- Walter Burroughs
- Biographies and personal histories, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Age of Change
It was the age of change when centuries old maritime practice collided with the industrial revolution. Over two millennia past and more, man had conquered the great waters with wooden hulled vessels, and harnessed the tempest with mast and sail. As larger vessels were required iron replaced wood and the locomotive force of steam could better control the tempest. Even these momentous changes were quickly improved upon as the phenomena of electricity found its way into the nautical lexicon. To harness these changes new men were required who, while appreciating older traditions, could open their minds to new horizons. To the Royal Navy was born ‘Jacky’ Fisher, a champion for change. While at the time we did not know him, to the Royal Australian Navy a decade later was born William Creswell. This is the story of his formative years and his legacy.
Vice Admiral Sir William Creswell, KCMG, KBE, RAN is known throughout our community as the founding father of the Royal Australian Navy. But what do we know of the man? We know he captained the South Australian colonial ship Protector, taking her to China as part of an international force during the Boxer Rebellion. We know he commanded the South Australian colonial naval forces and later transferred to a similar role in the Queensland colonial naval forces. And, following Federation it was Creswell who was chosen from four senior colonial naval officers to head the new Commonwealth Naval Force. He was instrumental in shaping the CNF, providing it with capable modern ships and, well trained men who were able to acquit themselves with distinction during the ultimate test of war.
But what do we know of his early life – what maketh the man? Fortunately, in retirement Creswell wrote his memoirs. He began these in 1919 and they were finished in 1931, two years before his death. These may have been intended as the first volume of a series as they only cover the period from his birth in 1852 to his former service in the Royal Navy and briefly touch upon his subsequent service in Australia, ending in 1885. The manuscript was consigned to a bank vault and was only brought to light many years later by his daughter Mrs Noel Vigne, who asked Mr Paul Thompson to edit them. These were published in 1965 under the title Close to the Wind. It is from this volume that much of the material in this article is taken.
The Creswell family hail from the southern English county of Hampshire. Edmund Creswell, who had a printing business, suffered financial difficulties and in 1822 was pleased to accept a position at Gibraltar as Crown agent responsible for the receipt and despatch of mails from the monthly mail packet between England and the Rock. Gibraltar was a hub for mail services covering much of the Mediterranean. In 1831 Edmund died and was succeeded, quite remarkably, by his 17 year old eldest son also named Edmund. During this period the packet agency had developed into a postal service and he was grandly titled Deputy Postmaster-General for Gibraltar and Post Office Surveyor for the Mediterranean. The young Edmund married Mary Margaret Ward Fraser, daughter of a Scottish clergyman the Reverend W. Fraser. The fourth child of this union, William Rooke, was born at Gibraltar on 20 October 1852. The middle name Rooke is in honour of Admiral Sir George Rooke who in 1704 led a combined force of seamen and marines capturing Gibraltar from Spain. Gibraltar a garrison town, was full of military and men-of-war constantly arriving and departing, and this was to influence William’s upbringing.
William grew up with his siblings in a happy environment with plenty of outdoor activities. He was a bright youngster of average build and very athletic who, having a keen sense of humour, mixed well and was a likeable companion. During the hot summers the family moved to a cooler Spanish village nearby and thus the children became bilingual. After initial schooling at Aiken’s Private School in Gibraltar, at the age of 12 William was sent to Eastman’s Royal Naval Academy in Southsea (near Portsmouth), a preparatory boarding school for intending naval officers. Amongst the alumni of numerous admirals was Sir Harry Rawson, who as Governor of NSW from 1902 to 1909 was a great supporter of Creswell’s initiatives in the provision of ships for the RAN.
In January 1866, at the age of 13½, Creswell entered the Royal Navy’s training ship Britannia as a cadet. Britannia had been launched in 1820 as a 120 gun first rate ship-of-the-line, she served as flagship during the Crimean War and became a training ship in 1859, moored at Dartmouth. He passed out two years later, and coming second in the list of cadets he was promoted midshipman in May 1867. Creswell prospered in the training ship in which he considered the masters excellent, taking pride in their work. However he ventured a note of caution on the early age of entry and the harsh living conditions which he considered contributed towards a huge wastage where as many as fifty percent failed to progress and gain commissions.
