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Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy: Punishment, Pay, and Promotion

Finest Hour 177, Summer 2017

Page 16

By Matthew S. Seligmann

Before the outbreak of war in 1914, it was not as a warrior or as a war leader but as a radical liberal reformer that Churchill was best known. First as President of the Board of Trade, where he had introduced labour exchanges, and then as Home Secretary, in which office he had regulated conditions in the coal mines, Churchill had cemented a political reputation based upon tangible measures designed to improve the lives of working people. As such, he was arguably, alongside fellow radical David Lloyd George, one of the main architects of the social security system that prefigured the welfare state.

Did the reform activities for which he was best known continue with his appointment to the Admiralty? Many historians would say not. Malcolm Hill, for example, ends his study Churchill: His Radical Decade with his subject’s departure from the Home Office in 1911. Apparently, nothing radical occurred while Churchill was at the Admiralty. Sebastian Haffner assumes the same, arguing in his excellent appraisal that Churchill’s “radical phase” ended and his warrior phase took its place when he was transferred to the Admiralty. But was this really so? Did this move from one government department to another really mark such a major lacuna in Churchill’s political objectives?

The evidence suggests not. Not only was it highly unlikely that a politician whose identity was so clearly defined by concerns over social welfare should suddenly abandon all interest in such matters, but the nature of the Royal Navy in 1911 meant that Churchill was taking on the leadership of an organization where long-standing regulations and existing conditions of service provided plenty of scope for a minister interested in the progressive enhancement of working practices to find outlets for such concerns. Unsurprisingly, Churchill quickly identified many areas of naval life where a radical reformer such as he could leave a mark. He proceeded to do so.

Crime and Punishment

One of the first areas to attract Churchill’s attention was the archaic means that existed to enforce discipline. This had changed radically during the nineteenth century. Contrary to the caricature of a hidebound service holding fast to outmoded and brutal traditions, vicious and humiliating punishments like flogging with the cat o’nine tails had been suspended for adult sailors midway through Queen Victoria’s reign in response both to the more humanitarian spirit of the age and also to the fact that, in an era when ratings had to be recruited by voluntary enlistment, severe forms of corporal punishment were a barrier to securing the necessary manpower.

Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge


Yet if the worst of the past had been cast away well before Churchill took office, that did not mean that the system worked well. Two of the then prevailing punishments were sources of particular and frequent complaint. The first was disrating. This was a summary punishment—that is to say, one that could be awarded by a ship’s captain without recourse to trial by court martial—that when applied to a petty officer not only led to loss of rank, standing, seniority, and pay, but also had adverse implications for future pension rights. For obvious reasons, that such a severe penalty with such far-reaching implications could be applied by the mere whim of a senior officer—and the charge was levelled that some captains did arbitrarily and carelessly employ this sanction—was much disliked by the rank and file of the Navy, where it was regarded as a major grievance. No less disliked, albeit for different reasons, was punishment 10A—sometimes referred to as the “blacklist”—which involved, among other things, segregating wrong-doers, giving them reduced rations, and awarding them mindless tasks, like standing on the deck facing the paintwork for hours on end. Enforcing this punishment required time and effort, but, as many reform-minded officers and officials pointed out, all that was often achieved by such a measure was to create a community of spirit among the worst characters on board any given ship. Like disrating, it was thus a punishment in need of urgent re-examination.


A few weeks after Churchill became First Lord, the disrating of a petty officer aboard HMS Lancaster in circumstances that caused considerable discontent aboard that ship shone a spotlight on the inadequacy of the punishment system in the Royal Navy. Eager to bring about improvements, Churchill asked his naval secretary Rear-Admiral Ernest Troubridge to investigate. Troubridge’s report suggested that reforms were necessary, and accordingly Churchill commissioned a more detailed study. Rear-Admiral Frederick Brock, who had experience in such matters, having recently overseen the reform of the naval detention system, was put in charge of a committee charged with investigating all aspects of naval discipline. Their report took six months to complete and was very comprehensive. Consisting of 172 paragraphs spread over twenty-eight pages, it offered a wealth of recommendations, many of which Churchill was pleased to accept. In particular and reflecting the incident that sparked the investigation, petty officers were accorded the right to claim a court martial before being disrated.

The Wages of Men

If the system of punishment attracted Churchill’s attention early in his tenure as First Lord, so too did the even more vexed question of naval pay. When Churchill assumed oversight of the Admiralty, the substantive pay of sailors—that is payment before any supplements derived from good conduct or other badges—was still calculated largely on a scale that had been set in 1853. When account was taken of six decades of rising prices, this could hardly be called generous and, given that many naval ratings were aware of the greatly increased pay available to dockworkers and sailors in the merchant marine, was unsurprisingly a source of much grumbling in the service and had been for a considerable period of time.

Churchill may well have already been aware of this when he took office, but if not, he soon would be. In November 1911, the naval authorities received their annual petition from the lower deck, the so-called “Naval Magna Carta” for 1912. Among its requests was a call for “a 20 per cent increase of wages…granted to all Lower Deck Ratings having in view the increased cost of living and the increasing difficulties that Lower Deck Ratings find to meet their liabilities.”1

Churchill’s predecessor, Reginald McKenna, had routinely batted away all requests in those petitions he had received involving the outlay of even modest sums of money. On that basis, one might have expected that the request for a twenty percent pay rise, something that would cost a great deal of money, somewhere in the order of several million pounds, would be dismissed out of hand, and McKenna probably would have done just that.

