The Ancient Mariner — another “Terrible Tale of the Sea”

It is an ancient mariner, a First Lord once was he;
By thy whiskers and thy glittering eye, I'll have a good navee!

Signed lower left. Fun (1 October 1884): 148-49. Courtesy of the Suzy Covey Comic Book Collection in the George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida. Click on image to enlarge it. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the University of Florida library and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

The cartoon refers to the continual battle Gladstone had with the member of his cabinet responsible for the British navy and his allies who wished to devote millions of pounds on new warships. The figure expostulating here is likely to be none other than the side-whiskered bookseller and politician William Henry Smith, who had been First Lord of the Admiralty from 1877-1880 — see in the third line of the parody below, "O late First Lord." The Times archives tell us that the state of the navy had been a very hot (indeed , explosive) topic throughout September 1884. The parliamentary secretary to the Admiralty, Sir Thomas Brassey, was firing off letters to the newspaper making a strong case for naval reform, especially in view of Britain's engagement with hostilities in China, and in comparison with the French navy. Smith joined in the debate. Their letters raised public awareness of the issue, and the Pall Mall Gazette took up the matter, sensationalising it. For example, they ran a long article on 8 September about the "unsatisfactory condition of the navy" and the need to spend much more on it in view of the "menacing state of affairs abroad." More pieces followed, for instance, "What is the truth about the navy?" on 15 September. This made another point, that the success of Cobden's repeal of the Corn Laws absolutely depended on Britain's having a strong navy: "The party now in office is the party of Free Trade, and Free Trade without the command of the seas in death." A whole series of exposés followed under the heading "The truth about the navy," and on 20 September the Gazette ran a round-up of press reports supporting it in this matter.

However, the cartoon probably draws most directly on the Gazette's article of 26 September ("Who is responsible for the navy?"), calling on the Lords of the Admiralty to warn Gladstone clearly of the shocking state of the fleet. It had to be better funded. All this explains the name of the magazine on the signpost in the cartoon, the sad disarray of the fleet in the distance, and the birds of prey flying ominously above it. One is the Prussian eagle, another the Russian heraldic double-headed eagle. Smith is shown pushing home the plea. In the verse accompanying the cartoon, sly reference is made to his commercial interests: "He holds him with his business eye, And old J. B. [John Bull] stands still / To listen like a customer: The Mariner hath his will. "

Three years later, in December 1887, Fun’s predictions for the new year included a figure dressed as a naval officer proclaiming, “There’s not a vessel in the Navy even able to float!”

Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer and later as Prime Minister had done an excellent job balancing the budget and even producing a surplus that Disraeli later used for his imperialist goals. He fought expanding the navy, perhaps fearing that doing so would stimulate an arms race with France and German, which it in fact did. — Jaqueline Banerjee & George P. Landow

The Ancient Mariner

(See Cartoon.)

It is an ancient Mariner,
   And he stoppeth old J. B.
“By thy whiskers big, O late First Lord,
   Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The Franchise question calls me here,
   And Egypt calls me there;
My hands are full, andjpoor John Bull
   No moment has to spare.”

He holds him with his chubby hand,
   “Look to the ships!” quoth he.
“Avaunt! release me, whiskered loon,
   And let a body be.”

He holds him with his business eye,
   And old J. B. stands still
To listen like a customer:
   The Mariner hath his will.

Submissively J. B. sits down;
   He cannot choose but hear;
And then that ancient man speaks on,
   The business Mariner.

"Our war-ships trim at present swim,
   And we securely sleep;
But one day we may wake to find
   Them sunk beneath the deep.”

“Good gracious! ancient Mariner,
   Thou should’st not fright me thus!
Why talk’st thou so?” “That thou may’st know
   Thy fleet ain’t worth a cuss!”

“Ain’t it, by Jove?” exclaims old John,
   Then I must cry peccavi;
But name the sum — come what may come,
   I’ll have a tip-top Navy!”

Related material


Baddeley, V. "Brassey, Thomas, first Earl Brassey (1836–1918), politician." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 10 May 2018.

Davenport-Hines, R. "Smith, William Henry (1825–1891), newsagent and politician." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 10 May 2018.

"What is the truth about the navy?" Pall Mall Gazette. 15 September 1884. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900. Web. 10 May 2018.

"Who is responsible for the navy?" Pall Mall Gazette26 September 1884. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900. Web. 10 May 2018.

Last modified 10 May 2016