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- HMAS Creswell
- March 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The following article is based on an address by Robert Hyslop to the Canberra and District Historical Society which appeared in that Society’s journal of September 1986, and still relevant today. It is reproduced by kind permission of the Society.
Robert Hyslop (1918-2007) started a lifelong association with the Royal Australian Navy in 1936 as an accounts clerk at Garden Island Dockyard, later transferring to Navy Office in Melbourne, before moving to senior Defence roles in Canberra in the 1950s. He served as Assistant Secretary of the Department under the formidable Sir Arthur Tange and had many more senior public service roles before ill health forced him into retirement in 1981. Robert was a prolific writer with a great insight into Australian political history.
In this paper I will examine the debt owed by the Royal Australian Naval College to Admiral William Creswell concentrating on its beginnings and early development.
William Creswell, the son of Edmund and Margaret Creswell, was born at Gibraltar on 20 July 1852. At the age of thirteen he entered the Royal Navy’s training college Britanniaas a cadet; in 1867 he was promoted midshipman and in 1873, after being wounded in a skirmish with pirates on the Malay Coast, he was promoted Lieutenant. In September 1878, disappointed at the slowness and uncertainty of promotion within the Royal Navy, he retired and migrated to Australia in the hope of becoming a pastoralist. For the next seven years he worked in the Northern Territory exploring and cattle droving; in 1885 he was invited to and took up an appointment with the South Australian naval forces with the rank of Lieutenant in HMCS Protector, the only ship in that colony’s defence force. In 1893, he was appointed Naval Commandant for the colony and, in 1895, promoted to the rank of Captain.
On 1 May 1900 Creswell accepted command of the Queensland naval forces and in February 1904 he was appointed Naval Officer Commanding the Commonwealth Naval Forces. He became Director of Naval Forces and when the Australian Naval Board was established in January 1905, he was appointed Naval Member. The other members of the Board were James W. McCay, MHR, Minister for Defence; and John A. Thompson, Chief Accountant, Department of Defence, Finance Member. The Board’s powers and functions were loosely defined as being responsible, subject to the Minister for Defence, for ‘the administration of all matters relating to the Naval Forces’.
When control of the colonial military and naval forces was transferred to the Commonwealth on 1 March 1901, the naval defence forces were small. Meeting in Melbourne in August 1899, the naval officers representing the Australian Colonies noted that ‘the total naval force consisted of 1,545 men of whom 1,000 (could) be considered bona fideseamen; and the remainder consisted of boatmen, yachtsmen, &c’. Those figures, however, do not agree with data published elsewhere – for example the Statistical Register for 1900 for each of the colonies – buttheyare consistent in that they show that neither Western Australia nor Tasmania possessed a naval force.
Although in good order, much of the equipment was old-fashioned and showing signs of its age; there were no facilities for the full-time training of officers and other ranks nor was expenditure on such resources thought to be necessary. In all the circumstances, the recently established Naval Board and, in particular, Creswell as Naval Member and Director of Naval Forces, had an uphill task ahead.
Creswell was exceptional among naval officers in his understanding of the place of defence in the political system, being remarkably free of naval insularity. He could be scathing, even in his public statements, when he believed that ministers were failing to face up to issues as, for example, during the early years of Federation when successive governments allowed the naval forces to wither away. As Naval Director, his annual reports to Parliament were very critical. In 1905 he wrote:
The main weakness is the condition of the Permanent Officers List. The retirement and retrenchment of Officers without appointing successors on an already attenuated list, to which there have been no fresh appointments for many years, have reduced the list of Permanent Officers to a condition bordering on collapse.
He repeated that criticism in his 1906 Report. But, when faced with a decision which he might not like he was able to accept it and get on with the task, albeit, perhaps, with a grumble. In 1913, for example, in replying to a long minute by his colleague, Captain Hughes-Onslow, who complained about the choice of Jervis Bay as the site for the Naval College, Creswell observed:
Criticism of the site and condition is of no service at the present time. I can only say the disadvantages to be overcome exceed expectations. The main point however is that they must be overcome.
That was an attitude which he exhibited on many occasions.
