British Bureaucra-sea: How Montagu’s Reforms Paved the Way for Nelson’s Victory

Patrick Maier
Independent Historian

During the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy was far more than simply the seaborne arm of Britain’s military. It was the largest and most complex governmental and industrial organization of its time, spread out among numerous departments. Like any large organization, it was greatly hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency, lack of innovation, and inter-departmental strife. During his time at the Admiralty, John Montagu addressed many of the issues that had been limiting the Royal Navy’s potential for decades, thus allowing future leaders to develop Britain’s navy into the premier seagoing superpower of its time.

When considering major figures in popular history, it is usually the major war heroes or revered founders of nations that first come to mind. This tendency can certainly be understood and forgiven, since the exploits of figures such as George Washington, Horatio Nelson, and George Patton certainly make for fascinating and exciting stories. People remember the great warriors and generals, but not the great administrators and organizers who make military victories possible. It could be argued that the success and fortunes of entire empires were built upon the backs of such managers and administrators. Such is the case with John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and one of the most influential First Lords of the Admiralty in England’s history. While he did not have a record of great victories at sea as other figures (such as his colleague, Rear Admiral George Anson), he was instrumental in reforming the organizational quagmire that was England’s Admiralty and navy in the middle and late eighteenth century.

John Montagu was born in 1718 to Edward Montagu, Viscount of Hinchingbrooke, and Elizabeth Popham Montagu, the daughter of the Earl of Rochester. 1 John Montagu’s great-grandfather, also named Edward Montagu (the First Earl of Sandwich) reached the rank of Vice-Admiral of the Blue in 1672. Vice-Admiral Montagu died later that year during the Third Anglo-Dutch War at the Battle of Solebay, after Dutch fireships destroyed his heavily-damaged flagship. As a result of political support earlier in his career, Admiral Montague was granted a substantial amount of money by Charles II. By the time John Montagu reached adulthood as the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, however, much of the family fortune had been squandered. The stories and diaries of Vice-Admiral Montagu did instill a passionate interest in the navy in the young John Montagu. However, in 1740 at the age of twenty-two, Montagu began participating in the House of Lords. While Montague had a hereditary right to his seat, his relatively modest personal wealth made it difficult to exert the sort of political influence wealthier peers were able to put forth. Thus, Montagu joined a political faction led by John Russell, the Duke of Bedford (whose county neighbored Montagu’s own). After about four years, the ejection of John Carteret’s ministry in 1744 created an opportunity for Bedford and Montagu to begin ministerial positions on the Board of Admiralty.

Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich (Wikimedia Commons)

At the age of twenty-six, Lord Montagu entered the Admiralty as one of the Lords Commissioners under Bedford. The Admiralty in this period consisted of a complicated structural web. Officially, the members of the Board of Admiralty were equals, with some deference based on social rank. As a duke, Lord Bedford ranked first, followed by Lord Montagu, Lord Archibald Hamilton and Lord Vere Beauclerk (both younger sons of other dukes), the Irish baron Lord Baltimore, and finally two “civilians,” Rear Admiral George Anson and George Grenville, a Member of Parliament. 2 In practice, Lord Bedford’s interest in Admiralty administration quickly faded. In the first month of 1745, Bedford attended all thirty meetings of the Board of Admiralty. After that, however, he increasingly missed meetings until finally settling on a “consistent” work week in June. 3 The duke spent most of his time at his country estate in Woburn, only traveling into London on Wednesday morning and then returning Thursday afternoon. During his stays in the countryside, Bedford left instructions to keep him apprised of critical news and affairs related to patronage. Besides that, he was content to leave the overall operation of the Board of Admiralty to the other members, who divided up responsibilities based on circumstance and personal inclination. Lord Montagu and his colleagues were entering office already facing an uphill battle in regards to public opinion. After the disastrous Battle of Toulon in 1744, public opinion was inflamed against the condition of the navy. 4

At Toulon, the British fleet met a combined French and Spanish fleet in battle as part of the War of Austrian Succession. 5 While attempting to form a line of battle, the van and center squadrons of the British fleet grew separated from the rear group. Seeing the combined fleet beginning to slip away, the British admiral, Thomas Matthews, gave the signal to break formation and attack the mainly Spanish rear, inadvertently leaving the signal flags for forming a battle line still flying. The two signals spread confusion throughout the English fleet, leading to a disorganized English force attacking a well-formed Spanish group. Once the French ships circled back around to begin flanking the English ships, the English ships broke and began to flee. While the losses on both sides were relatively equal, the Franco-Spanish fleet did manage to escape and complete its mission of resupplying the Spanish armies in Italy. On top of being associated with a navy that many considered complacent and misled, Montagu and his associates also faced the daunting task of navigating the morass of jurisdictions and compartmentalization involved with running the military and civil aspects of the Board of Admiralty. When Montagu and his colleagues joined the Board of Admiralty, England’s naval forces were facing numerous issues. Poor communication and a lack of technical awareness were resulting in inefficiency and stagnation in innovation. The ships the English already had afloat were deteriorating quicker than they could be repaired, while newly commissioned ships continued to display the design shortcomings of previous generations.

On the naval side, the Board of Admiralty was primarily charged with matters of personnel management and routine ships’ movements. 6 Overall wartime strategy was dictated by the King and his Cabinet. In reality, however, the prime minister and the Cabinet handled strategy in the King’s name. When the Cabinet did issue orders for overall fleet movements, they were typically sent directly to the admiral concerned, with a second copy forwarded to the Board of Admiralty. While they could not order fleet movements directly, the Board of Admiralty was in charge of handling convoy escorts, patrol routes, and movements of ships within and between ports. The Board of Admiralty was able to advise the King and Cabinet through the First Lord, who also served as a Cabinet minister. 7 This distinction is worth noting since a similar dynamic resurfaces repeatedly in the Board of Admiralty’s dealings. The Board was able to offer professional advice but was not able to insist that its instructions be followed.

