WH Smith, First Lord of the Admiralty

In February 1979, 29 people crowded into the small living room at No. 9, Garden Road, Sheringham. The hosts were 49-year-old librarian, Alan Stables, and his wife Erith, a dinner lady at Sheringham Primary School. Some of these people knew one another, and others were meeting for the first time.

That evening, 9 Garden Road witnessed the birth of the Sheringham Savoyards – an amateur theatre group dedicated to the works of Gilbert & Sullivan. Their first production, in the summer of that year, was HMS Pinafore.

A comic librettist Goes in for the Kill

I thought so little, they rewarded me / By making me the ruler of the Queen’s Navee!

Such was the proclamation of Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s famous comic opera, HMS Pinafore, first produced 25 May 1878.

This political satire, mercilessly ridiculing the absurdities of rank, was their fourth collaboration and the beginning of a long-lived and glorious reputation.

I use the word ‘glorious’ subjectively. There are, of course, many thousands of people worldwide who share this view of the great duo and their work. But there is, particularly among the musically elite, a disdain for Arthur Sullivan’s mundane composition, so untypical of his more serious work.

This negative view was shared by many of Sullivan’s personal and professional acquaintance. It was shared by Sullivan himself, who was frustrated at being increasingly identified with his more trivial works. He knew that he was a gifted composer, and he felt that his talent was wasted in writing tunes for WS Gilbert’s topsy-turvy plots.

But the public loved them. And ‘Pinafore Mania’ flooded the country.

The First Lord of the Admiralty was, at that time, William Henry Smith, son of William Henry Smith Senior, who had taken over his own father’s newsagent and stationery business. In 1868, William Smith (the younger) became an MP, and in 1874 he was appointed First lord of the Admiralty.

But WH Smith had never been to sea.

William Schwenck Gilbert (who hated his middle name, hence the use of initials) told Arthur Seymour Sullivan (who liked his own middle name but not his initials – ASS) that there would be no suspicion whatsoever that WH Smith was the model for Sir Joseph, because, he explained, Smith was a conservative, whilst Pinafore’s First Lord was ‘a violent radical’.

Of course, there was no suspicion. Everybody was certain of it! Within a few weeks of opening night, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was referring to his colleague as ‘Pinafore Smith’.

It’s been suggested that Gilbert’s Sir Joseph was modelled on Smith’s predecessor, the bungling Liberal politician, Hugh Childers.

Childers was responsible for the construction of a warship called HMS Captain, in 1869. There were doubts about the structure of the ship and, consequently, its safety. Despite the reservations of some, HMS Captain was launched in the spring of 1870, and she capsized later the same year, killing nearly 500 men, including Childers’ own son, Leonard.

In his role of Chancellor of the Exchequer, Childers attempted to correct a budget shortfall by a dramatic rise in taxes, which led to the fall of Gladstone’s Liberal government.

First Lords of the Admiralty

It wasn’t unusual for the position of First Lord of the Admiralty to be occupied by a non-seafaring individual. From the early nineteenth century, the First Lord was always a member of the cabinet, whilst the professional head of the navy was, and to this day still is, known as the First Sea Lord.

Before 1628, the Navy was under the authority of a Lord High Admiral – in most cases a member of the Royal family. But in 1628, King Charles I put into commission a board of Lords Commissioners, or Sea Lords, headed by a First Lord of the Admiralty. 

The first to hold this position was Richard Weston, First Lord of Portland. The last was George Jellicoe, 2nd Earl Jellicoe, one of the world’s longest-serving politicians. His tenure ended in 1964, when the board of Lords Commissioners was taken out of commission.

During Oliver Cromwell’s leadership of the Commonwealth of England, the rank of Admiral was not used. In 1649, Robert Blake, commonly hailed as the ‘Father of the Royal Navy’, was appointed General at Sea, combining the roles of Admiral and Commissioner of the Navy.

It was Robert Blake who produced the Navy’s first set of regulations, listing rules, offences, and punishments (in most cases, death). He played a major role in the English civil war, and when he died in 1657, he was buried in Westminster Abbey in the presence of Oliver Cromwell.

