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date: 25 February 2021

Fishpondfree

(act. 1904–1910)
  • Paul G. Halpern

Fishpond (act. 1904–1910), was the name given to those in the Royal Navy who were favoured by and executed the work of Admiral Sir John (Jacky) Fisher, first sea lord from October 1904 to January 1910. Fisher arrived in office with a mandate to effect economies and with strong ideas on the necessity of change, social as well as technical, in a service he considered to have grown lethargic during the long years of peace of the nineteenth century. Those in the navy who enjoyed Fisher's approval and by implication supported his policies were deemed to be ‘in the fishpond’, an obvious play on the admiral's name. Those opposed to Fisher's policies and methods—and there were many—believed that members of the clique enjoyed advantages in preferment and office that were denied to others not part of this select group and, furthermore, that known opponents of Fisher's policies would be the victims of the first sea lord's vindictiveness. Within the service the fishpond included: the directors of naval intelligence, Prince Louis of Battenberg and his successor Sir Charles Ottley; another member of the naval intelligence division, George Ballard; Fisher's assistants at various times, Reginald Bacon, Charles Madden, and Herbert Richmond; the gunnery expert Sir Percy Scott; and Fisher's director of naval ordnance and the future commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet and first sea lord Sir John Jellicoe.

Fisher was adept at spotting and recruiting bright and talented young officers. Bacon, in many ways one of Fisher's most prominent supporters and a lightning rod for opposition, came to Fisher's attention when Fisher was commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet (1899–1902). Bacon's proposals in response to a request from Fisher for ideas concerning the tactical employment of torpedo boats won Bacon prominence in Fisher's tactical calculations and early promotion to captain. The Mediterranean Fleet was also the link between Fisher and Battenberg, who there commanded the battleship Implacable (1901–2) and earned Fisher's admiration. Sir Henry Bradwardine Jackson, a pioneer in the use of wireless by the navy, commanded the torpedo boat carrier and depot ship Vulcan in the Mediterranean Fleet when he was taken into Fisher's circle and brought to the Admiralty as third sea lord in 1905.

The gunnery training establishment HMS Excellent at Portsmouth was the link between Fisher and Percy Scott. Scott was in Excellent in the early 1880s when Fisher was captain. He later became captain of Excellent himself and in 1905 Fisher made him inspector of target practice, a position created for him. Jellicoe also began his long relationship with Fisher when he was appointed to Excellent in 1884. The following year Fisher took Jellicoe as his assistant when Fisher was chief of staff to the Mediterranean commander-in-chief during the Panjdeh crisis and in 1889 Jellicoe became Fisher's assistant when Fisher was director of naval ordnance. In 1904 Fisher made Jellicoe director of naval ordnance shortly after becoming first sea lord.

Henry F. Oliver, a member of the navigation branch, encountered Fisher in a different way. He was navigation officer in the Channel Fleet flagship Majestic when the fleet went south to meet the Mediterranean Fleet at Gibraltar. Fisher, as he often did, summoned junior officers to learn their opinions and quizzed Oliver about the navigating branch. This eventually led in 1903 to Fisher, now second sea lord, choosing Oliver to establish and command a navigation school in HMS Mercury. In 1908 Fisher brought Oliver to the Admiralty as his naval assistant. Richmond had been torpedo lieutenant with Oliver in the Majestic and had joined Oliver in preparing a paper on the navigation branch. He went to the Admiralty as an assistant to the director of naval ordnance and was appointed to a committee investigating the training of executive warrant officers. Fisher made him an assistant in 1906 although by 1909 Richmond, habitually strong willed and independently minded, was for a variety of reasons thoroughly disillusioned with him.

