We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Syndicate of discontent (act. 1904–1910) was the term applied by Admiral Sir John (Jacky) Fisher, who was first sea lord from October 1904 to January 1910, to the numerous opponents of his policies for the Royal Navy. Fisher's period as first sea lord was marked by significant changes in naval design, the education of officers, the wholesale scrapping of obsolete ships, innovations in gunnery, the redistribution of fleets, and Fisher's revolutionary objective of moving towards basing the defence of Great Britain on flotillas, that is, submarines and torpedo boats. The multiple innovations and Fisher's methods, including use of the press and advocates outside the service as well as his alleged favouritism towards protégés and supporters within the navy, labelled the ‘fishpond’, provoked opposition from a wide variety of people in what eventually became a very public debate.

In the navy, opposition to Fisher eventually crystallized around Admiral Sir Charles Beresford, commander-in-chief of the channel squadron (1903–5), the Mediterranean Fleet (1905–7), and the Channel Fleet (1907–9). Other prominent opponents of Fisher had been associated with Beresford during their careers. Rear-Admiral the Hon. Hedworth Lambton (later Meux) had been second-in-command to Beresford in the channel squadron and commanded the cruiser squadron in the Mediterranean Fleet when Beresford was commander-in-chief. Reginald Custance was second-in-command to Beresford in the Channel Fleet, 1907–8. Although Custance was initially no particular friend of Beresford, a common hatred of Fisher eventually united them. Beresford's chief of staff in the Mediterranean and later the Channel Fleet, F. C. Doveton Sturdee, was also a member of the ‘syndicate’. Beresford, Custance, and Sturdee were only the most prominent; there were many others who were silent opponents of the first sea lord, some quiet because they were fearful of Fisher's vengeance, and a few who were prone to feed information to Beresford.

Admiral Sir Gerard Henry Uctred Noel (1845–1921), commander-in-chief China from 1904 to 1906, had strong technical objections to the Dreadnought-type battleship and openly clashed with Fisher and the Admiralty when battleships were withdrawn from the China station in 1905 during Fisher's redistribution of the fleets. The Dreadnought was also the target of Custance's attack, since he was a firm advocate of a greater number of smaller battleships. Lambton argued against suppression of the secondary armament in the Dreadnought and, pointing to the example of the Japanese victory at Tsushima (1905), maintained that the demoralizing effect of a greater volume of fire was more important than the less numerous hits of the larger guns.

Retired officers, some very distinguished and commanding great respect, were also in the syndicate. A former first naval lord, regarded as one of the best administrators of the late nineteenth century, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Frederick Richards, opposed the scheme of common entry for engineering and executive officers introduced in 1902 by Fisher and Lord Selborne, the first lord of the Admiralty. Richards also regarded the wholesale scrapping of ships as potentially leaving the trade routes dangerously exposed, and criticized the Dreadnought because, by making existing battleships obsolete, it wiped out Great Britain's enormous numerical advantage over other navies and gave the Germans a near-level start in building the new type of ship. Another critic, Admiral Cyprian Bridge, objected to the Dreadnought because it was an expensive design that meant fewer ships. Similar criticism came from the recently retired director of naval construction Sir William White. Admiral Sir Edmund Fremantle, another retired admiral who wrote extensively, also supported the concept of more medium-sized battleships and the necessity for a greater number of cruisers for trade defence. Fisher's scheme for the common entry of all officers was attacked by the retired admirals Charles Penrose Fitzgerald and Sir Richard Vesey Hamilton, the latter a former first sea lord.

Sir George Clarke (later Lord Sydenham), the first secretary of the committee of imperial defence, turned into another strong opponent of Fisher for a number of reasons including Fisher's alleged preference for amphibious operations on the German coast in the event of war, refusal to co-operate with the committee, and reticence concerning war plans, and the Dreadnought policy, which wiped out the initial British advantage over Germany. Beresford also enjoyed the support of the noted naval journalist Herbert Wrigley Wilson of the Daily Mail, with whom he had once written a book on Nelson and who was critical of Fisher's strategic policies.

Beyond a general dislike of Fisher it is hard to find a common link among the members of the syndicate. Not all of them opposed every one of Fisher's policies. On the question of common entry of officers to the service there was an element of snobbery, reflecting the prejudice in the nineteenth century against engineer officers. In the case of Beresford, Custance, and Sturdee there was an exceptionally strong personal animus against Fisher in addition to disagreement over technical and strategic subjects. Beresford objected to the reduction in strength of his command in Fisher's reorganization, which he considered faulty from the strategic point of view. He also complained that the Admiralty had not provided him with adequate war plans and that the wholesale scrapping of ships had left an insufficient number of cruisers for a blockade of the enemy coast. Moreover there were not enough destroyers for the North Sea, and British destroyers were inferior to their German counterparts.

Beresford had an engaging personality and a wide following among the public and in high society and Conservative political circles. He was also a member of parliament and under the prevailing rules remained on the navy's active list when sitting in parliament. This meant that when he was not employed on active service he was free to make political capital. This was the case when Beresford retired from active service in March 1909 after his Channel Fleet was absorbed into the Home Fleet. The syndicate was able to create enough political pressure for Prime Minister Asquith to concede an inquiry by a subcommittee of the committee of imperial defence into Admiralty policy. The results of the inquiry, which Asquith chaired and whose report was published in August 1909, largely (but not completely) vindicated Fisher. Nevertheless Fisher retired at the beginning of 1910 and accepted a peerage.

Fisher and his supporters were able to block any possibility of Beresford succeeding him as first sea lord. Custance's prominence in the syndicate also blocked him from future high command. Fisher's choice as successor was Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson, an officer he believed would largely continue his policies but one who had remained aloof from the feud with Beresford and therefore an individual considered likely to heal the breach in the navy. The first sea lords who followed, admirals Sir Francis Bridgeman and Prince Louis of Battenberg, had also been supporters of Fisher, as were Sir Henry Bradwardine Jackson and Sir John Jellicoe, who followed Fisher's second period in office during the war. It was not until Sir Rosslyn Wemyss became first sea lord in December 1917 that an officer who had sympathized with the syndicate of discontent reached the highest position. By then the old feud had faded under the enormous demands of the First World War.

Paul G. Halpern


R. Bacon, The life of Lord Fisher of Kilverstone, 2 vols. (1929) · G. M. Bennett, Charlie B: a biography of Admiral Lord Beresford of Metemmeh and Curraghmore (1968) · A. Gordon, The rules of the game: Jutland and British naval command (1996) · N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher's naval revolution (1999) · R. F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (1973) · A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow: the Royal Navy in the Fisher era, 1904–1919, 5 vols. (1961–70), vol. 1 · M. H. Murfett, ed., The first sea lords: from Fisher to Mountbatten (1995) · G. Penn, Infighting admirals: Fisher's feud with Beresford and the reactionaries (2000) · J. T. Sumida, In defence of naval supremacy: finance, technology and British naval policy, 1889–1914 (1989) · R. Williams, Defending the empire: the Conservative Party and British defence policy, 1899–1915 (1991)