On leaving Britannia a batch of sixteen midshipmen was appointed to the composite frigate HMS Phoebe which, with the need for a new breed of sailors known as ‘stokers’, had a complement of 520. She was commanded by Captain (later Rear Admiral) John Bythesea, VC, RN. While rated as a 35 gun ship she carried mostly smooth bore 32-pounders on the main deck, complemented by muzzle loading 64–pounders on the upper deck; Creswell says the armament had not noticeably changed since Trafalgar. Phoebe was originally built as a sailing ship some twenty years before; she had been cut in two and lengthened by 50 feet, with a new centre section installed for an early steam engine driving a screw propeller. Another remarkable feature for these times was the installation of bathrooms, however they could not be used owing to insufficient fresh water supply. Bathing was still confined to a screen and salt water hose on the upper deck. Life aboard was rough and the language and swearing of the lower deck was abhorrent to young minds. The midshipmen were accommodated in a gunroom where they ate and slung their hammocks. Ventilation was supplied by two scuttles which could only be opened when in harbour or in calm seas. Except for a few minutes when a rising or setting sun might shine through the scuttles the mess was in a condition of semi-darkness. Lighting was from oil lamps using whale oil which contributed to both light and smell. In heavy weather, owing to the working of the ship, the gunroom deckhead leaked so that sitting down to a meal required wearing oilskins. Phoebe still operated as a sailing ship with her engine only being used if she was becalmed or for entering and leaving harbour. At sea the propeller was disconnected, the screw raised and telescopic funnels lowered, once more becoming a proper ship with the Sailing Master and his Mates taking their rightful places. In ideal conditions the ship could make 10 knots under steam but her top speed under sail was 13 knots.
A midshipman received pay of one shilling and six pence per day (£28 pa) but from this came expenses for tuition which supplemented the poor pay of naval instructors; as the standard food was basic there were compulsory gunroom expenses for mess extras, wine (then the norm for 15 year olds), payment for the gunroom servant who provided their meals, and newspapers. After this there was little left over to cover writing materials, mails home, laundry, replacement clothes and for runs ashore. However all midshipmen received a small personal allowance from an advance of £50 p.a. their parents were required to remit. Thus at an early age they learned the value of money and that life as an officer without some private means was uncomfortable.
In those days a ship could be on a three or four year commission. Initially they joined the Channel Fleet but at last came news that they were bound to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join the North American and West Indian Station. Crossing the Atlantic under sail, mostly against adverse winds, much was to be learned in sailing and navigation. They also had to master gun drills, the use of rifle and cutlass, carry out watch keeping duties, boat work, as well as continuous schoolwork and sports, which included boxing and deck hockey, and finally discovering the mysteries of the engine room. After a short stay in Halifax it was off to find the Gulf Stream and warmer climes of Bermuda and Jamaica. Before departure pens were built on the upper deck to house sheep for fresh meat and some goats, so that fresh milk was available for the Captain’s table. At Port Royal they kept company with a German naval training ship Niobe, an ex-British frigate which had been presented to the fledgling German Confederation. A generation later her fifty or so friendly cadets were to become the enemy. Next came the romantic Spanish Main where Creswell’s bilingual skills stood him in good stead accompanying the Captain on his official calls. They visited the American territory of Colon, then the Atlantic terminus of the Panamanian railway some forty years before the Canal. Here he took the train to Panama City and was for the first time to gaze upon the Pacific. The return voyage took them to Barbados and some smaller outer islands which represented the eastern extremity of the Station. At last the band played, adding extra zest and encouragement to the hands doubling around the capstan to break out the anchor. Then with sails set and yards braced they headed back to Halifax in May 1869 to refit and enjoy some recreation exploring and trying their skills at hunting and fishing.
