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A Dinner for Democracy

Celebrating victory in World War I, the lower decks arranged an event, which was to make Royal Naval history – and they had high hopes of paving the way for more democracy in the Senior Service. They invited the top brass to a dinner, the first of its kind to be held, and the all male function packed the Town Hall, Portsmouth, on Monday, September 22, 1919. Thousands of naval personnel lined the streets for the arrival of the much-admired Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Beatty of Brooksby.

The invitation to dine came from the chief petty officers, petty officers, leading seamen, able seamen and corresponding ratings of all branches of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines of the Portsmouth Division. Among the guests were Earl Beatty, Dr Macnamara, Parliamentary and Financial Secretary to the Admiralty, members of the Board of Admiralty, Squadron Commanders and senior officers of the Grand Fleet, plus individual heroes, down to representatives of the boy entrants.

Councillor John Timpson, the Mayor, greeted Earl Beatty at the steps of the Town Hall, where national emblems hung from the balconies of the great hall. Earl Beatty sat between Chief Petty Officer Writer J E Lane, Chairman of the Dinner for Democracy, and Petty Officer H Kenyon, Vice-Chairman. Also on the top table were Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Oliver, Chief of the Naval War Staff, Vice-Admiral T D W Napier, one of the Grand Fleet Admirals, Rear Admiral Sir Herbert Bland, who had been Beatty’s Captain of the Fleet, Rear Admiral Sir W G Goodenough, who commanded the light cruisers at Jutland and the Second Battle Squadron at the German Fleet surrender. “The spectacle of a Commander-in-Chief sitting between a Chief Petty Officer Writer and a Petty Officer, and of other Admirals of the Fleet being the guests of the lower deck was absolutely unique and unprecedented in naval records,” an historian commented later.

Guests tucked into a five-course meal whilst outside a searchlight played from the top of the Town Hall on to the crowd who waited patiently for Earl Betty’s departure. After a sombre toast to absent comrades, the speeches began with loyal toasts and Chief Writer Lane, Chairman, presented Earl Beatty

with a handsome silver cigar box suitably inscribed, “Made of the metal of loyalty and the precious some of esteem and affection”.

As Beatty rose, cheers filled the hall and for many minutes he could not speak. “Comrades, when I stand here and see so many comrades I feel that the clock has gone back and I am once more in the North Sea. Thank God, I am not!” (laughter and cheers). He thanked them for their invitation and token of unity that existed in the fleet. “Never in the history of the world did a great Navy have a task to perform which was so difficult yet which afforded so little opportunity of achieving honour and glory. The very nature of the war was against them. When the few opportunities did occur the Navy acted up to the glorious traditions which had been handed down through countless years”.

His Lordship mentioned the great incidents of the war on the sea and the Battle of Jutland on May 31, 1916. On that date he declared, there occurred an incident, which revealed the spirit that pervaded the service. “We were steaming north, and we passed all that was left of the great ship – the most efficient of great ships – the Queen Mary. Shortly afterwards we passed all that was left of the Invincible; of the Indefatigable we saw nothing. On those two remnants of ships were seamen who took off their shirts to cheer.” It was a memory of the unquenchable courage and indomitable spirit of our seamen that was cheered to the echo.

Earl Betty waxed eloquent about the true comradeship that existed in the fleet from Admiral to boy. The proximity between them in the last few years had brought out all the best in all ranks and rating. It had increased the feeling of mutual respect, which must never be allowed to die (loud cheers). “That great brotherhood of the sea,” as the admiral called the Navy, had a great future. Thanking them for his gift, he said it would be handed to his sons’ as “one of my most priceless possessions”.

The health of the officers of the fleet, the Mayor of Portsmouth, and the naval and Royal Marine V.C.s were drunk in turn and Lieutenant Commander Norman Holbrook V.C. was becomingly modest in reply for the heroes. He acknowledged for his fellows the co-operation of the undecorated, without whom it would have been impossible to achieve any feat. All the members of the lower deck referred to the historic nature of the occasion and the pride they felt in their duty.

The most rousing outburst was prompted by Bob Taylor, who replied to the Boys of the Navy and future generations of seamen by promising; “We shall try to emulate you in maintaining the Navy as His Majesty’s right arm and the backbone of the British Empire.” His ringing tones set the diners into a frenzy and none was more appreciative than Earl Beatty, obviously delighted with the remark. At midnight the gathering dispersed, but not before taking part in the most solemn proceeding of the evening.

On the call of the Chairman, Chief Writer Lane, 16 bells were struck, signifying that a new era in the Navy’s history had been commenced from that night.

Guests at the Peace Dinner gathered in the magnificent surroundings of the original Town Hall (later renamed the Guildhall when Portsmouth became a city). Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty stood at the right-hand end of the table next to the Mayor of Portsmouth, Councillor John Timpson. Next to him in turn was Chief Writer J E Lane, Chairman of the Dinner Committee and incidentally one of the tallest men in the Royal Navy at that time. On the extreme right of them was Sergeant Norman Finch, of the Royal Marine Artillery, who won his Victory Cross (V.C.) during the celebrated raid on Zeebrugge on St George’s Day, 1918. Mr Finch, who lived at Chelsea Road, Southsea, also served throughout the Second World War as a Lieutenant. He died in 1965.