That the navy is the only real defence of the British islands has been recognized by English people ever since the days of King Offa, who died in 796, leaving to his successors the admirable lesson that "he who would be secure on land must be supreme at sea". The truth of the lesson thus learnt is sanctioned by all the experience of English history, and parliament has repeatedly enforced the fact. The navy is the only force that British can safeguard the British islands from hostile descents; it is the only force that can protect their vast sea-borne commerce and food supplies; by giving safety to the home country it sets British troops free for operations abroad, and makes their passage secure; and thus, as also by giving command of the sea, the fleet is the means by which the empire is guarded and has become a true imperial bond. It is natural for British admiralty administration to be taken here as the type of an efficient system.
The Board of Admiralty.
British naval administration is conducted by the Board of Admiralty, and the function of that board is the maintenance and expansion of the fleet in accordance with the policy of the government, and the supplying of it with trained officers and men; its distribution throughout the world; and its preservation in readiness and efficiency in all material and personal respects. The character of the Admiralty Board is peculiar to the British constitution, and it possesses certain features which distinguish it from other departments of the state. The business it conducts is very great and complex, and the machinery by which its work is done has grown with the expansion of that business. The whole system of naval administration has been developed historically, and is not the product of the organizing skill of one or a few individuals, but an organic growth possessing marked and special characteristics.
The Admiralty Board derives its character from the fact that it represents the Lord High Admiral, and that its powers and operation depend much more upon usage than upon those instruments which actually give it authority, and which, it may be remarked, are not in harmony among themselves. The executive operations are conducted by a series of civil departments which have under-gone many changes before reaching their present constitution and relation to the Board. The salient characteristic of the admiralty is a certain flexibility and elasticity with which it works. Its members are not, in a rigid sense, heads of departments. Subject to the necessary and constitutional supremacy of the cabinet minister at their head, they are jointly and co-equally "commissioners for executing the office of High Admiral of the United Kingdom, and of the territories thereunto belonging, and of high admiral of the colonies and other dominions".
The members of the Board are in direct and constant communication with the first lord and with one another, as also with the civil departments which work under their control. It was enjoined by James I that the principal officers and commissioners of the navy should be in constant communication among them-selves, consulting and advising " by common council and argument of most voices", and should live as near together as could conveniently be, and should meet at the navy office at least twice a week. This system of intercommunication still exists in a manner which no system of minutes could give; and it may be remarked, as illustrative of the flexibility of the system, that a Board may be formed on any emergency by two lords and a secretary, and a decision arrived at then and there. Such an emergency board was actually constituted some years ago on board the admiralty yacht in order to deal on the instant with an event which had just occurred in the fleet. At the same time it must be remarked that, in practice, the first lord being personally responsible under the orders in council, the operations of the Board are dependent upon his direction.
The present system of administering the navy dates from the time of Henry VIII. The naval business of the country had so greatly expanded in his reign that we find the Admiralty and Navy Board reorganized or established; and it is worthy of remark that there existed at the time an ordnance branch, the navy not yet being dependent in that matter upon the War Department.
The Board of Ordnance was originally instituted for the navy, but eventually fell into military hands, to the detriment of the navy the only navy of any nation that has not full authority over its own ordnance. In 1653, according to Oppenheim, it was, owing to its inefficiency, placed under the admiralty. In 1632 it appears to have been independent, but "still retained that evil pre-eminence in sloth and incapacity it had already earned and has never since lost".
The Navy Board administered the civil departments under the admiralty, the directive and executive duties of the Lord High Admiral remaining with the admiralty office. A little later the civil administration was vested in a board of principal officers subordinate to the Lord High Admiral, and we can henceforth trace the work of civil administration being conducted under the navy and victualling boards apart from, but yet subject to, the admiralty itself. This was a system which continued during the time of all the great wars, and was not abolished until 1832, when Sir James Graham, by his reforms, put an end to what appeared a divided control. Whatever may have been the demerits of that system, it sufficed to maintain the navy in the time of its greatest achievements, and through all the wars which were waged with the Spaniards, the Dutch and the French. The original authority for the present constitution of the Admiralty Board is found in a declaratory act (Admiralty Act 1690), in which it is enacted that "all and singular authorities, jurisdictions and powers which, by act of parliament or otherwise, had been lawfully vested" in the Lord High Admiral of England had always appertained, and did and should appertain, to the commissioners for executing the office for the time being "to all intents and purposes as if the said commissioners were lord high admiral of England". The admiralty commission was dissolved in 1701, and reconstituted on the death of Prince George of Denmark, Lord High Admiral in 1709. From that time forward, save for a short period in 1827-1828, when the Duke of Clarence was Lord High Admiral, the office has remained in commission.
A number of changes have been made since the amalgamation of the admiralty and the Navy Board by Sir James Graham in 1832 (see Navy, History), but the general principle remains the same, and the constitution of the Admiralty Board and civil departments is described below.
