‘A bit of the bun-headed variety’: The Royal Naval Reserve and the uses and abuses of Four Nations History

‘A bit of the bun-headed variety’: The Royal Naval Reserve and the uses and abuses of Four Nations History

This week, Dr Ben Thomas (Institute of Historical Research) debates the usefulness of four nations history in examining the Royal Naval Reserve.

Some readers of this blog – especially those who follow a Pocockian approach to Four Nations history – may long-ago have shouted themselves hoarse with the phrase ‘its not Four Nations history if you only talk about Ireland’. While the network obviously promotes an open and inclusive definition of the Four Nations concept, it can be frustrating to read endless articles ‘revealing’ little more than something we already know: that the ‘traditional’ picture of British history is complicated when we look to the individual experiences of Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. This, surely, ignores the important interactive element that so effectively characterised Pocock’s original formulation of the Four Nations concept.

I have written before on this blog about the explanatory limits of Four Nations history, arguably quibbling to an even greater extent than the posts I criticise above. So what I want to do here is to move beyond this more simplistic critique, to show that a Four Nations approach is both necessary yet insufficient to the successful writing of British history. Individuals and groups across Britain and Ireland certainly have thought about their experiences from something akin to a four nations perspective, and accounts of British history are much weaker if they fail to acknowledge this. But of equal importance in shaping the story of these islands have been both sub-national frameworks of meaning and experience, and the requirements and actions of the British state itself. In all, I hope this short piece will bring back into play a sense of Four Nations history as an interactive experience, and as something that – at its best – challenges us to think in bigger and more ambitious terms about our individual research topics.

The case study I’m going to explore here is the history of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR). The Royal Navy is an institution ripe for a Four Nations-style history: whilst traditionally seen as one of the icons of British identity, recent scholarship by Jan Rüger, Brian Lavery, and J.D. Davies has suggested that exploring national relationships might complicate this picture.[i] My own work looks not at the regular Navy, however, but at the Royal Navy’s reserve force. This was a body of civilian sailors and seamen, who were trained part-time in order to provide additional man-power during wartime. Unlike the regular Navy – who were rarely seen in many of Britain’s maritime communities during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries – the RNR had units spread right across Great Britain and Ireland. This meant that, for many people, their first and most regular experiences of naval life and culture would come through contact with its reserves.

From a Four Nations perspective, the most obvious question to ask about the RNR is how popular it was in each nation. Taking 1894 as a sample year, the total seafaring population of the UK stood at:

Country Seafaring Population Percentage of Total
England & Wales 118,390 59%
Scotland 55,285 28%
Ireland 27,055 13%
Total 200,730[ii]  

The strength of the RNR this year was 19,500, meaning that around one-in-ten of the total British seafaring population was also a Reservist. Breaking this down into national units, England provided 50.2% of recruits, Wales 5.6%, Scotland 31%, and Ireland 14%.[iii] This suggests that, roughly, each of the home nations was providing the same proportion of Reservists as their share of the UK’s seafaring population warranted, although Scotland was slightly over-, and England slightly under-represented.[iv]

So far so unremarkable, although if we consider the fact that Scotland contributed only 11% of the UK population at this time, then its contribution of a full third of the entire RNR force was disproportionate in strict terms, and bears testament to the importance of the sea to the Scottish economy. Yet here is where looking at the issue from a national perspective also hides important regional variations. For when we look more closely at these figures, we find that 5,198 of the 7,150 Scottish Reservists were drawn from a single Scottish region – the Highlands and Islands. This sparsely-populated geographical area – whose share of the total UK population stood at only 0.5% – contributed a fifth of the RNR’s entire UK strength. Indeed, Stornoway alone drilled 2,612 Reservists in 1894, only 150 men less than the rest of non-Highland Scotland combined. Similar figures are also notable in Ireland, where Kinsale and Galway provided a third of all Irish recruits, despite these two towns making up only 0.4% of the Irish population.[v]

Understanding the shape and structure of regional economies is therefore vital to understanding the history of the RNR in Great Britain and Ireland. For men in rural Ireland and Scotland – where fishing and agriculture work was highly seasonal – joining the RNR provided a useful way of earning extra money without compromising a family’s basic income steam. For this very reason the Victorian and Edwardian RNR became dominated by fishermen, for whom the relatively light terms of service, coupled with the ability to drill locally, were a major boon.

Yet if the RNR became a vital economic prop to many rural fishing communities, the Admiralty was far from pleased at this developing relationship. This was mainly because they preferred recruits drawn from the Merchant Navy: men who were already well-acquainted with serving aboard large, ocean-going vessels. But it also owes something to racist attitudes, which saw Gaelic- or Welsh-speaking fishermen as inferior to their ‘Teutonic’ or ‘Saxon’ brethren. Officials frequently complained about the ‘poor mental faculties’ of ‘West Coast Scotch fishermen’, and argued that Gaelic-speaking Highlanders were only suitable for jobs ‘where they would work under direct supervision and no intelligence would be required’.[vi] As a result of such prejudice, whilst fishermen and civilian authorities frequently petitioned the Admiralty to expand the numbers allowed in rural RNR units, the Admiralty themselves exerted almost constant pressure on registrars to keep these unit numbers as low as possible.

