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on 30 August 2012
Able Seamen
by Brian Lavery (Conway £25)

This is a middle book of a trilogy documenting the ordinary sailors of the Royal Navy. This volume covers the period 1850 to 1939. It has essentially two themes: what was done to the Lower Deck in terms of pay and conditions (in their broadest sense); and what the sailors thought about it all. In a sense it is about the sailor on the front of a Players' packet and how he came to be.

Lavery is a Curator Emeritus of the National Maritime Museum and brings to his work a deep understanding and plenty of hard graft in the way of research, as the references and bibliography show. He has set himself a mammoth task in this era in which the RN embraced enormous and continuing change, all of which impacted on the sailor and his skills. In particular he has unearthed relevant quotations, often given verbatim, from a fairly obscure field, for, particularly in the early part of the period and for obvious reasons, written accounts by Jack are thin on the ground compared to those of his officers. The personal reminiscences that have been selected are, however, fascinating. Where Jack appears wrong-headed it is because the full facts of the case have not trickled down to him and for that we can only blame his officers, from the very top, down.

In 1850 the sailing line of battle ship had reached its apogee at 130 guns but was still a scaled-up version of the ships with which we defeated the Armada. About the only new thing in a quarter of a millennium was the flintlock. But the first puffs of steam (and smuts) were just becoming visible and the Admiralty brontosaurus was beginning to realise that its 1835 attempt at introducing Continuous Service was, with a five year term set against three and a half year commissions, ill thought-out. From here on innovation would be piled on innovation - steam, rifled guns, iron and then steel ships, turret guns, torpedoes, electricity, director firing, wireless, oil firing, submarines, moored minesweeping, asdic, aeroplanes. It is unsurprising that some social indigestion ensued, particularly as the Admiralty proved less than perfect in anticipating changes in the required skill set and what sort of people would be needed and how they should be recruited and trained. The irony is that however ham-fisted and dilatory the management, on the day the RN has always done what is asked of it, which is of course the real tribute to Jack and Royal. And the management can congratulate itself on the virtues of complacency and the Treasury can say `well you didn't need that extra money anyway'; for all too often needed improvements were denied or delayed because of want of money, perhaps because of a deficiency of articulacy in the Navy's leaders.

Lavery divides the book into ten chronological sections and in each endeavours to cover recruitment, terms of engagement, rating structure, training, pay, discipline, messing (both accommodation and feeding arrangements), uniform, advancement, recreation, leave, access to warrant and commissioned rank, sailors' wives and families, and every other relevant topic, and to do this branch by branch as completely new types of rating - stokers, writers, artificers etc. - complement the traditional seaman; and that in terms of both regulars and reserves. That is a huge field to have to cram into 300 pages and still leave room for Jack's comments on the matter. Beside that the overall historic and strategic background has to be sketched in and that in a way that does not crowd out the intimate domestic detail. The result is sometimes unavoidably cramped but the alternative is seventeen volumes, not three. Goodness knows what juicy bits have had to be reluctantly consigned to the round filing cabinet beside the desk. In the end this is an very meaty work of reference; the general reader is dragged along at a pretty cracking pace; the naval reader will emerge much better informed, and if his interest is kindled on any particular topic will find the bibliography helpful. Lavery gets into all the corners and even explains (for instance) the origins of Kit Upkeep Allowance.

The Royal Marines and the WRNS have to take their turn with everyone else and are only sketched in. The RM role as Wardroom Attendants is referred to in the treatment of `domestics' (later stewards) but could usefully have been correlated with the RM role as guns' crews which require them in numbers not otherwise employable on board. This role persisted in fact until the last old fashioned cruiser (HMS Bermuda) paid off in about 1962. The `militarisation' of the RN rating took place in the second quartile of Lavery's period and he treats of Jack landing and hauling his guns about as he bails out, or substitutes for (as in the Ashanti war) the soldier, in India (`four feet high and four feet broad'), the Crimea, China and South Africa and anywhere else you care to think of.

Every good book has villains to hiss. One here is the Ship's Police, not just for bearing down on Jack but for leaving no room to Petty Officers to exercise their proper role; another is the Admiralty, never quite getting it right. The two meet in the middle with Jack picked up for wearing his hat flat aback because his issued cap, perfectly circular instead of shaped to the human head, is only comfortable like that. The role of the Petty Officer in comparison to that of the army SNCO is frequently explored and was still not right in the seaman department in the 1960s, the PO being cut out and sidelined by excessive supervision. Jack complains about his officers being distant but that is necessary if the PO is to have a role at all. In between the Admiralty shilly-shallies (as with everything else) over giving the PO his own mess and fore and aft rig to support his rate. It took until 1973 to give the Chief Petty Officer a lower deck career path equivalent to that in the other services. A factor in the officer-sailor relationship is of course the social situation ashore and their being recruited from completely opposite poles of society, the emerging middle class being hardly represented at all (except, one might say, by Fisher and Jellicoe!).

The ship of course always has to come first. When HMS Kent arrived home in 1915 after 15 months away and victory at the Falklands, the first pipe with the lines secured as `All hands coal ship.'