Ottley had developed an automatic sinker for mines when Fisher was director of naval ordnance (1886–91) but does not appear to have had the same degree of close personal contact with Fisher as others. He had been a naval attaché abroad and was on the verge of retirement and entry into politics when Fisher, recognizing his abilities, had him appointed successor to Battenberg as director of naval intelligence in 1905. Charles Madden, with a reputation as a torpedo specialist, was brought into the Admiralty by the third sea lord, Jackson, as his assistant and after service on the ships design committee, which produced the plans for the Dreadnought and the battle cruiser Invincible, became Fisher's assistant from 1905 to 1907. Ballard also lacked prior service with Fisher, joining the naval intelligence division before Fisher became first sea lord but quickly impressing Fisher with his ability.

While a strict interpretation of the word fishpond would restrict it to members of the navy, it could be argued that those outside the service who supported Fisher could also be described as being ‘in the fishpond’. These included (within the limits of royal protocol) Edward VII, the noted courtier and adviser the William Waldegrave Palmer, second earl of Selborne, Reginald Baliol Brett, Viscount Esher, first lord of the Admiralty from 1900 to 1905, and Reginald McKenna, first lord from 1908 to 1911, who staunchly backed Fisher at the height of the controversy with Admiral Sir Charles Beresford. The parliamentary secretary of the Admiralty (1900–03), Hugh Arnold-Forster, was also in Fisher's camp although the relationship later became strained, after Arnold-Forster became secretary of state for war, over the question of the navy's position in inter-service co-operation. Fisher was also backed in print by the distinguished naval historian Julian Corbett as well as the prominent journalists Arnold White, James R. Thursfield, J. L. Garvin of The Observer, and W. T. Stead of the Review of Reviews.

The wide-ranging policies introduced by Fisher involved improvements in gunnery, new ship designs, the redistribution of fleets, wholesale scrapping of obsolete ships, and changes in naval education. There was also an altered and a semi-concealed change in naval strategy leading towards greater future reliance on flotilla (submarine and torpedo boat) defence of the British Isles, while large armoured cruisers were to guard the imperial lines of communication. Fisher's policies and methods, both real and presumed, provoked fierce opposition from a variety of sources both inside and outside the service. Fisher dubbed his opponents the ‘syndicate of discontent’ and a very public battle took place.

The fishpond earned much unpopularity in some circles but after Fisher left office early in 1910 the careers of most of them did not suffer, despite the loss of his protecting hand. Some reached the very top of their profession. Battenberg, Jackson, and Madden each eventually became first sea lord. Jellicoe became commander-in-chief of the Grand Fleet at the outbreak of the First World War and first sea lord in 1916. Oliver was chief of the Admiralty war staff, commanded the Home and Atlantic fleets after the war, and retired as an admiral of the fleet. Others in the fishpond left the service prematurely. Ottley, after serving as secretary of the committee of imperial defence from 1907 to 1912, took up a financially attractive position in industry. Scott also retired in 1913, financially secure because of royalties from his inventions, but also aware that his unpopularity would probably bar him from the highest command. Bacon, perhaps the most unpopular of the fishpond because of his alleged reporting to Fisher on his superiors from the Mediterranean Fleet, chose retirement in 1909 to enter private industry. In a move that infuriated many, after the war began the first lord, Winston Churchill, recalled him to active service for what turned into a controversial command of the Dover patrol.

The period of Fisher's first term as first sea lord was one of significant reform in the Royal Navy. Fisher was the driving force and it was the fishpond who assisted in formulating and executing the first sea lord's policies.

Sources

  • 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)
  • W. James, A great seaman: the life of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Oliver (1956)
  • N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher's naval revolution (1999)
  • R. F. Mackay, Fisher of Kilverstone (1973)
  • A. J. Marder, Portrait of an admiral: the life and papers of Sir Herbert Richmond (1952)
  • 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)
  • A.T. Patterson, Jellicoe: a biography (1969)
  • G. Penn, Infighting admirals: Fisher's feud with Beresford and the reactionaries (2000)
  • S. Ross, Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman: the life and times of an officer and a gentleman (1998)
  • J. T. Sumida, In defence of naval supremacy: finance, technology and British naval policy, 1889–1915 (1991)