The Flying Squadron
Government economies calling for a reduction in the number of ships on foreign stations were compensated for by the formation of detached or ‘flying squadrons’. At this time a squadron of six ships presently refitting in England was formed to undertake a world-wide training cruise under the command of Rear Admiral (later Admiral of the Fleet Sir Geoffrey) Geoffrey Phipps Hornby1 who wore his flag in the composite steam frigate HMS Liverpool. Other ships of the squadron were the frigates HM Ships Bristol, Liffey and Endymion and the corvettes HM Ships Scylla and Barrosa. As Bristol was serving as a training ship she was withdrawn after the arrival of the squadron at Bahia in Brazil and replaced by Phoebe. When they met up with their new sisters they had been away from home for nearly two years; their counterparts were all neatly attired with the latest fashions while Phoebe’s men had outgrown their clothes and by comparison looked like scarecrows. Before leaving Halifax a newly promoted Lieutenant Henderson joined. Some forty-two years later he and Creswell would be reunited when Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson came to Australia to advise on naval defences.
In Bahia the gunroom became overcrowded with an influx of six brand new cadets from Bristol and now with someone onboard of lower rank, Creswell and his companions thought themselves old Sea Dogs. Becoming part of a squadron demanded high standards with intense competition between ships in appearance, drill and station-keeping under sail – an arduous task. The squadron called at Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo before crossing the South Atlantic to Cape Town and, then via the Roaring Forties to Melbourne. Here Creswell had his first sight of Australia in early November 1869, a few days too late for the Melbourne Cup. The squadron pressed on all sail to make an impressive entry from the heads to the anchorage off Williamstown. There was no excess of excitement over the arrival of the squadron with the Argus of the day noting that eleven or twelve gentlemen hired a launch and went down to Hobson’s Bay to see the arrival of the fleet. They were however received were great hospitality with rides and picnics and a ball given in their honour which the young gentlemen enjoyed. As it was a time when Ballarat and other gold-mining centres were booming, many men were left behind. A man who broke his leave by more than three days was classified a deserter and a reward of £3 was given for his apprehension, although some men were returned by the efficient Melbourne Police who refused to accept the reward when they learned it was charged to the man’s pay.
After two weeks of Victorian hospitality passage was made to Sydney, at that time a much quieter and less fashionable place than Melbourne. Because of contrary winds the squadron was obliged to make entry under steam, much against the Admiral’s wishes. Here they were greeted by HMS Challenger, then flagship of the Australian Station. Three thousand officers and men suddenly arriving at ports like Sydney swept the local markets clean and gained them the name of ‘The Hungry Six’. From Sydney passage was made to Hobart which they claimed to be the finest port so far visited. Next it was off to New Zealand and Port Lyttelton. Boat racing using the ship’s cutters was very popular at this time and a champion crew gained much credibility. Captains often paid to have their crews of hand-picked men attired in special coloured uniforms. Considerable wagers were placed on these races. Phoebe, who had been undone by Challenger’s superior boat built of kauri pine, bought a similar boat from a Sydney builder and Creswell was made her coxswain. It was in Lyttelton that she beat all comers. Auckland was the last ‘colonial’ port before making the long sea passage for Japan.
Japan, then a strange land only recently opened to European trade, was a delight of wonderful picturesque charm with people wearing national dress. Yokohama in those days was coming of age as an important port. Fine crafted curios made by admired artisans were available for a few pence as useful presents for the folks back home. Strange as it may now seem, at this time a British regiment was stationed at Yokohama for the protection of foreign residents, as the Emperor’s control over his feudal lords was still far from secure. The squadron next proceeded to Yedo (Tokyo) to pay honour to His Imperial Majesty the Mikado, who held a levee for the Admiral and Captains. On leaving Yedo a young Japanese cadet who was to study in England was billeted in Phoebe. He messed in the wardroom, and although he spoke only a few words of English he proved a willing student and soon gained favour, a far happier fate than befell the other young Japanese student in the flagship. This poor young man was billeted in the gunroom, which may have had something to do with his failure to settle down with boisterous strangers. He felt he was making no headway, grew melancholy and depressed, and after about three months took his own life in order to atone for his failure to live up to the expectations of his family and the service of his country.
Creswell next visited the Pacific coast of Canada and the fine harbour of Esquimalt on Vancouver Island with its then small naval establishment where there was wonderful shooting at moose, and salmon were caught in the harbour. Disaster nearly came when a corvette HMS Charybdis from the Pacific Station struck an uncharted rock, lost her fore foot and was in danger of sinking. With no dock available an improvised coffer dam was built around the ship and she was repaired and then joined the squadron in place of Scylla.
