Sir William Henry May Naval Career

A little background information about Sir William Henry May

My father’s, Job William Seaburne May, was born in Holland in 1805, and was the son of Admiral May of the Dutch Navy, who was also a Captain in the British Navy. My Grandfather was a distinguished man, he assisted in restoring the Prince of Orange to the throne of Holland. He was a clever engineer and his plans were adopted for improving the canal system in Holland.

My Father’s forebears, as recorded on the pedigree table, show that John May, a Naval Architect, went to Holland in the seventeenth century, and the family remained there until my Father returned and settled in England. Although the family were in Holland for so many generations, all my ancestors married British wives.

My Father settled in Liverpool, and married Ann Jane Freckleton, in 1840. I was the fifth of ten children and was born on July 31st, 1849, at Liscard, Cheshire. One of my godfathers was Prince Henry of the Netherlands, brother of the then reigning King; he was present at my christening, at St. Philip’s Church, Liverpool. My Father retained a good deal of influence at the Dutch Court, both on account of his Father’s and Brother’s services; the latter was an Admiral in the Dutch Navy and personal A.D.C. to Prince Henry.

From the first I was destined for the Navy, and my earliest recollections are of being made to read extracts from Captain Marryat’s novels: Peter Simple, Midshipman Easy, and others. Every night, at dessert, I was asked what I was going to be when I grew up, and my invariable reply was: “A sailor.” At that early age I had no idea what this meant, but my Father was so intent on a sea life for me, and impressed me so much with the thought of it, that I felt I was destined for the Navy. I never had the choice of any other career, and a boy of 11 to 13 years of age rarely knows what he would like to be.

My Father was not well off, and great economy was necessary. When I was 10 years old, my elder brother Seaburne and I went, as day scholars, to the Royal Institution School, Liverpool, where the Headmaster was Dr. Turner. My recollections of this establishment are those of fear. Dr. Turner was a very big, ponderous man, but was, I believe, very learned, and a good linguist. His method of teaching, however, did not impress me; he constantly used the cane and this certainly was not an incentive to make me work. The second master, the Rev. Glynn, was quite a different sort of man, and under him I learnt the principles of mathematics, mensuration, and Euclid, which were always useful in after years.

In 1863, the age for entering the Navy was between 12 and 14 years; the nomination had to be obtained by family interest, and my Father appears to have had some difficulty in obtaining one for me. It was not till April, 1863, when I was nearly 14 years old, that the nomination arrived, When Dr. Turner was informed, he told my Father I would never pass the entrance examination, which was a limited competition, so I was sent, for six weeks, to a crammer, namely, Eastman’s Academy at Southsea, the Headmaster being Dr. Speckernell. This school was very much more to my liking. We had to work hard, but the masters took a great deal of trouble, and I passed the examination at the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, in June, 1863, being twenty-second on the list of about fifty entrants.

William Henry May as a Cadet

I joined the Britannia at Portland in June, 1863, and was naturally bewildered with the strangeness of the life. The ship was an old three-decker, fitted up with studies, and special accommodation for sleeping and dressing. It was a rough life, but I felt quite important on joining as a naval cadet in uniform, and having a marine servant to look after my chest and clothes. My pride was soon taken out of me as the new-term cadets were called “Cheeky News,” and the senior terms took every advantage of bullying the new boys and disposing of sundry of their articles, such as soap, etc.

