The Navy Records Society was founded in 1893 by a group of historians, naval officers, publicists and statesmen led by Professor Sir John Knox Laughton and Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge. Its aim was to publish documents on the history of the Royal Navy in order to influence naval policy and doctrine.
In the 21st century the Society redefined its purpose as being to promote Britain’s naval heritage by publishing original, often rare, documents aimed at professionals, academics and members of the public with an interest in the subject.
The Society has published printed volumes of original documents and papers almost every year since its foundation. In 2006 the NRS produced its 150th volume. This was Part II of the Cunningham Papers, edited by Michael Simpson, lately Reader in History at the University of Wales, Swansea. The event was marked by a reception in St James’s Palace attended by the Society’s Patron, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who, as a midshipman served under Admiral Cunningham at the Battle of Matapan, and by former First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jock Slater, a kinsman of Cunningham.
By Captain A.B. Sainsbury
The formation of the Navy Records Society reflected the considerable and growing public interest in the Royal Navy and in Imperial Defence which characterised the last decades of the nineteenth century. ‘Navalism’, the growing emphasis directed by the great and the ambitious nations towards naval armament and rearmament, and Imperialism, based on colonies, overseas bases and maritime trade were becoming increasingly evident as national policies. They partly caused, partly derived from, new schools of political and professional thinking.
Politically, defence spending had become the largest item of British government expenditure by 1885, and from 1896 the Navy Votes normally exceeded the combined Army and Ordnance total. The Imperial Defence Act of 1888 had been followed the next year by a Naval Defence Act which provided £21.5 million for a major building programme, which included ten battleships, spread over five years. Russia and France laid down twelve and announced plans for five more, to counter which three more appeared in the Admiralty Estimates between 1892 and 1894, when Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, proposed another quinquennial programme costing another £21 million and including seven more capital ships. This was too much for Gladstone. He had been sustained as Prime Minister since 1892 by the non-conformist and anti-militant lobby in the Liberal party, opposed to heavy spending on armaments and inclined to delay the programme. In the face of the growing navalist lobby he resigned on 1 March 1894; within a week Rosebery’s Cabinet had accepted Spencer’s proposals and the consequential introduction of new Death Duties – a somewhat macabre name for the necessary revenue devised by Sir William Harcourt, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Other concomitants were the Naval Works Acts and a doubling of naval manpower between 1889 and 1905. Almost 2.25% of men in work were employed directly or indirectly on naval orders by the end of the century.
This considerable political pressure and national interest in favour of the development of the Navy animated the period in which the Society was conceived. It was reflected in both the foundation and the membership of the Society: Lord Spencer, the Liberal First Lord, was the first President; Lord George Hamilton, his successor as President, had been First Lord in Salisbury’s first two Conservative administrations and had promoted the Naval Defence Acts in the 1880s. It was also manifested in similar, if more popular, even jingoistic activities such as the foundation of the British Navy League in 1895. In 1896 Michael Oppenheim, one of the Society’s auditors, noted that “in recent years a more widely diffused interest has permeated all classes of society, and there is, happily, a vastly increased perception of what the Navy means for England and the Empire”.
Parallel changes took place in the professional education of the new Navy and of the electorate. When Reginald McKenna, the First Lord, opened the new Admiralty Library in 1911 he saw its establishment as ‘the continuation of a movement in which the first step was the starting of an Intelligence Department and a second the founding of the Navy Records Society’. Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge provided a significant personal link between two foundations: he had joined the Navy in 1853 and forty years later, when DNI, he chaired the meeting on 13 June 1893 which resulted in the inauguration of the Society as we know it. The Society celebrating its anniversary this year appears still to be doing what it was formed to do a hundred years ago – ‘publishing rare works or manuscripts of naval interest’, which might otherwise remain relatively inaccessible. It is however fundamentally different in its purpose despite the apparent continuity of its aim, and this change of motivation is the most interesting aspect of its history so far. The aim is unchanged but the purpose of publishing such works has become far less polemical and much more academic.