The Board of Admiralty’s civil responsibility was even more convoluted. The various dockyards, which designed, constructed, repaired, and fitted the ships themselves were not subject to the Board of Admiralty at all. Their management fell under the Navy Board, a separate but (theoretically) subordinate department. The Navy Board was also responsible for warranting lower officers (lieutenants, etc.), supplying most naval stores, and handling the peacetime disarming and storing of vessels, as well as construction and maintenance of dockyard buildings. 8 This plethora of responsibilities resulted in the Navy Board administrative staff requiring about four times as many employees as the Board of Admiralty, as well as thousands of dockyard staff. Alongside the Navy Board existed three other organizational boards, the Victualling Board, the Sick and Hurt Board, and the Ordinance Board.

While each of these three boards closely interacted with the Board of Admiralty, they were not officially under the command of the Board of Admiralty. Rather, these three boards existed alongside the Board of Admiralty. The Admiralty could issue official requests, requisitions, and advisements, but had little authority to directly enforce its will over these boards. Furthermore, the fact that each board dealt in extremely specific technical and logistical information meant that members of the Board of Admiralty often found themselves at a disadvantage when disputes formed between the various boards. The Board of Admiralty members often found themselves simply overruled because of an inability to argue specific details, which made enforcing suggestions for change or reform almost impossible. The Victualling Board was responsible for purchasing, packing, storing, and distributing the massive amounts of food and drink needed for the ships. It frequently placed notices in newspapers advertising open, long-term contracts for food brokers and suppliers. 9 The Sick and Hurt Board handled sick, wounded, and disabled sailors, as well as the care and exchange of officers taken as prisoners of war in both the navy and army. 10 Finally, the Board of Admiralty dealt with arranging guns, powder, ammunition, and other wartime material through the Ordinance Board. This department supplied both the navy and army and frequently advertised for contractors in a manner similar to that of the Victualling Board. 11 This web of departmental jurisdictions was complicated further by the fact that, while some of these departments were nominally subordinate to the Board of Admiralty, the individuals leading those boards frequently possessed significantly deeper understanding and technical expertise concerning their fields than the members of the Board of Admiralty. Thus, they were often able to stubbornly resist any attempts at change suggested by the Board of Admiralty.

The biggest area of reform that Montague pursued in his first period on the Board of Admiralty concerned the administrative and personnel issues between itself and the Navy Board. One of the major sources of tension between the Admiralty and the Navy Board was the inability of the Board of Admiralty to terminate commissioners within the Navy Board (although the Admiralty did have the ability to appoint them in the first place). Unless they were dismissed for gross misconduct or talked into retiring, officers and commissioners served on the Navy Board for life. 12 The Board of Admiralty had absolute control over appointing members to the Navy Board, but could only do so when vacancies opened. The end result of this inability to terminate Navy Board officials was that individuals serving in the upper reaches of the Navy Board were frequently well past their prime, immovably set in their ways, or an intractable combination of the two. Frequently, the Board of Admiralty had to find ways to cooperate with Navy Board officials who had been originally appointed by Board of Admiralty members long gone. Sir Jacob Acworth, for example, joined the Navy Board as senior surveyor in 1715 under King George I. 13 Despite being incredibly resistant to any changes and being almost too infirm to perform many of his day-to-day responsibilities, Sir Acworth could not be fired or forced into retirement. The inherent resistance to innovation and change in the Navy Board of that period would continually vex Lord Montagu and his associates.

In addition to struggling to work with officials they could not easily replace, the Board of Admiralty also attempted to acquire a greater understanding of how the Navy Board utilized the resources it received from Parliament (resources whose disbursement was supposed to be determined alongside with the Board of Admiralty). In an attempt to better understand the financial structure of the navy, the Board of Admiralty ordered a series of cost statements dating back to 1739 concerning the recruiting and training of sailors, as well as unpaid debts from the last five Treasurers of the Navy. In addition, they ordered detailed shipbuilding and repair lists dating back to Queen Anne’s War in 1710, as well as comparisons between navy debt during that war and the last five years of England’s involvement in the War of Austrian Succession. 14 Many of these requests were ignored, submitted incredibly late, or fulfilled only partially.

Even when the Board of Admiralty issued orders and advisements on more concrete issues, they encountered problems. For example, the Board of Admiralty requested studies on the feasibility of using prahm-style barges for amphibious naval use. 15   This idea came about due to reports that smaller, traditional boats could not effectively carry the large number of troops needed for coastal landings. The wider and flatter barges were expected to allow for easier deployment of larger groups of infantry. Rather than look into the matter, the Navy Board again chose to delay and ignore the request. The Navy Board also ignored a similar request for reports on the effectiveness of switching to heavier rigging and sails for ships, which might have allowed navy ships to operate more effectively in the harsh Atlantic seas. Again, the request was ignored with various excuses and explanations. 16

While the attempts at reforming departmental administration were frustrated, Lord Montagu and his colleagues experienced greater success in the military side of things. Specifically, Montagu was concerned with addressing a perceived lack of discipline and an attitude towards duty that was “too much relaxed.” 17 While Montagu was serving in the Admiralty under Lord Bedford, naval officers, on multiple occasions, conducted themselves incredibly poorly in full public view. For example, the disastrous Battle of Toulon (which cast a dark cloud over Bedford’s Board of Admiralty just as they were entering office) resulted in several courts-martial of captains and junior officers. 18 In retaliation, one of the junior officers proceeded to sue the presiding admiral in civil courts for damages and won. This victory in the courts kicked off a series of similar lawsuits by other officers that culminated in a resolution being submitted by the Board of Admiralty to the King himself asking for such suits to be prohibited. In the area of reinforcing and promoting naval discipline, Montagu worked alongside Vice-Admiral Anson, whose numerous naval victories before joining the Board of Admiralty had won him well-deserved respect. Lord Anson distributed his junior officers (who were noted for their strict professionalism) throughout the fleet in hopes of encouraging various crews to strive for improvement. Montagu, meanwhile, concerned himself with fostering a greater sense of duty within the navy, such as personally commissioning a series of paintings of every major English sea battle to be placed within Whitehall. These images were intended to promote a sense of pride and martial spirit within the officers who passed through the Admiralty building repeatedly throughout their careers. Montagu was also strongly opposed to favoritism and familial connections as a basis for promotion or awarding naval commands. In 1747, two captains serving under Anson attempted to use their familial connections to secure favorable cruising orders that would give them opportunities to hunt enemy merchant vessels and gain opportunities at winning prize money. 19 These captains were William Montagu, brother of John Montagu, and Thomas Grenville, brother of Board of Admiralty member George Grenville. While George Grenville was open to allowing limited nepotism, John Montagu insisted that the two captains be granted cruises if and when Vice-Admiral Anson thought it proper. Lord Montagu was particularly bothered by his own brother’s reputation for poor personal conduct, as he mentioned in a letter to Vice-Admiral Anson: “My brother’s general behavior and his particular conduct to me; affects me so much…. I find mild treatment will not save him, & indeed I think at the same time nothing will.” 20 Thus, Montague demonstrated that even where familial connection was involved, he would champion the prioritization of duty and the rights of admirals to handle their own orders.

