Brassey, Thomas, first Earl Brassey, of Bulkeley, Cheshire 1836-1918, was born at Stafford 11 February 1836, the eldest son of Thomas Brassey [qv.], railway contractor, of Buerton, Cheshire. He was educated at Rugby and University College, Oxford, where he took honours in the school of law and modern history (1859). His father's railway enterprises led to school holidays being spent partly at Portsmouth, where he acquired his love of the sea and interest in maritime affairs, partly in France, where he obtained a sound knowledge of the French language. Other holidays and Oxford vacations were spent in yachting cruises, a pastime in which he took great interest throughout his life. He was elected to the Royal Yacht Squadron a year after leaving Oxford. Brassey decided not to follow his father's profession but to join the parliamentary bar, and he became a pupil of John Buller, the leading parliamentary draftsman of the day. He was called to the bar in 1866, but soon abandoned a legal career for politics. Having already stood unsuccessfully as a liberal for Birkenhead in 1861, he was elected for Devonport in June 1865, but, before taking his seat, was defeated at the general election a few weeks later. He failed at a by-election at Sandwich in 1866, but was successful at Hastings in 1868 and retained that seat until 1886.
From his entry into parliament until 1880 Brassey worked hard and laboriously at the subjects in which he was interested: wages, the condition of the working classes, and employers' liability; naval matters of every department, administration of the dockyards, naval pay, shipbuilding and designs, organization of the naval reserves, and the creation of the Royal Naval Volunteer Artillery (1873). He compiled useful volumes entitled Work and Wages (1872), Foreign Work and English Wages (1879), British Seamen (1877), The British Navy (1882-1883), an encyclopaedic work in five volumes, and Sixty Years of Progress (1904). The character of his work and his conception of his duty in public life are aptly described in his own preface to The British Navy: Few men have entered the House of Commons with more slender share of what are usually described as parliamentary talents than the humble individual who writes the present introduction; and if, by devotion to special subjects, he has gained the confidence of the public, his experience may perhaps encourage others.
There is no doubt that Brassey's untiring industry contributed greatly to the reforms in naval administration and maritime policy that were being evolved as the conditions of the old sailing navy and marine rapidly passed away. Besides his parliamentary work he published articles in the leading reviews, wrote letters to The Times, issued pamphlets and read papers and lectures at public institutions, nearly always on labour questions or naval and marine affairs. He spent part of every parliamentary recess at sea in his yacht; and in 1876-1877 he accomplished a tour round the world, an account of which is given in his first wife's popular book, Voyage in the Sunbeam (1878). The later voyages of the Sunbeam Brassey described in his book Sunbeam R.Y.S., published a few months before his death. He was the first private yachtsman to be given the certificate of master mariner after examination. Although he was never happier than when afloat in his yacht, he never undertook a long voyage unless it was to fulfil some public purpose; and in 1916 he handed over the Sunbeam to the government of India for hospital work during the war.
In 1880 Brassey joined Mr. Gladstone's second administration as civil lord of the Admiralty, and held this office for four years. In 1881 he was created K.C.B. in recognition of his services to the naval reserves, and in 1884 he was made parliamentary secretary to the Admiralty, a position which he held until the end of that parliament (1885). As civil lord his administrative responsibility was limited to the control of the works department and of Greenwich Hospital. He was more interested in other branches of naval affairs, and employed himself in writing detailed memoranda on all kinds of subjects for the benefit of his colleagues, who appreciated his keen interest in naval matters; but his productions, while full of facts, seldom led up to any concrete conclusion, and the effect of them was rather to ventilate the subject than to produce any tangible results. His short term as parliamentary secretary and spokesman of the Admiralty did not add to his reputation, for he was no parliamentary debater nor quick at taking up points made against his department in the House of Commons. Brassey was not included in Mr. Gladstone's 1885 government. He supported the Home Rule policy, and was defeated at Liverpool in the general election of 1886. In that year first appeared Brassey's Naval Annual, which has been for many years the most authoritative survey of naval affairs throughout the world. He was raised to the peerage as Baron Brassey, of Bulkeley, Cheshire, on Mr. Gladstone's resignation (1886).
Brassey served as lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria from 1893 to 1895, when he was appointed governor of Victoria. His administration of Victoria coincided with the movement for the federation of the Australian colonies, and he played a considerable part in bringing this measure into effect. The Queen's assent to the Commonwealth Act was given a few months after his departure (1900). He won a large measure of popularity among the people of Victoria and displayed his usual industry in lecturing and speaking on naval defence, imperial federation, and industrial subjects.
After his return to England Brassey was an incessant advocate, both at the Institute of Naval Architects, of which he was president (1893-1896), and in the House of Lords, of the employment of armed merchant ships as cruisers for the protection of British trade routes. His instinct was always to make the best use of material ready to hand rather than embark on the expense of new weapons. He preferred re-arming old battleships and subsidizing merchant cruisers to new construction, and using fishermen as reservists to increasing the personnel of the navy. He did not altogether appreciate the inadequacy of these measures in the days when scientific development had so far advanced and formidable rivals were creating powerful modern fleets.
In 1906 Brassey was promoted G.C.B., and in 1908 he was appointed lord warden of the Cinque Ports, a distinguished and congenial office which he retained for five years. At the coronation of King George V (1911) he was created Earl Brassey and Viscount Hythe. He died in London 23 February 1918.
Brassey was married twice: first, in 1860 to Anna (died 1887), only child of John Allnutt, of Charles Street, Berkeley Square; she was a devoted helper in his parliamentary career and in his yachting voyages; by her he had one son, Thomas Allnutt, second Earl Brassey, and four daughters; secondly, in 1890 to the Hon. Sybil de Vere Capell, youngest daughter of Viscount Malden, and granddaughter of the sixth Earl of Essex, by whom he had one daughter. The second Earl Brassey, a generous benefactor to the Bodleian Library and to Balliol College, Oxford, died without issue in 1919, and the title became extinct.
Lord Brassey was a rich man, of no outstanding ability but with great powers of industry, and of kindly, genial, and equable temperament. Throughout a long public life he spared neither time nor money in the public interest and in promoting the patriotic causes which he had most at heart. To his conscientious and persistent advocacy the royal navy, the naval reserves, the mercantile marine, and imperial federation are greatly indebted.
Lord Brassey's own numerous publications and compilations
Contributor: V. W. B. [Vincent Wilberforce Baddeley]