The rise and fall of the Royal Naval Engineering College
by John Ellis
The Royal Naval Engineering College complex (left) trained thousands of engineers. Historic Manadon
House (right), purchased in 1938, became an extension of the college.
Steam brought painful change to the training of Royal Navy officers. Finding a place for the engineers in traditional RN ranks demanded considerable time and effort. The first RN vessel to have a steam-powered propulsion system was the 1819 tug Comet. In 1828 the Navy List included its first steam-powered ship, HMS Lightning, built in 1823. HMS Dee, completed in 1832, was the first steam-powered fighting ship. By 1840, the Navy List named 70 steam-powered vessels. They were all paddle-wheelers and were mostly employed towing ships of the line in and out of harbour.
Izambard Kingdom Brunel
In 1840 I.K. Brunel concluded that a screw would propel Great Britain, then building in Bristol. The Admiralty accepted Brunel’s wisdom and fitted HMS Rattler with a screw in 1842. Rattler, in trials in 1845 with HMS Alecto, a paddlewheeler sloop, demonstrated the superiority of screw propulsion. With the dawning of this new technology came the requirement for technical support to operate and maintain the machinery. Machinery suppliers provided civilian “engine-men” to operate and maintain the new equipment until 1837, when the RN gave warrant rank to ships’ engineers.
The year 1837 was a milestone for the engineers in the navy. The Admiralty first established the Steam Department and followed up with the Engineering Branch Afloat. Ships’ engineers were warranted and equated with other civil officers, such as masters, surgeons, pursers and chaplains.
In 1843 the Royal Dockyards established schools for the education of dockyard apprentices and some of these “engineer boys” entered the Navy on completion of training. Some engineers were commissioned from 1847 and all were commissioned after 1862. From 1863 the “engineer boys” became “engineer students” with examinations for all ranks to chief engineer, a rank equivalent to lieutenant commander today.
That year also saw engineer students educated separately at the new Royal School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineers in Kensington. Engineer students joined at the age of 14 for the four-year course. It was also 1863 when civil officers introduced distinctive colours between their gold stripes, although only “real” officers had the curl in the upper stripe. The four colours introduced in 1863 were blue for navigators, red for surgeons, white for paymasters and purple for engineers.
The main building entrance (left) and the dockyard-facing facade of historic Keyham College.
In 1873 the RN transformed the 18th century Royal Naval Hospital buildings at Greenwich to accommodate the old Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth and the Kensington engineer students. Between 1876 and 1886 the students had yet another home, HMS Marlborough, an old wooden screw-driven battleship in Portsmouth, while the navy built a permanent naval engineering college near Devonport Dockyard. The Devonport Training School for Engineer Students opened in 1880, but it soon became known as Keyham College.
Dating from the introduction of heavy machinery in ships, engineering personnel were regarded with disdain from the bridge. Many naval officers viewed the new steam engines as a menace, not only to their ships but their way of life. “Their Lordships feel it is their bounden duty to discourage to the utmost of their ability the employment of steam vessels, as they consider the introduction of steam is calculated to strike a fatal blow at the naval supremacy of the empire,” wrote Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1828.
The pride of the Royal Navy was the sparkling appearance of warships that were cleaned and scrubbed from morning till night. Showers of sparks and soot blew out of the engineer’s funnels and settled everywhere, entailing much extra cleaning and scrubbing to keep ships sparkling. An Admiralty Fleet Order of the 1860s directed that the practice of firing muskets up the funnels to dislodge the offending soot be discontinued.
Young naval engineers in their Sunday Divisions best uniforms (left) also work in the Engine Test Shop (right).
By the 1860s there was an increasing gulf between the status of engineers and military officers of supposedly similar rank. Not only were the engineers seen as workmen in uniform, they were not accorded wardroom status.
