Royal Navy Ratings

Collective Organisation in the Armed Forces

Collective Organisation in the Armed Forces: the Case of the Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 1900-1925

Labour and military historians have left unexplored the occasional attempts by other ranks in the armed services to establish the right to collective representation. Yet in the Royal Navy at least collective organisation of ratings in a primitive form of trade unionism and efforts to win recognition from the authorities were significant factors in lower-deck life in the first quarter of the last century. (1) The organisational base for this reform movement was a collection of lower-deck death benefit societies which first emerged in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and grew in numbers in the years before the Great War.

The origin of these societies lay in the fact that the Navy traditionally paid no pension to the widows of men killed other than in battle.It was therefore left to the men themselves to provide some form of benefit so that their dead messmates could be buried decently and their dependants helped over the initial period of bereavement. Following the example of the Engine Room Artificers who formed a society in 1872, many other sections of the lower deck established their own benefit organisations in the course of the next thirty years. Naval ratings were never a cohesive group, the lower deck was fragmented into a score of grades and classes, and consequently membership of the different societies was restricted to men serving in particular branches such as Ships’ Stewards, Coopers, Armourers, Blacksmiths and so on. By 1910 there were fourteen societies in existence. The best organised were those representing the smaller branches of the lower deck such as the Writers’ Society where a strong sense of corporate identity bound the men together, and also those which had links with the trade union movement outside the Service.Before the Great War, Engine Room Artificers were recruited from among time-served men in engineering and they, together with other grades of artisansuch as Shipwrights, Plumbers and Electrical Artificers who also joined the Navy as skilled men, invariably retained membership in their craft trade unions. (2)

In all the societies petty officers, for the most part men who had signed on for twenty-two years and had thus invested their lives in the Navy, constituted the backbone of the membership. Junior ratings were largely unorganised especially in the early years, and this was particularly so in the case of the Seamen and Stokers, the two largest single occupational groups on the lower deck. Their failure to organise effectively until after the Great War amounted to a major weakness in the early lower-deck movement. Overall membership was never precisely recorded, the secretive nature of the organisations ensured that, but it seems likely that by 1913 perhaps as many as ten percent of the ratings were society members. (3)

Monthly society meetings ashore gave men an opportunity to discuss conditions of service, and it was from these meetings that their unofficial “non-benefit” functions developed. By the 1900’s there was already a tendency for the benefit societies to draw together on matters of common concern, and “joint committees” representing several of them were formed in each of the naval home ports of Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport. These important bodies were not involved in dispensing benefits but were solely concerned with co-ordinating pressure for improvements in service conditions – what the Navy called “welfare”. (4)

The way that the societies and joint committees sought to draw attention to archaic conditions of service was through petitions to the Admiralty. There was a long tradition of petitioning or memorialising in the Service dating back to Cromwell’s Navy. (5) However, since 1860 the practice had been officially discouraged by the Admiralty, and under Article X (later Article XI) of the Queen’s Regulations organisation among ratings to discuss conditions and produce memorials was made a punishable offence. Thus the welfare work of the lower-deck societies and joint committees was undertaken in defiance of authority and carried with it the risk of severe penalties for ratings found to be involved. For precisely this reason the societies, and more particularly the joint committees, operated in a clandestine fashion, their officers were often pensioned ratings or civilians beyond the reach of naval discipline and their petitions were issued anonymously.

“Loyal Appeals”

Until the early years of the century occasional petitions were drawn up by individual societies and would typically deal with a single issue relating to one branch of the Service. But then in 1904 the first “loyal appeal” purporting to deal with general lower-deck grievances was issued and from 1907 until the outbreak of War the three joint committees published an annual loyal appeal. (6) Naturally there was no direct contact between the lower-deck movement and the Admiralty. The authorities never officially received or acknowledged the loyal appeals. The petitions appeared in the press, the lower-deck strategy being to arouse public and parliamentary opinion in support of their requests and so bring indirect pressure to bear on the Admiralty. In the years up to 1914 this practice achieved no measurable success.

The Admiralty made occasional limited concessions, without ever acknowledging that these were in any way a result of lower-deck pressure. By and large the Admiralty turned a blind eye to the unofficial activities of the benefit societies, perhaps sensing that they posed no real threat to naval discipline. From the lower-deck point of view the system left much to be desired, particularly the fact that ratings could never appear in public or before the Admiralty and give evidence in support of their requests. There was a general sense of grievance at having no voice in determining their conditions of service, and as democratic sentiments spread over the next decade so did the belief that the lower deck should have the right to be heard. By 1909 the benefit societies’ policy was to press for a recognised system of “direct representation”.