In addition to preserving the authority of admirals, Montagu was also heavily concerned with the restructuring and clarification of naval rank structure. Before Montagu, the command structure around post-captains, master and commanders, and lieutenants was significantly more ambiguous than might be assumed. An individual reached the rank of post-captain only by being commissioned by the Board of Admiralty to a “post ship,” meaning one of the large ships ranging from first-rate to sixth-rate. This system of rating ships was based on the number of cannons and gun decks a vessel possessed. A “first-rate” ship possessed at least one hundred guns across three decks, while a “second-rate” was armed with ninety to ninety-eight guns. “Third-rate” ships carried between sixty-four and eighty guns, while “fourth-rate” ships carried fifty to sixty (both third- and fourth-rate ships had two gun decks). These first four “rates” were considered “ships-of-the-line”. Frigates were rated as either “fifth-rate” (carrying between thirty-two and forty-four cannons on one or two decks) or “sixth-rate” (with twenty to twenty-eight cannons on a single gun deck). Various sloops, brigs, and cutters were “unrated”. 21

The rank of master and commander, a semi-official rank, was lower than that of post-captain. A master and commander would be commissioned into an unrated ship. This was frequently the case when there were more candidates for promotion than available rated ships. It was also possible for a distinguished lieutenant to skip that rank entirely and be promoted directly to post-captain. 22 Thus it was unclear, for example, if a lieutenant serving as a master and commander was superior or subordinate to a lieutenant who did not hold that position but had chronological seniority. The distinction between the duties and hierarchy of the ranks was clarified when the Board of Admiralty secured an Order in Council. 23 This Order in Council also standardized officer uniforms and allowed officers to draw their pay annually rather than waiting for the end of a multi-year commission (as the rest of the crew had to do). While this change may seem like a small matter, it greatly reinforced both the prestige of officers and the idea of a permanent, cohesive service. The creation of standardized uniforms in particular helped foster a sense of unity among ships and squadrons throughout the navy.

Montague and the Board of Admiralty also had to deal with issues in the upper ranks. Unlike the progression from lieutenant to post-captain (ostensibly based purely on individual merit, although political connection occasionally played a role), the progression from post-captain through the various ranks of admiral was based strictly on seniority, specifically on the date when an individual was promoted to post-captain. 24 The rank of admiral was divided into three main groups: the Red, the White, and the Blue. These ranks were further divided into the Center, the Van, and the Rear, thus resulting in nine flag ranks. This structure was instituted in the late seventeenth century, and was woefully inadequate for the size of the English fleet in the 1740s. Montagu and the Board of Admiralty handled this issue through a series of particularly clever reforms. The Board of Admiralty received permission from the King and the Cabinet to create multiple flag officers of the same rank, which allowed it to create as many positions as were required. 25 This still left the risk of these positions (which could only be issued by strict adherence to commission seniority) being filled by captains who were either incompetent or far too elderly to be considered appropriate. The Admiralty solved this problem by the creation of a “fourth rank”, called “rear admiral without distinction of squadron.” The creation of this rank gave the Board of Admiralty a way to retire elderly post-captains in a way that granted them the half-pay and respect due a rear admiral. At the same time, this solution also allowed the Admiralty to work their way as far down the captains list as was necessary to find a candidate who merited promotion to admiral. For example, Horatio Nelson was made Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1797 after his victory at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, passing over other officers of greater seniority.

Montagu and the Board of Admiralty developed a critical strategic reform as well: the creation of the Western Squadron in 1746 and 1747. 26 The Western Squadron was a fleet of ships kept upwind in the western approaches to the English Channel. By remaining out at sea, the squadron allowed the Royal Navy to maintain a patrolling force along major trade routes, and the most likely sea passages for hostile forces. It also allowed for a squadron that was ready for action to quickly respond to threats against the English mainland in the channel, since prevailing winds favored a fleet sailing from the west. Finally, keeping a fleet at sea for prolonged periods allowed the sailors to reach a level of training and unit cohesion that was difficult (if not impossible) for fleets in port to maintain. While Vice-Admiral Anson (with his practical experience at sea) was strongly in favor of establishing the standing Western Squadron, Montagu was also strongly in favor of the idea. In one letter, Montagu stated that he had “always looked upon squadrons in Port, as neither a Defence for the Kingdom, nor a security for our Commerce…..the surest means for the preservation of Both, was Keeping strong Squadron in Soundings.” 27 This comment illustrates that, while Lord Montagu may not have had the at-sea experience of a naval hero like Anson, he did have a keen understanding of strategic flexibility and the ability to rapidly respond to foreign threats.

