A Fleet in Being

Kipling’s notes

annotated by Alastair Wilson. The page and line numbers refer to the 1898 Macmillan edition of A Fleet in Being.


[Page 78, NOTE I] Paint and Gilding Sir Percy Scott records, without enthusiasm, that in the middle 1880s the officers of the Mediterranean Fleet Flagship were said to have spent £2,000 out of their own pockets on adorning her.

[This is something which really has changed, coming to an end in the decade 1904-14, and finally dying in the inter-war years, 1919-39. Which is not to say that sailors, from the captain down, do not take a pride in their ship’s appearance, but it will all be done within the Admiralty (Ministry of Defence) allowances, but with skill and time (frequently his own) being the contribution from the crew. However, in 1956, the author of these notes recalls that, by a bit of demi-official sleight of hand, a better quality of paint was obtained for HMS Superb’s quarterdeck turret, the better to show off at official cocktail parties, etc.. A.W.]

[Page 78, NOTE I (A)] This is an excellent description of some of the responsibilities of the Executive Officer of one of H.M. Ships. In a larger ship, where he would be a Commander, they would be similar but perhaps more difficult, his wider experience and a larger number of experienced assistants being more than offset by greater complexities and by some loss of personal contact, due to the larger ship’s company and extra links in the chain of command.

[Page 80, NOTE II] Coxswains and Galleys The Captain’s Coxswain was usually a Petty Officer, though he might be taken on as a Leading Seaman and become a Chief Petty Officer. The galley’s crew, in addition to looking after their boat, usually assisted in cleaning the Captain’s quarters under the Coxswain’s supervision. Other duties of the Coxswain would be allocated by the Captain, taking into account his capabilities and personality and his relations with the Captain’s steward.

The short definition of “galley” is that it is a sea-going term for a gig used by a Captain or Admiral. To go into more detail, Falconer’s Marine Dictionary, 1815 Edition, describes a gig as: “A long, narrow boat, used for expedition, generally rowed with six or eight oars, and is mostly the private property of the Captain or Commander.”

About the middle of the nineteenth century, this “private property” if allocated to a Post-Captain was generally known in the Fleet as his “galley”. In the Crimean War (1854-56) it was a serious blunder for the Officer of the Watch to call away “the first gig” when the Captain wanted his “galley”. A set of official drawings of warship’s boats in 1878 shows a family of gigs, ranging from 18 to 30 feet in length, plus a 32 foot “galley or gig”. This seems to be the only official recognition of “galley”. All these boats were fitted for only one sail, and none could pull eight oars.

At a later date, the gig was standardised at 30 feet, narrow, carvel built with two mahogany skins, propelled by either six oars or two dipping lug sails. In normal weather she was the fastest Service boat under sail. When “private property” she remained “the galley”.

[A gig/galley was rowed in a different style to other service boats when in use as the Captain’ Galley. Normally, in the Navy, ‘rowing’ is called ‘pulling’, which fairly describes the style of rowing. But galley style was more akin to the style of a racing eight, with the oar being feathered at the end of each stroke, and on the return. This author, as a Naval Cadet in the Training Cruiser HMS Devonshire in 1952, formed part of the crew of the Captain’s Galley, and we were specially trained so that our captain could go and pay his official calls in his galley. We did so once, in Malta, in June 1952. This must have been one of the very last times such a sight was seen. A.W.]

Unless the Pelorus had a specially fitted boat, Kipling’s “eight pairs of shoulders” must have been a miscount.

[Page 81, NOTE III] The Art of Gunnery this is in effect a defence of Sir Wm. White, often criticised for not putting in heavier armaments. In addition to the points made by Kipling, British constructors from the earliest iron ships have had to explain, frequently, that ships intended to steam far and maintain themselves for long periods in distant waters must save weight in other directions.

[Page 82, NOTE IV] Omdurman The British withdrawal from the Soudan in 1885, leaving the Mahdi in possession, after a relief expedition had reached Khartoum too late to save General Gordon, had seemed ignominious to most Britons.

On September 2nd, 1898, an Anglo-Egyptian force under Kitchener decisively defeated the forces of the Khalifa at Omdurman, on the Nile just below Khartoum. In that battle, Lieutenant Winston S. Churchill charged with the 21st Lancers. In support was a flotilla of river gunboats, one of them commanded by Lieutenant David Beatty, R.N., later Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty.

On September 7th, some of the flotilla had to escort Kitchener to Fashoda, 600 miles above Khartoum, to persuade Captain Marchand of the French Army that he was intruding. The crisis which followed was settled peacefully only by sound diplomacy backed by levin-rods.

[Page 83, NOTE VI] The Beauty of Battleships Another handsome tribute to White, but only a bold optimist would claim that all the guns he placed along his ships’ sides between decks could be worked in all weathers. The 3-pounders, as with four so placed in the Pelorus, were almost always removed sooner or later to a higher position and their ports plated over.