In pre-American days Honolulu was a simple and attractive place with a perfect climate and delightful countryside. Queen Kamehameha was most generous to the small fleet and sent off half-a-dozen live cattle to each ship. Another long run was made to Valparaiso, built on a narrow strip of land close to the towering Andes. This was the coast where the renegade Lord Cochrane made his name in fighting in the colonial wars of independence of Chile and Peru against Spanish rule. The weather freshened and it grew colder as they beat around Cape Horn and returned to the Atlantic. There was another long haul to Bahia for refreshment before undertaking the final leg home where the squadron arrived safely on 15 November 1870 after circumnavigating the globe in 18 months. Creswell in Phoebe had been absent for over three and a half years and during this time had grown and developed into a confident young man who having sailed around both Capes had now earned the right to now place both elbows on the mess table.
The Channel Squadron
Creswell must have distinguished himself as after some well earned leave he was appointed to continue his training in HMS Minotaur, flagship of the Channel Fleet, again under Rear Admiral Phipps Hornby. On promotion to Sub Lieutenant on 20 October 1871 he had the pleasure of finding gold lace upon his sleeves. Minotaur, which had been launched in 1863, was the lead ship in her class of armoured frigates. They displaced over 10,600 tons and were more like early battleships, with a length of 407 feet; they were the largest single screw warship ever built. With five masts she had a considerable spread of canvas but was not a very handy sailor although she made a respectable 14 knots under steam. She was fitted with 50 x 110-pounder breech loading guns. After Creswell had left Minotaur she was extensively refitted (1873-85) and re-armed with 9-inch guns and, in a factor considered unremarkable at that time, she introduced into the maritime world the completely new technology ‘Electricity’ being fitted with a single searchlight with its own alternator. It was to be a few more years with the development of more reliable incandescent lamps before electric lighting was installed at sea.
HM Ships Thalia and Midge and Chinese Pirates
With Minotaur due for refit it was time for the new young officer, with past experience in a crack training squadron and the ceremony of a flagship, to find out about working life on smaller ships. In early 1873, after the conclusion of gunnery training courses in Portsmouth, Creswell was posted to HMS Thalia which had been recently commissioned. She was one of only two Juno class wooden screw corvettes displacing 2,240 tons which were converted into troop ships. Taking one look at their obsolete design the War Office refused to use them, but what did they know, so the Navy used them for a similar purpose in carrying drafts to foreign stations. And so it was that Thalia embarked crews for two HM Gunboats Midge and Ringdove, then being re-commissioned at Hong Kong.
On arrival at Hong Kong one of the Midge sub lieutenants was taken ill which allowed Creswell to engineer a draft swap for what might be an exciting adventure chasing pirates which were then active in the Malay Peninsula. HM Gunboat Midge, commanded by Commander Charles Rising, RN was a rakish looking twin screw vessel of 603 tons with a complement of about 100 men. She was armed with 20-pounder bow and stern chasers and a large 7-inch gun amidships and powered by two 40 h.p. engines from an Admiralty stockpile left over from the Crimean War. Needless to say they did not match her hull and she was a poor steamer. But here in this small ship Creswell had his own watch and was on his way to see action against pirates.
Even the small Midge had problems negotiating the shoals, small rivers and creeks inhabited, and to a large extent controlled by, by pirates who did not recognise the rule of local sultans, who were under British protection. To pursue these bandits, who held the local Malays to ransom, a 10-oared cutter armed with a rocket launcher was prepared under Creswell’s command, together with a coxswain, 10 seamen, 4 marines and a local pilot and interpreter. There were various skirmishes in which some junks and small craft were taken but on 16 September 1873 they were involved in an armed fight with a large number of pirates in several small craft in which Creswell with three others were wounded, but remained at their posts. The enemy fled, leaving behind 4 killed and 11 wounded. A bullet which had entered Creswell’s hip stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was hospitalised ashore and later invalided home in the P&O ship Malwa. On arrival in England their Lordships were pleased to promote Creswell to Lieutenant with seniority from the date of his courageous attack on 16 September 1873 with his commission endorsed ‘for gallantry’; considerably shortening the normal time for promotion.
