Badge of the Navy Board on Somerset House (the Board's headquarters 1789-1832)
|Jurisdiction||Kingdom of England Kingdom of Great Britain|
|Headquarters||Navy Office, Seething Lane  (1654-1788); Somerset House (1789-1831); Whitehall, Westminster, London|
The Navy Board was the organisation with responsibility for day-to-day administration of the Royal Navy between 1546 and 1832.
The Board was established by Henry VIII in 1546 "to oversee the administrative affairs of the naval service" (while policy direction, operational control and maritime jurisdiction remained in the hands of the Lord High Admiral). It was also referred to as the Navy Office, particularly in the earlier part of its history.
Duties and responsibilities
The Navy Board of the 16th and early 17th century oversaw shipbuilding and maintenance through the Royal Dockyards of Deptford, Woolwich, Portsmouth and Chatham; it was also responsible for the oversight and maintenance of these dockyards. In addition, the Board co-ordinated provision of victuals for the fleet (obtained from private contractors or "agents") and provision of ordnance items (sourced from the Office of Ordnance). It was also responsible for the appointment of junior officers and warrant officers, and had several other duties in addition.
As the size of the fleet grew, the Admiralty sought to focus the activity of the Navy Board on two areas: ships and their maintenance, and naval expenditure. Therefore, from the mid- to late-17th century, a number of subsidiary Boards began to be established to oversee other aspects of the Board's work. These included:
- The Board of Commissioners for Victualling (1683-1832)
- The Commissioners for taking Care of Sick and Wounded Seamen (established temporarily in times of war from 1653, placed on a permanent footing from 1715, amalgamated into the Transport Board from 1806)
- The Transport Board (1690-1724, re-established 1794, amalgamated into the Victualling Board in 1817).
Each of these subsidiary Boards went on to gain a degree of independence (though they remained, nominally at least, overseen by the Navy Board).
The Navy Pay Office (domain of the Treasurer and the Paymaster of the Navy) was independent of the Board; though the Board's Commissioners were required to authorize payments, all funds were held and issued by the Pay Office (which was also known as the Naval Treasury).
Principal Officers and Commissioners
Tudor and Stuart period
Instrumental in the early administration of the Navy Office were four officials or "Principal Officers":
- the Comptroller of the Navy
- the Treasurer of the Navy
- the Surveyor of the Navy
- the Clerk of the Acts.
As defined by a set of Ordinances drawn up under Henry's successor, Edward VI, the Navy Board was given a high degree of autonomy while yet remaining subordinate to the Lord High Admiral. This - at times ambiguous - relationship with The Admiralty was an enduring characteristic of the Board, and indeed was one of the reasons behind its eventual demise in 1832.
Commonwealth and Restoration period
During the Commonwealth the business of both Navy Board and Admiralty was carried out by a committee of Parliament. Following the Restoration, James, Duke of York (as Lord High Admiral) oversaw the reconstitution of the Navy Board. Alongside the aforementioned "Principal Officers" further officials were appointed to serve as "Commissioners" of the Navy, and together these constituted the Board. By tradition, commissioners were always Navy officers of the rank of post-captain or captain who had retired from active service at sea.
List of Principal Officers and Commissioners 1660-1796.
- Controller (chaired meetings of the Board[a] and liaised with the First Lord of the Admiralty)
- Surveyor (in charge of shipbuilding, ship design and running the Royal Dockyards)
- Treasurer of the Navy (in charge of accounts - though in practice his responsibilities were increasingly devolved to the Controller)
- Clerk of the Acts of the Navy (in charge of the day-to-day running of the Board and the administration of its work)
- Three additional Commissioners, who were soon given specific duties (so as to lessen the administrative burden placed on the Controller):
- Controller of Treasurer's Accounts (from 1667)
- Controller of Victualling Accounts (from 1667)
- Controller of Storekeepers' Accounts (from 1671)
To this list must be added the resident Commissioners of the Royal Dockyards, who (though not normally in attendance at its meetings in London) were full members of the Navy Board and carried the full authority of the Board when implementing or making decisions within their respective Yards. Not every Dockyard had a resident Commissioner in charge, but the larger Yards, both at home and overseas, generally did (with the exception of the nearby Thames-side yards of Deptford and Woolwich, which were for the most part overseen directly by the Board in London).