Date Ship Rank Station Flag and Commanding Officer
June 1863 H.M.S. Britannia Cadet Portland Capt R.A. Powell
  H.M.S. VIctoria Midshipman Mediterranean Flagship C in C Vice Admiral Sir Robert Smart
Apr 1867 – March 1869  H.M.S. Liffey Midshipman North America and West Indies Capt. J Johnson
March 29 1869   Acting Sub Lieutenant    
March 1869 – ?  H.M.S. Liffey Act Sub Lieutenant Particular Service  
Jan 1871 – Sept 1871  H.M.S. Hercules Act Sub Lieutenant Channel Squadron Capt. Lord Gilford
June 1871 – Sept 1871  H.M.S. Victoria & Albert Sun Lieutenant Royal yacht Capt. Prince of Leiningen
Sept 7 1871   Lieutenant    
Apr 1872 – 74 H.M.S. Hercules Lieutenant Channel Squadron Capt. W.M. Dowell
Oct 1874 – Feb 1875 H.M.S. Excellent Lieutenant Portsmouth “G” Course  
Feb 1875 – April 1875 H.M.S. Duke of Wellington Lieutenant (Addl) Portsmouth  For Arctic Services  
April 1875 – 1876 H.M.S. Alert Lieutenant (N) Arctic Exploration Capt. G.S. Nares
Jan 1877 – Sept 1878 H.M.S. Vesuvius 1sr Lieutenant Tendor to Vernon  
Sept 1878 – Aug 1880 H.M.S. Vesuvius Lieutenant (T) Tendor to Vernon Self
Aug 1880 – March 1881 H.M.S. Inconstant Lieutenant (T) Detached Squardon Flagship Rear Adl. Lord Clanwilliam
Mar 9 1881   Commander     
Nov 1881 H.M.S. Polyphemus Rank Particular Service Self
May 1884 H.M.S. Victoria & Albert Commander Royal Yacht Capt. F.T. Thomson
  H.M.S. Osborne Commander Royal Yacht Self
 – May 1887 H.M.S. Victoria & Albert Commander Royal Yacht Capt F.T. Thomson
May 9 1887   Captain     
March 1888 – Nov 1890 H.M.S. Imperieuse Flag Captain China Flagship C in C China Vice Adl. Sir Noel Salmon
1891 – 1893   Captain Naval Attache Europe  
May 1893 – Jan 1895   Captain Asst Director of Torpedoes  
Jan 1895 – Dec 1896 H.M.S. Ramillies Flag Capt and Chief of Staff Mediterranean Adl. Sir M. Culme Seymour
March 1897 – Aug 1897 H.M.S. Victory

(Duke of Wellington)

Flag Capt and Chief of Staff Portsmouth Adl. Sir M. Culme Seymour and In Charge of Duke of Welligton
Aug 1897 – Jan 1901 H.M.S. Excellent Captain Portsmouth – Gunnery School Self
Jan 1901 – March 1901 H.M.S. Excellent Captain May 9 1887 Portsmouth 

Director of Naval Ordnance

March 28 1901   Rear Admiral  3rd Naval Lord and Controller  
March 1901 – 1904 King Edward VII Rear Admiral Atlantic Fleet Self C in C
June 29 1905   Vice Admiral   
June 1905 – Feb 1907 King Edward VII Vice Admiral  Atlantic Fleet Self C in C
March 1907 – March 1913 King Edward VII Vice Admiral  Second Sea Lord  
Nov 5 1908   Admiral   
March 1909 – March 1911 H.M.S. Dreadnought Admiral  Home Fleets Self C in C
April 1911 – March 1913 H.M.S. Impregnable Admiral Plymouth Self C in C
March 20 1913   Admiral of the Fleet  
July 1912 – July 1912 H.M.S. Euryalus   Umpire in Chief for Naval Manoeuvres
1916   Admiral of the Fleet Member of the Dardanelles Commission
1919   Admiral of the Fleet Member of Committee for Reconstruction of the Navy
1918     Deputy for the Shire of Berwick
1924     Deputy- Lieutenant for the County of Roxburgh



Admiral of the Fleet
Sir William Henry May, G.C.B., G.C.V.O.
1849 -1930

The fine qualities that made his services to his country so valuable ashore and afloat have been touched on in the beautiful tributes paid to his memory by the Earl of Home, and the Admiral of the Fleet, with which this memoir closes; but before passing on to these it has been thought that a brief sketch of Sir William as he appeared to those who knew him in his home life, might be of interest to his descendants in after days.

Sir William was over eighty-one when he died, and yet no one, except himself, was ever heard to allude of him as an old man. The expression would have seemed incongruous, not so much because of his physical energy, remarkable though this was for any one of his years; but more because of his active mind and unfailing interest in any new ideas or discoveries, whether in the realms of science, machinery, sport, poultry-farming, golf or bridge.