The 1899 Conference of Naval Officers was satisfied that ‘The ability of the Naval Establishments in the Australian Colonies to train Naval Forces has long been proved’ and ‘the training of seamen in the colonial ships of war…might be considered an equivalent to six months continuous training in an Imperial ship of war’. They did not seem to consider the question of officer training as being a significant problem, evidently believing that this was a task best left in the hands of the Royal Navy; that was not an opinion shared in political quarters. Whereas the Agreement relating to the Naval Force on the Australian Station provided that eight naval cadetships would be available for young Australians to be trained in that force, the Defence Act 1903 (Section 29) made provision for the establishment of a Naval and Military College ‘for the purposes of imparting education to the various branches of naval and military sciences, and in the subjects connected with the naval and military professions, and for qualifying persons for the naval and military service’. Clearly, the Parliament had recognized that, at some future date, these facilities would become necessary as reflecting Australia’s independent status and its acceptance of a responsibility to establish naval defence forces.
Australian Naval Defence Force
In his 1905 Annual Report, Creswell raised the question of setting up an Australian Naval Defence Force without making any reference to the need to start a naval college. He did, however, insist:
Whenever it is decided to enter on a defined Naval Defence policy, the training question (of Seamen) will be the first to come up for consideration. It must be freed from the early Military bias, and special requirements and conditions of sea service recognised, and given effect to Special Australian conditions.
Although he did not refer specifically to Section 29 of the 1903 Defence Act, Creswell was clearly not in favour of a combined ‘Military and Naval College’.
In February 1906 Creswell went to England ‘to inquire into and gain every possible information with regard to the latest naval developments’ including ‘any information…on the matter of training Officers and Seamen’. During the course of his inquiry, Creswell visited the naval colleges at Osborne and Dartmouth for naval cadets, the college at Keyham for naval engineering students and the War Colleges at Portsmouth and Plymouth for senior officers. In his report, he outlined in some detail the training provided at each institution and, in identifying their strengths and weaknesses, related them to the Australian scene. He was particularly impressed with Osborne where:
Naval requirements (had) been carefully thought out…and the best methods adopted to meet them. The work is healthy, useful, and practical…Parallel with this the cadet’s schoolwork, comprising the natural sciences, practical mathematics, history, modern languages, and the general educational subjects.
His only criticism was that ‘Intimate daily association with the sea should be part of the cadet’s life’. At Osborne these conditions were lacking.
Creswell was impressed by the fine buildings and general standard of accommodation. At Dartmouth, where the cadet moved in his third year of training;
The English Naval Officer has been given a jumping-off place for his life’s work that he will look back on with pride. The building will serve for many a generation. Solid stone and sound oak will last, and look even better for age, when the sons and grandsons of the present Cadets are Admirals of the Fleet.
Those observations are significant in that they enabled Creswell to clarify his ideas of what he believed should be the objectives of persons planning an Australian Naval College.
During his visit to England, Creswell had gathered ‘all information to help the University of Melbourne in their scheme for establishing a School of Naval Science’ and, in a report dated 14 August 1906, he elaborated on that proposal. He identified the subjects which he would include in the curriculum but he was not sanguine that the concept would be adopted. He wrote:
The present condition of the Australian Naval Forces offers small prospect of a School for Naval Science being much used for the present. Of the ultimate need of such a school there is no question, but at present, the Naval Forces are not in a position to avail themselves of it.
Bid for Naval History
Never one to pass up an opportunity to make a point, Creswell made a bid for Naval History as:
A subject to which I would suggest prominence should be given. There is probably no portion of the Empire whose existence as such is more closely associated with Naval History, and none where the principles it teaches demand closer attention. Naval History as a University subject and encouraged in schools would, I was advised, be of national benefit.
In September 1906 Deakin, as Prime Minister, ‘outlined a scheme for limited defence which, in many respects, was little more than an upgrading of existing harbor and coastal defences’; in the second stage, the Commonwealth would ‘pass from merely harbour defence to defence’. In Creswell’s opinion, this was ‘the most important advance yet made in Australia’s defence…(it) establishes the principle of Commonwealth responsibility in the defence of ports and of the trade on our coasts’. At the same time, he noted:
The first measure necessary after the adoption of the Government scheme of naval defence will be the entry and training of officers for the new establishments. The responsibility both for selection and training of officers is a grave one…Very much depends on the first impressions given by any service and this again will greatly depend on the officers serving as its initiation.
Twelve months later, he was critical that little progress had been made; in Creswell’s opinion:
The earnest intention of the Commonwealth to establish an efficient naval service will take first effect in the training system for the Naval Force, which should be specialized to meet the needs of a Naval service.