The ‘movement’ mentioned by McKenna was a spontaneous combination of like-minded men, both naval officers and civilians, who found in an age of bewildering technical and accelerating political changes that they shared the belief that future naval policies could only be guided better by a more scientific study of naval history. Here was the genesis of the Navy Records Society. This perception grew steadily in the late Victorian Age, when the most recent naval events of note afloat had been the escape of Calliope from the hurricane at Samoa in 1889 when all six foreign warships had been lost, and Noel’s taking the Temeraire up Suda Bay under sail in 1890. The first World War was still twenty years away; the Great War still referred to the quarter century of conflict which had started another century before, and during which the First Lord’s grandfather had been First Lord from 1794 to 1801. An RNAS was scarcely conceivable, an RAF even less so; the wind into which the first aircraft carriers would turn to help their aircraft safely into the air was still preferred by traditionally minded officers who regarded wistfully the age of sail. Charles Parsons had thought much about the development of the marine steam turbine but had not yet built Turbinia. Warrior was still in commission; Victory would be afloat for another thirty years and is still in commission; Inflexible, though rerigged, still carried the pole masts under which it had been intended, when she completed in 1876, that she could still cruise should her engines fail or her Captain decide to economise on fuel.
In 1893 the developing political and polemical trends were brought together, partly as a kind of natural and inevitable historical process but essentially through the perception of John Knox Laughton. A native of Liverpool and a graduate of Cambridge, he had joined the Navy as a civilian Instructor in 1853 when the DNI had entered as a cadet. He had seen action in the Baltic in the Crimean war, and thereafter, in Calcutta, on the East Indian station. He moved with the RN College in 1873 from Portsmouth to Greenwich where he became Head of the Department of Meteorology and Marine Surveying. His conversion to naval history was something of a Pauline experience. His two memorable lectures on its scientific study at the Royal United Service Institution in 1874 and 1875 in the presence of his Admiral President led the latter to extend his lecturing at Greenwich. In 1876 he gave the first lecture recorded there on naval history, and like many a convert lectured ever after with truly Knoxian fervour. His father had given up the sea for Calvinism; the son left the Navy for its history. He retired in 1885, published his first book, an edition of Nelson’s Letters and Despatches, and in 1886 was appointed Professor of Modern History at King’s College, London. By 1893 he had acquired a unique position. Well remembered and respected within the Navy – he preferred RN to MA among his postnominals – and increasingly respected outside it, he had secured privileged access to the Admiralty papers in the Public Record Office. A scientist needs facts on which to construct or from which to verify his hypotheses; the scientific historian accordingly sought his. Officers he had taught were now in senior appointments, working at Board level with politicians. The most industrious of men, he was probably the best informed about naval affairs in the widest sense, and he saw an opportunity to canalise the rising tide of navalism.
He found willing helpers. Thomas Brassey, who had been Civil Lord of the Admiralty and then Parliamentary Secretary in Gladstone’s second administration [1880-1885] had been created a peer in 1886 and began to edit and to publish privately his Naval Annual. He was to subsidise our fourth volume, a privately commissioned Index to James’s Naval History by C G Toogood, which had the compliment of being reprinted, like three other of the Society’s volumes, by a commercial publisher when it came out of copyright. W L Clowes, naval correspondent of The Times, had published on Trafalgar Day 1890 a very welcoming review by J R Thursfield of Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History, which was followed in this country by Vice Admiral Philip Colomb’s Naval Warfare in 1891. There was a confluence of these growing streams of naval interests that year, culminating in a naval exhibition at Chelsea Hospital and the publication by Commander C N Robinson in the Army and Navy Gazette of a series of articles by Laughton. These led David Hannay, a naval journalist who was to edit the Society’s third volume, to propose in May 1893 the formation of a Monson Society, modelled on the Camden and Hakluyt Societies – a type of organisation by like-minded enthusiasts for the private publication of specialist documents very popular at that time. This was to have been named after Admiral Sir William Monson, (1569-1642) whose Naval Tracts were indeed to be edited, by Michael Oppenheim, and published in five volumes between 1902 and 1914 by the Society which so nearly bore his name but which, as a result of the meeting held at the Royal United Services Institute on 13 June 1893, became the Navy Records Society. There is no evidence to account for the unusual choice of the nautical noun as opposed to its adjective for the first word in the name of the Society, and the question remains a matter of conversational conjecture.