Some attempts at naval reform, outside of the dockyard issues, during Montagu’s first stretch in the Board of Admiralty failed, either entirely or in part. One of these was the attempt to revise and modernize the Articles of War in 1749. Originally issued in 1652, the Articles of War created the guidelines for naval discipline, particularly the specific grounds for a court-martial and the associated penalties. After almost a hundred years, the Articles of War needed revision. 28 Montagu and the Board of Admiralty proposed a new bill that called for two major changes. The first change allowed for courts-martial to alter or waive the punishments specified, many of which had been abused by previous courts, with Lord Bedford describing the abusers as “led away by their private prejudices or narrow principles, to the discredit of themselves, & to the ruin of their profession.” 29 The second aspect of the bill suggested making officers on half-pay subject to trials by court-martial. This measure was intended to prevent officers from resigning from the service in order to escape prosecution. This portion of the bill met with extremely hostile opposition from many naval officers, who feared that the provision would allow the Board of Admiralty to coerce captains into accepting assignments deemed too dangerous (or unlikely to bring wealth and glory). In theory, the Board of Admiralty could use the new provision to levy charges of cowardice or insubordination against half-pay captains who declined commands. The opposition of the navy captains (and their various political allies) was so strong that Parliament eventually removed the second provision in the final version of the bill.

Attempts at legislating solutions for England’s manpower shortage also proved an impossible challenge for Bedford’s Board of Admiralty. In the same year, Montagu and his associates proposed a solution to the issue of England’s slow mobilization during the opening stages of conflicts. With most sailors being discharged during peacetime, it was difficult for the English to man their ships when war approached. The French navies solved this problem by simply utilizing their absolutist governments to compel coastal citizens to fill their navies. The English, however, had a strong opposition to having such standing policies put into law. As a result, early mobilization in England frequently resulted in the haphazard use of press gangs. In April of 1749, the Board of Admiralty put forth a bill before Parliament calling for the creation of a 20,000 man “reserve” force, which would consist of able-bodied men making themselves available for service in exchange for a £10 annual retainer. This proposal met with vehement opposition in Parliament, which decried the bill as an attempt to set precedent for slavery and tyranny. 30 The initial opposition was so strong that the administration chose to simply withdraw the bill, leaving the issue of manpower shortages to be addressed at a later time. While the solution to the organizational and policy problems within the various boards continued to elude Montagu, the Board of Admiralty also sought to address the more concrete issue surrounding the design philosophies of England’s naval architects.

As the sluggish and unreliable performance of British ships in the Battle of Toulon demonstrated, British ship designers were facing difficulty keeping up with the more innovative continental warships. Vice-Admiral George Anson worked with Montagu to address the problems with England’s ships. British ships were considered to be too small and too heavily gunned to be reliably effective in battle. For example, English warships tended to sit too deep in the water. In relatively calm waters and light winds, English ships-of-the-line were able to capitalize on their multiple gun decks. In large swells or foul weather, however, the lower gunports frequently had to be shut in order to prevent water from pouring in, severely limiting their effectiveness. 31   It was also commonly believed by captains that the heavyweight cannons made their vessels slower and less maneuverable than their French and Spanish counterparts. 32 A significant part of the problem was the establishment of a “standardization” in 1719 and 1733 which set definitions on the dimensions and armament for each ship class. In theory, this change was intended to simplify logistics by standardizing material requests, particularly regarding spars, masts, and rigging. Standardized classes were also expected to allow fleet admirals to more easily organize and manage their naval groups, since the ships would presumably have predictable sailing qualities. In practice, the standardizations were frequently not entirely followed, but they did provide conservative shipbuilders convenient excuses to resist change and experimentation.

In order to address this issue, Lord Montagu and the Board of Admiralty ordered a halt to the building of all ships, as well as the revision and modification of some ships still in the early stages of construction. In addition, new designs incorporated advancements seen in continental ships. 33 This attempt at reform met with only partial success. The template for a new 74-gun ship-of–the-line was adopted, as well as various small changes to construction methods. In practice, however, most of the newly-designed ship archetypes continued to have the same strengths and weaknesses of the previous designs, resulting in little real gain. Sir Jacob Acworth, the Surveyor of the Navy since 1715 was particularly angered by and resistant to attempts at reform (and suggestions that he should retire). Lord Montagu voiced his frustration with Acworth in a letter to Anson, stating:

Sir Jacob should retire with every circumstance that can make his old age easy and happy, but retain no influence in Naval Architecture….It is high time Ships began to have bottoms to them…. As well as better Oeconomy [sic] prevail’d [sic] in the Dock Yards. This cannot happen whilst he has any influence, for whilst he has any he will have all. 34

The closest Montagu and his associates came to success in reforming the construction of ships-of–the-line was the appointment of Sir Joseph Allin as a joint surveyor alongside Acworth in 1746. 35 This wasn’t the victory Montagu had hoped for, since Allin proved to be only slightly less resistant to progress than Acworth. With the presence of Sir Allin, suggestions by the Board of Admiralty were at least discussed with the Navy Board rather than simply dismissed out of hand. The Board of Admiralty proved to have an easier time instituting reforms in frigate design. In addition to being smaller and more quickly built (therefore allowing changes to be more easily studied), English frigates had competitors in both privateers and in captured enemy prizes (enemy frigates being taken more often than full line of battleships). Since these ships were more plentiful and required less time to build than the multi-year ships-of-the-line, frigate designers were more open to innovation. For example, Vice-Admiral Anson personally selected the Plymouth Yard master shipwright Benjamin Slade to construct imitations of the French frigate Tigre, a captured enemy ship that had proven to have exceptional speed and maneuverability.

Writing to Lord Bedford, Anson stated: “I [Anson] intreat your Grace….to direct Mr Slade the Builder at Plymouth to take the Body of the French Tyger with utmost exactness and that two Frigates may be order’d; let Slade have the building of one of them.” 36 Clearly, there were some “middle managers” among the dockyard architects and builders who were open to at least considering innovation and progress.

