Building the "Dreadnought" -- An Edwardian version of "Yes Minister"

By John J. RAY, M.A.; Ph.D.

In the "Yes Minister" TV series, a powerful senior bureaucrat always gets his way. In Edwardian England there was also a powerful senior bureaucrat who always got his way ....

The story below is fiction but the people described are the real historical figures of the era and the events described are quite similar to things that did actually occur at the time

Narrator: It is 1905 and Britain's First Sea Lord, Jackie Fisher, was as keen as mustard to get a new super battleship built. With the Japanese having laid down one in 1904, it was unthinkable that Britain could lag. But British shipyards were already flat-out building warships so getting authorization for yet another one would not be easy.

Design work on "Dreadnought" started in January, 1905 and by late February, Jackie started his pitch for the money he needed to build it. He approaches his boss, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Selborne, who is unsympathetic.

Selborne: Yes, Jackie, I see your point. The idea of a new battleship powerful enough to sink any other existing battleship is very attractive. But all our shipyards are flat out and are soaking up a huge amount of our funds so I would not DARE to put your proposal to cabinet. They would howl me down as ungrateful for all the ships they have already given me.

Narrator: That is very disappointing to Jackie. Not to get his proposal even discussed is worse than he had expected. And in the normal run of things that would be the end of the matter. But British bureaucrats are very resouceful about getting their way and Jackie had a very useful resource to call upon indeed: The King. Edward VII is chiefly known to history for his lecherousness and generally self-indulgent lifestyle but he was many other things as well. And the Navy was one of his great loves so he was well known at the Admiralty. So, completely ignoring protocol, Jackie went straight to the King:

Jackie: This Selborne is a useless oaf. He's got no guts at all. You have been right with me from the beginning over building the "Dreadnought" but Selborne is so afraid of being mocked by his cabinet colleagues that he won't even put my proposal to cabinet.

King: What! I can't believe it. Who does he think is going to push his portfolio if he doesn't? Still, politicians are a cowardly lot so I suppose I should not be too surprised. Leave it with me. I will see if I can ginger him up.

Jackie: Thank you sir. I know your persuasive powers.

Narrator: So the King sends a request to Lord Selborne to appear for an audience at Buck House. And NOBODY refuses an invitation to Buck House.

King: Selborne, what is this I hear about you not being on board about about the Navy's latest ship? Nobody is going to push your portfolio if you don't you know.

Selborne: Sir, I am FULLY on board about the "Dreadnought" but I just cannot see cabinet as treating it with anything but derision. The navy must have emptied about half of the exchequer in recent years and I just cannot see where the money could come from.

King: Tosh! Man. Money is the Chancellor's worry. Your job is to push your case as hard as you can.

Narrator: After a bit more ducking and weaving, Selborne leaves -- giving vague assurances but still afraid of being seen as greedy. So he does nothing. When his continued cowardice becomes known, both Jackie and the King are outraged. And the King has another shot in his locker: The Prime Minister. The PM frequently has audiences with the King in order to get various things signed. And the King has a right to advise him. And the King does just that next time he sees PM Balfour:

King: I say, old chap, what's the score with your current First Lord of the Admirality, Selborne? I hear from the navy that he doesn't know his arse from his elbow. Haven't you got someone else with a bit more go in him whom you could put into that job?

PM: Yes. He is a bit of a weak reed and maybe we do need better for the navy. Leave it with me.

Narrator: What the King has asked is not too difficult for the PM. It means reshufling his cabinet but reshuffling his cabinet is something Prime Ministers do all too often. So, with no great hopes other than keeping the King quiet, Balfour appoints Lord Cawdor to the admiralty in March.

As it happens, Cawdor was very keen about big ships so he at least took his case to cabinet. But for diplomatic reasons, he had to wait until late May to put up his submission. He put the case for "Dreadnought" in the context of the need for the navy generally. He rightly saw that stiffening up support for the navy should spill over into support for a navy super-ship. He could have emphasized the German threat but everyone knew about that already -- with the Chancellor being particularly worried. So he drummed up the American threat instead:

Cawdor: I think at this time I should recap why Britain needs a large and powerful navy. In brief, of course, a wordwide empire needs a worldwide navy.

But in detail we need a powerful squadron in the Atlantic to protect our sea lanes with Canada and South Africa. And with the German shipyards humming, that is a real challenge.

And in the Indian ocean we have India, which is sometimes called the jewel in the British crown. Our control of the coaling station at Aden is the key there. Without coal other navies can't do much in the Indian ocean.

But what about the Pacific? Our allies the Japanese have just sunk the Russian fleet so it might be tempting to say we have no more worries there. Many Japanese battleships were built in Britain so we have a very firm alliance.