The credit for its formation goes to Laughton who organised that meeting. He exercised more power than Hannay; his initially privileged access to the Admiralty papers in the Public Record Office was extended to make them more available. He was also more influential than Clowes, despite Marder’s claim that it was the latter who proposed the creation of the Society. Now he took the opportunity to convene a preliminary meeting. The DNI took the chair, but it was Laughton who moved the first proposal, ‘that it is desirable to form a Society for publishing rare works or manuscripts of naval interest’, which was seconded by Sidney Lee, (Editor of the Dictionary of National Biography to which Laughton made so notable a contribution), and passed without dissent. There was similar unanimity for Admiral Sir Edward Fanshawe’s proposal, seconded by HRH Prince Louis of Battenberg, ‘that a society be, and is hereby, formed for the publication of rare or unedited works relating to the navy; and that the Rt Hon Earl Spencer, KG be requested to accept the office of President thereof. A provisional committee was set up to recommend a name and rules, and its members deserve to be remembered. In addition to the President, there were Prince Louis, the Hon T A Brassey, Rear Admiral Bridge, Major Sir George Clarke, RE, Vice Admiral Philip Colomb, Admiral Sir Edward Fanshawe (Chairman), David Hannay, J K Laughton (Secretary), Rear Admiral Sir Lambton Lorraine, Captain W J L Wharton and Captain S Eardley-Wilmot. They met on 27 June and agreed to recommend the name we share today, having recruited the Marquis of Lothian to their number, and consulted members throughout the country, ‘more especially those of literary experience and distinction’, including Professor Montague Burrows (a retired Captain and the Chichele Professor at Oxford), Mr C H Firth who was to become the Regius Professor there, and Professor Sir John Seeley who held the Regius Chair at Cambridge, they drew up nineteen rules and proposed officeholders and members of the first Council.
There had been fifty-six supporters at the time of the preliminary meeting; ninety-five had asked for membership when the first General Meeting was held on 4 July. After a bid to rename the body as the Naval [sic] Historical Society had been withdrawn, the rules were made, the officers and councillors appointed and an annual subscription of one guinea (£1.05) fixed to cover the period ending December 1894. The objects of the Society were refined. The first became the editing and publication of Manuscripts illustrating the history, organization or social life of the navy. The second was the reprinting of rare or generally inaccessible works of naval interest and thirdly came the publication of translations of similar manuscripts or works in foreign languages.
Council reported a year later to the first Annual General meeting “a satisfactory membership of 304, and that before the issue of a single volume”; it “conceived that in the interest of the works which they are able to announce as in preparation, and in the names of the Editors of others” there was evidence of “that larger support which the Navy and the Public will presently accord it”. It set up a drafting committee to produce guidance notes for editors which were approved within a month, remain the basis of those in force today and are appended to this note. The committee’s final recommendation, accepted by Council and followed until 1922, was that the Society should not employ a publisher, but appoint Spottiswoode and Ballantyne as its printers and confine the sale of its volumes to members of the Society and to institutional subscribers.
The Society got off to a good start. Spencer accepted the Presidency, and by making his family papers largely available, set an admirable precedent to other owners of significant private collections. Their Royal Highnesses the Dukes of Edinburgh and of York – the former a son of Queen Victoria and the latter her grandson and, as King George Vi, the grandfather of Her Majesty the Queen who has graciously accepted the dedication of our centenary volume – conferred Royal patronage on it from its beginning. Laughton was, inevitably, the first Secretary and distinguished that office for twenty years. The first Treasurer was H F R Yorke, Director of Victualling and the first of those Admiralty civil servants – Sir Graham Greene, Sir John Lang, that doyen of Permanent Secretaries, so rich in committee-stopping commonsense and so quietly proud, like Sir Michael Carey, to be the professional descendant of Samuel Pepys; W G Perrin and D Bonner Smith, Admiralty Librarians both, and Bernard Pool, Director of Navy Contracts – to whom the Society owes so much.
The four Vice-Presidents included the Marquis of Lothian and Professor Sir John Seeley, the twentyfour Councillors Prince Louis, Rear Admiral Bridge, Oscar Browning, two members of the Royal Artillery, a Doctor of Divinity and, ex officio, the Lord Provost of Glasgow. That municipal appointment may have evidenced the industrial and shipowning element which was represented within the membership by men such as Sir Andrew Noble, Lord Armstrong and Walter Runciman, all from Northumberland.