In addition to trying to change administrative practices within the Navy and induce design innovation among ship architects, Montague and the Board of Admiralty also attempted to bring changes to the dockyards themselves, where ships were built, repaired, and kept in storage. Navy dockyards in Montagu’s time were commonly known to be poorly supervised, inefficient, and plagued with corruption and embezzlement. While both the government and the general public knew of these problems, numerous past administrations had tried and failed to bring about successful solutions. Part of the issue stemmed from the fact that neither the Board of Admiralty nor the Navy Board had a firm grasp on the intricacies of actual dockyard management or dockyard personnel. Each dockyard had a Commissioner, a navy captain on half-pay attached to the Navy board serving as the supposed senior office. However, each senior dockyard officer took orders directly from the Navy Board, rather than the Commissioner. The Commissioner could issue advice, warnings, and reports regarding the master shipwright, attendant, storekeeper, and clerk of the cheque, but had no authority to give them orders. 37 In essence, the Commissioner served as an intermediary between the dockyard and the captains and officers of ships. What was clear to Lord Montagu was that this system served to make imposing reforms incredibly convoluted and made properly assigning responsibility (and blame) practically impossible.

The core of this issue lay in the fact that the upper management of both boards had difficulty comprehending the technical and logistical complexity of the dockyards. The Board of Admiralty and even the officers within the Navy itself knew little of what managing and operating a dockyard required. Most navy captains simply requisitioned repairs or overhauls for their vessels, and the dockyard somehow made them happen (eventually). The Board of Admiralty, being at multiple levels removed from the yards themselves, had to rely on cooperative information-sharing from the Navy Board. Even the Navy Board did not have a clear understanding of their dockyards. With the vast majority of the administrative staff being located in London, the Navy Board relied upon the dockyard officers to keep them apprised of situations. As historian Nicholas Rodger explained, “It was easy to express dissatisfaction when things went wrong, more difficult to diagnose the problem, and very difficult to enforce a solution on reluctant subordinates whom it was impossible to dismiss and difficult to replace.” 38 With little direct authority where inter-departmental cooperation was not forthcoming and a lack of in-depth understanding of problems, the Admiralty Board under Bedford was finding reform of the dockyards to be much more challenging than Montagu and his associates initially thought.

While the problems within the dockyards may have been incredibly convoluted, it was clear to Montagu that relying on second and third-hand explanations and reports was not going to bring about solutions. With the death of Sir Jacob Acworth in 1748, it seemed plausible that his replacement would be more open to changes. Indeed, it would have been difficult for anyone to be less inclined than Acworth. Thus, the Board of Admiralty realized that simply replacing components within the existing mechanism was not going to work. By this time, Montagu was acutely aware that the lack of understanding of how the dockyards operated was going to continue to hamstring any Board of Admiralty efforts. In one letter, Montagu wrote: “I have always found that ‘til I understood the business thoroughly myself, I was liable to imposition…. I have ever made it my first Object to get free from these Shackles, as fast as I could, by making myself Master of what I was to undertake.” 39 Thus, in 1749, Montagu decided to tour all of England’s dockyards with several other associates from the Board of Admiralty. The Navy Board itself rarely did more than send one or two individuals to inspect the dockyards. This unprecedented move by the Board of Admiralty allowed Montagu to eliminate the advantage granted by the Navy Board’s “monopoly of information.” 40 In his visits, Montagu witnessed a plethora of organizational and managerial issues plaguing the dockyards, including idle workmen and the haphazard storage and cataloging of lumber. When inspecting ships that were laid up “in Ordinary” (meaning for reserve storage between wars), Montague wrote that he witnessed “in some of the Great Cabbins were Fires, anv Victuals cook’d in them, and not only Inhabited by the Officers, but Women and Children also, contrary to many Standing Orders.” 40 In other dockyards, Montagu and the Board representatives found victualling storehouses collapsing and the Storekeeper unable to fulfill his duty because of severe gout. At the same time, some dockyards such as Woolwich and Portsmouth were considered satisfactory.

In the course of the tours, Montagu witnessed workers in the Woolwich and Plymouth yards to be employed in “task work”, meaning that they were paid by the completed piece or task rather than the standard daily salary. After seeing the increased productivity of those laborers compared to traditional workers, Montagu took personal charge of issuing a series of orders to the Navy Board calling for the institution of task work, as well as other changes throughout the dockyards. The reaction in the dockyards among workers to the proposed changes was incredibly hostile, with dockyard officers fearing the loss of their privileges and control. The Navy Board enacted very few of the changes by 1751 and outright ignored many of the orders. 42 While this attempt at reform essentially failed, it did prove to Montague the critical need for personal understanding of an issue before problems could be addressed. Montagu’s further efforts to initiate change would have to be delayed, however. Over the previous years, Bedford had fallen increasingly out of favor with both his political colleagues and the King, in part due to his idle and unprofessional conduct. In particular, Bedford found himself the enemy of Thomas Holles, the Duke of Newcastle. In order to bait Bedford into resigning in protest, Newcastle and his allies dismissed Montagu.  It would not be until a near disaster in 1770 that Montagu would find himself once again in a position to reform naval affairs.

After being dismissed from the Board of Admiralty, Montague contented himself with travel, music, and some diplomatic dealings. A geopolitical development in 1770, however, would help facilitate his return to the Board of Admiralty. In that year, Spanish troops drove the British out of the Falkland Islands. As diplomatic talks began to break down over the issue, the Southern Secretary, Thomas Weymouth, resigned and was replaced by the Secretary of State, Lord North. North then brought Lord Montagu on as his replacement as Secretary of State as a way of showing respect to Weymouth (who suggested Montagu) and solidifying ties with political allies. While this political restructuring was occurring, the Navy was trying to mobilize for what might be the opening of a major war. What resulted was an incredibly slow and haphazard preparation that revealed that the difficulty of mustering sailors was exceeded only by the deteriorated condition of available ships. In one letter, Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Bradshaw, stated that “The Admiralty have already most miserably bungled the business, & they are not only tardy, but every step they mean to take… is already as well known as it will be… I not only pity the Country, but the Minister who is to work with such implements.” 43 Fortunately, peace negotiations between the English and French obliged Spain to agree to an accommodation, and a peace agreement was signed in January of 1771. With the war averted, North was interested in replacing Lord Hawke, the elderly admiral serving as First Lord of the Admiralty and the man many blamed for the navy’s deterioration. 44   After serving as Secretary of State for three weeks, Montagu (gladly) accepted the “demotion” to First Lord of the Admiralty. While the change involved not only a reduction in rank as well as a salary decrease, Montagu wrote to his son that “It is not I that have accommodated the administration but the administration that has gratified me in my request to change my department.” 43 Montagu would prove, however, to have learned from his previous term. Rather than attempting sweeping reforms of all problems facing England’s navy at once, Montagu would instead attempt to find solutions to the core causes of individual issues. In particular, he would attempt to increase the dockyards’ material capacity, improve the efficiency of dockyard workers, and find a creative solution to England’s problem with mobilization speed.

