Chapter 16

These memoirs finished here abruptly. Sir William May intended to add further details and descriptions, but in October, 1930, he caught a cold which developed into pneumonia, and, after a week’s illness, died at his home, Bughtrigg, near Coldstream, on October 7th, 1930.

Any one who has read these reminiscences must have realized, at least, something of the great nobility and charm of Sir William May’s character, and been struck by the directness and simplicity, the total absence of any self-consciousness or self-glorification in these chronicles.

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.

“I often think Sir William’s role was something like that of the great Lord St. Vincent who made his Fleet which was used afterwards by Nelson and others in the Napoleonic wars. No Admiral at sea set a better example to his Captains of how to handle a large Fleet, than did Sir William. Now he has gone, leaving behind him a great tradition, and we say of him, in the words of the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’:

“‘So he passed over – and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’”

  • Go To Life of a sailor. Chapter 1.