Uniforms of this period for non-military officers were less elaborate than those on the bridge. While the military officer wore double-breasted coats, the civil officers wore theirs single-breasted with buttons in distinctive groupings. Engineers, for instance, had eight buttons in two groups of four and all non-military uniforms lacked the curled upper stripe. Even the introduction of engine-room artificers in 1868 as skilled tradesmen and the abandonment of separate wardrooms in 1875 did not eradicate the disparities. In the 1890s, when 50 per cent of the complement of a warship might be the engineering department, military officers continued to view engineers as lascars with oilcans. Until 1910 engineers trained quite separately from their anchor-clanking colleagues.
During the 1890s recruitment of engineer students fell markedly and in 1903 the First Lord of the Admiralty and the First Sea Lord, the Earl of Selbourne and Admiral Fisher, introduced the Fisher-Selbourne scheme to see the complete coalescence of officers. Cadet midshipmen aged 13 would enter the new Royal Naval College at Osborne then progress to Britannia Royal Naval College at Dartmouth for common training until promoted to lieutenant at age 22 when they would specialise in navigation, gunnery, torpedo or engineering. Engineer officers were no longer known as Engineer Lieutenants, but Lieutenants (E) and were deemed military officers. The purple stripe disappeared but they could wear the executive curl. Engineering became a major part of basic training and the two colleges incorporated big laboratories and workshops.
The first engineering specialists entered the Royal Naval College, Keyham, in 1913. Special entry cadets, aged 18, supplemented the dangerously thinned ranks of engineer officers. The Fisher-Selbourne scheme ended in failure. The average officer could not cover the scope of the training and in any event only six per cent volunteered for engineering.
Even at the time of introduction of the Fisher-Selbourne scheme, engineers were advising that the study and practice of engineering demanded the lifetime devotion of an officer. The scheme was abandoned in 1921 and the following year the Long Engineering Course of four years started. In addition to meeting naval requirements, this course conferred full exemption from the corporate membership examinations of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. The course was taken by officers who had been selected for engineering when promoted to midshipman after a year as a cadet in the training ship. It was concerned almost entirely with the theoretical and practical aspects of marine engineering. The course evolved into one of the longest-running courses in modern naval history. Apart from some modification in detail and a slight reduction in time in 1935, it continued running until early 1951.
In 1925 the question of non-executive officers was reviewed in some detail and from this came 12 categories of officer that saw, at last, the abandonment of the 18th and 19th century concept of civil officer. With this, the distinguishing colours were reintroduced and all officers wore the curl. Engineers continued to be classified as Lieutenant (E); nevertheless they claimed betrayal, alleging the new purple to be more maroon than the former purple.
Young Midshipmen learn how to refit a boiler.
During the 1920s and -30s Keyham developed a formidable reputation as an engineering college. Space limitations kept student numbers to about 120 but by 1936 it was clear that Keyham was far too cramped for the increases envisaged as war loomed. In 1938 Manadon House and 43 ha of the estate were purchased and in May 1940 Manadon was opened as the extension of the college.
In 1937 there were 112 officers under instruction. By 1941 there were 322 and in 1945 there were 771. Every available piece of property was put to use accommodating these extra students. For much of WW II and afterwards they lived mostly at Manadon in dormitory huts and messed in four converted tin-roofed Nissen huts.
The transfer from Keyham to Manadon progressed slowly but was virtually completed during the 1950s. It was not, however, finished until 1962 when the electrical laboratory and the Jock Russell were finally closed down. The Keyham buildings stayed unused until the Devonport Dockyard Technical College moved in about 1959, but all the remaining buildings were finally demolished in 1985.
In 1956 ADML Mountbatten introduced the General List of officers that coincidentally saw the disappearance of distinguishing colours for non-seaman officers. He also laid the foundation stone for the new wardroom at Manadon and the Duke of Edinburgh opened the buildings two years later.
