Lower Deck Reforms from 1900 - 1919

How were changes in the treatment of sailors brought about?

The Victorian Navy- Postcard of pay parade
The Victorian Navy - Postcard of pay parade (RNM)

A sailor in the mid 19th century would have felt at home on one of Nelson's ships at Trafalgar in 1805. By the end of the century, however, with the rapid technological advances, he would have found himself lost on the new ships of the British Navy. A new Navy demanded a new structure, attitude and discipline. The period 1900-1919 shows the beginning of this development. The practices at the turn of the century were now becoming inefficient and wasteful.

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To find out about the 'Loyal Appeal', select next

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The Loyal Appeal

The only means of drawing attention to dissatisfaction was through the making of a 'Loyal Appeal' which was collective and anonymous and a measure usually confined to the Warrant and Petty Officers of the Navy. A group of Petty Officers in Devonport drew up the first important 'Loyal Appeal' in 1904 by making 20 suggestions for improvements. The Petty Officers' appeals related to catering and cooking and also clothing. They asked to receive their first kit of clothing free of charge as other services like the police did. Royal Navy's command felt Victorian morals and values of temperance could only be achieved through repression and harsh punishment. Sailors making complaints could receive punishment.

To discover the characters who implemented changes in the treatment of sailors, select Next

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The characters of change

October 1905 saw the appointment of the First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher who was soon to start revolutionising the way the Navy manned and operated its ships with new equipment and strategy. Former sailor-turned journalist Lionel Yexley became editor of the The Fleet newspaper in 1905 and in 1906 Britain elected a new Liberal Government on the manifesto of making sweeping social changes.

Ships Bookstall- selling The Fleet
Ships Bookstall- selling The Fleet (RNM)

Yexley's editorship of The Fleet sought to revise the catering and disciplinary arrangements and introduce, a system that allowed good young ratings to gain promotion to officer rank. Combined with the annual 'Appeal', which from 1906 onwards was written by a joint committee of the various Lower Deck benefit societies, changes in naval systems were more successful. This 'Appeal' had gained credibility and by 1906 had effectively become a semi-official document. Following investigations into existing catering and cooking systems, two committees led by Rear Admiral Login brought about the first reforms in 1907. Further changes in promotion and discipline were to occur when another key character came to the Admiralty.

To find out about the Brock Committee, select Next

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The Brock Committee

Prime Minister Asquith gave the young politician Winston Churchill the post of First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. Although Admiral Fisher left the Admiralty in 1910, Churchill was to rely heavily on him for advice throughout the next three years. Shortly after taking up his post, Fisher introduced Churchill to Yexley. Following this introduction, Churchill developed a plan called the 'Mates Scheme' to allow ratings to become officers. Another important measure was the formation of the Brock Committee in 1912 to investigate the Discipline system, which was the last great 'plank' of Yexley's most desired naval reforms. Yexley felt passionately that the Disciplinary system was old fashioned and not in line with the needs of a modern, technically advanced fighting service. Yexley published a book 'Our Fighting Sea Men' stating his case in 1911. Unfortunately while many good commanding officers were flexible in their interpretation of the rules, some COs unquestioning adherence to them and use of unofficial and unreported punishments made their men's lives a misery. Yexley strove to bring this to the Admiralty's attention. He also drew the Admiralty's attention to the need that Petty Officers should be tried by Court Martial rather than by their Commanding Officers if their offence stood them in danger of being dis-rated.

Pay Day HMS Royal Sovereign 1913
Pay Day HMS Royal Sovereign 1913 (RNM)

The Brock Committee investigated the Discipline system but they felt that there was little wrong with it as it stood. The tone of its report remained repressive and traditional. It did accept the need to simplify leave and allow a means of making representations but it refused to contemplate the granting of trial by Court Martial to Petty Officers partly on the grounds that the Navy's mobility would not always permit it. However, Churchill was to over-rule it in this matter. Yexley felt in the main that the Brock Committee Report was no more than a cosmetic exercise.