What they had in mind was something along the lines of the procedure that was developing in parts of the civil service. Like the lower deck, civil servants had traditionally advanced claims for the improved conditions by means of memorials to their heads of department. By the early years of the century the post office unions had won the right to send deputations to meet the Postmaster General, and after 1906 a similar practice existed in the naval dockyards. Members of the Board of Admiralty paid an annual visit to the yards and received deputations from the dockyard workers accompanied by union officials. (7) Each year from 1909 to 1914, the lower-deck loyal appeal asked for some such form of representation, though the details of the proposed system were never fully elaborated.

Various possibilities existed. Some men would have been happy for officers commanding the naval barracks to select a number of spokesmen to pass on to the authorities the men’s requests. Others thought in terms of having lower-deck representatives permanently attached to the Admiralty to advise the Board on personnel matters. And a third more radical approach was simply for the Admiralty to recognise the lower-deck societies as the natural spokesmen for the ratings and to deal directly with them. (8) A strong undercurrent of opinion favoured the formation of one big lower-deck organisation with the societies amalgamating and copying trade union methods up to and even including the use of strike action. As the lower deck paper The Fleet commented,”….the lower deck,having started to think, has compared its lot with the outside workman and is copying his methods of advancing its position.” (9) But faced with this movement, the Admiralty were adamant: nothing in the nature of trade unionism or organised agitation for redress of grievances could be officially condoned.And there the matter stood when War intervened in 1914 to put off further debate for a few years.

In the first two years of war the lower-deck societies effectively ceased to function. But as complaints about low pay and poor conditions began to mount from late 1916 onwards, they were stung again into action. In July, 1917 a loyal appeal was issued by the joint committees asking among other things for an increase in pay and pensions. The Admiralty were too dilatory in acting on this for many ratings and in the Grand Fleet anchored at Scapa Flow another more sharply worded petition was issued in September by petty officers, the NCO’s of the lower deck.

The level of pay it sought was significantly higher than that proposed in the July appeal, the issues presented as “demands” not“requests”, and it was accompanied by thinly-veiled threats of a breakdown indiscipline if concessions were not made. (10) Vice-Admiral de Robeck commanding the Second Battle Squadron summed up the position best when he reported:

. . .the lower deck has lost confidence in the powers of the Board of Admiralty, and, as a result, has gravitated towards trades unionism. To what extent this actually exists I am not in a position to give reliable data. However. it does exist and to such an extent that the fact should not be neglected as if allowed to grow it will be impossible to eradicate. (11)

Two petty officers were court martialed in connection with the September petition, accused of contravening Article XI of King’s Regulations. It was a serious charge carrying with it the stiffest of penalties and the two men might have expected to be punished heavily. But on conviction they were let off with only normal sentences. (12) The situation was obviously too delicate for the Admiralty to risk antagonising the lower deck.

Both of the 1917 petitions were mainly concerned with low pay, but they raised by implication the whole question of the sailors’ right to put forward general requests and grievances.The Admiralty understood this and toyed with the possibility that a generous pay increase might divert the men’s attention from the issues of direct representation. (13) But the lower deck were not easily shaken off, and towards the end of the war there was renewed interest in the subject. During 1917 retired Admiral Lord Charles Beresford kept the issue alive by declaring himself in favour of a lower-deck representative being attached to the Admiralty as an advisor. (14) The Daily Mail supported the idea and a similar proposal was advanced in Parliament during the 1918 debates on the Navy Estimates. (15) The Admiralty again turned down the suggestion as being “entirely foreign to the best traditions and interests of the Navy,” but in the ensuing months they were to come under considerable pressure to make some concession in this direction.(16)

For some months following the October 1917 courts martial the lower-deck societies kept a low profile, but by late spring 1918 they were active again and the joint committees began to meet once more. The war and the presence of hostilities only ratings on the lower deck had had a radical influence on the Service. Low pay was still the principal grievance – the basic rate for an able seaman had only been increased by 2d per day in sixty years – but there was a backlog of other complaints requiring attention and there was still the need to establish a recognised procedure for handling general grievances. As the secretary of the Portsmouth Joint Committee wrote,

“At present we meet in secret, with a furtive eye on the door as it were. We are not seditionists. ..we want the sword removed which at present dangles over our heads.” (17)

That sword was, of course, Article XI of the King’s Regulations and the ban on combinations.

