Frederick William Richards

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Admiral of the Fleet SIR Frederick William Richards, G.C.B., D.C.L. (OXON), F.R.G.S., Royal Navy (30 November, 1833 – 28 September, 1912) was an officer of the Royal Navy.

Early Life & Naval Career

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Frederick William Richards was born at Ballyhally, co. Wexford, 30 November 1833, the second son of Captain Edwin Richards, R.N., of Solsborough, co. Wexford, by his wife, Mary Anne, daughter of the Rev. Walter Blake Kirwan [q.v.] , dean of Killala. After education at the Naval School, New Cross, he became a naval cadet in 1848. He served for several years on the Australian station and was promoted acting mate, H.M. sloop Fantome, on the same station in January 1854. He was promoted lieutenant in October 1855, and on returning home in 1856 went on half-pay for a year, after which he was appointed to the Ganges, flagship on the China Station. The commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral R. L. Baynes, appointed him flag lieutenant in April 1859, and in February 1860 he was promoted commander in command of the paddle-sloop Vixen on the China station. He brought home and paid off this vessel in 1861. From March 1862 to January 1866 he commanded the Dart, a gunboat, on the west coast of Africa, and on his return he was promoted to the rank of Captain on 6 February, 1866.[1]

After four and a half years on half-pay Richards commanded the Indian troopship Jumna until June 1873, and was then selected to command H.M.S. Devastation, the first steam turret battleship designed without any sail power. Richards took command of Devastation on 3 October, 1873.[2] This command was an important one, as the loss in 1870 of the Captain, a sailing turret ship of special design, had caused great anxiety as to the stability of such vessels. Richards's conduct of the exhaustive steam trials and his able reports on them completely satisfied the authorities and allayed public anxiety. In 1874 he took the Devastation to the Mediterranean and remained her captain till June 1877. The following January he became captain of the steam reserve, and in October 1878 he was appointed commodore and senior officer on the West Coast of Africa, H.M.S. Boadicea.

When he arrived at the Cape the military disaster of the Battle of Isandhlwana in the Zulu War had just occurred (22 January 1879), and he promptly proceeded up the east coast outside the limits of his station, and landed in March, 1879 with a small naval brigade and commanded it at the Battle of Gingihlovo (2 April) and in the relief of Echowe (3 April). He was appointed a Naval Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria dated 15 June, vice Hoskins.[3] He was appointed an Ordinary Member of the Third Class, or Companion, in the Military Division of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (C.B.) on 27 November.[4] He remained as commodore in South Africa until June 1882, having taken part in the battle of Laing's Nek (28 January 1881) in the Boer War. On the occasion of the Queen's birthday he was appointed an Ordinary Member of the Second Class, or Knight Commander, in the Order of the Bath (K.C.B.) on 24 May, 1881.[5]

Flag Rank

Richards was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral on 9 June, 1882, vice Glyn.[6] He was appointed Junior Naval Lord at the Admiralty under the Earl of Northbrook. On 18 May, 1885, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief on the East Indies Station, assuming command on 4 June with his flag in Bacchante.[7] In the course of this three years' command he organized and equipped the naval brigade in the Burmese War and was officially thanked by the government of India for his services. After his return to England in 1888 he was appointed, with Admirals Sir William M. Dowell and Sir R. Vesey Hamilton, to report on the lessons of the naval manœuvres of that year. Their report, most of which was acknowledged to be due to the hand and brain of Richards, presented a most convincing discussion of the conditions of modern warfare and a clear statement of the vital importance of sea power to the existence of the British Empire, and set forth what became known as the two-power standard as the principle on which the British shipbuilding programme should be based. This able report, though challenged at first by official naval opinion, made a great impression, and may be regarded as one of the determining causes of Lord George Hamilton's Naval Defence Act of 1889, which in effect recreated the Royal Navy. Richards was also the naval representative on the royal commission on naval and military administration (1890), in the proceedings of which and in the drafting of its conclusions he bore a leading part.