The membership also contained a large element of flag officers, two Directors of Naval Intelligence and two of Naval Construction, a notable proportion of the nobility, (several not instantly identifiable with naval matters and some of whose still uncut sets of volumes occasionally appear at sales) and politicians such as Rosebery, Campbell-Bannerman, Joseph Chamberlain and A J Balfour. The literary world was represented by George Saintsbury and A T Quiller-Couch, the historical by J R Tanner, C H Firth, S R Gardiner and W E H Lecky. There were Lt P Nelson-Ward and Captain Horatio Nelson, RN, and Captain R Nelson, (“Mercht Service”). Captain A T Mahan, USN, who admitted his very considerable debt to Laughton, was the most distinguished foreign recruit. Another was Captain Z P Rogestvensky LRN, then the respected Russian naval attache in London but as an Admiral to lose all his ships at Tsushima. There was an abundance of eminent libraries and other institutions among the corporate subscribers. A future Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence was discernible. There was a Warrant Gunner from Clapham Junction and the Warrant Officers Mess of HMS Cambridge. There was Charles Beresford, but not J A Fisher; perhaps the friendship of Beresford and Custance had sufficed to deter Fisher, though he and Custance had not fallen out at the time. There were Lieutenants R Wemyss and O de B Brock, but neither J R Jellicoe nor David Beatty, although both were away on active service at the material time. The Young Turks were represented by Lt Herbert W Richmond who within twenty years would be instrumental in setting up the Naval Society, which soon became the Naval Review, for a smaller band of like-minded officers, all within the service; Henderson and Webb, their early stalwarts, were also founder members of the NRS. There was in short a rich and promising mix of men. It would be a long time before there was a woman among the Councillors or the Editors, but Susan, Countess of Malmesbury, was a founder member. By the end of 1895 there were about four hundred and forty members, and twenty-five per cent more within twelve months.
It was also inevitable that Laughton should edit the first volume, and the second which he soon found to be necessary and completed within a year, to deal with State papers on the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The end-papers include an interesting further definition of the Society’s aims, which is presumably Laughton’s own work since there is no Council minute authorising or even mentioning the change. The Society was now held out to exist ‘for the purpose of printing rare or unpublished works of naval interest, aimed at rendering accessible the sources of our naval history and at elucidating questions of naval archaeology, construction, administration, organisation and social life’. This text is interesting in the more openly proselytising tone and, if ‘naval’ is read as ‘nautical’, at least after its first use, for the adumbration of the aims of a subsequent Society for Nautical Research.
Laughton had now achieved his ambition to bring together the nautically involved or inclined historian and the historically minded naval officer or politician, on the common ground of doctrines based on the scientific study of documentary sources. If his main aim had been to create a Society which would put history to the practical use of providing evidence and arguments to support the Admiralty’s claim for that growing share of the defence budget which its policies demanded, he incidentally enhanced the academic training of historians. For too long, too many had tended to concentrate on the manipulation and interaction of mainly political factors, treating economic and military elements in much less precise and usually unresearched terms, if they identified them at all. He continued as Secretary until he retired in 1912, editing seven of the forty-two volumes published by then, helping overtly with two more and involved to a greater or a lesser extent with the others – there was no General Editor in his day. This induced interaction of the sailors and the scholars was perhaps his greatest if not his most conspicuous success. That the two have to some extent drifted apart, for whatever reasons, has been the most notable change in the way in which the Society has worked in its first century, when the proportion of naval to civilian editors is taken into account.
When he went, Council recognised him as the founder of the Society and as its only Secretary for twenty years, ‘the whole of their existence’. “But in addition to the ordinary duties … he has been the mainspring of all its activities. His advice and counsel have been at the service of every editor of the Society’s publications who needed them; and from his combination of literary experience and technical knowledge he has been able to supply deficiencies on either side of the double equipment which is required by the naval historian and the editor of naval records.”
Sir John was followed, though only for one year, by L G Carr Laughton, ‘of virtuous father, virtuous son’. Society formation seems to have run in that family; in 1909 the younger Laughton had initiated the Preliminary Committee of what in 1910 became the Society for Nautical Research with that vexing permutation of the same three initial letters which can still confuse, especially those who are members one of another.