HMS Undaunted and the Slave Traders
The 1870s was a dreadfully dull time ambitious officers seeking active service. All lists were overcrowded and promotion was at a standstill. In 1875 volunteers were called for an Arctic expedition; with over 200 lieutenants submitting their names; Creswell was one of the 194 not wanted.
After convalescence in 1874 Creswell was posted to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich and later to the frigate HMS Topaze, one of two vessels sent to India to enhance the welcoming party for His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. After the Royal visit in February 1876 he was again fortunate in being posted to another flagship, HMS Undaunted of the East India Station. She was a 50 gun composite wooden hulled frigate displacing 4,160 tons, surprisingly with an experimental wrought iron mast. He served in her for nearly a year, working hard at mastering Swahili (the language of East Africa) qualifying as an interpreter with the welcome addition of £10 per month to his pay and the chance of being posted to slave trade suppression work.
Zanzibar had for centuries been the centre of an exchange market of African slaves captured by Arab raiders and shipped north to Arabia. Bowing to public pressure Britain was obliged to limit this trade and to maintain a watchful presence. The old wooden line-of-battle ship London was moored here as a headquarters for a squadron of small anti-slave patrol vessels, she also provided accommodation, a hospital, repair and storage facilities. London had been a fine looking 90-gun ship in bygone days and had taken part in the bombardment of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. Fortunately there was a lieutenant of Creswell’s seniority in London who hated the work and was only too keen to exchange into the flagship which occurred in September 1876.
London had five 40 foot sailing launches, all named after ladies of the royal family. They were rigged as cutters and were good sea boats, each armed with a small muzzle-loading 7-pounder. They were undecked open boats and the only protection when at anchor was an awning. London also had a coal burning steam pinnace of limited range. The usual roster was one month on patrol with a month off in London. The whole cruising force was very keen owing to the amount of prize money available which was £5 bounty per slave captured or alternatively £5 per ton of slave dhow taken and destroyed. The whole of the prize money was shared with all launch crews, London’s officers and crew and, the flag officer. The Consul-General and British Resident at Zanzibar was president of the Admiralty Prize Court.
There was a steep learning curve into the ways of the slave trade and the artful dodges of the Arab slave masters. Creswell’s first patrol yielded nothing and on the second patrol plenty of dhows were intercepted, boarded and examined but all were peaceful traders. However a third patrol did find a dhow which had a large number of slaves but she largely eluded them and they captured just 7 slaves, with one of their own men injured as the traders retreated into the night. On another patrol a combined force of launches intercepted five suspicious dhows and captured three, the largest of these had 178 slaves including women and children, guarded by 18 armed Arabs with a dhow crew of 12. For his service in London in the suppression of the slave trade Creswell was to receive a letter of thanks from the Foreign Minister, Lord Salisbury.
The journey home and new horizons
One of the penalties of life in the tropics is disease, and Creswell succumbed to malaria; after some time in recovering in London he was again invalided home. Before leaving Zanzibar he received news of the death of his father, with the small allowance he received evaporating. After recovering from his illness he was for some time on half pay before being posted to HMS Vernon for a torpedo course. Afterwards he served briefly in the training ship HMS Lion moored at Devonport. At this time generous allowances were being offered to those willing to resign their commissions. With all these pressures, at the prime of his life just shy of his 26th birthday and with five years seniority as a Lieutenant, Creswell decided that greater opportunities beckoned in the country he had visited ten years before and he resigned from the Royal Navy on 6 September 1878.
