Wednesday, 25 September 2013


The Ruler of the Queen's Navy?
 There is an old saying “when you assume - you make an ass out of u and me” and that is exactly what I did with the photo of my grandfather in a splendid military uniform that is shown here. 

I found it in my grandmother’s photo album along with four other military photos of him. I decided to use it illustrate a blog posting about Harry Welch’s time in WWI. I thought this interesting photo would be a great addition to the piece.

One thing did trouble me about the photo.

I knew from one of the documents I had, his May 1918 discharge papers, that he had enlisted in the Army in 1915, was called to service in January 1917 and served with the Army Service Corp until his discharge due to health reasons. However, my grandmother had written alongside the photo “Harry Ball Dress 1913”.

Taking the military document as higher authority than my grandmother’s note, I assumed she was mistaken about the date when she compiled the album much later in her life, likely after she was widowed.

Since I wanted the blog to be as accurate as possible and I was trying to compile a good description including the colour of the uniform and the accessories, I researched WWI British Army uniforms at some length expecting to find that the uniform was used in 1917-1918. I had no success in finding anything similar to the uniform in the photo.

I had been curious about internet forums for some time but I did not know much about how they worked nor taken the time to learn about them. While researching my grandfather’s role in WWI I came across a website devoted to WWI information which I found helpful in some of my research. (The Long Long Trail ) I noted at the time that there was a forum attached to it and I read a few entries as a visitor. I decided I would finally take the time to sign up and learn about forums using this one to see if there was any information about the uniform known to other users of the site.

To my surprise, within hours, I had half a dozen replies from people who have served in the military and have a wide knowledge of WW1. They were telling me that the uniform was a Royal Navy Officer’s Uniform. They agreed it was likely ball dress and noted the dance shoes he was wearing. Some made reference to the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy from HMS Pinafore.

The reference to the HMS Pinafore was due to the story behind the Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera of 1878 which among other things lampoons the Royal Navy and the rise of unqualified people to positions of authority. In the production the First Lord of the Admiralty, the character of Sir Joseph Porter, brags of his career from office boy to First Lord of the British Navy and calls himself The Ruler of the Queen’s Navy. In fact the actual First Lord of Admiralty at that time had no nautical or military experience.

I knew my grandfather had never been in the navy although my grandmother’s brother was but not as an officer. So, I did some looking and found some British Navy Dress uniforms at the Royal Museum Greenwich uniform collection  that were much like the one in the photo including the unusual hat.
The uniform examples I found that were like the one in the photo was identified as a Royal Naval Uniform circa the mid 1800s. A similar beaver felt with gold lace cock hat was presented to Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Napier in 1855. Other similar features were the epaulettes, sleeve and collar detail as well as the double breasted brass buttons.
Dressing Up

Feeling foolish, I began to think of other reasons why the photo might be dated correctly after all.

My grandmother had an extremely good memory, my grandfather won a ballroom dance contest in 1914 and later in life they both enjoyed “dressing up” for theme parties or special occasions.

I have come to the conclusion that Harry was wearing a military costume with dance shoes to attend a fancy dress ball in 1913 when this studio photo of him "in uniform" was taken.

This experience has been a reminder about the dangers of making assumptions in family history and the need to consider all explanations that come to mind.

Regardless it is a wonderful photograph and I still love it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

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