Proposed Links with the Labour Movement

The organised lower deck were seriously contemplating two courses of action in summer 1918. One was to forge links with the Labour Party byhaving Labour members of parliament present the next loyal appeal, and by possibly concluding an electoral alliance in the naval constituencies with the lower deck supporting Labour candidates. In Portsmouth North the local Labour Party went so far as to adopt an active service rating as its candidate and invited the joint committee to throw their weight behind him. In the event the benefit societies steered clear of any direct alliance with Labour, but they still sought a voice in Parliament.At both Chatham and Portsmouth North lower-deck candidates were put up as independent candidates and in the latter case Labour withdrew their candidate so as to leave the lower deck with a straight fight against the coalition candidate. (18)

The second, more direct line of action under discussion was to amalgamate the various lower-deck societies and to establish formal ties with the Workers’ Union – in effect to reconstitute the societies along trade union lines. In the closing months of the war there was talk on the lower deck of a naval strike. The Workers‘ Union offered the lower deck material assistance,and by the end of the year the joint committees were discussing with the Union the possibility of centralising their operations in the Union’s London headquarters. (19)

The Admiralty were slowly becoming aware of the movement that was developing, but instinctively steered away from a confrontation at this critical time. The Board of Admiralty were advised,

It is quite certain that any attempt to suppress any of the Benefit Societies would provoke a conflagration. The real question requiring attention appears…whether or not it is desirable to attempt to check in any way the undoubted growth of Trade Union opinions and to some extent, methods in the Fleet as being contrary to Article XI of King’s Regulations….It would probably be easier after the war when H[ostilities] O[nly] men have ceased to serve to grapple with the whole subject…Of course it may be that they are already stronger than is known. (20)

However, a dramatic strike by the police at the end of August, which was carefully watched by the lower deck, injected a greater sense of urgency into their deliberations and the Admiralty set up a standing Naval Personnel Committee made up of officers and departmental officials to monitor the activities of lower-deck societies and make recommendations on the question of direct representation. The Committee’s terms of reference warned about the dangers of permitting representation through a trade union, and the Admiralty’s paranoia over the thought of lower-deck organisation was reflected in their insistence that the Committee should have no direct contact with ratings, that its existence be kept secret from them, and that on no account was any impression to be given that it was a grievance committee. (21) In other words there was to be no encouragement of collective grievances.

Royal Navy Rating receiving wages
Ratings receiving their pay from the Paymaster – as traditional, in their hat

Lower deck pressure for a substantial pay increase soon forced the Admiralty to extend the functions of the Naval Personnel Committee.A number of newspapers took up the sailors’ case and at the end of December 1918 the Financial Secretary to the Admiralty told his Board colleagues:

I view the condition of the Lower Deck…as needing prompt and sympathetic consideration – or there will be trouble….The Treasury must be told definitely that it is probably asking for trouble with the Fleet. (22)

As a result the Naval Personnel Committee was reconstituted as a committee on pay. As a partial concession to demands for direct representation, twelve lower-deck ratings were to be attached to it in an advisory capacity, and in an unprecedented move the Committee was to hear evidence from elected spokesmen among the ratings. (23) On the eve of its hearings over 100 ratings met in London in defiance of the ban on combinations to formulate a common programme of demands. The benefit societies made sure that a majority of the witnesses elected were from among their own members. (24)

Altogether 240 ratings appeared before the Committee in January and February 1919, and for the most part stuck to the common programme of demands. The case for substantial improvements in conditions was overwhelming and the Committee recommended that ratings‘ pay at the lower level be more than doubled, and that other concessions be made to take the heat out of the situation. (25) Yet there still remained the need to devise an ongoing procedure for grievance handling, and this continued to be demanded in the press and parliament. Miners, engineers and many other groups of workers were now resorting to militant tactics, apparently with some success, and this registered with the lower deck. Time seemed to be running out if the Admiralty were to head off trade union recruiting in the Navy. Even before the committee on pay had completed its hearings the Second Sea Lord circulated an urgent memorandum among the Board of Admiralty:

I desire to bring to the notice of the Board that, in my opinion, there is no doubt that an organised attempt is being made by socialist and syndicalist circles to introduce into the Navy a Lower Deck Union on Trade Union lines. . .The position with which we are now faced is that: if we do nothing, there is the possibility that the Lower Deck Union will become an accomplished fact. If, on the other hand, we are prepared to allow the men a recognised means of presenting their grievances ­– real or imaginary – and aspirations collectively I believe that the danger of an unauthorised Union will be averted. It is…. essential to provide an authorised and controlled means for the Lower Deck to ventilate its feelings.(26)

The Admiralty had to move quickly. The committee on pay with its lower-deck advisory members offered what at the time seemed to be an acceptable formula, and just ten days after the Second Sea Lord‘s warning was delivered the Admiralty announced that a permanent system of “welfare committees” would be established on similar lines. As The Fleet noted, almost at the point of being forced to take unconstitutional action the men were now being offered an alternative course that enabled them to stay within the law. (27)

What exactly precipitated this hasty measure? In the first place there was the obvious growth of lower-deck society membership. At the time of the Armistice there were a dozen benefit societies functioning and shortly afterwards there were reckoned to be 10,000 members. Recruitment was now being extended to junior ratings, especially Seamen and Stokers. In April 1919, the newly formed Seamen‘s Society alone claimed almost 7,000 members and during the next twelve months Stoker Society membership nearly doubled to reach 5,000 in 1920. Lower-deck militancy at the end of the war had helped recruiting and the establishment of the welfare committee system had appeared to offer the societies an expanded role. The growth in the movement was very much a mirror image of the growing interest in trade unionism ashore where total membership was now double the level of 1914. (28)

Meanwhile a more direct link between the lower deck and radical trade unionism was being forged in the form of the newly established Sailors’, Soldiers‘ and Airmen‘s Union (SSAU). The SSAU was effectively launched following an army mutiny at Folkestone in January 1919. Soldiers had taken a leaf from the lower-deck book and demanded the right to elect a standing committee to act as advisers to the War Office on service matters affecting the welfare of the men. (29) Recruiting meetings were being held up and down the country and branches were established at Harwich, Chatham, Portsmouth and Devonport. (30) However, the SSAU‘s heyday was short-lived. With the vast majority of its members in the process of demobilisation its focus gradually gravitated towards the ex-service movement and lost its appeal for active servicemen. By the end of 1919 it was dead in the Navy, but its brief flirtation with ratings had certainly frightened the Admiralty.

A ‘Permanent’ Welfare Committee System?

It was now a question of whether the newly announced welfare committee system would satisfy the lower deck. The scheme involved elected ratings from each port meeting annually to decide on the requests to be laid before the Naval Personnel Committee. The delegates would be free to discuss questions of pay, promotions, messing arrangements, pensions and so on but not matters of naval policy or discipline. And the meetings would elect 18 advisory delegates who would be available for consultation with the Committee while the requests were under consideration. (31) But some important details of the arrangement had been left unspecified and this caused many ratings to have  reservations. For one thing they were unclear as to how elections of welfare delegates would take place. Would they be supervised by officers ­– in which case men would almost certainly feel inhibited – or would they be conducted by the ratings themselves?

In fact the lower deck‘s worst fears were confirmed, and when the elections took place at Chatham and Portsmouth they were under official supervision. (32) Beyond this was the argument that a system of democratic representation required the existence of an organisational base among ratings to serve as a forum for discussion and reporting back. The lower-deck societies appeared to be the obvious vehicle for this function, and many people found it hard to imagine how the system would be able to operate if men were not allowed to meet in their societies and discuss welfare issues. (33) The Admiralty had announced that King’s Regulations would be amended on the subject of collective organisation so as to permit ratings to meet at the inter-port welfare conference, but all other combinations were still illegal. In other words the superstructure of representation was permissible but not the necessary infrastructure.

As the Second Sea Lord had observed when the welfare arrangements were first under consideration:

Any relaxation of the regulations will be but the thin end of the wedge which will split the discipline of the Navy. From an organisation for representing the aspirations of the lower deck it would be but a short step to one very much akin to the equivalent of the Soldiers’and Workmen’s Committee. (34)

In fact the Admiralty had no intention of recognising any role for the societies in the welfare system, though the heady days of 1919 were not the right time to declare this openly. The welfare committee system was intended to remove any justification for ratings to become involved with trade unionism. Rather than recognise a role for the benefit societies the welfare system aimed to undermine them. The Admiralty’s strategy was to ride out the period of militancy and then to re-establish a firm grip on the lower deck.