The “bungled” mobilization revealed a number of compounding issues throughout the navy. During times of peace, most of the navy’s officers and common sailors dispersed into fisheries or the merchant fleet. This dissolution of established crews naturally resulted in the disintegration of unit cohesion and discipline that had been created over the course of the previous war. Even the ships themselves were vulnerable to peace-time deterioration. With poor dockyard discipline, ships laid up in ordinary were frequently neglected and ignored until war appeared imminent. At that point, the combination of repairing neglected ships, fitting out others, and maintaining ships already active put an insurmountable strain on dockyard logistics, severely hampering any attempt to bring the navy up to full combat strength.

When Montagu resumed office within the Board of Admiralty, he quickly realized that the limitations of dockyards constituted one of the key components of the dilemma. At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, the English fleet reached a purported size of 150 ships-of-the-line, as well as the various smaller vessels. The dockyards, however, were at the same capacity as they were after some expansions during the late seventeenth century and the reign of Queen Anne. 46 The majority of these dockyards were located on the east coast of England, with only one on the west coast. The eastern yards were known to be particularly cramped, with several of them also infested with shipworm. 47 An increasingly deteriorated fleet was trying to make use of these undersized ports. Even keeping track of the condition of ships proved to be an incredible logistical challenge. Enormous wooden vessels could have severe decay in areas not frequently inspected or accessed that were not found until the ships were being prepared for war (or even until they were under way). Frequently, records indicated ships in ordinary to be in good condition when in fact they were barely seaworthy. The limited number of dockyards and building slips meant that only a small number of ships could be serviced at a time, meaning that many others continued to decay while waiting. Another factor complicating the management of repairs was the difficulty in keeping accurate financial records of repairs. For example, in the years between 1774 and 1783, Parliament approved fifty-two requests for repairs to 74-gun ships. Thirty-nine of those ships were actually repaired, and the remaining funds were instead diverted to the repair of eleven other ships not mentioned in the initial requisition. 48

Whereas Montagu attempted sweeping administrative reforms during his first period on the Board of Admiralty, his second term focused primarily on conditions and logistics within the dockyards themselves. Montague came to the conclusion that attempting to maintain the current fleet with the dockyard capacity and the financial support granted by Parliament was an impossible task. Instead, he sought to lessen the maintenance strain by increasing the lifespan of the ships themselves. In order to understand how to tackle that issue, Montagu resumed annual inspections of the dockyards by the Board of Admiralty in 1771. Such inspection tours had not taken place since Montagu’s previous term on the Board. His predecessor, Lord Hawke, had ordered the Navy board to make such inspections (and was ignored). 49 This time, however, Montagu took a significantly different approach. During his previous inspections in 1749 and 1750, those on the tours were only members from the Board of Admiralty. In 1771, however, Montague made certain to include representatives from both the Board of Admiralty and the Navy Board. 50 The inclusion of representatives from both boards demonstrated that Montagu understood that the adversarial mentality between the two boards only served to hamper both, while mutual participation would foster cooperation. During their tours, Montagu and the representatives not only inspected the physical conditions. Montagu paid particular attention to reports on the utility of worm rigging to prevent wear, the best methods of storing masts, and an experimental trial of anti-fouling compounds. Such information not only informed Montagu in regards to his quest for extending ship service life, but also provided him with a deeper understanding of the technical expertise involved with dockyard management.

Montagu also identified the critical issues of the shortage of seasoned reserve timber. Montagu sought to find a way to increase the dockyard reserve to an estimated three years’ worth. As he began to inspect the fleet left over from the previous administration, Montague realized just how dangerous the situation had been in 1770. With so few existing ships in good repair, the navy would have been forced to institute an emergency building program similar to that of the Seven Years’ War. During that conflict, the need for ships to be rapidly built resulted in a great number of them being built either partially or entirely out of unseasoned wood, which was particularly vulnerable to rot and decay in damp conditions. If war had come in 1770, Montagu believed that the Navy “could not have built fast enough to make up for the rapid decay with which we were threatened; and those ships would have been run up at immense expence [sic]…. Few of them would have lasted more than six years.” 51 Clearly, Montagu was not interested in continuing the process of building new ships with poor service lives. Increasing the seasoned timber reserves, however, resulted in a difficult paradox. Timber could only be seasoned by allowed it to sit for several years. Allowing cut timber to rest and season naturally required reducing the consumption of timber as the reserve stock aged. The suspension or delay of repairs, however, led to an increased rate of ship decay, thereby increasing the need for lumber. The problem of reducing consumption to allow for seasoning was compounded by the fact that the Navy was experiencing an overall lack of timber available for purchase.

Montagu began to address each part of the situation in turn. In order to increase the overall availability of lumber, Montagu ordered an increase in the amount of freight cost the Navy was willing to pay to acquire wood. This allowed the Navy to import lumber from farther away, even from abroad. The Navy Board quickly began contracting with additional lumber suppliers to fill their needs. 52 In addition, Montagu secured a legal limitation on the size of ships the East India Company was allowed to use. 53 With their enormous trading ships and enormous funds, the East India Company had previously been able to compete with the Navy for timber. While shipbuilders were initially incredibly reluctant to build using “foreign wood”, they quickly accepted the new reality (and a new source of income). By the middle of 1773, Montagu had managed to attain an average of three years’ worth of seasoned timber in the dockyards. While the raw material issue may have been solved, this still left Montagu with the dilemma of figuring out how to find enough yard capacity to build and season new ships while maintaining the ships already in service.

