BRNC DARTMOUTH

Dartmouth, as we all know is an idyllic place and one of my favourite spots. Equally, we all know Dartmouth and the lovely River Dart is the home to the Britannia Naval College, and was the place where that most famous lady, Agatha Christie, chose to live.

The naval college has, and continues to do so, trained naval officers from all over the world and its reputation for excellence doesn't need any assistance from me for it is legendary. 

Apart from the function of the College, the building itself is beautiful as are its grounds, and on a lovely English summers day, when the sun catches its magnificent stonework, it could almost be a scene from a Walt Disney animation.

It is well known that a College on terra firma was required to take over from the cramped and unhealthy conditions found onboard the officer boys training ship Britannia.  At that time there were already two such College's, the Naval College at Portsmouth originally known as the Naval Academy and the Greenwich Naval College but for various reasons, both were ruled as a unsuitable alternatives to Britannia and for training thirteen year olds. 

There was a national debate involving both Houses of Parliament and the Admiralty of course, as to where to site a new College, and many eminent people of the day had an opinion. There was no doubt that any such new institution would be formed in the south of the country and many sites were proposed, each, according to the proposer, a better option than any other. Surprisingly Chatham and the Thames areas were not well sponsored in debate, and the sites endorsed started in Portsmouth and moved west. A huge number of naval officers and politicians wanted the College to be in a "naval area/environment" and proposed [or seconded] Portsmouth. Smaller groups though nonetheless as proactive as the main group, put forward firstly Braksea Island [which most of us will know as Brownsea Island in the middle of Poole harbour in Dorset] which was vetoed because it was claimed that the boys would be eaten to death by the mosquitoes, and Portland which largely failed because it had a convict prison and there was no land-room for the cadets.  Weymouth made a bid, and as we will read, its champion outshone all in the two Houses in his enthusiasm to bring the college to what was then, a very fashionable part of the south coast. Plymouth's bid was as strong as that of Portsmouth's but lacked  clout by not having as many eminent devotees.  It too argued that a naval college for aspiring officers should have a naval ambiance. The Duke of Somerset in league with the First Lord of the Admiralty listened to and joined the debate, but they had their hearts [and heads] set on the west country and in particular to the River Dart area where Britannia herself was based latterly removed from her original berth which was at Portland.

Once the name of the chosen site had been mooted, there was uproar in the country because, as so many argued, the site was altogether unsuitable.  Basically, this perceived unsuitability was based on the idea that the "air was too relaxed" and would harm the development of the boys. They meant by that, that the boys needed a climate which was bracing, unkind, challenging and demanding and not a climate which benefited the aging gentile classes.  However, one MP in particular, the MP for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, Sir Harry Edwards, gave a rousing speech giving reasons as to why Dartmouth would be a disaster were it to be chosen as the site. Here is that speech.  This was followed [below] two years later by an equally angry speech !

DARTMOUTH and the BRNC – How the hell did it get there after this speech ?  According to the text, more than 2000 questions were set on the desirability of the Dartmouth site.

 

July 1875 House of Commons debate.

 

The MP speaking is Sir Harry Edwards – MP for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis

 