The weakness of the system from the lower deck point of view soon became evident in October 1919 when the first welfare committee met. The benefit societies were able to exert some influence on the election of delegates,but the absence of any officially recognised organisation within which the lower deck could debate and decide their programme inevitably meant that welfare delegates as a whole could never be controlled and held to account. On top of this there was no discipline in drawing up the requests, and the result was a heavily overloaded list with over 300 grievances put forward ranging from general complaints of major importance to minor irritations affecting only a few ratings. (35) This inevitably meant a long delay in processing the claims and it was nine months before the Admiralty issued any reply. Meanwhile sections of the lower deck grew restive. There was renewed talk about the need for a more militant approach and letters to the lower-deck press urged more progress in plans for an amalgamated union. (36)

The Admiralty Reasserts its Authority

All the time the Admiralty were biding their time, waiting for the right moment to intervene. Monitoring the situation in early 1920, some senior officers detected a renewed shift away from benefit concerns and towards trade unionism and thus advocated swift action to block the trend. (37) But others were more sanguine believing that time was on their side. Hostilities only ratings with their civilian values were leaving the Service. The fleet,concentrated for several years past in home waters and subject to political influences on shore, was being dispersed and this, it was thought, would tend to make the rating “more of a sailor and less of a local politician”.The strategy decided upon therefore was to draft a comprehensive order on discipline carefully detailing what benefit societies could and could not do,and reaffirming the basic principle of no combinations in the Service. The order was to be held in readiness and not issued until a favourable moment presented itself. The Admiralty also decided to restrict the scope of future welfare committees by banning the submission of grievances which had previously been turned down. (38)

When the lower-deck delegates assembled for the second welfare committee meeting in July 1920 there was a general feeling of bitterness and frustration. The results of the 1919 proceedings had yet to be announced and the delegates were unable to go ahead with the business at hand. For several days they sat and waited at Devonport and talked of the possibility of joining up with a trade union. (39) When eventually the Admiralty announced their reaction to the 1919 welfare requests it was clear that only about one- quarter of them had been approved and these mainly the less important ones. There seemed to be little point in the delegates going through all the motions again and a deputation travelled up to London to see First Sea Lord Admiral Beatty to enquire about the Admiralty’s long term plans for the handling of welfare.Beatty’s answers failed to satisfy them that the system would be made more effective, and on returning to Devonport they formally asked for the committee to be disbanded. (40) Thus the second welfare committee folded up without even beginning its work.

It was apparent that there was a significant divergence between lower deck and Admiralty ideas on how grievances and requests should be dealt with. A letter from a rating to the Naval and Military Record captured the feelings of many sailors:

The Navy is governed by a class drawn from less than 3 per cent of the population, and they have made the efforts of the Welfare Committee, drawn from the other 97 per cent, abortive. The Navy must not despise the lawful and constitutional methods adopted in the industrial world for securing their needs. They must unite in one solid, lower-deck union, with civil officials and officers in London, and a programme of activity on similar lines to other unions, and of course, affiliation as desired. (41)

The Cabinet was now alerted by the Special Branch in Coventry that ratings on leave showed signs of indignation over the way the welfare committee delegates had been treated and had expressed a view that lower-deck loyalty could not be counted on if the Admiralty‘s attitude to welfare did not change. There were also ominous intelligence reports that ratings were taking a greater interest in “politics” and following trade union developments very closely. (42) And in August 1920 a definite proposal to amalgamate all the lower-deck societies in a single organisation led by a prominent trade union official was now discussed at society meetings. (43)

At the Admiralty the First Lord‘s office were in favour of taking the bull by the horns and putting a stop to the benefit societies, but others, more sensitive to the political atmosphere, still felt the time was not right. (44) Political and industrial militancy in the country was at a high point with the formation of Councils of Action over British intervention in Russia. And at this very moment the TUC, in a more aggressive mood than ever before, was meeting in conference – in Portsmouth! It coincided with new Home Office evidence of efforts to undermine the loyalty of the forces. The radical National Union of ex- Servicemen (NUX), incorporating many former SSAU members,was reported to be particularly active in Portsmouth. During TUC conference week many sailors attended an NUX meeting addressed by miners‘ union delegates and gave a commitment that they would not strike break in the event of a mining dispute. Throughout the week conference delegates circulated among ratings in public houses discussing the need for organisation. Building trade union delegates even went aboard ships to spread the message, and uniformed sailors joined a Labour Party demonstration of several thousand people on Southsea Common to hear Clydeside politician David Kirkwood urge sailors to disobey orders if sent to Russia. (45)

