In the late Victorian reign, imperialist tendencies were more pronounced in several countries, including Germany and other European "Great Powers". In Britain, the "Pax Britannica" was a popular conception that held the firm belief in Britain's status as world peace-keeper and a superior empire. Fundamental to this belief was the strength of the Royal Navy. In 1889 the Naval Defence Act embodied the need for the Navy to be kept strong to ward off any possible rivals to Britain's leading world position.
In 1894, a military correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and the Morning Post, Henry Spenser Wilkinson, wrote a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette. These articles set about raising the awareness of the importance of the sea to Britain and in an anonymous reply to the articles, a suggestion was put forward to form an organization to keep the public informed of naval issues. A meeting was held on 11 December 1894 at the Westminster Palace Hotel and formed the basis of the British Navy League. The organization became one of the foremost naval interest groups and was able to maintain a great deal of influence over naval affairs. Other countries followed their lead and formed their own national groups.
The aims of the League were:
- to promote an awareness in the British public on the dependency of the country on the sea and that the only safeguard was to have a powerful navy
- to convince the public of the justification for adequate expenditure and maintenance of the navy to enable them to fulfil their role
- that naval issues required continuity and should not be interfered with through differing party politics
- education of the public and young people about the need of a strong navy through publications and lectures.
The League had offices in Victoria Street, London, near to the heart of Government. Their first President was Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby. Members paid an annual subscription which was as low as one shilling. Those who donated more were given the status of Honorary Vice-Presidents. In 1901, the League had a membership of 14,000 and continued to grow until 1914 when over 100,000 people were members.
The League's journal was first published in July 1895 and the organization was able to distribute copies of relevant papers and articles to its members. They were also later able to establish a League library. They began promoting various ideas about reforms to Admiralty administration, including a shift in the role of the First Naval Lord at the expense of the civilian First Lord of the Admiralty. They proposed instigating a public commemoration of the battle of Trafalgar and the first celebration took place in 1896 in Trafalgar Square. They also wanted to promote the Navy to the young through education.
In 1908, some members had become discontented with the Navy League and resigned from membership to form an alternative organization, the Imperial Maritime League. The reasons given were that they felt the League was not pressing the Government for greater naval expenditure. However, in 1908, the Navy League had a specific aim in mind. They wanted the Government to guarantee the ordering of eight of the new Dreadnought type battleships and it is claimed, that to raise awareness amongst the general, they coined the famous slogan "We want eight, and We won't wait!". There is no evidence, however, to support this claim.
In 1910, it sponsored a small number of units of Naval Lads Brigades, which had been formed back in 1858 by sailors returning from the Crimea to train young boys in nautical skills. The units were called the "Navy League Boys" Naval Brigades. As time went on, more groups joined including Sea Scout groups. In 1914, the League applied for recognition from the Admiralty, which was granted in 1919 and was subject to an annual inspection on the efficiency of the units. The group's name was changed to the Navy League Sea Cadet Corps. At the outbreak of World War Two, the Corps had 100 units attached with a membership of 10,000 cadets. In 1941, the Navy League introduced a training scheme for wartime navy service and used a training ship, TS Bounty to undertake it, and boys undertaking the scheme became known as "Bounty Boys". The Admiralty were very impressed with the scheme and took over the training from January 1942 with the King, George VI becoming Admiral of the Corps. The Corps was renamed the Sea Cadet Corps. The Corps expanded with the additional publicity from Warship Week fundraising and town units took the name of the adopted warship. The Admiralty funded training and equipment and the League undertook sport and administration. The training given stood boys in good stead for joining the navy. By the end of the war, there were 399 units affiliated to the Navy League. Although the Admiralty offered to take over the Corps at the end of the war, the Navy League decided to remain as co-sponsor. The Sea Cadet charter was agreed between the two sponsors.
By 1976, the Navy League's sole aim was the support of the Sea Cadets and the Girl's Nautical Training Corps and it was renamed the Sea Cadet Association. In 1980, girls were admitted to the Corps in separate units and the GNTC ceased to exist. In 1992, single sex units were abandoned and cadets were amalgamated in mixed sex units.
© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2002
The information contained in this fact sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.