Churchill, however, was not McKenna. While he was enough of a realist to know that the Treasury would not simply fork out several million in extra naval pay, he was equally certain that a smaller rise was well deserved, could be justified to sceptical colleagues in cabinet, and would bolster the reformist credentials of the government while also enhancing its popularity. Accordingly, he secured the permission of prime minster Herbert Asquith to announce to parliament in July 1912 his intention to raise naval pay. The principle having been agreed, there was now only the matter of agreeing on the amount. As was to be expected, this proved harder to achieve. Churchill advanced a scheme that would have cost £574,850. The Treasury refused even to contemplate this and, after several heated exchanges in cabinet and some not very veiled threats of resignation, Churchill secured £386,473 for improving sailors’ pay. While it was less than he wanted, it was more than anyone else had managed in the previous six decades, and it was warmly welcomed in the service.

Officers and Gentlemen

A further area of naval life to attract Churchill’s eye was the social composition of the officer corps. By and large, naval officers were drawn from a very narrow stratum of society, namely the wealthy. The reason for this was the high cost of a naval training. Parents who wanted their children to become naval officers were required to pay for their education at the naval colleges, purchase their uniforms and equipment, and then support them with a healthy allowance when they became midshipmen. Providing such support did not come cheap. Some estimates had it at around £1000 per child entering the Navy; that is over £100,000 in today’s money. This was not something that many could afford, with the result that naval officers were in almost all cases the children of the moneyed classes. This was not just inequitable and thoroughly undemocratic, it was also inefficient. As one Admiralty memorandum put it: “Neither brains, nor character, nor manners are the exclusive endowment of those whose parents can afford to spend £1000 on their education.”2 As many other critics pointed out, if such a system had existed in the eighteenth century, Nelson, a poor parson’s son, would never have entered the Navy.

For Churchill this was not just an injustice worthy of redress, it was a major barrier to solving one of his most pressing problems, namely a shortage of junior officers. The rapid expansion of the fleet to meet the growing German challenge had resulted in the commissioning of an ever greater number of large super-dreadnought battleships. These grey leviathans were impressive (and expensive) symbols of British maritime prowess; they also required large crews, a component of which consisted of ten or so lieutenants of various sorts and specialism. The fact was that there were not enough such officers to go round, and the likelihood of recruiting a sufficient body of extra candidates by traditional means was small. However, as Churchill was well aware, among the rank and file of the Navy were many highly skilled warrant officers and petty officers who were suitable for commissioned rank. All they needed was the opportunity to display their talents and receive the necessary training. Churchill was determined to make sure that they received it.

The result was the introduction of a system for promoting suitable candidates from the lower deck, known as “the mate scheme.” Those selected to take part in it received an allowance for their kit and uniform and underwent training in navigation, gunnery, and torpedo work at the Navy’s expense. If successful they would go to sea with the rank of mate, at which point they could try for their watch-keeping certificate. Once this was attained they would be promoted to lieutenant.

Churchill hoped by such means to appoint 100 lieutenants from the lower deck within three years. The system got off to a slow start. A mere ten had been selected for the process by September 1912. Nevertheless, despite small beginnings, the system had a momentum all its own and, come the outbreak of war, it would be a major source of commissioned officers. More than 500 would have been selected via this route by 1918.

The First Lord of Reform

In advancing a reform agenda that addressed concerns over the system of punishment, raised naval pay for sailors, and offered opportunities for promotion from the ranks, Churchill was definitely not abandoning his long-standing concern over social welfare for a new and exclusive concentration on naval materiel. On the contrary, he was firmly living up to his existing radical reputation by instituting major improvements that significantly enhanced conditions for ordinary sailors. This substantial legacy of achievement has received less attention than it might for the very understandable reason that it was overtaken by the cataclysm of the First World War.

As whole continents geared up for battle and the guns thundered across the globe, the efforts undertaken to prepare for that moment gained greater prominence in people’s perceptions than the minutiae of domestic reform. For assessments of Churchill as First Lord, this means that HMS Queen Elizabeth attracts more notice than the mate scheme; the Royal Naval Air Service has greater retrospective traction than an extra 3d a day for an ordinary seaman; and the switch from coal to oil commands more attention than whether disrating could be imposed summarily or only after trial by court martial. That may be so, but Churchill’s achievements in pushing for social improvements in the pre-war Royal Navy were substantial nonetheless.

Matthew S. Seligmann teaches at Brunel University London. His forthcoming book Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900–1915, will explore these and related issues in greater detail.


1. “Naval Magna Charta for 1912” in Case 10997, “Revised Rates of Pay, Allowances and Pensions for Naval Ratings and Royal Marines,” ADM 116/1661, Admiralty Papers, The National Archives, Kew.

2. Admiralty, “State Education in the Navy,” undated [printed March 1906], in docket Admiralty 26 March 1906, “Entry and Education of Naval Officers,” ADM 1/7875.

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