Discussion of the need for lower-deck unionism continued through the autumn, and in October the military correspondent of The People expressed confidence that a naval union would eventually be formed. (46) But already the security services were closing in. In mid- October the offices of the Workers’ Dreadnought were raided following the publication of an article calling on sailors to stand beside the workers. A few days later the Home Office obtained evidence that Cecil L’Estrange Malone, a Communist Member of Parliament, had received £300 from Russia to spend on agitation among ratings. Malone and Sylvia Pankhurst, editor of the Workers‘ Dreadnought, were arrested and sentenced to six months‘imprisonment. (47) As examples to the lower deck, two ratings were discharged from the Navy for associating with Pankhurst. (48) Benefit society leaders who had had contact with Malone took fright and wrote to the Admiralty expressing their loyalty to the Service. (49) Now at last the Admiralty decided that the moment was opportune to announce publicly their attitude to the lower-deck societies, and in December 1920 a Fleet Order was issued setting out to define the legitimate functions of the societies for once and for all. Benefit work was acceptable, but there society activities had to end – and there was to be no more talk of amalgamation. The societies had won the official recognition that they had long been pressing for – but at the cost of ever being able to engage in the wider field of welfare. (50) At a single stroke they had been recognised– and disarmed.

Decline – and Final Roar

Membership of the lower-deck societies now fell away.Stripped of their influence in welfare matters, they held less attraction for the men, while knowing that they were likely to be watched for subversive activities ratings stayed away from meetings. By the end of 1921 about half their members had lapsed and the Admiralty felt it was now safe to revive the welfare committee system. (51) But senior officers were opposed to the reintroduction of the earlier arrangement. “Direct communication…with the Admiralty…should not be countenanced,” advised the commander-in-chief at Chatham, while his counterpart at Devonport told the Admiralty, ” . . .the Welfare system as it existed in 1919 and 1920 cuts at the foundation of discipline. . .I cannot but regret the initiation of the system.” (52)

The welfare committee system had resembled a weak form of company unionism but even this, it seemed, was anathema to the authorities. In the end a modified welfare arrangement was introduced. Conferences of delegates would only take place every two years; officers would now attend the delegate meetings, and there would be no advisory delegates to deal directly with the Admiralty. In effect direct representation was ruled out. (53) There was widespread apathy towards the system on the lower deck. It was not easy to formulate significant proposals that had not been previously turned down. The first revised welfare meeting was held in 1922; no co-ordinated discussion of priorities preceded it among the lower deck, and again the list of requests forwarded to the Admiralty was burdened with a large number of petty grievances. Over 250 complaints and proposals were submitted but when more than a year later the Admiralty replied only a bare dozen of the more important requests had been approved. (54) There was little surprise on the lower deck,only an air of cynicism. With all the restrictions surrounding it the welfare system had become largely irrelevant, and though it limped along for another ten years it aroused no lower deck enthusiasm.

There was one last boom period of benefit society activity before the Admiralty finally closed the door on lower-deck collective organisation. With the economic slump came talk of cuts in pay and with the first hint of a reduction in lower-deck pay in 1922 the societies started to revive.Throughout 1923 a major campaign was conducted against pay cuts. Protest meetings were held, members of parliament lobbied and the support of the press enlisted. The threat to existing levels of pay became a rallying cry for recruiting members into the societies. In the course of the year 1,500 new members joined the Stokers and Seamen’s societies and the Admiralty feared that the next step would be to extend organisation from shore establishments to sea-going ships. (55) A close watch was kept on the activities of the joint committees. The Admiralty recognised that these bodies were not covered by the 1920 order concerning benefit society activity and the scope for disciplinary action against civilian members of the joint committee was limited. (56) All that could be done was to frighten active servicemen and benefit society officials away from having anything to do with the more radical welfare activities of the joint committees.

