What would Nelson Say?

From a book by H.V. Morton, ‘Blues Days at Sea and Other Essays’ (first published in 1932)

This is from A VISIT TO THE NAVY

“If you wander about a battleship between the hours of 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. you will find certain spaces in which sit sailors in attitudes of deep thought. Some are writing. Some are chewing penholders. An instructor lieutenant-commander—known in all Ward Rooms as ‘Schoolie’—or one of his schoolmasters paces between the desks with a helpful expression.

All battleships have night schools in which the ambitious can strive to rise even to commissioned rank. There is nothing to prevent a clever seaman—if he starts young enough—reaching the Ward Room as an officer as an officer as quickly as the midshipman who begins at Dartmouth or a public school. Certain youths and men in every ship take the Higher Educational Test either to rise in the Navy or to educate themselves for the civil life when their time is up.

How many people, I wonder, who consider themselves fairly well informed could pass the general knowledge test which the Admiralty puts to the ordinary naval rating if he wishes to be a ruler of the King’s Navy?

Here is one of the monthly examination papers set twice a year:

  1. Write an essay of about 250-300 words on one of the following subjects:

(a) Emigration;

(b) The future possibility of English being adopted as a universal language;

(c) The importance of the tropics.

2. Write what you know about the present-day subjects—

Derating scheme,


Kellogg Pact,

Simon Commission.

3. Choose six of the following Shakespearian characters. Name the play in which each occurs, and describe the part each takes in the play, with a quotation if possible—

Malvolio, Caliban, Iago, Ariel, Falstaff, Puck, Touchstone, Shylock, Cordelia, Jacques, Banquo.

4, Give fully your ideas about four of the following—

(1) Is mirage entirely an optical illusion? 

(2) Can the sun's rays shining through a water bottle, burn a table-cloth? 

(3) To what cause is phosphorescence of the sea due? 

(4) What is meant by a gradient of 1 in 4? 

(5) Will a thick glass crack before a thin one when hot water is poured in? Does the insertion of a spoon help matters? 

(6) Is the ninth wave always the largest? 
  1. What is artificial silk? What is the nature of the following substances and what industrial uses are made of them— Copra, spelter, tungsten, rubber, shellac?
  2. Give a short sketch of one of Charles Dickens’ novels that you have read.
  3. At the end of the last year the B.B.C. gave programmes in commemoration of the centenary of Franz Schubert and the tercentenary of John Bunyan. Write what you know about each of these men.
  4. What is the most striking difference between Norman and Gothic architecture? In what style of architecture is :
    1. The National Gallery?
    2. Westminster Abbey?
    3. Westminster Cathedral?

What are the essential requirements of a modern large building?

  1. Where are the five Test Matches (Australia versus England) played? What were the results in each? Mention any interesting details.
  2. Write notes on four of the words: Carburettor, parliament, albino, quixotic, martinet, sandwich. And two lines on four of the persons: King Amanullah, Robert Bridges, Lord Birkenhead.

What, in the name of all that is unprintable, would the old-time sailor have sailor have said to such a paper? The time allowed the modern sailor to answer six of these questions is two and a half hours!

‘The Admiralty, of course, do not expect a man to give perfect answers,’ said an instructor-commander. ‘There is a psychological end to it. We want to see how a fellow tackles such questions. It is true that a knowledge of Gothic architecture is of no use to a sailor, but by such questions we find the type of mind we want.’ “


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