Imperial Defence Conference
The question of a Naval College was not seriously considered until 1909. On 23 June in a ministerial statement outlining the policy of administration proposed by his ministry, Alfred Deakin indicated that steps would be taken to increase the naval and military defence forces. Colonel Justin F. Foxton, MHR (Brisbane) had been appointed Australian representative at the forthcoming Imperial Defence Conference; Creswell was to act as ‘expert adviser’ on naval matters. Foxton was instructed ‘to consult the Admiralty upon the whole question of Imperial naval defence, and particularly as to the marine defence of the ports and coasts of Australia by the most effective vessels manned and officered, as far as possible, by Australians trained to the standards, and study the opportunities of the Royal Navy’. Deakin went on to outline briefly the facilities which would be provided for ‘the efficient training of a sufficient number of officers chosen for their natural aptitudes and capacity to command’; these would include ‘A Military College, as well as a School of Musketry, and probably a primary Naval College’.
Creswell could not have been happy about the failure of the Government to adopt his well-publicised belief in the need for a separate naval college, but the fact that the Ministry had not made a final decision was encouraging.
The question of officer training was raised in the Senate on 15 September 1909, when Senator Thomas Givens made the point that it was ‘extremely desirable that we should have a naval college at which our young people may be trained in naval matters’. He believed that such a college should be placed within the Federal territory and objected ‘to any government institution of that kind being located on other than Federal territory’. Givens insisted that:
If Inter-State jealousies are to be avoided, it is absolutely necessary that all institutions of that kind – including the small arms and ammunition factories – should be established on Federal territory, where they will be under Commonwealth control and subject to Commonwealth laws.
When he suggested that the proposed college should not be established ‘in any big commercial centre where all sorts of distractions would be placed before the boys attending the institution’, he raised a professional point not as yet publicly explored.
Givens next referred to the steps being taken in New South Wales and Victoria to raise funds to present Britain with a Dreadnought class vessel as a gift from the Australian people to assist her in ensuring that the Royal Navy was superior to that of Germany and as a mark of imperial loyalty. In New South Wales where the target had been set at £250,000, £86,020 was raised.
The Dreadnought Fund
On 29 September the Government was asked whether a proposal had been made to donate to the Commonwealth the sum of £85,000, the Dreadnought Fund, and whether, if rejected that ‘the money thus privately subscribed should be expended in the construction of a Naval College in Sydney, to be taken over eventually by the Federal Government’. In reply, Senator E. D. McMillen, Vice-President of the Executive Council, stated that the funds had not been offered to the Commonwealth while conceding that ‘According to the press, some of the subscriptions promised…are likely to be devoted to that purpose’. At the same time, he insisted that ‘Any proposal for Government expenditure must necessarily be submitted to Parliament’. As later events were to prove, that answer was quite correct.
On 15 October 1909 a report had appeared in the Melbourne Age stating that the Lord Mayor of Sydney had announced that donations totaling £11,100 had been made that day ‘for the purpose of the naval college and Dreadnought farms’. When the matter was raised in the Senate during Question Time, Senator McMillen tabled a copy of the letter recently received from the Lord Mayor of Sydney ‘conveying an extremely handsome and generous offer to the Commonwealth which…we gratefully accept’. At the same time, he indicated that a suitable site for the proposed naval college had not yet been identified.
The question of a naval college was again raised on 24 November when Joseph Cook, Minister for Defence, sought approval of Parliament ‘for a scheme of naval defences formulated at the recent Imperial conference’. He emphasized the need for:
The training of the Australian personnel to be looked to, and for this purpose we shall require a naval college for officers. If we are to have effective co-operation with the Royal Navy, our officers must be interchangeable, and subscribe to the same standard of efficiency – they must be subject to identical training, with an equal standard of qualification in corresponding ranks.
College to be at Middle Head, Sydney
The Ministry having taken that decision, the next question, which was one directly involving Creswell, was the selection of a site for the proposed college. With almost indecent haste and contrary to Creswell’s advice, on 10 March 1910 Cook announced that the college would be established at Middle Head, Sydney. Creswell’s objections seem to have been of a relatively minor nature. Writing in 1911, he expressed a continuing belief that Sydney was not a suitable site; he wrote:
When boys have to be put through strenuous work at a growing age – climate should be the first consideration in the selection of a site and New South Wales or at any rate Sydney is not the best climate for our purpose.
Creswell, however, did not offer any alternative suggestion. Later, as a member of the Naval Board, he protested against the selection of Captain’s Point, Jervis Bay. On 15 January 1912 the Board protested that its preferred sites had ‘been set aside for reasons in no way related to naval advantage or naval efficiency’.