But we do have to worry about the Americans. They are very warlike. Or the Yankees in their Northeast are, to be precise. They are the descendants of religious fanatics who fled Britain years ago and they have still got fire in their bellies. They attacked us -- and our allies from saner parts of America -- over a century ago and won that round. And then in 1848 they tried to grab Canada. On that occasion, we marched into Washington and burned their White House down so we won that round. Canada is still ours.

Then only a generation later the Yankees launched their dreadful North/South war against the Southern farmers. The farmers put up a hell of a fight but, despite half a million dead, the Yankees persisted until they won. Dreadful people. They preferred mass slaughter to compromise. Very dangerous enemies. There's nothing as vicious as religious fanatics

That conquest took a bit of digesting but the digestion period is now over. They are now on the warpath again. On the thinnest of pretexts, they have just attacked the old Spanish empire and conquered Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and various other bits -- and there is no reason to think they will stop there. President Roosevelt is building battleships like mad so that is a warning to us all. Roosevelt actually glorifies war. Having a person as dangerously immature as that in his position is a real worry

The Americans will take a while to digest the Philippines, though. It is about the same size as the UK and consists of 7,000 islands. But once they have all that tied down where else will they look? In terms of sailing time, the Philippines is quite close to our possessions in Malaya, Borneo and Hong Kong. And the recent American conquests were pretty easy for them compared to their two civil wars -- so they could be ready to move again fairly soon -- say in 10 years time, which would bring us up to 1915 or thereabouts. And that is not long as far as naval planning goes. And if they can make a grab for Canada, why not Hong Kong or Malaya? So I think it is clear that we still need a substantial squadron in the Pacific too -- despite the wonderful triumph that our Japanese allies have just had.

Narrator: Cabinet could hardly disagree with any of that and there was certainly none of the mockery Selborne had feared. But Cawdor still got only conditional approval. He was told that it was up to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If the Chancellor could find the money, the project was approved. So Cawdor went to Jackie with the news. Jackie was of course energized and started to make certain arrangements immediately. So by the time Cawdor had his appointment with the Chancellor, Jackie was able to provide him with some new and useful arguments.

Cawdor: I say, Chamberlain old bean, you know what I am here for. You were in cabinet when we discussed the "Dreadnought" last week. The navy wants it, the King wants it and the PM has backed it by putting me onto the job.

And if the King dropped a hint somewhere in public about cabinet not being fully behind the Navy, there could be a real uproar. The government is in something of a bad odour at the moment over the Chinese question so any hint that we were not right with the navy could see us all booted out. So there's real pressure there. I guess that's all rather bad news for you but I have been talking to Jackie about it so I am able to give you some good news as well.

As I imagine you have gathered, my Sea Lord is a real dynamo so he has already made some very useful preliminary arrangements. Portsmouth is our most advanced naval dockyard so Jackie has opened negotiations with them. They have a suitable slot coming up at the beginning of October and they say that if we pre-position there as much steel etc. as we can, they think they can build the whole ship in a neat 12 months. It will be on the ways for only about 4 months before it is launched and then we will have the rest of a year to get her fitted out. And occupying the ways for such a short time will not interfere substantially with the dockyard's existing schedule.

But the main thing about the exceptionally short build time is that we will have to pay wages for only about half the usual time, compared with a normal build-time of 3 years. The men will be working long hours but will be doing it more efficiently -- which will bring our total costs pretty much back into line with our normal costs for a battleship. So I am able to ask you for a considerably lower sum than was at first envisaged.

Chancellor: As a former Admiralty man, I am of course on your side -- so that cost reduction will be a great weapon for me when I talk to Hamilton, my permanent head for finance. I will say that everybody is making a big effort over this so he has to do his part too. But I will go further than that. We do have a substantial emergency reserve so I will guarantee you enough money out of that if it comes down to it. We will have to allow Hamilton to do his sums before we can say anything official but that ship is going to be built.

And, by the way, thank you for your speech about the Americans. As you know, I am always banging on about the German threat so I had rather lost sight of the Americans.

Narrator: And so the ship was built. Jackie got his way as he always did. "Dreadnought" was laid down on October 2, 2005 and launched by the King four months later. In December there was an election bringing a change of government, with the Conservatives being replaced by the Liberals -- but construction of "Dreadnought" was well under way by then so the new government could not have stopped it if they had wanted to.

So "Dreadnought" was completed and ready for her sea trials just one year and one day after construction commenced. And her sea trials were a brilliant success.


Dreadnought -- with a speed of 21 knots and mounting ten 12" guns capable of hurling a shell 20 miles. Dreadnought was the especial pet project of the First Sea Lord, Adm. Jackie Fisher. It was built in a year and a day -- a build-time which remains impressive today. She was launched by Edward VII and christened with a bottle of Australian wine!

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