In October 1923 an opportunity presented itself for the Admiralty to step in once more. The joint committee leaders had sent an open letter on behalf of the lower deck to the members of parliament representing dockyard constituencies asking them to oppose any pay cuts. The commander-in-chief at Portsmouth decided that a show of force was in order and insisted that a special meeting of joint committee delegates be convened. His chief of staff attended, solemnly read out the King’s Regulations on the subject of illegal combinations and the text of the 1920 order on benefit societies, warned the delegates that their actions would be watched, and refusing to allow any discussion left the meeting. (57)

This dramatic intervention had its intended effect on the benefit societies, and to emphasise that the Admiralty meant to enforce the ban on unauthorised welfare meetings instructions were issued for naval officers to attend society meetings as observers. The Seamen’s Society at Devonport actually refused to grant admission to the officer designated. Robert Young MP, a former general secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, complained to the Admiralty on behalf of the Engine Room Artificers’ Society that “…no business can be done in the presence of strangers. Trade unionists are apprehensive of this line of action.“ (58) The Admiralty responded that now the societies had been given a sharp reminder of where the borderline between lawful and unlawful action lay, there was no intention of making permanent the practice of sending naval officer observers. Yet the order was never withdrawn,and henceforth the society meetings were subject to possible observation by officers at any time. (59) The action against the societies had served its purpose; the intervention of the chief of staff at Portsmouth was a turning point in the history of the lower-deck societies, and never again would their membership approach the levels of 1919-23.

By the end of the 1920‘s the joint committees at the home ports were little more than a self-perpetuating clique of ex-servicemen with little influence and representing hardly anybody but themselves. Several benefit societies were on the verge of collapse, though by the late 1930’s there were still seven of them in existence, and a few survived to the 1970s essentially as social clubs. The welfare conferences continued to be held until 1932 when,in the wake of the Invergordon Mutiny, the Admiralty seized the opportunity to dispense with this half-hearted approach to lower-deck welfare and reverted to a more top-down system.

Whether or not lower-deck ideas for a fully-fledged system of direct representation would have worked is an open question. It could have provided a safety valve for the airing of grievances and might conceivably have averted the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931, for it was widely recognised that on that occasion the mutineers were forced to take the drastic action they did for want of any other means of drawing attention to their cause. Yet it is certainly true that ratings rarely examined some of the difficulties their proposals involved. For example, little attention was paid to the problem of how democratic representation would work in a hierarchical society such as the lower deck which relied on a command system of authority. Similarly no thought was given to the fact that it was the Treasury and not the Admiralty who controlled the purse strings and therefore decided the fate of many of the welfare proposals. However, it was not on technical points like this that Admiralty opposition to direct representation was based. For them it implied trade unionism, socialism, the sharing of authority with an external agency and ultimately the collapse of naval discipline. And for these reasons the most determined attempt ever seen to introduce democratic representation into the British armed services was vigorously opposed and finally defeated.

Cover of Carew's Book on labour relation in the Royal Navy  1900-1939 including the Invergordon 'Mutiny'


1. An early study of this issue from the Naval point of view is Commander Harry Pursey, “From Petitions to Reviews”, Brassey’s Naval Annual, (1937), pp97-110.

2. Hampshire Telegraph, October 26, 1901; David Dougan, The Shipwrights, (Newcastle upon Tyne, Frank Graham, 1977), pp 95-96.

3. Records of the Registrar of Friendly Societies; The Fleet, January, 1913, p. 5; March, 1914, p. 69.

4. The Fleet, March, 1906, p. 85.

5 Calendar of Clarendon State Papers, Select Naval Documents, p. 68.

6. The Fleet, May, 1908, p. 140.

7. H.A. Clegg, The System of Industrial Relations in Great Britain, (Totowa, N.J. Rowan and Littlefield, 1972), p. 377; Pursey, op.cit., pp. 101-2.

8. Naval and Military Record, April 15 and 22, 1914.

9. The Fleet, August 1911, p. 168; May 1912, p. 457; July 1913, p. 204; Western Daily Mercury, March 30, 1912; April 2, 1912.

10. Adm. 1/8498/201, Admiralty Papers, National Archives, Kew.

11. Letter from de Robeck to Admiral Beatty, September 22, 1917, Adm. 1/8498/201.

12. Quarterly Returns of Courts Martial, 1917.

13. S.H. Plummer minute, December 10, 1917, Adm. 178/157.

14. Hampshire Telegraph, August 24, 1917.

15. House of Commons Debates, March 6, 1918, col. 1982.

16. N.L. 81079/17.

17. Letter from George Tewkesbury, Secretary of the Portsmouth Joint Committee, to Lionel Yexley, editor of The Fleet, June 7, 1918.