From the 1650s the Board, together with its staff of around 60 clerks, was accommodated in a large house at the corner of Crutched Friars and Seething Lane, just north of the Tower of London. Following a fire, the house was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. This new Navy Office provided accommodation for the Commissioners, as well as office space. Different departments were accommodated in different parts of the building; the rear wing (which had its own entrance on Tower Hill) housed the offices of the Sick and Hurt Board. The Victualling Office was also located nearby, on Little Tower Hill, close to its early manufacturing base at Eastminster. The Navy Treasury, where the Treasurer was based, was located from 1664 in Broad Street (having moved there from Leadenhall Street). It was also known as the Navy Pay Office.
In 1796 the Board was reconstituted: the post of Clerk of the Acts was abolished, as were the three Controllers of Accounts. Henceforward, the Board would consist of the Controller and a Deputy Controller (both of whom were normally commissioned Officers), the Surveyor (usually a Master Shipwright from one of the Dockyards) and around seven other Commissioners (a mixture of officers and civilians) to whom no specific duties were attached.
The Treasurer, though still technically a member of the Board, was (like the Dockyard Commissioners) seldom in attendance. In actual fact the post of Treasurer was by this stage little more than a sinecure; the main work of his department was carried out by its senior clerk, the Paymaster of the Navy.
Following the abolition of the office of Clerk of the Acts, the post of Secretary to the Board was created; as well as overseeing the administrative department, the Secretary attended meetings of the Board and took minutes; but he was not himself a Commissioner and did not therefore have a vote.
By the early nineteenth century, Members of Parliament had begun raising concerns at the cost of Navy Board operations and the obscurity of its record-keeping. On 15 February 1828 Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, established a Parliamentary Committee to review the Board's operations. The Committee, chaired by Irish MP Henry Parnell, was specifically charged with interpreting and reducing Navy Board costs. By the end of the year it had issued critical reports covering the Board's administration of naval pensions, half-pay, revenue, expenditure and debt. In particular, the Committee noted the Navy Board had long since abandoned financial controls; that it had instead "established a scale of expense greatly beyond what existed during former periods of peace," and that its operations tended to "exalt its own importance" over the needs of the public service as a whole.
The Board's internal operations were also found wanting:
The ancient and wise control vested by our financial policy in the hands of the Treasury over all the departments connected with the Public Expenditure, has been in a great degree set aside. Although it is the [Navy Board] practice to lay the annual estimates before the Board of Treasury, the subsequent course of expenditure is not practically restrained ... Old modes of conducting public business, full of complexity and inconsistency, have too long been suffered to exist; official forms and returns have been multiplied; and the result has been an unnecessary increase of establishments.— Sir Henry Parnell MP, Select Committee on the State of Public Income and Expenditure, End of Session Report, Volume Four, 1828.
The Government's response was delivered on 14 February 1832, with a Bill to abolish both the Navy Board and the Victualling Board and merge their functions into the Board of Admiralty. This Bill was moved by Sir James Graham as First Lord of the Admiralty, who argued that the Boards had been "constituted at a period when the principles of banking were unknown," and were redundant in an era of greater Parliamentary oversight and regulation. An amendment proposed by First Sea Lord Sir George Cockburn suggested that Navy Board be preserved and only the Victualling Board abolished, but this was defeated by 118 votes to 50. The Bill itself was passed on 23 May 1832, with the Navy Board formally ceasing operations from 1 June.
- In the mid-eighteenth century, and particularly during the War of Jenkins' Ear from 1739 to 1748, the Navy Board was chaired by Surveyor Jacob Acworth, because the Controller, Richard Haddock, was considered by his peers to be too old and feeble to carry out the role. The chairmanship reverted to the Controller after Haddock was superannuated in February 1749.
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