On 25 October, 1888, Richards was promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral, vice Phillimore.[8] In 1890 went as commander-in-chief to the China station until June 1892, when he rejoined the Board of Admiralty under Lord George Hamilton as second naval lord. He was promoted to the rank of Admiral on 1 September, 1893, vice Hoskins.[9] In November of that year was selected by the fifth Earl Spencer to succeed Sir Anthony Hiley Hoskins as First Naval Lord, a position which he retained for nearly six years. His career as first naval lord was of great importance in the history of naval administration. Richards had a clear understanding of the needs of the navy, and he had the entire confidence of his political chiefs, Lord Spencer and Mr. (afterwards Viscount) Goschen. This period was marked by a great development of the shipbuilding programme begun under the Naval Defence Act of 1889, and, at Richards's particular instigation, by a series of big naval works carried out under the Naval Works Acts of 1895 and subsequent years. The result was that the naval ports and dockyards at home and abroad were renovated and brought up to date to meet the requirements of the modern navy. Under this scheme naval harbours were constructed at Portland, Dover, Gibraltar, and Simon's Bay, and great extensions of the dockyards at Portsmouth, Devonport, Malta, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, and Simon's Bay. In carrying his naval programme Lord Spencer had to contend with a most formidable opposition from Sir William Harcourt and from Mr. Gladstone himself, and it was only the unwavering determination of Richards and his other colleagues on the Board that enabled him to succeed—a success which had no little to do with Mr. Gladstone's final decision to retire from office. In his memoirs Lord Fisher, Controller from 1892 to 1897, wrote of Richards:

He had a stubborn will, an unerring judgment, and an astounding disregard of all arguments. When anyone, seeking a compromise with him, offered him an alternative, he always took the alternative as well as the original proposal, and asked for both. Once bit, twice shy; no one ever offered him an alternative a second time. However, he had one great incapacity. No one could write a more admirable and concise minute; but he was as dumb as Moses. So I became his Aaron.[10]

On 28 June, 1895, Richards was appointed an Ordinary Member of the First Class, or Knight Grand Cross (G.C.B.), in the Order of the Bath.[11] Mr. Goschen, who then again became first lord after an interval of over twenty-one years, wisely decided to follow the precedent set by Lord Spencer and to retain the naval advisers of the outgoing government. He and Richards worked together with remarkable unity of purpose during the next four years. The sending of the fleet to the Dardanelles in 1895 brought the Turkish government to a sense of its responsibility for the Armenian massacres; the commissioning of the flying squadron in 1896 indicated clearly to the German Emperor the dangerous consequence of his ill-advised telegram to President Kruger; in 1897 and 1898 it was the action of the British fleet which at length restored order in Crete; the vigorous handling of the naval situation in the Fashoda crisis in 1898 was the chief preventive of war with France over that incident; and, finally, the firm attitude of the government based on the readiness of the fleet stopped any interference by European powers in the Spanish-American War. There was thus a universal and well-founded feeling in the naval service that its interests were safe in the hands of Richards. In November 1898 Richards would have been retired for age, but through an Order in Council of 29 November, 1898, Richards was specially promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet dated 29 November.[12] On 8 October Fisher, now the Commander-in-Chief on the North America Station, wrote to him:

Mr. Goschen writes very sadly at the thought of your going, and I feel quite miserable. I suppose it's no use anyone trying to persuade you to remain on. If they don't make you a peer, as dear old Lord Spencer rightly said you ought to have been made at the Jubilee, it will be a villainous shame! I hear from outsiders that Walter Kerr has been arranged for to sit in your red chair, and no doubt he is the best man that can be selected, and personally I shall be very glad, as I think he is the most worthy to follow such a giant.[13]

In the following August Goschen decided that it was time that Richards should give place to a younger officer as first naval lord, though Richards was much disappointed at being superseded after the special promotion to keep him on the active list. He was succeeded by Lord Walter Kerr, who was fully in accord with the policy pursued by the Board during Richards's term of office. In accordance with the provisions of the Order in Council of 22 February, 1870, Richards was placed on the Retired List on 30 November, 1903.[14]

Richards was undoubtedly one of the leading administrators in the history of the navy. He early won the confidence of his superiors, and was selected for one important duty after another, performing them with unfailing success until he reached the position of chief naval adviser to the Crown at a time when a firm and clear restatement of the essentials of maritime policy was invaluable to the country. Richards was a man of prudent foresight, clear, if limited, vision, and firm determination that what he knew to be right should be done. His powerful intellect was somewhat slow in operation; but, though not ready in council, he could and did express his views in admirable English which left no doubt of his intention or of the strength of will that lay behind it. His official minutes were models of vigorous style and well-chosen language. As a sea officer it was not his fortune to command a battle fleet or to win the renown of such great peace commanders as Sir Geoffrey Thomas Phipps Hornby and Sir [Arthur Knyvet Wilson]]. His great natural qualities of a clear brain and indomitable will, combined with a gift for organization, found their best opportunity in his work at Whitehall. Though he was naturally of a retiring disposition, always avoiding publicity and loathing controversy, his character was so transparently honest and just and his devotion to his service and country so marked that he was regarded throughout the naval service with a most complete confidence and trust. In private life he was a constant friend and, though a ruler among men and of a stern exterior, was full of human sympathy, and possessed a deep fund of humour and kindness of heart.