Montagu pursued another long-term endeavor of building up a seasoned-timber fleet. He realized that trying to reconcile the new fleet building with an old fleet maintenance system was impossible. While the dockyards were busy building up timber reserves and constructing new maintenance slips, Montagu canceled several contracts to have new ships constructed. Montagu and the Board of Admiralty also took the controversial step of outsourcing some frigate repairs to private shipyards. 54 As lumber supplies and maintenance facilities gradually increased, however, Montagu was faced with complications from a third angle: manpower. With the prolonged peace, the Board of Admiralty was under increasing pressure to lay off workers within the dockyards. When previously faced with an inability to keep vessels repaired, Montagu sought ways to reduce the number of repairs they needed. Here again, Montague attempted an indirect solution: if more men could not be kept in the dockyard, he would attempt to make those that were available more efficient. Thus, bringing their focus to administrative issues again, the Board of Admiralty once more attempted to introduce task work.

In the second attempt to bring in task work, the Board of Admiralty chose to make the adoption of task work voluntary for each shipyard while highlighting its potential for increasing the laborers’ nominal wages. Additionally, the Board of Admiralty was able to secure a cooperative reception from the Navy Board rather than the adversarial one twenty years previously. 55 Part of this change was due to the sense of teamwork and departmental camaraderie created by Montagu’s insistence that the Navy Board participate in the dockyard tours. Another contributing factor was the fact that Montagu had the good fortune of having most of the previous Navy Board leadership replaced in recent years with younger, more open-minded individuals. Regardless, the combined will of the Board of Admiralty and the Navy Board meant that the recommendation of task work carried significantly more weight during this second attempt. While some dockyards, such as Portsmouth and Plymouth resisted the changes, others such as the dockyard in Woolwich chose to try the new system. As rumors of increased pay began to spread, other dockyards gradually shifted to task work.

Finally, Montagu also pursued reforming England’s ships themselves. Rather than attempting serious overhauls of design philosophy as he did during his previous term, however, Montagu attempted to change how England made use of an existing but underutilized fleet. The near-war of 1770 had revealed the danger of mainland England finding itself in a war without a properly mobilized defense force. For this issue, Montagu pursued a policy that might be viewed as similar to the failed “navy reserve” scheme of his previous tenure. Specifically, Montagu argued in favor of growing the guardship force. 56 Under the previous administration, guardships (warships kept partially ready for action in ports along the channel) were haphazardly manned and supplied. While some were in good order, others were barely more combat worthy than ships entombed in ordinary. In regards to manpower, some guardships had a few dozen hands on standby while others possessed full wartime-level crews. Under Montagu, the organization of guardships was greatly standardized. The number of ships was increased from fourteen to twenty (enough for a standard squadron), and the ratios of standing crews were increased from one-quarter of the wartime standard to one-half (enough to safely maneuver the ship and perform training cruises). 57 Furthermore, the Board of Admiralty dictated that a hull-cleaning rotation be instituted, allowing guardships to be cleaned and inspected twice yearly instead of once per year, thereby ensuring the vessels remained seaworthy.

Part of the reason for Montague’s successes in his second term on the Board of Admiralty was his acquaintanceship with King George III. Under Lord Montagu’s influence, George III had developed an interest in naval affairs and naval technology, going so far as to attend a ship launching in Deptford with Montagu and making a royal visit to the dockyard in Portsmouth in 1773. 58 By including groups such as the Navy Board in his reforms as contributors rather than as subordinates, Montagu allowed for peaceful cooperation between branches and departments. By maintaining political connections, such as his friendship with George III, he also maintained a valuable weapon in case a more forceful approach was needed to institute changes.

Throughout his two periods in the Board of Admiralty, Lord John Montague demonstrated a unique ability to identify immediate problems and institute long term solutions. While this had the obvious benefit of rooting out systemic flaws in the organizational and logistical structure of the navy, it did have the downside of making Montague vulnerable to criticism by those who did not share his long-term vision. Such was the cause for Montagu being harshly criticized after the English loss of the American colonies. With public outrage at a high, blame for the poor condition of the navy during the war was placed upon Montagu and his Board of Admiralty. In reality, however, Montagu’s board was dealing with systemic issues caused by previous generations of naval administration. At the same time, Montagu laid the foundations that would allow the next generation of the Royal Navy to reach an unprecedented level of excellence and formidableness. Thus, by demonstrating the power of skilled administrative reform, Lord Montagu made the later glories of individuals such as Nelson and Cochrane possible, even if he himself was not a seaman.


Had Montagu and his colleagues simply tried brute force solutions to the navy’s problems during his tenures, he would either have failed outright or created only partial improvements that would most likely have fallen apart shortly after his departure. Montagu, however, was circumspect enough to realize that not only did he lack the political clout for such actions, but that addressing root causes was the more effective way to correct the navy’s myriad symptoms. By ensuring that he and his followers developed a detailed understanding of the industries and departments they were trying to change, Montagu demonstrated that small reforms and changes could add up to sweeping improvements. By the early nineteenth century, Montagu’s reforms had borne fruit: the ships and sailors of the Royal Navy had the resilience, organization, and resources to not only take the fight to the other seafaring powers of the world but to strike resounding victories.


“Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty,” The National Archives UK, August 12, 2009.

Baugh, Daniel A. British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Black, Jeremy. Britain as a Military Power, 1688-1815. London: Routledge, 2004.

“Board’s minutes” The National Archives, UK. August 12, 2009.

Duffy, Michael. “The establishment of the Western Squadron as the linchpin of British naval strategy,” In Naval History 1680-1850. pp. 95-116. London: Routledge, 2017.