There were several questions which demanded to be settled before the site for such a College as that now proposed should be erected. In the first place, the situation should be healthy; in the second, it should afford the cadets an opportunity for boating and shipping practice, and generally of familiarizing themselves with the details of their profession; and, in the third place, it should be centrally situated and should have ample railway accommodation to meet the requirements of cadets who come from all parts of the country. The place chosen by the Admiralty had not one of these advantages. The Report of the Committee appointed by the Admiralty showed that conclusively; and he would detain the House only a few minutes whilst he read a few extracts from the testimony of medical officers on board the Britannia before the Committee. Mr. Eugene de Merie, Surgeon, R.N., long resident on board the Britannia at Dartmouth, said, in answer to Question 218— What is your opinion of the climate of this place?—It is relaxing. I do not think it bracing enough. My friends and people I know coming from Torquay to see me here, say they find it more relaxing than Torquay. Q. 219. It is more relaxing than Torquay:—Yes. I believe that is because it is so much buried between two hills. Q. 220. Is there any difference in the climate or air on board the Britannia and the climate of the cricket-field?—There is. Q. 221. Is it apparent to you?—It is generally pretty apparent when you go on shore. It is much warmer there than it is on board ship.' The witness went on to say that when the boys went on shore for an hour's recreation, one-third of them simply sat about the beach. They did not care to go up the long hill to the playground. Dr. Dalby, R.N., said— There was an objection to the river, because the sewage of Dartmouth emptied itself into it; and, of course, with the tide it came up as far as the proposed site, and in that respect the river all the year round was objectionable. He further said— Q. 527. With regard to the sewage of the town of Dartmouth, is it a fact it is drained by sewers opening into the river?—Yes. Q. 528. Are you sure of that?—Quite certain; there are few cess-pits. The sewer from  the Sick-quarters Hospital comes right down into the river. Q. 529. There is a drain into the river then?—The drains generally are carried into the river. There are very few cess-pits. Q. 532. Do you think that that could produce any sensible effect upon the water here?—I am inclined to think that it might. Sir Alexander Armstrong, R.N., Medical Director General of the Navy, also said— Q. 2051. Have you formed any opinion as to the climate of Dartmouth, whether it is prejudicial or not to the cadets?—I should think that Dartmouth is not the place I would choose for a training ship myself, because I think it is in a harbour which is very much sheltered and surrounded by high land, and it has not the cheerfulness about it which would make it suitable for a training ship. I think it is relaxing, and that the whole of that part of Devonshire is relaxing. Q. 2052. You know, doubtless, that the Britannia was for some time at Weymouth?—Yes; she was at Weymouth, I know. Q. 2053. You would probably have no objection to the climate of Portland?—Portland, I should say, was very good. Q. 2056. Are you of opinion that the West of England generally is objectionable as a place for the training of cadets?—I think that better sites might be selected. I think that the West of England, as everybody knows, is a relaxing climate. Q. 2057. Is that relaxing climate, in your opinion, objectionable, in respect of health, to the boys?—I should think so, certainly. Q. 2058. Are there not differences of opinion as to whether the relaxing nature of the climate is bad for the boys, or not?—I think I should be disposed to put the boys in a more invigorating climate. Q. 2059. Have you any objection to the anchorage of Dartmouth in itself?—Well, I think, for the reasons I have stated, Dartmouth is not a favourable locality for a training ship. Q. 2060. That is because it is relaxing?—Yes; and I do not think that the sanitary state of the town is very favourable. I am not at all sure that the drainage is in a satisfactory state; there has been a great deal of isolated scarlatina and other disease amongst the people there; measles, smallpox, and so on. I believe that the drainage is defective in the town itself. These opinions alone would be sufficient to condemn Dartmouth as a site for a Training College for naval cadets. Indeed, one was at a loss to see what special advantages Dartmouth possessed in any respect as a site for such a College. It was objectionable in its situation with regard to the sea; for at Dartmouth the cadets could have scarcely any proper facilities for making themselve acquainted with naval or maritime matters at all, there being hardly any opportunities for seeing either ships or commerce. It would have been better  to select a place where the naval cadets could at least see a ship. From year's end to year's end Her Majesty's ships were never seen at Dartmouth. Not a merchantman approached. It was not even a boating place. The tides were strong, squalls very heavy, puffs of wind uncertain and sudden in the harbour, where regular little whirlwinds blew. If no accidents happened to the cadets, it was because the boats were half-decked, well-ballasted, and under-masted. He could not see the slightest benefit which could possibly result from establishing a College at the spot proposed, because there would be no chance of imparting to the students the practical knowledge they stood in need of. Again, to build a College at the extreme end of England would entail enormous expense upon the relatives and friends of those who were to enter, and that was an important consideration. Several high authorities, amongst them Lord Hampton, had asked the Admiralty to re-consider the matter, and he would point out that this was in no way to be regarded in the light of an ordinary school. Candidates for admission were required to undergo a medical examination before being sent to the Britannia. Why, after that preliminary examination, send down healthy lads to a place where their health would be undermined? The First Lord of the Admiralty said he had received suggestions as to the site all along the coast from the River Orwell to Penzance, and that a Committee of gentlemen had been appointed to inquire into the merits of the various places, the result being that upon official Reports four places were selected for the consideration of the Admiralty—namely, Portsmouth, Poole, Portland, and Dartmouth. [Mr. HUNT: It was not a Committee, but an official inspection.] At all events, four or five places had been spoken of; but he maintained that Dartmouth, which was the place selected, did not possess advantages superior to those to which any of the other proposed sites could lay claim. Portsmouth, being a garrison town and seaport, it was already felt there were circumstances rendering it undesirable that the training ship itself should any longer continue there, and those objections, it was almost needless to say, would be much stronger in the case of a Naval College. Neither the First Lord  of the Admiralty, who visited Poole during the Whitsuntide Recess, nor the Naval Lords, were favourably impressed with that place. Branksea Island  [My Comment – also known as Brownsea Island] could not be thought of, because the boys would be devoured by mosquitoes. Then they came to Portland, where it was said the sea was rough and the boys would get drenched if they went out. There was a convict prison there, and the country about was said to be so limited and unsuited for purposes of health or re-creation, that it was really the last place that could be thought of for the site of a great and important College. In fact, the College would simply be in the neighbourhood of a great quarry. Now no one would think of establishing the College at Portland, but it should be remembered that the harbour was landlocked, and that in going round the bay they arrived at Weymouth—the borough he (Mr. Edwards) had the honour to represent—[Laughter]—hon. Members might laugh, but the fact was that Weymouth presented everything that was desirable for the establishment of such a College. It had a most magnificent harbour, consisting of a wide, spacious, and open bay, extending to nearly 5,000 acres of beautiful clear deep sea water, upon which the boys could at all times enjoy boating, while at Weymouth they had a charming situation, and beautiful walks. It was said that when the Britannia was there before, the boys got drenched when in boats in the harbour; but that was 12 years ago, before the Breakwater was finished, and that state of things no longer existed. Weymouth had now one of the finest harbours in England, where the boys would have every opportunity of seeing Her Majesty's ships. The Channel Fleet sometimes went there, the Great Eastern was occasionally in the harbour, and there was every advantage that could be desired. Dr. Alexander Armstrong, while condemning Dartmouth altogether, declared in his evidence before the Committee that Weymouth was very good. He could not see, therefore, why Dartmouth should be taken with all its disadvantages, and Weymouth, with its fine harbour, should be neglected altogether. The convict establishment was on the extreme sea-side of Portland, and a man might live at Weymouth all his life without knowing it was there at all. It might as well be said there were convict  establishments in London. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty congratulated himself on having selected a site which had beautiful surroundings; but the College was to be 300 feet above the sea-level, and who could imagine naval cadets being placed in such a position as that. Why, it was eminently absurd. What had induced the right hon. Gentleman to adopt such a site for a Naval College he was totally at a loss to understand, and believing that a better site was to be found at Weymouth, he begged to submit his Resolution for the consideration of the House.

