Britannia, Dartmouth and the Royal Naval College
Naval Marine Archive - The Canadian Collection

HMS Britannia, Dartmouth and the Royal Naval College


The Royal Naval College in the early 1950s.

Although the Naval Academy at Portsmouth had trained a small proportion of naval officers in the hundred years preceding 1837, it was not until twenty years later that the system was firmly established of training cadets in a special centre instead of posting them straight to a regular man-of-war. HMS Illustrious, Captain Robert Harris, had already done good service in training boys for the lower deck; and in 1857 the first class of twenty three officer cadets joined her. A year later she was reserved entirely for cadets, and on Ist January 1859, Captain Harris took command of HMS Britannia to carry out the same programme. Haslar Creek, on the western side of Portsmouth Harbour was the first anchorage chosen; but the proximity of a great seaport was not thought very desirable, and in 1862 Britannia moved to Portland Roads. This anchorage was certainly far enough from large towns; but it was bleak and exposed, with poor facilities for exercise ashore or even afloat during the winter.

Dartmouth, on the southern shore of Devonshire has a well sheltered, deep water anchorage, but in the nineteenth century was searching for economic development due to its difficult access by land; these factors may have helped determine the choice of Dartmouth as the principal base for the training of young officers for the Royal Navy.

HMS Britannia off Sandquay

Some unknown genius called to mind the neglected harbour of the Dart, of which the Royal Navy had made little use for generations. Under jury rig, and with the assistance of a tug, Britannia made her westward move after a single winter at Portland: and on 29th September 1863, moved up the harbour to moorings off Sandquay to the sound of guns, bells and cheers and amidst a crowd of boats and the flurry of bunting, with which the ancient port was accustomed to mark every festive occasion.

Britannia was a three decker of the type which had won England’s great sea victories in Napoleonic times; for she was laid down in 1814 and completed in 1820. Her spacious gun decks allowed fair room for messing, sleeping and instruction, and the accommodation available was increased by the arrival in 1864 of another wooden wall, HMS Hindustan, for mooring ahead of Britannia. The two ships lay off Sandquay, well clear of the main traffic of the harbour, and splendidly placed for small boat sailing and pulling in the broad reach of the river between Noss and Old Mill Creek. Above the steep slopes which hemmed in the harbour was sufficient level ground for playing fields, and these were soon leased from Sir Henry Seale. The railway was now available for communication with London and the homes of the cadets, and Britannia halt was soon established almost within hail of the ship herself. Training cruises in brigs and other tenders on the open sea were easy to arrange, and by 1878 the famous Britannia beagles were leading the cadets over the hills and fields of the richly varied countryside.

Although Dartmouth town itself was not frequented by the cadets, many of the numerous staff made their homes there, and the direct and indirect revenue accruing to the shop keepers was of real importance. Great was the fury of the tradesmen of Plymouth, Weymouth and other South Coast ports that this rich prize should fall to the “decayed and stinking port” at the mouth of the Dart. The “battle of the sites” was renewed again and again when admiralty votes were in question in Parliament; and the most appalling epidemics prophesied for Britannia if she remained near such an unsanitary town.

King George the Fifth

All this outcry was of no avail, and the clamour perforce died away when the Prince of Wales decided that the Britannia was the best place for the training of his two sons Albert and George, and himself brought them down in 1877. Prince George was but a boy of twelve when he joined Britannia, and wept bitterly when the time came to say goodbye to his father; but he soon settled down and absorbed with avidity all that his instructors could tell him of the ways of a ship upon the sea. Since his time as a cadet King George V has been followed by his own sons, the Duke of Windsor and King George VI, as well as by a host of cadets of the royal families of Europe, and by the husband of his grandchild, the Princess Elizabeth. Incidentally, the Princess herself came as a Sea Ranger to the tiny training ship of that corps for a few days in 1947.

Britannia herself was replaced in 1869 by a newly built three decker, Prince of Wales, which took over the old name and lay at Britannia’s old berth, connected by a gangway with Hindustan. During the first World War in 1916 Britannia was towed away to be broken up for the recovery of the copper in her hull, and the river was clear of the familiar wooden walls after a spell of over fifty years.