Richards wrote a letter to Lord Charles Beresford on 6 April, 1909, railing at the Fisher reforms:

The want of useful cruisers for fleet service is due mainly to the scrap-heap policy so eulogised by Mr. Balfour, when that statesman was Prime Minister, as the "courageous stroke of a pen. "There are some twenty-two letters in that historic sentence, and when its value is reckoned up, a few years hence, the altogether unnecessary burden which will have been laid upon the country will not figure at much under four millions a letter.

A large number of valuable vessels were then actually thrown away. But worse than that, the whole British fleet was at the same time morally scrapped and labelled obsolete at the moment when it was at the zenith of its efficiency, and equal not to two but practically to all the navies of the world combined. The Russian fleet had practically ceased to exist, the French in low water, Germany and the United States doing nothing sensational. That was the moment selected by the British Admiralty to start an international competition the end of which no man can foresee.[15]

A family friend wrote fondly of his quirks in retirement:[16]

Sir Frederick Richards, Admiral of the Fleet, was another great friend whom we admired, as well as loved; he was so strong a character, and yet, so gentle and humourous. I remember his delight in feeding the birds when he stayed with us at Chillingham, and his complaint, one morning, on going out-doors after breakfast, "Somebody has stolen the piece of bread I put for the birds in the corner of the window-sill!

Richards married in 1866 Lucy (died 1880), daughter of Fitzherbert Brooke, of Horton Court, Gloucestershire, and widow of the Rev. Edwin Fayle. They had no children.


  • "Death of Sir Frederick Richards" (Obituaries). The Times. Monday, 30 September, 1912. Issue 40017, col E, p. 7.

Service Records

Naval Appointments
Preceded by
Benjamin S. Pickard
Captain of H.M.S. Jumna
6 Jun, 1870[17] – 30 Jun, 1873
Succeeded by
William E. Gordon
Preceded by
James E. Erskine
Captain of H.M.S. Boadicea
31 Oct, 1878[18]
Succeeded by
The Hon. Assheton G. Curzon-Howe
Preceded by
Sir Francis W. Sullivan
Commander-in-Chief, Cape of Good Hope Station and West Africa Station
1879 – 1882
Succeeded by
Nowell Salmon
Preceded by
Anthony H. Hoskins
Junior Naval Lord
Succeeded by
Sir William N. W. Hewett
Preceded by
William N. W. Hewett
Commander-in-Chief, East Indies Station
18 May, 1885[19]
Succeeded by
The Hon. Sir Edmund R. Fremantle
Preceded by
Sir Nowell Salmon
Commander-in-Chief, China Station
29 Nov, 1890[20]
Succeeded by
The Hon. Sir Edmund R. Fremantle
Preceded by
Henry Fairfax
Second Naval Lord
23 May, 1892[21]
Succeeded by
The Rt. Hon. Lord Walter Kerr
Preceded by
Sir Anthony H. Hoskins
First Naval Lord
1 Nov, 1893[22]
Succeeded by
Lord Walter Kerr


  1. The London Gazette: no. 23068. p. 773. 9 February, 1866.
  2. The Monthly Navy List. (March, 1874). p. 139.
  3. The London Gazette: no. 24743. p. 4472. 15 July, 1879.
  4. The London Gazette: no. 24787. p. 6939. 28 November, 1879.
  5. The London Gazette: no. 24976. p. 2673. 24 May, 1881.
  6. The London Gazette: no. 25117. p. 2741. 13 June, 1882.
  7. The Navy List. (February, 1888). p. 188.
  8. The London Gazette: no. 25869. p. 5819. 26 October, 1888.
  9. The London Gazette: no. 26438. p. 5057. 5 September, 1893.
  10. Fisher. Records. pp. 50-51.
  11. The London Gazette: no. 26638. p. 3658. 28 June, 1895.
  12. The London Gazette: no. 27029. p. 7818. 2 December, 1898.
  13. Fear God Dread Nought. I. p. 138.
  14. The London Gazette: no. 27623. p. 8023. 4 December, 1903.
  15. The Naval Review (November, 1933). XXI (4). p. 793.
  16. Lady Margery Noble's autobiography (1925), Andrew Reid & Co., p. 84.
  17. The Navy List. (July, 1873). p. 190.
  18. The Navy List. (November, 1881). p. 198.
  19. The Navy List. (February, 1888). p. 188.
  20. Clowes. The Royal Navy. Vol. VII. p. 88.
  21. The Naval Staff of the Admiralty. p. 119.
  22. The Naval Staff of the Admiralty. p. 118.