OVER TWO YEARS LATER, A VERY ANGRY MP SPEAKS OUT AGAINST THE PROPOSED DARTMOUTH INSTITUTION.  This is what Mr Childers had to say to the House in September 1895.

MR. CHILDERS  - speaking in the House in September 1895 concerning Dartmouth.

said, this was not a political question, not could it be said it had only two sides, for, as far as he could see, it seemed to be a four-sided question, the merits of which were advocated from all sides of the House; but he must bring it back to the special point of the responsibility of the Government in the important matter of the choice of a site. The right hon. Gentleman would have to balance the advantages of the four or five sites which had been suggested. He would have to show that the proposal to establish this institution at Dartmouth was wise in itself, and if he decided to adhere to Dartmouth, he would have to show that the opinions expressed by Sir Alexander Armstrong and the others with respect to the sanitary condition of that site were mistaken. He would also have to justify the establishment of a Naval College at an elevation of some 300 feet above the water, and generally the selection of such a place as Dartmouth in preference to the other sites which had been proposed. Objections had been made to the sanitary condition of Dartmouth, to its elevation above the sea, to its railway communications, and its  general want of facilities for training cadets as compared with other places which had been named; and, while meeting those objections, the right hon. Gentleman would have to substantiate his position that Dartmouth was still the best and most convenient site that could be chosen for the purpose. As to the suitability of Dartmouth, on the grounds mentioned by the hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Lawrence Palk), perhaps he (Mr. Childers) might describe Dartmouth in the language of poetry, slightly altered, as a place— Where every prospect pleases And only trains are vile. He believed there was no precedent for such a proposal. However beautiful the site might be, the place was exceedingly inconvenient. There was another important point to which he would call attention, and that was whether, on the grounds which had been stated, it was expedient to make the great change involved in establishing such a College on shore. The Duke of Somerset caused an inquiry to be made through Admiral Ryder, as to whether it would be convenient to substitute a College on shore for the Britannia; and, at that time, the majority of naval officers recommended that there should be an institution on shore for the training of naval cadets. The Duke of Somerset was, however, succeeded in office by Mr. Corry, who, above all men, had studied the question with the greatest care, and he arrived at a conclusion contrary to that of the Duke of Somerset. Acting under the advice of Sir Alexander Milne, the present First Sea Lord of the Admiralty, that conclusion was carried into effect, and upwards of £20,000 was spent in fitting up two ships for training purposes. [Mr. HUNT: £17,000.] The direct expense might be £17,000, but the gross cost, he believed, was between £25,000 and £30,000. It was inevitable that the Committee appointed to look into the arrangements should take evidence on this point, and those who advocated this building on shore were in favour of what they invariably called a College, to which were to be sent young men of 14, 15, or higher ages. In other countries—in France and the United States—these buildings were, strictly speaking, Colleges for young men of 17 and 18. But the Committee's recommendation was not that there should be "College," but an institution on shore to which youths should be sent as soon as they were 12 years of age—the nearer 12 the better—and where they should remain until they were 15; in other words, it was proposed to establish an institution for boys of 12, 13, and 14. Instead, therefore, of training the young men from the age of 15 to 21, as in other countries, this would be a preparatory or lower school for boys of the average age of 13. He asked the House whether—now that the Britannia, as a training ship, was working perfectly well—Parliament would be justified in putting the country to the great expense of building what would be a large preparatory school, similar to ordinary preparatory schools elsewhere, where boys went of 12 and 13 years of age? Such a course as that was not justified by one of the witnesses examined before the Committee. The scheme was almost certain to fail, and then there would be a large building thrown on their hands which could not be used for any other purpose. On these grounds he thought his right hon. Friend ought to wait before committing Parliament to what was at least a premature and ill-digested project.