Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville

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Vice-Admiral Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville CMG (7 September 1863 – 24 March 1936) was an Irish naval officer that served in the Royal Navy, and a maritime author, who was shot dead by the IRA.


Somerville joined the Royal Navy as a cadet in 1877. He trained as a Hydrographic Surveyor, was promoted to Commander on 31 December 1901,[1] Captain in 1912 and Vice Admiral on 1 August 1919. He retired on 2 August 1919. While on surveying duties in the Western Pacific, Somerville built a significant collection of ethnographic artifacts from the Solomon Islands - now in Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

In 1908, while surveying in British waters, he read a book suggesting stone circles and standing stones might have astronomical significance. He thereafter devoted much of his time to surveying such monuments in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere, and became a recognised expert in the field of archaeoastronomy. He contributed papers to the Journal of the British Astronomical Association[2] and the Antiquarian magazine.

As part of the late summer 1917 reorganisation of the burgeoning British Secret Intelligence Service, led by Mansfield Smith-Cumming and his de facto deputy, Colonel Freddie Browning, Somerville was appointed as 'officer in charge of the Naval Section within the Secret Service Bureau.' This was the first career naval officer posting to the Secret Service. In February 1919, Somerville wrote a review setting out a number of basic principles for service and encouraging the development of specialist intelligence technical skills within the navy for intelligence gathering and analysis. Also in February 1919, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George "in recognition of valuable services during the war".[3]

After his retirement he returned to the family home at Castletownshend, near Cork in Ireland. On 24 March 1936 he was killed when four men burst into the house and fired a revolver. IRA chief of staff Tom Barry was involved in the shooting.[4][5] The Vice-Admiral was targeted for allegedly recruiting local men to join the Royal Navy, a claim the family rejected. His family said he did not recruit anyone but merely gave references to young people who called to the family door and asked for a reference. The admiral was Irish language speaker, and he was a supporter of the nationalist Home Rule movement. The men who shot him left a note saying he was shot because he was recruiting for the British Army, and this led to suspicions that the target was in fact his British Army brother that lived close by, and was more prominent and a much more likely target. IRA leader Kevin Barry stated in an interview in later years that the shooting was a mistake in that he was only meant to have been taken hostage. [6]

He was the younger brother of the novelist and artist, Edith Somerville, who finished his biography of William Mariner for its posthumous publication.

Published works[edit]

  • Ocean Passages for the World. Published for Hydrographic Dept., Admiralty, by HMSO (1923)
  • The Chart-Makers. Blackwell & Sons. (1928)
  • Commodore Anson's Voyage into the South Seas and Around the World. Heinemann. (1934)
  • Will Mariner. Faber & Faber. (1936)
  • Records of the Somerville Family of Castlehaven & Drishane from 1174 to 1940 (with Edith Anna Somerville). Published by Guy & Co, Cork, 1940

See also:

  • The Selected letters of Somerville and Ross edited by Gifford Lewis, Faber (1989)
  • Blood-Dark Track: A Family History, by Joseph O'Neill, Granta (2001) for a detailed account of Boyle Somerville's killing.
  • MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, by Keith Jeffery, Bloomsbury (2010).


  1. ^ "No. 27393". The London Gazette. 3 January 1902. p. 3.
  2. ^ https://www.jstor.org/stable/27920493?read-now=1&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
  3. ^ "No. 13403". The Edinburgh Gazette. 14 February 1919. p. 908.
  4. ^ "Vice-Admiral Shot Dead Outrage In County Cork". The Times. 25 March 1936.
  5. ^ Hart, Peter (January 2008) [2004]. "Barry, Thomas Bernardine (1897–1980)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/65835. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ O'Neill, Joseph (10 February 2001). "Shaking the family tree". The Guardian. Retrieved 6 September 2014.

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