This issue came to a head in 1905-6, when the RNR was substantially reorganised as part of Jacky Fisher’s naval reforms. Fisher’s main innovation was to scrap local training batteries, and to insist that Reservists undertook training aboard RN ships. This move proved wildly unpopular across Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, because it forced men to travel to Portsmouth or Chatham for training. The loss of money to local communities was also a major worry, with the Shetland Times calculating that the closure of the Lerwick battery would cost Shetland around £20,000 per year.[vii] Indeed, one Lerwick county councillor thought that ‘there could be nothing more serious, except, perhaps, a break-down of the herring fishing, than the removal of the Royal Naval Reserve from Shetland’.[viii] Along with many other local councils, Shetland County Council raised the matter with their local MP, who made representations to the Admiralty on their behalf. And whilst the Admiralty remained unmoved, they did at least bow to popular pressure by allowing batteries in the remoter parts of the country to remain open for another five years.

Yet here is where national sentiment comes back into play, because this decision raised particular ire in Wales. Here, all three local units were closed despite strong protests from across the principality. Captain Richard Jones spoke for many of his countrymen when he suggested that ‘the Welsh Naval Reservists were the finest sailors in the world, and the Admiralty was now giving them the cold shoulder, discouraging further recruiting’.[ix] David Lloyd George also lent his weight to the campaign, arguing that, because there were 800 Welsh Reservists currently on the books, the campaign might ‘present the matter to the Admiralty as a purely Welsh case’.[x] Welshmen certainly saw the matter from a Four Nations perspective, voicing their frustration at being denied privileges equal to those extended to Scotland and Ireland. In arguing their case, many Welsh commentators suggested that Wales produced a better class of Reservist than those parts of rural Scotland and Ireland where local units had been granted a stay of execution. However, notwithstanding the national consensus behind these appeals, it fell on deaf ears.

In fact, what is striking about the history of the RNR is how little the Admiralty allowed national identities to dictate the structure and purpose of the force. Not only were Welsh interests overlooked in 1906, but – following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 – Irish RNR recruitment was also discontinued despite strong appeals from the 867 Irish Reservists. Worried about the diplomatic consequences of extending their jurisdiction into the new Irish state, and confidentially revealing their opinion that Irish recruits ‘were an unsatisfactory body’, the Admiralty were faced with the headache of defining the new status of Irish Reservists. They solved the problem in the manner of all good bureaucracies: by ignoring it until it went away. Having placed a moratorium on recruiting in 1922, the Admiralty spent four years dithering over what to do next. By 1925 RNR units in Ireland had become so moribund that they existed only on paper, allowing them to be safely disbanded without major protests.

What does all of this mean for Four Nations history? The very fact that the Admiralty collected data on recruitment in each of the four nations suggests that they possessed at least a basic appreciation of the important of creating a Reserve force that appealed equally across Great Britain and Ireland. But whilst issues relating to RNR service could indeed take on national salience at specific times, national relationships do not appear to have affected the history of the force in particularly noticeable ways. Instead, the history of the RNR was shaped through an interaction between the interests of local communities on the one hand, and the needs and desires of officials in London on the other. However much the Admiralty looked down upon Gaelic-speaking recruits, for instance, the sheer number of Highlanders and Islanders who served in the RNR meant that their interests could not be entirely overlooked. In all, a four nations approach to the history of the RNR would appear both necessary yet insufficient. Moving beyond national relationships and interactions, to explore the interrelationship between localities, nations, and the imperial centre, is therefore required. In this case study, surely, lies a metaphor for the uses and abuses of Four Nations history.

[i] Jan Ruger, ‘Nation, Empire and Navy: identity Politics in the United Kingdom 1887-1914’, Past and Present, Vol. 185 (2004), 161; Brian Lavery, Shield of Empire: The Royal Navy and Scotland (Edinburgh, 2007); J.D. Davies, Britannia’s Empire: A Naval History of Wales (Stroud, 2013).

[ii] The National Archives (TNA), ADM 120/27/888.

[iii] 1892 (C.6609) Navy (Royal Naval Reserves). Report of the Committee Presided over by Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon, KCB, on Questions Connected with the Royal Naval Reserve, 55.

[iv] TNA ADM 120/27/888.

[v] TNA ADM 120/45/1251.

[vi] See, for instance, TNA ADM120/155/957.

[vii] Linda K. Riddell, Shetland and the Great War (Lerwick, 2015), 62.

[viii] Shetland Times, 22 December 1906.

[ix] Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald, 9 March 1906.

[x] Ibid, 5 January 1906.

Ben Thomas is the 2015-16 Alan Pearsall Fellow in Naval and Maritime History at the Institute of Historical Research. He complains on Twitter @Baosbheinn

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