The formation of the SNR coincided with a certain impatience that the NRS ought perhaps to be doing more than simply publishing naval records as originally postulated. There were those who had read the third edition of the aims, and, one suspects, those who had not. Commander C N Robinson offered the results of much research towards a naval bibliography; a catalogue of the naval material in the British Museum had been suggested by Julian Corbett and Frederick Kenyon. The latter became a Vice-President of the Society in 1910 and its third President in 1925; he had joined the British Museum in 1889 and became its Director in 1909. Reasonably enough, some members argued that such publications were outside the original aims of the Society, and at Council in December 1909 “the discussion merged with that of a proposal which had been sent to the Secretary for promoting the study of naval archaeology. One proposal, to establish a special society for this study, had been shelved in favour of one for the establishment of a periodical, perhaps monthly, on the lines of Notes and Queries as a means of intercommunication between subscribers. The project appeared to be quite in embryo and the Council, while considering the line of study very desirable and one which might prove in a high degree interesting and useful, could not at present undertake any responsibility concerning it. Providing that the prospectus of the proposed society or publication did not in any way commit the Navy Records Society either as to approval or support, financial or otherwise – the projectors to be allowed to issue it as a leaflet (first submitting it to the officers of the NRS Society) [sic] in its next volume”.
The Treasurer and the Secretary duly approved the pamphlet and it was sent out in 1910 with volume 47. What is not recorded is whether it was revealed that the projector and the pamphleteer was the son of the Secretary of the NRS, but the latter that December gave Council ‘some account of what was being done towards establishing the SNR and asked the members … to consider the future possibility of an amalgamation between the two societies’. The minute books of neither reveal any pursuit of this gambit, which may have been a bid by the elder Laughton to minimize a schism which his own enthusiasm had, perhaps inadvertently, brought about. The younger Laughton, after a tentative start as editor of the journal of the new body, rose to give the latter long and distinguished service.
Sir John’s departure and the evident misgivings about the heir apparent led to Council’s decision that “the duties discharged by Sir John Laughton be divided, that a Permanent Secretary be appointed to advise Council upon the works to be issued by the Society and thereafter to superintend the editing and issue of those works and to give the Secretary all necessary instructions relating thereto … in dealing with the selection of the Secretary, the Committee to give prior consideration to the claims of Sir John Laughton’s son, who should be offered the appointment subject to the conditions which the Committee might think desirable having regard to the duties of the post as defined by them’. The post was offered to, accepted and within a year resigned by L C Carr Laughton, not perhaps surprisingly, though on the grounds of ill-health. W G Perrin, the Admiralty Librarian, was appointed to relieve him, and the ad hoc Editorial Committee was soon disbanded.
The first fifty years of the Society’s history is still fascinating, even though it is written very largely in the pages of the minute books. Members were killed in the South African Wars, in early submarine accidents and then in the first World War during which little could be done in the way of editing or publishing. Thereafter there was still the navalist case to be defended, complicated now by the development and control of airpower in an international context of peace and then of disarmament treaties.
The early years were remarkable for the rate of publication – eighty-three volumes by 1943. Volumes 10, Letters and papers relating to the War with France, 1512-1513, is unique, being the only volume so far edited for the Society by a Frenchman, (M Alfred Spont, who had joined in 1893). Julian Corbett’s Signals and Instructions 1776 – 1794 appeared as Volume 35 in 1908; the subscription was still a guinea. H W Richmond first appeared as an editor in 1913 when his Papers relating to the loss of Minorca in 1756 neatly filled a gap caused by Laughton’s declining health, which had delayed the appearance of his second Naval Miscellany in the year of his retirement.
The Society’s main task was to maintain and if possible to increase its membership. There was a steady if sometimes intermittent production of volumes. The younger Laughton had started to edit an annual bibliography in 1907 but this ceased when the war began and was not reintroduced. Annual lectures were started in 1936, avowedly as ‘propaganda’ – a word used then with delicacy and within inverted commas, and much emphasis was placed on the need to secure more and good reviews of the Society’s volumes, in an effort to recruit new members. Keyes gave the first lecture, followed by Richmond and G M Trevelyan; Arthur Bryant was thwarted in 1939 when recruiting took on a new meaning. The lectures were not well attended, despite the cordial hospitality of Trinity House and of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers and, like an approach to the Headmasters’ Conference, they did not have the desired effect.