British naval expert
Before Cook’s decision regarding Middle Head was confirmed the Ministry fell, to be replaced by the Fisher Government on 29 April 1910 with Senator Pearce now Minister for Defence. Pearce, to some extent, had already disclosed his hand. During the debate in October 1909 and the ‘Dreadnought’ offer, he had testily asked ‘if a number of citizens of other States made similar offers with similar conditions attached, i.e. that the college should be located in their State, will the Government accept them?’ The Fisher Government did not feel bound by Cook’s decision. On 24 May Cabinet gave formal approval to the principles of the 1909 Naval Agreement and agreed that the services of a British naval expert should be sought to advise, inter alia, on ‘the location and character of the training schools for preparing personnel for our Naval service, to include both officers and men, and all branches of the Service’.
The Government had first invited Admiral Sir John Fisher, recently named as First Sea Lord, to accept the task but he declined; ‘I’d go as a Dictator, he wrote, but not as Adviser’. On Fisher’s advice, Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson was invited and accepted the task. His report, dated 1 March 1911, ‘a blueprint for a comprehensive scheme of naval defence’ simply recommended that a naval college be established ‘at Sydney’. He also outlined the training which he believed personnel at each level should undertake; for future officers ‘the period and nature of training should be assimilated as far as practicable to those in force in the United Kingdom’. That was a scheme which has been shown to have been approved by Creswell.
Captain B. M. Chambers, RN, second Naval Member, Navy Board was then entrusted with the task of identifying suitable sites. In a report dated 20 June 1911 he set out the conditions against which he assessed the claims of the nine sites in the vicinity of Sydney and Jervis Bay examined by him. Essential conditions included close proximity or easy access to the sea with a suitable anchorage; a minimum of fifty acres of land, if located near the city, or 1000 acres to form a reserve; the climate must be good. Among ‘desirable’ criteria Chambers included accessibility but he was emphatic that ‘a tripper element in the neighbourhood (was) most undesirable’. He believed that the site should be within easy distance of a main railway line so that the cadets might be able to visit their homes and to ensure that the staff was not ‘cut off too rigidly from civilisation’.
In his report dated 20 June, Chambers listed, in order of preference, Barrenjoey, Jervis Bay and Sutherland House. His recommendation, although supported by the Naval Board, was unacceptable to the Government and his search was resumed. On 9 November 1911 he reported that Burraneer Bay in Port Hacking was ‘a site of which any nation might be proud and one not excelled by any existing naval college’, but his recommendation was ignored. On 16 November the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher announced that Jervis Bay had been selected as the site for the proposed Naval College; a decision for which he offered no explanation.
The question of a site having been settled, arrangements to recruit cadets could now be made and their training commenced. There were no suitable buildings at Jervis Bay which might provide temporary accommodation and arrangements were made to take over Osborne House, Geelong where the Royal Australian Naval College was opened on 1 March 1913.
Creswell, as a member of the Naval Board, had been opposed to the decision regarding Jervis Bay. The Board expressed concern that Chambers’s earlier recommendation of Burraneer Bay had been rejected ‘for reasons in no way related to Naval advantage or Naval efficiency’; later, he wrote:
While prepared loyally to carry out the decision of the Government and to do our utmost to ensure the success of the Naval College, we desire to point out that we consider the site chosen is, from a naval point of view, unsuitable for the purpose of the College.
A major objection was that the site was not served by a railway although Chambers had believed that the existing line to Nowra might be extended.
Railway considered necessary
On 24 July 1911 he had reported that Jervis Bay was ‘suitable but at present very inaccessible and…should not be undertaken unless a railway is assured in the immediate future’. Nevertheless, the Government persisted in its decision and, having taken it, both Fisher and Pearce soon found that the New South Wales Government was not prepared to invest public funds in such a project. James McGowen, Premier of New South Wales, left no doubt where his Government stood; he wrote:
The construction of this line will, for a considerable number of years at all events, involve the State in a heavy annual loss, and it is therefore scarcely probable that the (Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works) will report in favour of the extension unless some proposal is put forward by your Government in the direction of compensating the State.
Senator Pearce minuted the file that a grant-in-aid should be considered but nothing further seems to have been done.
The next significant mention of a rail link recorded in the files was a minute by Creswell dated 8 March 1915; he wrote:
It was regarded as a distinct pledge that the Government of New South Wales should build this railway from Bomaderry to Jervis Bay – the College would not have been begun without that pledge. Captain Chambers…assured me that he would never have assented to Jervis Bay without the guarantee of a railway being built by New South Wales and that the College was an impossibility without it.