The Board consists of the first lord and four naval lords with a civil lord, who in theory are jointly responsible, and are accustomed to meet sometimes daily, but at all times frequently; and the system developed provides for the subdivision of labour, and yet for the co-ordinated exertion of effort. The system has worked well in practice, and has certainly won the approval and the admiration of many statesmen. Lord George Hamilton said, before the Royal Commission on Civil Establishments, 1887, that "It has this advantage, that you have all departments represented round a table, and that if it is necessary to take quick action, you can do in a few minutes that which it would take hours under another system to do"; and the report of the Royal Commission of 1889 remarked that "The constitution of the Board of Admiralty appears to us well designed, and to be placed under present regulations on a satisfactory footing".
The special characteristics of the Admiralty Board which have been described are accompanied by a very peculiar and note worthy feature, which is not without relation to the untrammelled and undefined operations of the admiralty. This feature arises from the discrepancy between the admiralty patent and the orders in council, for the admiralty is not administered according to the terms of the patent which invests it with authority, and its operations raise a singular point in constitutional law. The legal origin of the powers exercised by the first lord and the Board itself is indeed curiously obscure. Under the patent the full power and authority are conferred upon "any two or more" of the commissioners, though, in the patent of Queen Anne, the grant was to "any three or more of you". It was under the Admiralty Act 1832 that two lords received the necessary authority to legalise any action of the Board; but already, under an act of 1822, two lords had been empowered to sign so long as the Board consisted of six members. We therefore find that the legal authority of the Board under the patent is vested in the Board; but in the order in council of the 14th of January 1869 the sole responsibility of the first lord was officially laid down, and in the order in council of the 19th of March 1872 the first lord was made "responsible to your Majesty and to parliament for all the business of the admiralty".
As a matter of fact, the authority of the first lord, independent of his colleagues, had existed in an undefined manner from ancient times. Before a select committee of the House of Commons in 1861 the Duke of Somerset stated that he considered the first lord responsible, that he had always "acted under that impression", and that he believed "all former first lords were of this opinion"; while Sir James Graham said that "the Board of Admiralty could never work, whatever the patent might be, unless the first lord were supreme, and did exercise constantly supreme and controlling authority".
It is not, therefore, surprising to find that there has been undoubtedly direct government without a Board. Thus, in the operations conducted against the French channel ports in 1803-1804, Lord Melville, then first lord, took steps of great importance without the knowledge of his colleagues, though he afterwards bowed to their views, which did not coincide with his own. Again, when Lord Gambier was sent to Copenhagen in 1807, he was instructed to obey all orders from the king, through the principal secretary of state for war, and in this way received orders to attack Copenhagen, which were unknown to all but the first lord. In a similar way the secretary of the admiralty was despatched to Paris in 1815 with instructions to issue orders as if from the Board of Admiralty when directed to do so by the foreign secretary who accompanied him, and these orders resulted in Napoleon's capture. These instances were cited, except the first of them, by Sir James Graham before the select committee of the House of Commons in 1861, in order to illustrate the elastic powers under the patent which enabled the first lord to take immediate action in matters that concerned the public safety
It is not surprising that this peculiar feature of admiralty administration should have attracted adverse criticism, and have led some minds to regard the Board as "a fiction not worth keeping up". Between 1860 and 1870 the sittings of the Board ceased to have the effective character they had once possessed. During the administration of Mr Childers, first lord from 1868 to 1871 in Mr Gladstone's cabinet, a new system was introduced by which the free intercommunication of the members of the Board was hampered, and its sittings were quite discontinued. The case of the Captain led, however, to a return to the older practice. The Captain was a low freeboard masted turret ship, designed by Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, R.N. Competent critics believed that she would be unsafe, and said so before she was built; but the admiralty of Lord Derby's cabinet of 1866 gave their consent to her construction. She was commissioned early in 1870, and capsized in the Bay of Biscay on the 7th of September of that year. Mr Childers, who was nominally responsible for allowing her to be commissioned, distributed blame right and left, largely upon men who had not approved of the ship at all, and had been exonerated from all share of responsibility for allowing her to be built. The disaster was justly held to show that a civilian first lord cannot dispense with the advantage of constant communication with his professional advisers. When Mr Childers retired from the admiralty in March 1871, his successor, Mr Goschen (Viscount Goschen), reverted to the original system. It cannot be said, however, that the question of ultimate responsibility is well defined. The Duke of Somerset, Sir James Graham and Sir Charles Wood, afterwards Lord Halifax, held the view that the first lord was singly and personally responsible for the sufficiency of the fleet. Sir Arthur Hood expressed before the House of Commons committee in 1888 the view that the Board collectively were responsible; whilst Sir Anthony Hoskins assigned the responsibility to the first lord alone with certain qualifications, which is a just and reasonable view.
Extracted from the entry for ADMIRALTY ADMINISTRATION in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.