The whole thing comes to a head at Invergordon. Lavery's phrase `spectacular incompetence' is amply justified by his careful and lengthy description and analysis. So many threads come together and this was undoubtedly even worse for the country than the Spithead mutiny of 1797. Both were exclusively about PAY. The Navy's pay scales were entirely independent of its sister services but the sailor was becoming aware of that and also, during the War, had become aware of how his neighbour in a munitions factory was being paid far more than he was with a far more comfortable life. The prospect of a guaranteed pension was far distant for the younger sailor.

I was unsurprised to find my sometime neighbour Rear Admiral Sammy `On the Knee' Collard come up for a mention. It is possibly apocryphal that at the Royal Oak court martial, asked `Sir, is it true you called the bandmaster a bugger?' his reply was `Yes, and what I want to know is, who called the bugger a bandmaster?' It says something sad about the Admiralty that such bad leaders sometimes get made up to high rank. It may not be known that the corrugated iron panels that used to be wired onto the railings of the RN Barracks in Portsmouth were his legacy - put there to stop the public gawping at any repetition of the problem he caused in 1906.

With such authorial credentials as Lavery much is expected. I emerge with only two gripes. One is that any naval historian ought to be able to recognise Jutland quite unequivocally as a total strategic victory; anything less and I spy clay feet. The other is that I can hardly imagine Michael Lewis writing `rather like on a ship' (p.231).

This field has of course been explored before, the Victorian era, for instance, by John Winton in `Hurrah for the Life of a Sailor' (Michael Joseph 1977), cited by Lavery and I think still a more readable and amusing treatment, but then Winton did not have to cover the Grand Fleet and Invergordon and so forth in his book.

The illustrations are well selected and presented - Conway always does well on that. Towards the close of the book is an appendix on `Tracing Naval Ratings' which anyone with a Lower Deck naval forebear from this period will find useful and concise.
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“The lower deck seaman, the ordinary sailor of the Royal Navy, has not had his share of attention over the years … Social historians have devoted far more attention to the working class ashore … [and] … Traditional naval history has tended to ignore the ‘common seaman’ unless there is a serious problem with mutiny, indiscipline or recruitment … [Thus] much of the period from 1850 to the present is a clean sheet as far as the historian is concerned.”

This is author Brian Lavery’s first sentence in this, the second volume of his chronological account of life on the lower decks in the Royal Navy. (There is no need to have read the first volume, which deals with years before 1850.) I bought this book because both of my grandfathers served in the Royal Navy, and so I wanted to learn more about their working lives.

The book comprises ten chronological chapters. There are thirteen maps and diagrams, but strangely no map to show the naval bases around the British Isles (where is The Nore?) and nothing to show that Devonport and Plymouth are more or less synonymous. There are eight plates.

Lavery clearly knows his subject and his book is incredibly wide-ranging – from pay rates and uniforms to discipline and training. But my problem is more to do with the book’s structure. We often jump from subject to subject, which is fine since each chapter has sub-headings, but it can mean a lot of tacking in different directions. But I suppose that is the nature of the beast if you are to adopt a broadly chronological approach to the subject. However, this approach did not lend itself to an easy read. Perhaps a more thematic structure would have been better.

I have already referred to the lack of a map to show where the British fleet was based in home waters. Lavery also expects the reader to have sufficient knowledge on more technical issues. For example, he writes that, “The ‘Admiral’ class of the early 1880s used the barbette instead of the turret, which protected the magazines and the passages to them rather than the guns themselves.” The book does come with a glossary of terms, and so I there looked up ‘barbette’. And what did I find? I found that a barbette was “an armoured area covering the magazine and the passages to them.” Yes, I have just been told that, but what is the difference between a barbette and a turret? Perhaps if I looked up the word ‘turret’ I might find out – but it is not listed in the glossary.

A few pages later, “Chief petty officers … were allowed to wear gilt buttons instead of black on their cloth jackets and were automatically considered as special leave men.” And what is a ‘special leave man’. We are not told. ‘Crusher’ and ‘sennet’ appear in the glossary, but ‘freeboard’ and ‘bluejackets’ do not. So the book really is designed for those who already have some knowledge of navy life.

But I do not wish to dwell on criticisms that really show up my own ignorance rather than Lavery’s assumptions about his readership. I was particularly impressed with the author’s ability to cover the intricacies of a navy that not only had to convert itself from sail to steam but also had to contend with waves of new technologies from simple electricity to complex torpedoes. And this meant that the navy needed the skills and support of a wide range of engineers. Not only does Lavery cover these changes, but he also has much to say about changes in other lines of duty from gunners to cooks.

As well as the glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index, the end of the book has three appendices, the most useful of which is the third, which comprises eight pages of advice on tracing the lives of ratings in the documentary records.
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on 5 January 2013
Lavery once again does the stuff! What makes a history book is the attention to detail, references and accuracy (other writers take note). The social history of the lower decks is something found at two levels; Napoleonic experiences collected in one volume or a generalisation across three hundred years usually containing many inaccuracies.
This title is one for the library shelf of the historian. Serious research with colour added through anecdotes from the lower deck. Looks at the changes through technical advances as well as the influences of the changing society ashore. Any naval buff needs this title!
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on 28 April 2012
This is the best book about the Victorian and pre world war 2 Royal Navy that I have ever read.
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on 13 November 2014
Good read
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