Pearce wondered ‘whether the New South Wales Government (would) agree to construct the railway if we guarantee such loss’. David Miller, Administrator of the Federal Capital Territory made the point that provision existed in the Seat of Government Act 1909for a rail link between the National Capital, not at that time named, and Jervis Bay and he indicated that a trial survey had been made. In such circumstances, Miller thought ‘it premature to ask the Commonwealth Government to give evidence of its intentions’.
Creswell, ever the realist, put the whole issue to rest in a minute dated 15 October 1915. He wrote:
The railway question is of historic interest only – and I do not think the question need be further pursued. It is of interest to the student of politics as showing how a direct undertaking by one side becomes first qualified and is then disavowed as if no undertaking had been given. The need for a railway has been lessened by a good road and proper motor vehicles for the College. There is no prospect of its being built within the lifetime of the longest life of the youngest cadet at the College – it was to have been completed simultaneously with the college, i.e. in six months.
On 22 October 1915 the Captain of the College was informed by the Naval Board that the Commonwealth Government was not prepared to meet any part of the expected loss on the proposed railway line and that, for this reason ‘it would appear therefore that the construction of the line is postponed indefinitely’.
In April 1916 the Naval Board again looked at the need for a rail link. While the Second and Third Naval Members favoured reopening the question, Creswell disagreed; he wrote: ‘There is no question of the superior advantages of the Railway but we are not in such a completely helpless condition as to be at the mercy of any terms the New South Wales Government may wish to impose’.
The Royal Australian Naval College at Jervis Bay has never been connected to either the New South Wales railway system or by direct route to Canberra. During negotiations leading to the acquisition of the site, neither Government had committed itself formally to constructing or paying for a rail connection. Nevertheless, it was reasonable enough for Creswell and his colleagues to believe that part of the price paid for the decision to locate the college at Jervis Bay against their advice was that a railway would be built, with concessions being made by both governments.
Transferred to retired list
Creswell’s naval career came to an end on 27 November 1919 when he was formally transferred to the retired list; in September 1922 he was promoted Vice-Admiral. By that time the Naval College had been firmly established at Jervis Bay and it seemed that its future was assured. In 1923, however, a move was made to combine the College with the Royal Military College, Duntroon; a move which Creswell would have opposed. In 1931, as an economy measure during the great depression, the College was moved to Flinders Naval Depot (HMAS Cerberus); it was re-located at Jervis Bay in 1958. Its re-opening was marked by the College being commissioned and named HMAS Creswell.
Creswell had taken a great interest in the setting up of the Naval College. As a result of his visit to England in 1906, he had been able to clarify his thinking about the kind of officer training which he thought was appropriate for Australia and, as Director and later First Naval Member he had been able to influence decisions which reflected those beliefs. At the same time, his influence, important as it was in establishing the College, extended into every phase of naval life in Australia. Writing in 1933, shortly after Creswell’s death, Captain Chambers, first Captain of the College, wrote:
Byvirtue of his long residence in Australia not less than his service in different States, he had come to know almost every man of note in the Commonwealth. He had a retentive memory and a knowledge of Australian politics and politicians as well as those of other personalities which was truly remarkable. He had rather a love of harmless intrigue and, fancying his own astuteness, would often take a pride in obtaining some desired outcome by oblique methods, demonstrating his knowledge of local conditions, which it seemed to the present writer could have been equally well arrived at by more direct means. Still, there can be no question that he was a skillful pilot amidst the metaphorical rocks and shoals which beset the passage of the Australian Navy in the days when he was at its head.
More recently, (the historian) Stephen Webster observed:
It is impossible to study the early development of Australian defence without coming to grips with Admiral Creswell. The parts he played in the gestation, birth, and early youth of the RAN were major ones.
Webster sees Creswell, with ‘characteristics of determination, tenacity and resourcefulness’ as having ‘an impact upon the Australian public, federal politicians and the Admiralty’ as well as ‘a laudable and important role in the shaping of early federal defence policy’.
In looking back over its record, the College owes much to the early guidance, encouragement and inspiration which Creswell gave it during its earliest years. He created a proper understanding of the indispensable institution of the nation for whose interests it existed; and, above all, he developed a public awareness of the never-ending demands made on every officer and cadet-midshipman serving in the Royal Australian Navy.
Note: For reasons of space the numerous notes used in this address have been omitted. A complete copy of the original text is available on request to the Naval Historical Society.