of in the engine rooms of the fleet and were considered by the professional lower deck technicians to be "The monied people who took up engineering".

The Lower Deck

In order to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding fleet Fisher also set to work to improve manning and standards on the lower deck. His reforms included modifications to the entry and training of older boy seamen so they reached the fleet earlier and in greater numbers as young adults. Within a year the output of boy seamen from the Admiralty run pre-sea training programs accounted for 50 per cent of the new entry intake. At the other end of the spectrum he made it possible for older men to remain in the service until the age of 50. Another manning innovation was the introduction of Short Service entries where a man joined between 18 and 23 to serve five years in the fleet followed by seven years in the reserve.

The Selborne reforms directly affected the engineering ratings. In 1903 an Order-in-Council established the rating of Mechanician, created the rank of Chief Artificer Engineer and the rating of Boy Artificer.

Another seldom realised aspect of the Selborne reform was the introduction of the seamen to the boiler room. As a prerequisite for his promotion to AB the ordinary seaman was required to accumulate six weeks service in the stokehold and to achieve a certain proficiency at stoking and coal trimming. This was popular with the stokers who relished being able to "get a real dayís work" out of the seamen, but as the stokers were better paid than they, it was resented by the seamen. This practise seems to have been discontinued by 1906.

The Cawdor Memorandum

Meanwhile, The Stoker Branch was effectively restructured by the provisions of the Cawdor Memorandum. This study was a follow-on to the Selborne Memorandum and was published jointly by Selborneís successor as First Sea Lord, Lord Cawdor, and Fisher on 30 November 1905. The changes affecting the stokers were confirmed in a circular letter dated 7 April 1906 when stoker ratings were brought into line with the standard ranking of ratings as follows:

Table of Revised Stoker Ratings
Old Rate New Rate
Chief Stoker Chief Stoker
Leading Stoker 1st Class Petty Officer Stoker 1st Class
Leading Stoker 2nd Class Petty Officer Stoker 2nd Class
Stoker 1st Class Leading Stoker
Stoker Mechanic Discontinued (to Leading Stoker)
Stoker & Coal Trimmer Stoker 1st Class
Trained Man Discontinued (To Stoker 1st Class)
Stoker 2nd Class Stoker 2nd Class

This document further defined the Mechanician and Warrant Mechanician. The Mechanician would be capable of taking charge of an engine or boiler room and this would relieve the ERAs of some of their routine watchkeeping burden allowing them to concentrate on the maintenance and repair of machinery. Mechanician rank would also permit qualified Stokers to advance to warrant and commissioned rank as Engineering Lieutenants. The Mechanician was rated at the CPO level and selection for promotion was available to Leading Stokers under the age of 25 Ĺ possessing demonstrated technical abilities and with the requisite seagoing experience. Candidates were selected on completion of their three-month "Leading Stoker course" (old terminology) after which they were rated up to acting PO and after 12 months, to confirmed PO. After three years, completion of the requisite amount of sea time and upon being recommended and if still under 28-years of age, these men attended a two-year course at HMS Indus II (hulk - ex-Temeraire of 1876) in Devonport. On successful completion they were rated up to acting Mechanician and after 12 months to confirmed Mechanician.

The New Engineers

Having become de facto members of the Executive Branch, the old-style engineers felt they had gained the right to wear the distinguishing circle, or "executive curl", on their uppermost gold lace rank stripe but this change was not formally approved until after the outbreak of war. When Churchill recalled Fisher to his old post as first Sea Lord in 1914 one of his first acts was to instruct that as of 1 January 1915 all engineer officers would be part of the executive branch and that they would henceforth wear the distinctive loop on their gold lace. However, they would continue to use their old titles, could not aspire to the command of a ship and would continue to wear their distinctive purple branch stripe.

Although the Royal Navy had ceased to train EOs in isolation and had assimilated all engineers into the executive branch, the rest of the Engineer Branch structure remained intact. The rank of Engineer Lieutenant was sustained by the advancement of Engineer Sub-Lieutenants trained before 1910 and by promoted Artificer Engineers and Warrant Mechanicians. The provision of the Mate (E) under the Mates Scheme introduced in 1913 accommodated the promotion of engineering personnel directly from the lower deck. However, promotion from Mate(E) was to the old Engineer Lieutenant rank, not to Lieutenant (E).

By the end of the war it had been recognized that an officer could not be equally proficient at both engineering and executive duties. The Admiralty instructed that upon completion of the Cadet phase of training those who opted for engineering were to be divided into a separate stream from those undertaking to be executive officers. In 1919 the old engineering college at Keyham re-opened its doors to naval engineering trainees and the following year technical training as professional engineers was re-instituted for senior midshipmen. In 1921 it was decided to begin the engineering training on completion of the cadet phase and to restore much of the practical training content that had been deleted when the course had been taught at the RNCs. In 1925 the Admiralty reversed the Selborne integration and divided the officer corps into five branches including engineering. This caused much consternation among the aspiring engineers who felt betrayed by Admiralty and believed they were being integrated into the old-style engineering branch. As if to confirm this allegation the Admiralty reinstituted the wearing of the purple distinguishing purple, although it was a "more distinctive", lighter shade than previous. However the move was interpreted, the professionally trained engineer officer had been fully reinstated. Midshipmen and sub-lieutenants who elected engineering were now noted by the (E) after their rank from the beginning, something they hadnít been able to do before until after they had completed their training.


Admiralty, The Navy List. Various editions 1875-1925

Lewis, Michael, MA FR Hist S. Englandís Sea-Officers, The Story of the Naval Profession; George Allen & Unwin Ltd; London. Second impression 1948.

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Penn, Geoffrey. "Up Funnel, Down Screw!", The Story of the Naval Engineer. Hollis and Carter, London; 1955.