Parliament and the Naval Review

In today’s blog our director Dr Paul Seaward is casting his eyes out to sea, with a look into the popularity of the Naval Review in the late 19th century. However, these displays of British maritime power weren’t always smooth sailing…

There had been irregular naval reviews since the 1770s, sometimes with mock sea-battles, laid on to entertain the royal family and to display the extent of British seapower. But it seems to have been only in the 1850s, perhaps in response to the huge review put on by the French navy at Cherbourg in 1850, that the admiralty turned such things into enormous PR exercises, and encouraged the attendance of large numbers of parliamentarians. At the great review of the fleet in August 1853 only months before the outbreak of hostilities in the Crimean war members of both houses were accommodated on the Bulldog and Stromboli steamsloops to watch ‘such a spectacle as hardly any man living has witnessed, and no one living could witness elsewhere’ (for a moment, according to The Times, the two ships were caught between the two fleets playing the role of opposing forces and ‘exposed to the entire fury of the cannonade, and it is expected that, in consequence, for some time there will be a marked diminution in the number of interjectional “Hear, hears” observable in our parliamentary reports’).

The Naval Review, Spithead, John Wilson Carmichael, South Shields Museum and Art Gallery via ArtUK

Just under three years later, at the conclusion of the war with Russia, the admiralty planned another review, and again made arrangements for members to attend. They must have often wished they hadn’t bothered. In advance of the event, Colonel French complained that members of the House of Lords had been allowed to bring along their wives, while the Commons were not. The request of the Speaker that the Commons be allotted the Himalaya, ‘a large and commodious vessel’, had been turned down; the ship that they had been given, the Perseverance, was known to have previously capsized. In the event, just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was described in excruciating detail the following day in the House of Lords by Lord Ravensworth.

Nothing could be more perfect in theory than the plan which was originally devised by the Government, by which the yacht which convoyed Her Majesty on her progress through the magnificent line of ships was to be followed by one which was to contain Her Majesty’s faithful advisers, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and this was to be succeeded by the vessel on board of which were the Members of the House of Commons—symbolising the monarchial, the hereditary, and the popular estates of the realm, the representatives of which were to float together in the midst of that great display of the naval power of Britain. The theory was perfect; the misfortune was that it entirely failed of realisation.

The Naval Review‘, House of Lords Hansard: Volume 141, column 1385 (debated Thursday 24 April 1856)

To start with, the train had broken down, rendering the delegation two hours late in arriving at Southampton. Then the tenders provided for ferrying the members onto their steamers were woefully inadequate: as a result by the time they were all embarked and underway, much of the display had finished. In the end the maligned Perseverance turned out to be a better ship than that provided for the peers, the Transit: not only did the Perseverance overtake the slower Transit – thus, as Lord Ravensworth remarked acidly, rendering the House of Commons the second estate of the realm, rather than the third – but on its way back the Transit’s fires went out and she became ‘almost like a log upon the water’. Even so, she managed to run foul of a gunboat, seriously injuring a marine. She eventually reached Southampton at ten at night, when there was further delay when the tender that had been provided to take the peers ashore lost her steering. In the end their lordships reached London at three o’clock in the morning. The foreign secretary (Earl Granville), attempting to make an explanation on behalf of the government, complained that ‘several noble Lords on board were kind enough to try to fix the whole responsibility of the affair on me, which, as your Lordships may imagine, did not at all increase my enjoyment of the day. I was particularly desired by some to go down and poke the fire, but, with an unusual degree of modesty, I declined to undertake the command of even a small fraction of the Channel fleet.’ The earl of Malmesbury pointed out that Granville had in fact, ‘with his usual sagacity and acuteness, about half-past three, seeing how matters went, and how unlikely it was that he should see his home that night if he stayed with us, deserted the ship, and, having found very comfortable quarters on the coast of the Isle of Wight, to our great consternation hailed a small boat and left us to our fate’. Sir Charles Wood provided a lengthy explanation in the Commons the following day, to much hilarity and some scepticism.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Review at Spithead, 26 June 1897, Charles Dixon, National Maritime Museum via ArtUK

The PR coup was turned into a disaster, as far as Parliament was concerned. It was perhaps emphasised by the success of the visit to the grand inaugural celebrations for the new fortifications at the French naval base of Cherbourg in 1858, attended by the Queen, a number of royal navy vessels, and a self-selected delegation of MPs. The Directors of the Peninsular and Oriental Navigation Company offered the use of their ship the Pera. In an anonymous article in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (‘The Commons at Cherbourg, by One of Themselves’, Vol. lxxiv, No. DXV, Sept. 1858, 352-84) described the event in detail, from conversations with colleagues who remembered all too well the Perseverance and the Transit about whether they should go, the train down to Southampton with the deputy serjeant-at-arms in charge to be installed on the Pera. This time 85 MPs and only two peers attended, and despite a certain disgruntlement at the lack of attention paid to the delegation by the consul at Cherbourg or the ambassador at Paris, all concerned seem to have had a marvellous time.

The custom of a delegation from the Lords and Commons visiting naval reviews, officially or unofficially, continued: in 1878 the Birmingham Daily Post complained about the consequent poor attendance on the Indian budget (actually this was a common complaint anyway); in 1897 the admiralty accepted the offer of the RMS Campania to accommodate the parliamentary party. The arrangements made for the 1911 review – for which the admiralty chartered nine vessels for the Lords and the Commons – resulted in several bad-tempered exchanges in advance. Thereafter, penny-pinching limited the number of members who could attend: ballots were held for places in 1902, 1924 and 1953. As far as one can tell, the tradition died out at some point during the reign of the present queen: perhaps because of the cost, or because reviews themselves have largely petered out (the last was the 2005 review marking the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar).


Follow Dr Seaward’s work in his blog, ‘From Reformation to Referendum: Writing a New History of Parliament’.

One thought on “Parliament and the Naval Review

  1. I went to lobby our MP in 1977 as part of a wider NUS campaign to stop the closure of some teacher training institutions. As Bretton Hall was in the Wakefield constituency, our MP was Walter Harrison, then Deputy Chief Whip, who supported the Retention of the College. After a positive discussion in the Chief Whip’s office, we stopped briefly at one of the Commons’ bars. We were surprised that a couple of Conservative members immediately offered to buy Mr Harrison a drink. “I am allocating the tickets for the Spithead Review”, he said, after politely declining. I had not realised that it still existed.

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