Duffy, Michael. “Types of Naval Leadership in the Eighteenth Century.” In Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World, edited by R. Harding and A. Guimerá, pp. 49-57. London: University of Westminster Press, 2017. DOI: License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Fortescue, J.W. The Correspondence of King George the Third: from 1760 to December 1783: Printed from the Original Papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. London: Frank Cass, 1967.

Knight, R. J. B. Portsmouth Dockyard Papers, 1774-1783. Portsmouth: City of Portsmouth, 1987.

Lavery, Brian. The Ship of the Line. London: Conway Maritime, 2003.

London Gazette, March 24, 1744, 8313 edition. LINK.

“Montagu, Edward Richard, Visct. Hinchingbrooke (1692-1722), of Hinchingbrooke, Hunts.” History of Parliament Online. Institute of Historical Research. Accessed November 26, 2019. LINK.

“Navy Board and Admiralty: Office of the Surveyor of the Navy,” The National Archives, UK. August 23, 2009.

Pool, Bernard. Navy Board Contracts. London: Archon Books, 1966.

“Records of Medical and Prisoner of War Departments” The National Archives UK, August 12, 2009. https://

Rodger, N. A. M. The Insatiable Earl: a Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792. New York: Norton, 1994.

Rodger, N. A. M., Articles of War: The Statues which Governed our Fighting Navies 1661, 1749, and 1886.. Homewell: Kenneth Mason, 1982.

Rodger, Nicholas A. M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815. London: Penguin, in Association with National Maritime Museum, 2004.

Rodger, Nicholas A. M. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. London: Folio Society, 2009.

Russell, John. Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, Vol. 1. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1842.

Sandwich, John Montagu of. The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. I. London: Routledge, 2019.

Sandwich, John Montagu of. The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. III. London: Routledge, 2019.

Wilkinson, Clive. The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004.

“William Palmer, Clerk of the Cheque at Portsmouth, Navy Office. Lord Sandwich Has..” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.

(Return to May 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1.   “Montagu, Edward Richard, Visct. Hinchingbrooke (1692-1722), of Hinchingbrooke, Hunts.” History of Parliament Online. Institute of Historical Research. Accessed November 26, 2019. LINK.
  2.   N. A. M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl: a Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792 (New York: Norton, 1994).
  3.   “Board’s minutes,” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  4.   London Gazette, March 24, 1744, 8313 edition. LINK.
  5.   Jeremy Black, Britain as a Military Power, 1688-1815 (London: Routledge, 2004).
  6.   Clive Wilkinson, The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004).
  7.   Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 23.
  8.   London Gazette, May 14, 1763, 10313 edition. LINK.
  9.   London Gazette, February 4, 1745, 8508 edition. LINK
  10. “Records of Medical and Prisoner of War Departments” The National Archives UK, August 12, 2009. https://
  11.   London Gazette, November 18, 1749, 8903 edition. LINK
  12. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 23
  13. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 23
  14. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 28.
  15. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, in Association with National Maritime Museum, 2004).
  16. “Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty,” The UK National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  17. John Montagu of Sandwich, The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. I. (London: Routledge, 2019), 89.
  18. Daniel A. Baugh, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2015), 54.
  19. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 32
  20. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. 1, 160.
  21. Rodger, Command, 220.
  22. Michael Duffy, “Types of Naval Leadership in the Eighteenth Century,” in Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World, ed. R. Harding and A. Guimerá, (London: University of Westminster Press, 2017), 49–57. DOI: License: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0
  23. Baugh, British Naval, 84.
  24. Duffy, “Types.”
  25. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (London: Folio Society, 2009), 200.
  26. Michael Duffy, “The establishment of the Western Squadron as the linchpin of British naval strategy,” in Naval History 1680-1850, ed. R. Harding, (London: Routledge, 2017), 95-116.
  27. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 36.
  28. N. A. M. Rodger, Articles of War (Homewell: Kenneth Mason, 1982).
  29. John Russell, Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, Vol. 1 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1842), 112.
  30. Rodger, Wooden World, 145.
  31. Brian Lavery, The Ship of the Line (London: Conway Maritime, 2003), 75.
  32. Nicholas A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, in Association with National Maritime Museum, 2004), 419.
  33. “Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  34. John Montagu of Sandwich, The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty; 1771-1782 (London: Routledge, 2019).
  35. London Gazette, June 10, 1746, 10313 edition. LINK.
  36. John Russell, Correspondence of John, Fourth Duke of Bedford, Vol. 1 (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 18420, 80.
  37. Baugh, British Naval, 21.
  38. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 29
  39. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. 1, 73.
  40. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 65.
  41. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 65.
  42. Abstracts of Letters from the Admiralty” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  43. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 129.
  44. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. III, 13.
  45. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 129.
  46. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 132.
  47. Baugh, British Naval, 530.
  48. “Navy Board and Admiralty: Office of the Surveyor of the Navy” The National Archives, UK, August 23, 2009.
  49. Rodger, Command, 449.
  50. “William Palmer, Clerk of the Cheque at Portsmouth, Navy Office. Lord Sandwich Has…” The National Archives, UK, August 12, 2009.
  51. John Montagu of Sandwich, The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich: First Lord of the Admiralty, Vol. III (London: Routledge, 2019), 81.
  52. London Gazette, March, 2, 1771, 11123 edition. LINK
  53. Sandwich, Private Papers, 15.
  54. Rodger, Insatiable Earl, 147.
  55. R. J. B. Knight, Portsmouth Dockyard Papers, 1774-1783 (Portsmouth: City of Portsmouth, 1987).
  56. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. III, 26.
  57. Sandwich, Private Papers, Vol. III, 27.
  58. J.W. Fortescue, The Correspondence of King George the Third: from 1760 to December 1783: Printed from the Original Papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle (London: Frank Cass, 1967), 384.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to British Bureaucra-sea: How Montagu’s Reforms Paved the Way for Nelson’s Victory

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.