As may be gathered from the memoirs, he had a keen sense of humour, his comments on things and people were extremely shrewd and entertaining. He was an adept in the art of genial chaff or leg-pulling, generally getting the last word in any encounter of wits by some unexpected but apt final thrust.

As is not always the case, Sir William’s personal appearance seemed to be the outward and visible expression of his inward and mental qualities. It is impossible to imagine any one looking more distinguished. With his tall, slim, active figure, aquiline features, fresh complexion, and keen, piercing glance from eyes as blue and clear as the sea, he seemed the beau-ideal of what an Admiral of the world’s greatest Navy should be.

He had not been brought up, nor had ever lived, in the country, till after he retired, when he went to live at Bughtrigg, one of the estates left to him by his brother-in-law, Colonel Archibald Dickson of Chatto, to which he succeeded on the death of his sister in 1908. The complete success with which he threw himself into all country business and pursuits, at an age when most people are apt to be set in their habit of mind, showed his versatile and adaptable character.

There was something very remarkable in the way the news of his death affected his many friends. Instead of the sad resignation people usually feel at the passing of some beloved friend or relative, of over eighty years of age, there was all the shock of amazed grief, and sense of irreparable loss that usually greets the news of someone snatched away in the prime of usefulness and vigour.

At his funeral a crowd of mourners and masses of lovely flowers testified to the respect and affection in which he was held by all. Many of his old naval comrades were present, and the King (who was represented by the principal naval A.D.C., Admiral Sir Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair) sent the following message to Lady May:

“It is with regret that I learned of the death of my very old friend Sir William May, and I greatly recognize his valuable services both in the Royal Navy and in civil life. I offer you and your sons my heartfelt sympathy in your bereavement.”

At a meeting of the County Council held shortly after Sir William May’s death, the following words spoken by Lord Home, the Chairman, show with what esteem he was regarded in the county:

“‘Well done, good and faithful servant,’ are the words on our lips to-day as we remember the noble presence, unfailing help and genial friendship of our own Admiral of the Fleet.

“After long years of arduous duty and great responsibility, with the highest honour of his profession as his just reward, Sir William May came to live amongst us and willingly and heartily shouldered the burden, the new burden of public life in our county, and the ever-increasing responsibility of those who guide and conduct the machinery of Local Government.

“When the original ambition of life has been achieved and the late afternoon has been reached, it must be a great temptation to enjoy a well-earned rest. If the Admiral was ever so tempted, it was of no avail against one who regarded duty as a second responsibility and honour; and to help others, a joy.

“It may be, that by the deep interest he took in all our work, and in a very special degree in that connected with our roads, his strength may have been over-taxed, for he never spared himself, but considered and studied, together with our surveyors, to whom he was greatly attached, every detail of our schemes. These we entrusted to him with the utmost confidence for fulfilment.

“We may, however, comfort ourselves with the certain knowledge that no remonstrance or persuasion from us would have persuaded him to abate by a fraction the time and attention he always gave to the interest of our county.

“His was a splendid life, a noble stewardship, a wonderful example. To-day we say, with hearts full of happy memories and deepest gratitude, ‘Good-bye for a time,’ to a very distinguished, helpful, kind old friend.”

Sir William was above all a sailor; and the following words, written in a letter to Lady May by an old naval friend, himself an Admiral of the Fleet, seem to sum up the great achievements he accomplished for the Navy and country he loved:

“His is a very great loss also to those who served under him, and knew and loved him.

“I have been looking sadly through some of the letters he wrote me, and naturally they have brought back a flood of recollections of bygone days. For instance, in one of his last letters to me, he says: ‘I often think of you and our work together in the Fleet. I am an old man now, and I wonder sometimes if I ever commanded a Fleet.’

“I sympathise with and understand the feeling – that it is all so long ago, and that when retirement comes the active career is over and utterly finished and the Torch must be passed on for others to keep alight. In a whimsical mood he wonders whether he ever did command a Fleet. Why, he commanded Fleets which were the forerunners of the famous Grand Fleets. This last Fleet with endless toil and patience (but he loved it) reached a very high degree of efficiency under his command, and he left this great instrument of war for others, like Jellicoe and Beatty, to use when the long-expected ‘Great War’ came at last.

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