The Old Regime

Whatever may have been the merits of a three decker as a place of training for cadets in 1863, they became steadily less as the wooden ships of the Royal Navy were replaced by ships of entirely different construction, and as masts and yards gave place to the motive power of steam. The advocates of a more roomy establishment ashore were many; but it was not until 1896 that the Admiralty finally decided to erect a college ashore and acquired, by compulsory purchase, a large area of the park and estate lying north of the old manor house of Mount Boone, and bounded on the east and north by the waters of the main harbour and of Old Mill Creek. The site allowed the building of the main block on a southern slope overlooking the harbour and with a view of the open sea; whilst it included fine woods and well timbered slopes, developed by the Seale family during their hundred and fifty years of residence at Mount Boone.

During the forty years in which cadets were housed on board Britannia there had been no fundamental change in the curriculum. Lads joined Britannia at or about 15 years of age and usually remained for three years before joining the fleet. Their instruction was almost entirely in seamanship and navigation, and no continuance of their general education was attempted. As late as 1902 the staff included more than a score of officers and instructors in seamanship and navigation, whilst two Engineer officers, without any workshop facilities, taught what they could of the powers and use of steam. The number of civilian masters for natural science, drawing, French and literature was only six. The sea-going tender was the barque Racer, which only used her engines for leaving and entering harbour, the cadets ignoring the existence of the engine room.

Looking back it may seem incredible that the flag officers and captains who commanded the mighty and intricate battleships at Jutland could have achieved efficiency in their profession after such a narrow upbringing; but so it was, and some still believe in training under sail as the best equipment for a sea officer.

The Move Ashore and the Fisher Plan

At Dartmouth, however, events moved with the times. Before the foundation stone of the new building was laid by King Edward VII, on 7th March 1902, Lord Selborne, as First Lord of the Admiralty, had visited the celebrated John Fisher in his Mediterranean flagship, and commenced the great series of changes for ever associated with the name of that determined Admiral. Between them they decided that naval officers, whether executive, royal marine or engineer ought to be selected at the early age of twelve and to receive as good a general education as any public school would offer, whilst acquiring the discipline, the habits and traditions of the service for membership of which they had been chosen.

Whilst the College was still to be presided over by a Captain of the Royal Navy assisted by a large number of officers and ratings, the schooling was to be entrusted to a full civilian staff of over thirty masters. The lads were to attend College for four years before proceeding to a training cruiser and taking up appointments as deck officers, marines or engineers at the age of 19 or 20.

The first commanding officer, Captain R. E. Wemyss, and the first headmaster Mr. (later Sir) Cyril Ashford, formerly senior science master at Harrow, took up their posts in September 1903 at the new junior college at Osborne, Isle of Wight; and from Osborne in September 1905 Ashford brought to the newly completed college at Dartmouth eleven of his assistant masters and the first term of the Selborne entry.

Since the plans were first drawn out, many alterations had been necessary to meet the new requirements; and considerable additions were made after 1905, as provision had been demanded for over 500 cadets, and engineering and scientific training had made fresh demands on space. These great and palatial buildings with the grounds, harbour side establishment and playing fields, completely dominate the northern part of the town, and on a summer afternoon, when anything up to fifty college craft may be sailing in the harbour, make the ordinary traffic of the port seem insignificant.

Just as Britannia saw the early training of the naval commanders in the first World War, so John Fisher’s new college was responsible for a large proportion of the senior officers who fought the Second War, with a devotion to duty and a seamanlike skill at least equal to that of their predecessors.

Fisher’s dictum that a naval officer ought to receive an education up to public school standards led to the corollary that a lad of eighteen educated at a public school might be turned into a useful naval officer. This rule was first applied by Mr. Winston Churchill as First Lord, when large numbers of new entrants were required in 1913. Just before the Second World War these special entry cadets were sent to Dartmouth for a short course before proceeding to sea, and this practice continues.

No More Twelve-Year Olds

After the end of the Second World War further changes were made. Secondary schools, as well as the boarding, or Public schools were allowed to present candidates for entry to the college at the age of 16, and fees were abolished to allow cadets from a very much wider range of families than was possible when fees had to be paid for fully four years. Time will show how far these changes are advantageous. By the 1950s, and with the end of wartime conscription, the number of cadets was planned to diminish gradually from over 500 to something like two thirds of that number with a consequent reduction in staff.

The relations between the authorities of the College and of the town were always good, and the residence of so many able officers and masters went a long way in diminishing the “small town” mentality which might have been expected in a place of only six thousand inhabitants. On such occasions as the annual regatta the resources of the College prove invaluable. On the other hand the ancient traditions and the historical buildings of the old town contribute a worthy setting to the modern naval college, whilst both college and town owe their origin and their prospect of useful life to the glorious harbour by which they stand.


This page is in part adapted from Percy Russell, Dartmouth, Batsford, London, 1950.




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