The Golden Jubilee was celebrated in 1943 by the fiftieth Annual General Meeting being held on 7 July, three days after the anniversary of the first, and by a modest lunch at Oddeninos, given by thirteen Councillors and the other officers for Sir George Kenyon in his eighteenth year as President. He had announced at the meeting that King George VI would succeed his late brother the Duke of Kent, who had been killed on active service in 1942, as Patron. He remarked that fifty years before, it had cost the Society £121 to produce its first volume; the eighty-second, Captain Boteler’s Recollections, 1808-1830 edited by the Admiralty Librarian, D Bonner-Smith, would cost £528. After the lunch the Secretary, Captain A C Dewar, slipped into the current minute book one of the Society’s few archives apart from those volumes; a menu signed by those who had lunched, marked in his meticulous manner ‘for the records of the NRS and for 1993′. It is a privilege to salute so distinguished an advocate of the rule that administration is the art of looking ahead.
Soon after the formation of the Society, Laughton had with unusual flamboyance pronounced that in fifty years’ time, his audience its survivors would be able to tell their offspring and their grandchildren that “what they know of the art of naval war and of the glories of their country, they owed to the Navy Records Society”. This was powerful stuff, but in 1943 Council went some way to underwriting him by recording its belief that its “numerous volumes … not only comprise a collection indispensable to all students of British history, but represent an endeavour through historical record to keep the vital importance of the work of the Navy and Imperial Defence before the public mind”. Dated as it may seem today, that patriotic sentiment confirmed at the time the received doctrine that had characterised the conception of the Society.
In 1893 there had been an abundance of Admirals, peers and prominent politicians and senior civil servants: by 1943 the balance on Council was still in favour of the Flag list; though the historians were more plentiful, they still tended to represent the professoriate. There were still ten members who had joined in 1893, of whom four – Sir Graham Greene, Admirals Sir Herbert Richmond and Sir Richard Webb, (founder and editor respectively of the Naval Review) and C T Atkinson of Magdalen, were still active in the affairs of the Society. Atkinson died in 1964; he had been joint editor, with S R Gardiner, of the first volume of Papers relating to the First Dutch War under the eye of Laughton; in 1930 he was to edit the sixth. The last member who had been present on 13 June 1893 was Hubert Hall, who died in 1945; in that year there were 564 members, which was very satisfactory, as there had been only 461 in 1939.
The Society has always been governed and its business conducted by a Council of twenty-four members elected annually, and originally as near the first of June as possible, though whether this was symbolic or simply a convenient convention is not clear. In the early years it met as often as necessary, but soon settled to a cycle of three meetings a year – Spring, Autumn and, more recently and more briefly, immediately after the Annual General Meeting instead of immediately before it. Meetings are chaired by the President or in his absence by one of the four Vice-Presidents, one of whom retires each year, as do six members of Council. Council has from time to time exercised its power to appoint committees, strictly responsible to it, in order to expedite its business. An early example was the Editorial Committee (Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge, Erskine Childers and Arthur Gray) set up in 1912 to deal with the Laughton resignations. That was essentially an ad hoc case, and the Committee was short lived. A standing Publications Committee was set up in 1948, to consider the progress of the publication programme and to report and recommend accordingly to Council for executive decisions. This ceased to meet after 1958, but was revived in 1969 and has worked consistently since, occasionally acting as a General Purposes Committee on behalf of Council. In 1992 a Treasurer’s Committee was appointed, to monitor the financial strength of the Society.
At the start of its existence Council appointed two officers, an Honorary Secretary responsible for the administration of the Society and especially for its publications, and an Honorary Treasurer. This division of labour in pursuit of the publishing role has largely stood the test of time. Evidence mounted that that exercise by one person of both the administrative and the literary responsibilities was becoming too burdensome even for a volunteer, and in 1950 the office of Secretary was divided between an Hon Secretary (Administration) and an Hon Secretary (Publications). This separation lasted for only two years, but was revived in 1971, the academic secretary being entitled Hon Secretary (Editorial) and then remustered under his present title of General Editor.