Fortunately the small changes brought about by the Brock Committee reduced some concerns, as did the award of the first pay increase to ratings for over 50 years. However, this increase of 3 pence (pre-decimalisation) from 1s 5d to 1s 8d per day for an Able Seaman, was only paid to men with more than 6 years service. Thus a man had to be over the age of 24 to qualify for it.

Although it is clear that reforms had begun, by 1912 a considerable amount of discontent had built up on the lower deck. Letters to the English Review and the Naval and Military Record show that low pay had led to a low standard of living for married men. The Admiralty drove a hard bargain with men who were unable to escape from their employment.

To learn how World War One helped to bring about changes in the treatment of sailors, select Next

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World War One

With the outbreak of war in August 1914 The Fleet became more muted in its criticisms and more drawn to praising the efforts of the Lower Deck in the service of the country. None the less, as the war progressed the purchasing power of Sterling continued to decrease. This meant the cost of living increased. Service clothing increased in price: between 1914 and September 1916, the price of a pair of boots rose from 11s 1d to 13s 5d, a pair of underpants from 2s 0d to 2s 4d and 2 bars of soap from 4d to 5d. As prices went up sailor's wages could buy less and less. Married sailors who had to provide for families found this harder than their single counterparts. Once again the Lower Deck became restless.

In 1917, sailors grew agitated and several Members of Parliament became involved. One MP raised several points in the House of Commons but the Parliamentary Secretary gave little cause for hope. The restlessness increased. Two 'Loyal Appeals' followed: the first finally led to an increase in pay of 3d per day to be paid to Able Seamen after 3 years service. Additionally, the Admiralty granted a kit upkeep allowance and increased the catering allowance from 5d to 7d per day. The second saw a pay rise of 2d per day for an Able Seaman and 5d for a Chief Petty Officer. This calmed the situation until mid 1918 when discontent amongst the lower deck grew again.

Letter sent from Lionel Yexley to Winston Churchill warning him of the sailor's discontent (RNM)
Letter sent from Lionel Yexley to Winston Churchill warning him of the sailor's discontent (RNM)

Sailors were concerned as they compared their wages to those of other workers granted wage rises through the use of strike action. This became so great that a move began to create a link between the Lower Deck Societies and the labour movement. Yexley disagreed with this and worked hard to prevent it. He drew to the attention of the Government and Admiralty the sailor's grievances and also sent a copy of his pamphlet to the King, which argued the case for concessions. These actions gained him attention from the intelligence services, but he was seen by the First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr Eric Geddes and shortly after Geddes granted these further concessions.

Pamphlet written by Lionel Yexley describing how the sailor's grievances could be met (RNM)
Pamphlet written by Lionel Yexley describing how the sailor's grievances could be met (RNM)

To find out about the Jerram Committee, select Next

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The Jerram Committee

Although sailors made no further 'Appeals', the Admiralty realised by late 1918 that the whole matter of pay, allowances and pensions was in need a major over-haul. No doubt the end of the war permitted this financially and in January 1919 it duly set up the Jerram Committee. Almost simultaneously a group of delegates from the lower-deck societies met in the presence of the press and drew up a list of 20 pay-related requests. The committee was quick to react and merely 3 weeks after it had convened they announced that the Admiralty was able to announce an interim increase in pay. This would take the pressure off whilst the Committee investigated pay, allowances and pensions.

There was a great deal of discussion over the findings of the Jerram Committee when it submitted its report in 1919. The results were:

Letter from G. Kingsford, President of the Portsmouth Branch of the Victualling Department, thanking Lionel Yexley for his contribution to the Jerram Committee (RNM)
Letter from G. Kingsford, President of the Portsmouth Branch of the Victualling Department, thanking Lionel Yexley for his contribution to the Jerram Committee (RNM)

The pay increases recommended by the Jerram Committee in 1919 brought what is probably the most important period of reforms for the Lower Deck of the Royal Navy to a close. It had seen major changes in the feeding, clothing, paying and treatment of the sailors who fought in the First World War: arguably the first since the Spithead and Nore Mutinies of 1797. They were long over-due, though it is clear that a number of them particularly the improvements to cooking, where new infrastructure and training was needed, took some time to introduce.