18. Tewkesbury letters to Yexley, June 7 and 15, 1918; Portsmouth Joint Committee Minutes, August 14, 1918; The Fleet, February, 1929. p. 23.

19. The Fleet,June, 1918, p. 83; Hampshire Telegraph,January 16, 1920; Naval and Military Record, November 27, 1918. The Workers’ Union later became a founding component of the Transport and General Workers Union.

20. Departmental minute (author unknown), July 29, 1918, Adm. 178/157.

21. Adm. 1/8539/250.

22. Financial Secretary to the Admiralty minute, December 23, 1918, Adm. 116/1728.

23. Jerram Report, April 1919, Cmd. 149.

24. Portsmouth Joint Committee Minutes, January 8, 1919.

25. Jerram Report, op. cit.

26. Second Sea Lord minute, February 14, 1919, Adm. 1/8566/235.

27. The Fleet, April 1919, p. 55.

28. The Fleet,July 1920, p 136; Hampshire Telegraph,July 30, 1920; Twenty Second Abstract of Labour Statistics, (HMSO, 1937), p 137.

29. Home Office Directorate of Intelligence, Reports of Revolutionary Organisation in the United Kingdom, March 10, 1919, CAB. 24/76; Daily Herald, January 11, 1919.

30. Reports of Revolutionary Organisation, April 30, 1919, CAB. 24/78.

31. The Fleet, October 1919, p. 154; Board of Admiralty Minutes, August 19, 1919, Adm. 1/8566/235.

32. Report of meeting of First Sea Lord with Commanders-in-Chief, Portsmouth, Chatham and Devonport, June 12, 1919, Adm. 116/1893.

33. The Fleet, April, 1919, p 55; Hampshire Telegraph,July 18, 1919.

34. Second Sea Lord minute, December 21, 1918, Adm. 116/1728.

35. The Fleet, August, 1923, p. 113.

36. The Fleet, August 1919, p. 130; March 1920, p. 54; Hampshire Telegraph, July 2, 1919.

37. Letter from Admiral Madden to Admiralty, January 14, 1920; Director of Naval Intelligence minute, February 2, 1920, Adm. 178/157.

38. Admiral Chatfield minute, February 20, 1920, Adm. 178/157.

39. Naval and Military Record, July 14, 1920; Hampshire Telegraph, April 1, 1921.

40. Hampshire Telegraph, April 27, 1921; May 6, 1921; June 3, 1921.

41. Naval and Military Record, August 11, 1920.

42. C.P. 1793, August, 19, 1920.

43. The Fleet, December 1920, pp 208-9; Hampshire Telegraph, September 24, 1920.

44. Secretary to the Board of Admiralty memorandum to Second Sea Lord, August 14, 1920, Adm. 178/157.

45. C.P. 1848, September 9, 1920; Hampshire Telegraph, September 10, 1920.

46. The People, October 24, 1920.

47. Naval and Military Record, October 27, 29, 1920; C.P. 2027, October 28, 1920.

48. Adm. 12/1635.

49. The Fleet, December 1920, p 209; Hampshire Telegraph, December 31, 1920.

50. Admiralty Fleet Order 2657, December 22, 1920.

51. The Fleet, July 1922, p. 107.

52. Letter from Admiral Doveton-Sturdee to Admiralty, February 10, 1921 and from Admiral Browning to Admiralty, February 16, 1921, Adm. 116/1893.

53. Admiralty Weekly Orders, November 14, 1921.

54. Admiralty Fleet Order 1703, June 26, 1923.

55. HampshireT elegraph, June 22, 1923; The Fleet, September, 1923, p. 129; April 1924, p. 62; Chairman of Naval Personnel Committee Minute, November 22, 1923, Adm. 1/8666/159.

56. Head of Naval Law minute, November 12, 1923, Adm. 1/8666/159.

57. Letter from Admiral Fremantle to Admiralty, November 9, 1923, Adm. 1/8666/159.

58. The Fleet, March 1924, p. 45; letter from Young to First Lord of the Admiralty, February 6,1924, Adm. l/8666/159.

59. Letter from First Lord of the Admiralty to Young, March 3, 1924, Adm. 1/8666/159.