Admiral of the Fleet Sir W.H. May

The Times 8th October 1930

Long and Distinguished Career

Admiral of the Fleet Sir W.H. May

Admiral of the Fleet Sir W. H. May, who died yesterday at Coldstream in his 81st year, was an accomplished and most capable officer. With his tall, alert figure, his clear-cut, classic features, and his courtly manner, he was an ideal representative of the Royal Navy, which, during his long career, he served zealously in many high positions.

William Henry was the son of Mr. J. W. Seaburne May, and was born on July 31, 1849. He entered the Navy in June 1863, and as a sub-lieutenant was appointed to her Majesty’s Yacht, which gave him promotion to lieutenant in September, 1871. He specialized as a gunnery and torpedo officer in the Excellent, 1874-75, and in the latter year accompanied Sir George Nares’s expedition in the Alert and Discovery, which attempted, by way of Smith’s Sound, to reach the North Pole. The sledge work was arduous, and sever scurvy put an end to it. The expedition returned in 1876, and from 1878 to 1880 Lieutenant May was in command of the Vesuvius, tender to the Vernon, torpedo school-ship of Portsmouth. His scientific turn of mind directed him to torpedo work, and afterwards he invented a mechanism for the better discharge of these weapons. He was promoted in March, 1881, and for three years, from May, 1884, onward, was commander in H.M. Yacht Victoria and Albert.

On promotion to captain on the termination of his service in the Yacht, in his 38th year, May was appointed to the Impérieuse on the China Station, where it fell to him to annex Christmas Island, one of the group which lies between Hawaii and the Society Islands, in the midst of the Pacific. On his return Captain May served for two years as Naval Attaché for the European Powers, residing in Paris, and then went to the Admiralty as Assistant-Director of Torpedoes, from May, 1893, to January, 1895, being concerned especially with the scientific development of the torpedo. From the Admiralty he went to the Mediterranean as Chief of Staff of Sir Michael Culme-Seymour, then Commander-in-Chief. A man of commanding personality and strong character, he did much to stimulate the training of the Fleet at that time. Afterwards, in 1897, he was for a few months Flag-Captain to Sir Noel Salmon, Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth. On the occasion of the great assembly of ships at Spithead in honour of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, June, 1897, he was Chief of Staff, and, on the 22nd of the month commanded the Naval Contingent in the procession in London, being made M.V.O. Two months afterwards he was appointed captain of the Excellent Gunnery School at Portsmouth, which post he held until November, 1900, being made meanwhile Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria.

In January, 1901, Captain May returned to the Admiralty. He was Director of Naval Ordnance and Torpedoes until April, 1901, being promoted to flag rank in March of that year, and was Third Sea Lord and Controller until February, 1903. It was a highly important time in the development of the Navy, and the Dreadnought was laid down in the October of the same year. Admiral May entered eagerly into all that was being done in those strenuous years to reorganize the Navy for its duties.

On leaving the Admiralty he went to sea as Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, with his flag in the King Edward VII, and was promoted to Vice-Admiral in June, 1905. In July, without pilots and with consummate seamanship, he took his fleet into the roadstead of Brest, which no great British fleet had entered before. It was the first manifestation of the Entente Cordiale, and May’s previous official residence in Paris, his command of the French language, and his attractive personality made him very popular with the French officers. He was decorated with the insignia of the Legion of Honour on board his own flagship by the late Admiral Caillard, and when he took his fleet to sea at full speed from the anchorage through the Goulet in perfect order he received an enthusiastic eulogy from the French Commander-in-Chief. He was created K.C.B. in June, 1906.

On vacating command of the Atlantic Fleet in 1907 he returned to the Admiralty as Second Sea Lord. He was promoted to Admiral in November, 1908, and having served for two years on the Board, went to sea once more as Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet in March, 1909. He took an important part in manoeuvres, and on the occasion of the great review at Spithead on July 31, 1909 – the last held by King Edward – was promoted to G.C.V.O. He was senior flag officer of the combined fleet in Torbay in June, 1910, and was congratulated by King George on his magnificent command. He held command of the Home Fleet until 1911, when he was appointed Commander-in-Chief at Devonport. Twice he was Chief Umpire at manoeuvres, 1912 and 1913, flying his flag in the Euryalus. He was promoted to G.C.B. at the Coronation of King George. When Sir Charles Hotham, senior Admiral of the Fleet, reached the age for retirement in March, 1913, the vacancy was filled by the promotion of Sir William May, who thereupon vacated his position at Devonport.

Few officers of his time served more continuously in responsible positions on shore and afloat, and none gained and held more worthily the respect, esteem, and confidence of the whole Navy. His latest service was as chairman of the Admiralty Reconstruction Committee, which was concerned with much of the difficult business of reducing the Navy from a War footing to a footing of peace. In this work his long experience and wide knowledge were of great value to the State. After retiring he took a useful part in local affairs in Berwickshire as a member of the county council and of the education authority, and was a deputy lieutenant.

Sir William May married, in 1878, Kinbarra Swene, daughter of Mr. W.J. Marrow. Major-General Sir Reginald Seaburne May and Commander Archibald Seaburne May, R.N., are his sons.