It may be said without complacency that although the membership has not yet exceeded a thousand, the present seven hundred and sixty subscribers seem content with what is done for them. Their volumes are still their main dividend, although an occasional Newsletter was introduced in 1989 to enhance communication between them and Council. It was perhaps unexpected that the membership was greater in 1945 than it had been in 1939. It peaked at 940 in 1978 and exceeded 900 for the next two years, since when it has averaged 750, of whom about two thirds are also members of the Society for Nautical Research.
There have been a number of moves, some more deliberate than others more incidental, towards closer relationships with that Society and with other institutions over the century. For the first three quarters, the Admiralty connection was so close as to seem fundamental. The election of Lord Stanhope as President in 1948 reinforced the existing and largely personal links with the National Maritime Museum; that of the Master of the Rolls ten years later drew us nearer to the Public Record Office. The RUSI was the first base; early meetings were held there, and there have always been cordial relations despite a period of some tension when the Institute was thought reluctant in its Journal’s noticing of the Society’s volumes. Without headquarters of its own, Council has been grateful over the years for the hospitality of Their Lordships before the subordination of their Board to the Defence Council of the Ministry of Defence, to the House of Lords, Trinity House, the Fishmongers Company, the Public Record Office, the National Maritime Museum, the Imperial War Museum in Belfast and more recently to the royal naval Reserve in President, Barclay’s Bank and to the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation.
By 1945 the ‘Great War’ had receded to become the Revolutionary or the Napoleonic wars and the ‘Great War’ of the 1920s and 1930s had become World War I. Members of the Society had lived through World War II; many had fought in it. The consequential changes in historical perspective were, however, hardly reflected in the post-war programme of publications. Of the eighteen volumes issued between 1944 and 1959, twelve dealt with the period 1689 -1815. This was due partly to the still prevalent belief that while cautious ventures into the previous century were permissible the proper stuff of naval history was still to be sought in the Great Age of Sail. It must be said that this seemed to reflect an official view, since restrictions on scholarly access to the public records inhibited the study of more recent years. The Thirty Year Rule was yet to come.
The flood gates were opened in 1960 when by the special permission of the Board of Admiralty Commander Peter Kemp was allowed to prepare the first of two volumes of the Papers of Admiral Sir John Fisher, based on his time as First Sea Lord. The three Byam Martin volumes had taken the Society into the nineteenth century; its publication of the Fisher pair brought it firmly into the twentieth. Benefiting since then from the relaxation of the public restrictions and from the generosity of the owners of private papers in permitting access to them, the Society has made steady progress in recent documentation: Paul Halpem took us into the second quarter with his second volume of the Keyes Papers, made available by the second Lord Keyes, and into World War II with his third volume.
Thirty years ago, a two volume per year programme seemed realistic, and plans were made for the alternation between what were referred to as Ancient and Modern, as more recent sources became available. Captain Roskill’s gigantic first volume on the early history of the naval air service recorded developments incredible in 1893. There was a growing impatience for the papers of Jellicoe and of Beatty, especially when it was decided to include in the second volume of the former Harper’s memorandum on Jutland. This had been deposited with the RUSI, which agreed that it was better for the Society to publish it, albeit without editorial comment and to the regret of some members and to the disappointment of others, in order to pre-empt its pirated publication elsewhere. The eventual publication of the Beatty papers, the second in this memorable year, brings that particular saga in our history to a successful conclusion after several vicissitudes.
Recent years have been busy and innovative. All the back stock has been bound up. A modest reprinting programme was a success. Simpler bindings and smaller margins have been accepted, and after a fascinating and prolonged debate all volumes are now delivered cut. Ventures into microfiche and microfilm were not sufficiently successful to be taken further, and a foreign reprinting arrangement proved disappointing. But the production of acceptable and pleasing volumes continues, and is assured for some time to come.
At its first meeting in 1893, Council had resolved that “for the present the volumes shall not be offered for general sale, but issued only to Members and Subscribers. This will obviously enhance their value to each individual; at the same time it will bring a greater strain on the Society’s funds which it is hoped a continually increasing number of Members will enable them to resist. As the work of the Society must clearly be kept within the limits of its financial ability, the number of volumes issued each year will perforce depend upon the balance sheet” – a proposition of eternal verity, although twenty were issued in the first decade. The relation between money and literary output, between subscription income and the cost of issuing volumes, is a recurrent theme in the Society’s history, and always will be. Council minuted in November 1992 the advice of the present Treasurer that ‘judicious decisions were necessary to ensure that the publication of books over the next few years should not put too great a strain on the resources of the Society’. He had not had access to the first minute book, and the similarity of perception between these two minutes, written a hundred years apart, is most illuminating.