Early the following year, accompanied by his brother Charles, he again landed on Australian shores, this time as a perspective settler. There were years of hard endeavour, twice overlanding with stock from Central New South Wales to far north Queensland, and exploring into the Northern Territory. At this stage northern Australia was largely unknown but thought to be a utopia for horse and cattle breeding and the Barkly Tablelands also suitable for sheep. It was in the Northern Territory that Creswell found himself on the remote sheep and cattle station ‘Creswell Downs’2. During one period of 18 months he slept only once under a roof. In discussing early explorers in his book North Australia the respected author and historian C. Price Conigrave notes that Creswell did some valuable exploration work in finding a practicable route from the Barkly Tablelands to the McArthur River and discovering the source of this river. Creswell and his party returned to the McArthur River crossing with a large mob of cattle in May 1885. Here, prior to the establishment of the township of Borroloola, they knew of a grog shop run by a notorious ex-Blackbirder ‘Black Jack Reid’ and his wife Henrietta. The exhausted drovers were surprised to find their waterhole closed by zealous Customs officials who had arrived the day before by steamer with a party of surveyors and discovered duty had not been paid on spirits and tobacco. A dangerous standoff occurred until the Customs decided it might be advisable to allow some sustenance to a determined Creswell and his armed men. Conigrave met Creswell in Melbourne in 1912 to confirm stories of the latter’s pioneering days.
When he returned to Queensland a letter was waiting from an old shipmate Commander John Walcot, who asked Creswell to join him in the South Australian Naval Service as First Lieutenant under him in HMCS Protector. Creswell hesitated as he had plans of making a living as a pastoralist on the fine Barkly Tablelands which were then opening up. As a result he declined the kind offer. However circumstances took another turn when Creswell’s brother fell ill with the doctor recommending a move to a cooler climate being essential if his brother was to regain his health. At this time another letter was received from Walcot suggesting reconsideration of his offer. The die was cast, the offer accepted, and on 12 October 1885 he was again in uniform as a Senior Lieutenant (Lieutenant Commander) and First Lieutenant of Protector. The South Australian Navy was lamentably weak, including the Reserve, its officers and men rarely exceeded 300. This little naval defence force was suffering from neglect, and seemed to be in danger of extinction. Creswell was of the opinion that the public must be roused from its apathy and made to realize the necessity for an adequate navy to ensure the safety of a land open to attack only by sea. This then was Creswell’s challenge and one to which he rose and exceeded all expectations in another better known story in being instrumental in founding and shaping the Royal Australian Navy.
Creswell’s memoirs end in 1885 and mention little of his private life, most importantly his marriage on 29 December 1888 at St Jude’s Anglican Church, Port Elliot (80 km south of Adelaide) to Elizabeth Stowe, the second daughter of Mr Justice Randolph and Mrs Francis Stowe of the South Australian judiciary. It was a happy marriage, blessed with a number of children. There was sadness when two sons, Captain Randolph Creswell of the Imperial Camel Corps and his younger brother Lieutenant Colin Creswell, RN, were both killed on active service in 1917 during the Great War and Randolph’s twin brother, Lieutenant Edmund Creswell, was wounded in action. An unmarried daughter Margaret tragically committed suicide in 1913 when she was only in her twentieth year. Another daughter Noel married a South African businessman, Mr J.C.L. Vigne, and resided in that country where her uncle Colonel Frederick Creswell, DSO was a prominent politician and at one time Minister of Defence.
What Maketh the Man? Looking briefly into the remarkable history of the first thirty-three years of Creswell’s life we see they are packed with examples providing many answers to the legacy we inherit. Those born with brilliant minds are able to learn, develop and create. William Creswell was of this persuasion that quickly grasped lessons from the excellence of his naval training, his bright personality shone through bringing him to notice and aiding his development. Where few opportunities existed he created them and looked towards new horizons and even glimpsed what lay beyond. As we mark the centenary of the fleet he helped create, we pay tribute and honour his memory.
1 The Hornby Lighthouse at Sydney’s South Head was named by NSW Governor Sir William Dennison in honour of his wife Caroline’s father Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby.
2 Creswell Downs takes its name from nearby Creswell Creek (also spelt Cresswell) which was discovered and named by Ernest Favenc in 1878. Fevenc was a well educated Englishman of Huguenot descent active in early Australian exploration. In July 1878 he was selected to explore the country between the western border of Queensland and Darwin and evaluate the possibility of a railway link between the two. Northern Territory Government officials are of the opinion that the features were named for William Rooke Creswell and that he and Favenc may have previously known each other in England and discussed possible exploration in northern Australia.