|From Sail to Steam
Naval Recollections, 1878-1905
132 FROM SAIL TO STEAM
GREENWICH - R.N. COLLEGE
.AFTER honeymooning in the Riviera during the greater part of the winter of 1882-83, and paying visits to friends in Ireland and England, my next appointment was to what we call a " shore billet " - viz., Captain of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Which as all the world knows - is now established in those four stately and beautiful buildings formerly known as Greenwich Hospital. But as I am only professing to write memories of the sea, and not of the shore, I do not propose to dwell at any length upon the two happy years I spent in this appointment.
I had had two years' really hard work as Flag Captain in the Detached Squadron, and I was glad of a rest, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My duties were light. Admiral Luard was President of the college, and my appointment was for discipline - i.e., to keep the Sub-Lieutenants and other junior officers in order. The other junior officers - marines and engineers - did not give much trouble, but the Sub-Lieutenants did.
The sudden change from the strict discipline of a ship of war in full commission, the restricted area of a midshipman's mess, and the constant and watchful care of senior officers, to the greater freedom - a large mess, a room to himself - and the general conditions of a college student within easy distance of London, was
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too much for the self-restraint, good sense, and discretion, of a large number of the acting Sub-Lieutenants who came to Greenwich to study for their final examination in mathematics, which they had to pass before becoming full-blown Sub-Lieutenants.
We all pray that we may not be led into temptation; but the system which prevailed at Greenwich during my term of office (1883-1885) was a deliberate leading into temptation of all our future executive officers at a time of their lives when they were most likely to fall into it. The great majority of the lads came to Greenwich with the sole idea of having a jolly good times free sheet and a flowing sail - as an interlude to constant sea-service, coupled with the good intention of doing just enough work to be able to scrape through and save their bacon with a third-class certificate at the final examination. A large majority accomplished this feat, though some fell short of it.
During ten years of the system, the results were as follows
And 46 plucked.
Quite probably some of the forty-six were dunces, and were unable to attain to the very low standard in mathematics which would have given them a third-class certificate, though, on the other hand, it is well known that all men do not possess mathematical minds - men which no amount of study will ever turn into mathematicians, but who may nevertheless be gifted with other qualities of mind and body at least as useful to a naval officer as mathematics.
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It seemed to me to be quite unreasonable to turn a lad out of the Navy because he failed to pass an examination in a non-nautical subject; though it would be proper to pluck him if he failed to come up to a certain standard in such subjects as seamanship, practical navigation, or gunnery.
On one occasion when I overhauled the examination paper (though I had really nothing to do with it, as I was only appointed for discipline), I found the following question, and about a dozen more of the same nature:
" A boy spent his money in oranges. Had he received five more for his money, they would have cost him 1d. each less; had he received three less, they would have cost 2d. more. Find how many he bought and at what price."
Upon which I suggested that it might perhaps be more useful to young officers, who hoped in a few years to find themselves in responsible positions, if they were given such questions as:
" What is the docking accommodation at the Cape of Good Hope ? How much coal is usually stored at Hongkong and at Singapore ? and what are the defences of those stations ?
" Describe roughly the line taken by the submarine cable between Aden and India. At what port in India does it land ? What depths of water does it lie in ? and what would be the most likely places for an enemy's cruiser, with the proper appliances, to drag it up and cut it ?"
It appeared to me that such questions as these would be quite as interesting, and even more useful than hunting up that old-fashioned little boy and his oranges. So I fought tooth and nail against the system of trying
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to force all our sucking Drakes and Nelsons through a rigid mathematical mould, without any regard to the tendency of their latent talents. But it was not until some years after I had left Greenwich, until much time had been wasted over the little boy and his oranges, and until not a few healthy young scamps (temporary scamps) had been forced to transfer their talents to other spheres, that the system was altered, and that only those Sub-Lieutenants who had already arrived at a certain standard of mathematics, and who had a taste for them and were " specializing," were put through the Greenwich mill.
It was very hard on the fathers of the lads, that the sons upon whom they had spent much money, and no doubt formed sanguine hopes, should suffer the disappointment and reproach of being pronounced unfit for H.M. Service, just because they were unable to pass a mathematical examination.
I used to get pathetic letters from fathers and mothers, complaining of the expenses - necessary expenses - of Greenwich College. The fact being that the necessary expenses were by no means great; but the real rub was that some injudicious parents gave their sons a wide command of money, or, at any rate, promised to pay their bills for them. These lads set the pace, so that a large number of quite unnecessary expenses became necessary expenses through the force of example.
We all know what imitative creatures young men of nineteen and twenty are, and how they hate being left behind. We remember our own views of life at that age, and find it difficult to be too severe. And although, as Captain of the college, I was in a position to give any amount of good advice, and found no
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difficulty in doing so, I must confess that, although my young friends listened to it with great patience, they were no more disposed to follow it than I had been myself at their age.
The idea of converting Greenwich Hospital into a naval college was an excellent one. I believe it originated with that able and highly respected officer, Admiral Sir Cooper Key, and he always took the greatest interest in it as long as he lived. As a home for the superannuated sailors of the Royal Navy the institution had outlived its use. The introduction of the continuous-service system into the Navy, and the granting of pensions for life to all men who had served for twentyone years, enabled the old sailors to spend the evening of their lives in far greater comfort than they ever enjoyed in the magnificent prison known as Greenwich Hospital. The few old salts who still remained in the buildings were generously provided for elsewhere, and after some necessary internal alterations, a very thorough clean up, and an immense amount of fumigation - which I was told it wanted - the venerable pile was turned into a seat of learning and duly equipped with professors of mathematics, applied mechanics, physics, chemistry, fortification, French, German, steam, naval architecture, freehand drawing, and a few others - with a Fellow of the Royal Society as director of studies. Thus Greenwich College started on its ambitious career of providing the country with a scientific Navy.
Of course my young charges the Sub-Lieutenants were not expected to pass examinations in all the above subjects. Their studies were almost entirely confined to pure mathematics - the little boy and his oranges; and if they could only answer enough problems of this sort, they got a first-class certificate and passed with
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flying colours. And, on the other hand, if they could only answer just enough, they scraped through with a third; and that was all that the majority of them aimed at. Their object was to have a good time, and to get to London from Saturday noon to Sunday night; which they could all do, unless they were " gated "for some breach of the regulations.
The reader must not suppose that, in writing of Greenwich College as I am now doing, I underrate in the smallest degree the immense advantage it has been, and is, to the Navy - by providing opportunities for a higher education, and especially for the study of applied mechanics by those officers who desire to make themselves masters of the very complicated and essentially scientific equipment of a modern warship. Indeed, I have little doubt that, had it not been for the ample opportunities of acquiring scientific knowledge which Greenwich has, for the last forty years, been providing for naval officers, our Navy could never have attained to its present state of efficiency, and been thus in a position to assert and maintain our maritime supremacy, which many of us believe will prove, as of yore, to be the governing factor in the great war.
My quarters at Greenwich looked out upon the river, and I found it to be a terrible place for gape-seed. The views were most fascinating, and I spent a good deal of my spare time sketching the picturesque barges, with their beautiful brown and red sails. The worst of it was that they never would stand still for one minute, except when they anchored, and then they were not nearly so picturesque.
My two years at Greenwich passed all too quickly. My two eldest children were born there; and in the autumn of 1885 1 got a letter from my old friend, Lord
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Clanwilliam, telling me that he was about to hoist his flag again, as Commander-in-Chief on the North American and West Indian Station, and asking me to go with him once more, as his Flag-Captain.
I was delighted to hear that he was well enough to go to sea again, and, of course, accepted immediately.
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