While it has enjoyed Royal patronage since its foundation and been the recipient of intermittent institutional and private financial aid, the Society is not and never has been a publicly sponsored organisation. The British Academy has been notably generous over the years; Magdalene College and the Fleet Air Arm Museum subsidised volumes in which they had a particular interest. Dr R C Anderson must be distinguished among individual benefactors, and the Society recognised his considerable generosity by dedicating a volume to his memory, a compliment intended to be as particular as Pitt escorting Nelson to his carriage. But we have always been a private learned society, dependent for the achievement of its aims upon an ability to raise a sufficient annual income from subscriptions and investment, and grateful for occasional benefactions but never daring to rely on them.
It is interesting to compare the United States of America with the United Kingdom in this respect. There the tradition of public access to public records, if largely through official publications, is one of long standing; it made possible, for example, the publication of official letters relating to Mr Madison’s War of 1812 as early as 1823, and the commissioning in 1884 of a government-funded publication of documents relating to the American Navy, starting with a thirty-one volume edition of papers concerning the War between the States, the last volume of which was published in 1927. Many other voluminous series have appeared from the Historical Centre of the Department of the Navy, all prepared by salaried editors of whom the doyen was Professor Samuel E Morison, commissioned as a Rear Admiral to superintend the writing of the history of the United States Navy during the second World War. Such public munificence is inconceivable here, although the Cabinet Office arrangements for the subsequent recording and analysis of the events of that conflict – in which Captain Roskill’s contribution was considerable – merit transatlantic comparison. It is also notable that the United States Naval History Society, perhaps that country’s analogy to the Navy Records Society, published only seven volumes; it is more felicitous to welcome the Army Records Society, founded here in equally conscious imitation of our efforts, which published its first volume in 1985 and has already produced six more. It is also appropriate to record the significant North American influence in our work; the Canadian born Gerald Graham, who served in the Battle of the Atlantic, has been followed by David Syrett, Julian Gwynn, Paul Halpern, John Hattendorf, Dan Baugh and Jon Sumida who have all shared their scholarship with us.
The contrast with the homeless Navy Records Society now on the verge of publishing its 131st and 132nd volumes could hardly be more striking. Far from being backed by public funds, it has survived its first century through the dedicated efforts of unsalaried officers and councillors, and unpaid editors; the latter are entitled to minimal contributions towards reasonable expenses. As a voluntary and self-financing association, the Society lacks the means either to initiate large-scale projects or to commission editors under financial contract to prepare its volumes. It recruits as editors, mainly from its own ranks, scholars – not necessarily professional academics – who offer themselves as able and willing to edit ‘unpublished manuscripts or rare works of naval interest’ in accordance with the aims of its founders in 1893. It may be argued that so random a choice leaves too much to chance in what is covered and to fortune in when a particular volume appears. There have certainly been few years when anxiety or apology have not been in the air if not in the minutes, and new members are prone to suggest that what the Society needs to take it properly into its second century is a forward looking, structured corporate publishing plan. These impressive sentiments sound well, but lack reality in our context; they are all too prone to be overtaken by unexpected and unpredictable changes in historical awareness. We have become an unassuming ship since 1943, but it can be said that the acceptance of suitable offers from those actively engaged in research has kept the Society and its members, and subsequently a wider readership, abreast of developments in scholarship and has catered for a wide range of interests.
The voluntary relationship, free from contractual obligations, between the Society and its editors has obvious disadvantages in delays or even occasionally failures in the production of a scheduled volume. Editors are increasingly dependent upon salaried employment with commitments to which they may have to yield, giving priority to their contractual obligations over their voluntarily assumed ones. But there is ample evidence of a continuing and, in some sectors, of a growing enthusiasm for naval history; more evident, perhaps, than it was within the civilian than the service element of both the membership and the editors. And a century of success despite perpetual financial constraints has taught the society how to survive its own shortcomings. It starts its second century with an abundance of deserving and promising volumes in varying stages of preparation, and with a confidence based on experience in their safe and timely arrival from our publishers