With the restoration of the Monarchy, however, King Charles II ordered the exhumation of Blake’s body and its relocation to a common grave.

Blake’s notoriety lives on. Tributes include: a stone memorial in Westminster Abbey, unveiled in 1945; a 1982 postage stamp, featuring Blake and his flagship, Triumph; the third HMS Blake, a WWI battle ship; the fourth HMS Blake, a guided missile cruiser; the naming of the Blake oilfield in the North Sea; and Blake’s Bender Nite – a ceremony for incoming cadets at the Royal Navy’s campus pub, The Poop Deck.  

In Thomas Campbell’s poem, Ye Mariners of England, Robert Blake is up there on a pedestal with Norfolk’s own Horatio Nelson as a great hero in British Naval history.

Where Blake and mighty Nelson fell / Your manly hearts shall glow / As ye sweep through the deep / While the stormy winds do blow!

Another First Lord of the Admiralty was George Spencer, the second Earl Spencer, who served office between 1794 and 1801.

Following in his footsteps was his grandson, John, the fifth Earl Spencer, known as the ‘Red Earl’ on account of his bushy auburn beard. During his tenure of this position, from 1892 to 1895, John Spencer is said to have modernised the Navy.

In his long political career, John Spencer also served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, led the House of Lords, served as Lord President of the Council, and played an active role in educational reform. He died, childless, in 1910.

John’s half-brother, Charles Spencer, the sixth Earl Spencer, was the great-grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Edward Marjoribanks, 2nd Baron Tweedmouth, held the post of First Lord between 1905 and 1908. In 1908, he was criticised for discussing the British naval programme with the last of the German emperors, Wilhelm II, grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria. The indiscretion was attributed partly to Marjoribanks’ poor mental health.

Reginald McKenna, a British banker, Liberal politician, and studious mathematician, served as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1908 to 1911. During his political career, McKenna also served as Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and President of the Board of Education. His nephew, novelist Stephen McKenna, published a biography of his uncle in 1948 – Reginald McKenna, 1863-1943: A Memoir.

McKenna was succeeded by Winston Churchill, who held the position of First Lord of the Admiralty for the next three years. He had a second tenure from 1939 to 1940, after which he became Prime Minister.

An Indignant Digestive System

Gilbert’s libretti were attacks on the Establishment – the manners, fashions, and hypocrisies of society, romance, law, business and, of course, politics.

In HMS Pinafore, Sir Joseph Porter’s hypocrisy is beautifully illustrated by his proclamations of equality:

I cannot permit these noble fellows to be patronized because an accident of birth has placed you above them and them below you.

Attracted to the captain’s lovely daughter, Sir Joseph is willing to lower himself into marriage; after all, as he is wont to say,

Love levels all ranks.

After the discovery of the captain’s lowly birth, Sir Joseph decides that, although love does level all ranks,

It does not level them as much as that.

It’s little wonder that this superb librettist, playwright, and director didn’t receive a knighthood until 1907!   

The popularity of HMS Pinafore led to pirating, particularly in the USA. Gilbert was furious. He said, ‘I will not have another libretto of mine produced if the Americans are going to steal it; not that I need the money so much, but it upsets my digestion.’

His next libretto was The Pirates of Penzance.

A Paradox, A paradox, a Most Ingenious Paradox! (from The Pirates of Penzance)

William Henry Smith might not have been the ideal sea lord.

(But when the breezes blow, I generally go below …)

But he was a terrific entrepreneur. That small newsagent shop that became WH Smith & Son in 1846, when William Henry Junior joined his father in business, has grown into the trading empire that is WH Smith Ltd today.

Few have the political and business prowess of William Henry Smith, and few have the artistic brilliance of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert. But there is hope for us all. As Sir Joseph Porter sings,

Stick close to your desks and never go to sea / And you all may be rulers of the Queen’s navee!

Sheringham’s branch of WH Smith is located across the road from Sheringham Little Theatre, where the Sheringham Savoyards performed for more than 30 years.

The Little Theatre’s present management has been gradually phasing out community theatre and now relies on public funding to keep the enterprise alive. A paradox, if ever there was one.

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