The Navy Board
In 1546 a group of officers of Marine Causes was appointed by letters patent to be responsible, under the Lord High Admiral, for the civil administration of the Navy. These officers later became known as the Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy, or the Navy Board. They were responsible for materials, non-combatant personnel, warrant officers and ratings and the civil administration of the Navy.
At first they worked closely with the Lord High Admiral, but in the eighteenth century, while nominally subordinate to the Board of Admiralty, they acted in practice largely independently of it, issuing orders directly from the Secretary of State. At the same time the Navy Board asserted its own authority over the originally independent Victualling, Transport and Sick and Hurt Boards, and in 1817 it absorbed much of the Transport Board's duties when that board was abolished.
In 1832 Sir James Graham contributed his Admiralty Bill to the Reform session of Parliament. The Bill was a comprehensive work which put the naval administration on a completely new footing. The Navy Board was abolished in 1832 and its duties transferred to the Board of Admiralty. Their Lordships took over the Principal Officers' duties as well as their own.
The number of principal officers varied from time to time. The chief of them were: the Treasurer of the Navy, who in the mid-sixteenth century became the senior member of the Board, but who had withdrawn from it by the beginning of the eighteenth; the Comptroller of the Navy, originally responsible for auditing the Treasurer's accounts, then his successor as senior member of the Board, achieving by the end of the eighteenth century a position of almost complete dominance; the Surveyor of the Navy, responsible for shipbuilding and maintenance; and the Clerk of Ships, later Clerk of the Acts, head of the secretariat and also responsible for stores and contracts. At the end of the eighteenth century the latter's duties were divided between a Secretary and a Stores Committee. The Committee was subsequently replaced by a Storekeeper General.
The Board of Admiralty
On the death of the Duke of Buckingham in 1628 his office of Lord High Admiral was put into commission, six Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty being appointed to execute the office jointly. In 1638 the office of Lord High Admiral was revived, but throughout the rest of the seventeenth century there were periods when the office was again in commission and even when there was a Lord High Admiral, he was often advised by an Admiralty Council, which was virtually a Board of Admiralty under another name. Finally in 1708 the Board of Admiralty became the normal instrument for governing the Navy, except for the period 1827 to 1828, when the office of Lord High Admiral was temporarily revived for William, Duke of Clarence, later King William IV.
The eighteenth century Board of Admiralty usually contained a preponderance of civilians, although there was a naval element and often a sea officer was First Lord. The Lords Commissioners were all active politicians, even the naval members, and it was usual for some members and later the whole of the Board to change on a change of ministry. After 1806 the First Lord was always a civilian and a senior member of the ministry, while the separate post of First Sea Lord was evolved for the senior professional member. However, until late in the nineteenth century the First Sea Lord and his professional colleagues remained free to play an active part in politics, although as the century progressed they chose to do so less and less. Until the absorption of the High Court of Admiralty into the Court of Judicature they nominally retained, as executors of the office of Lord High Admiral, their centuries-old link with that court.
When the Navy Board was abolished in 1832 and responsibility for the civil administration of the Navy passed to the Board of Admiralty, the Board was redesigned. It now consisted of the First Lord, four naval lords (three between 1868 and 1886), known from 1904 as Sea Lords, and a Civil Lord, with a Parliamentary and a Permanent Secretary.
The Lords Commissioners remained jointly responsible, subject to the controlling political authority of the First Lord, for all aspects of naval affairs, but in addition, especially after the reforms of 1869, they had individual responsibility for the work of the several departments of the Admiralty. This responsibility did not always coincide with control of staff and the head of a department might be responsible to two or more Lords Commissioners for the different aspects of his department's work.
The First Sea Lord, later First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, directed naval strategy in wartime and was responsible for planning, operations and intelligence, for the distribution of the Fleet and for its fighting efficiency; the Second Sea Lord, later Second Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Personnel, was responsible for manning and mobilisation and other personnel questions relating to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines; the Third Sea Lord, after 1882 almost invariably also Controller of the Navy, was responsible for the Material Departments; the Fourth (or junior) Sea Lord, later 'Fourth Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Supplies', was responsible for the Transport, Victualling and Medical Departments; the Civil Lord was responsible for civilian staff, the Works Departments and naval lands; the Parliamentary (or parliamentary and financial) Secretary was responsible for finance generally, the preparation of estimates and parliamentary business; the Permanent Secretary was head of the Secretary's Department.
During the First World War the number of Sea Lords was increased at one time to eight and the number of Civil Lords to three, but after the war most of these extra members left the Board. In 1938 the title of the Board member designated Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Air) was altered to Fifth Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Air Services. During both World Wars a civilian Controller of Merchant Shipbuilding and Repair was added (responsibility for this remained with the Admiralty until 1959, when it passed to the Ministry of Transport). For fuller details of Board membership during this period see The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office (PRO Handbooks No.15) pp13-24.
The specialist departments of the Board of Admiralty changed their names and functions, and varied in number, from time to time, but the system on which the Admiralty was organised continued unchanged until 1 April 1964, when the Board became the Admiralty Board of the Defence Council of the Ministry of Defence, the office of Lord High Admiral itself being vested in HM the Queen.