This new RNEC saw major changes to engineering courses. The Long Engineering Course continued in various forms through the 1960s; however in 1962 some students started a BSc course from London University. RNEC was granted the right to award its own BSc degrees in 1966 and in 1971 the Advanced Marine Engineering Course, or Dagger Course, moved to RNEC from Greenwich. In 1976 the College gained approval to award Masters degrees and this replaced the Dagger Course. In addition to these basically theoretical courses there were several application courses for RNEC graduates and direct entry engineer officers.
The first RAN officer at Keyham was the late CAPT E.S. Nurse, RAN, who graduated from RANC in 1916 and attended RNEC in 1920-4. The last RAN officers to complete the full engineering courses at RNEC graduated in 1973 and some RAN officers continued with the application courses until 1978.
Last RAN students, 1991The last RAN students at RNEC were LCDR T.N. Jones, RAN, and LEUT I.A. Rawlings, RAN, who graduated with MSc in May 1991. The number of RAN officers to train at RNEC is not known, but it is believed to exceed 270. By the mid-1970s the RAN had markedly reduced the numbers of all personnel training abroad. Before the opening of the Australian Defence Force Academy in 1982, selected RAN midshipmen studied at the University of NSW for a BE. Nevertheless, as early as 1970 the clouds were darkening over the long-term future of RNEC as less costly options of officer training and alternatives for the provision of various services for Defence were being investigated. RNEC constraints on the RN’s budgets in the late 1980s and early 1990s were aggravated by marked reductions in authorised manpower.
When the new RNEC opened at Manadon in 1958 the strength of the RN was 121,000 and the RAN was one tenth of that. By 1995 the RN had fewer than 60,000 men and women and the RAN and other Commonwealth navies were not training engineers abroad. The CO of RNEC put forward proposals in 1992 to keep RNEC in commission but the college was closed in August 1995. Coincidentally, the OOD on that day was LCDR G.J. Irwin, RAN. He was on the staff even though there were no RAN students while he was there. Those still under training completed their degrees at Plymouth University. These days, RN engineer officers attend classes at Southampton University to obtain their degrees.
The RNEC’s centenary was celebrated with a series of dinners in 1980. Broadly, there was a dinner for pre-WWII graduates followed by a dinner for graduates from each decade to 1981 thereafter. Another final year series of dinners attracted over a thousand former mess members. Their years of attendance ranged from the 1920s to 1994 with the old Commonwealth nations represented. The final graduation of 72 students in July 1995 went with a bang, not a whimper. Both the First and Second Sea Lords attended cermonial divisions. Their presence was recognised with a 17-gun salute and a fly past of modern naval aircraft and a WWII-era Swordfish.
The closure was celebrated in Sydney with a cocktail party at the Australian Maritime Museum attended by 150 former mess members and their partners. The organisers, CDRE C.J. Elsmore and CAPT D.H. Blazey, presented a commemorative medallion to all who attended.
Following Manadon’s closure the facility was offered to Plymouth University but they could find no use for it and the establishment was put up for sale. Manadon House and the Chapel had long term heritage classification so they were excluded from the contract. Manadon House was built about 1680 and the Chapel, built as a tithe barn, was listed in the Doomsday Book. Those who were at RNEC in 1962 will remember the magnificent copper font made for the Chapel by Frank Chew. That, thankfully, is now in the Chapel at BRNC, Dartmouth.
A developer purchased the establishment, erected a cyclone wire fence around Manadon House and the Chapel and demolished the rest to turn it into suburbia. When visited in May 2000 the only recognisable structures remaining were the flag mast and the sports pavilion that had been torched by vandals. Curiously, the spire had been removed and was in some “come in handy” pile. The spire and the imposing stone figureheads of Marlborough and Thunderer will be used to decorate the estate’s entrance. It was indeed a sad return to one’s alma mater.
Manadon web site
Manadon’s slow but comprehensive web site is at http://www.rnecmanadon.com. Log on with “guest” and “hms”. The site contains photographs and loads of other interesting data.