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Hyde, Sir George Francis (1877–1937)

by Robert Hyslop

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sir George Francis Hyde (1877-1937), admiral, was born on 19 July 1877 at Southsea, Portsmouth, England, son of Ebenezer Hyde, a clerk with Grant and Madison's Bank, Old Portsmouth, and his wife Maria, née Alexander. He was educated until 16 at a private school at Portsmouth kept by a Dr Cody, his uncle by marriage. There was no naval or military tradition on either parent's side but local associations — Nelson's Victory moored in the harbour of the world's premier naval port, a close friendship with the son of a dockyard official — and a desire to serve his country seem to have inspired him with a love of the sea and also strengthened his ambition to enter the Royal Navy and attain high rank in it. His father could not afford to send him to H.M.S. Britannia to train for a commission, and the only channel open to him therefore was to join the merchant service, get a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve and thence a permanent commission through a 'supplementary list'.

After a few months in a bank at Ryde on the Isle of Wight, he persuaded his father in 1894 to allow him to enter the merchant service as an apprentice in the sailing ship Mount Stewart, a fine iron and steel wool-clipper. Her normal voyage was with general cargo from London to Sydney via the Cape of Good Hope and home with wool via Cape Horn. On his voyage, before the ship left Barry in Wales, young Hyde showed his mettle by jumping, with seaboots on, into the dock to save a boy from drowning. His apprenticeship completed in 1898 after four voyages in the Mount Stewart, he sailed as second mate in the barque Amulree from Rotterdam, The Netherlands, to Port Pirie in South Australia and home via Chile. This was his last voyage in the merchant service. He qualified, however, in 1902 as extra master, and in 1930 was to become a member of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners (London).

Hyde was a midshipman in the Royal Naval Reserve from 1896 but from 1899, instead of training with the Royal Navy in periods of up to twelve months as was customary, he contrived to maintain continuous service in the R.N. As a reserve officer he served successively in H.M. ships Tribune, Magnificent, Victorious, Bacchante and Leviathan, being promoted sub-lieutenant, R.N.R., in 1901 and lieutenant in 1902. While in H.M.S. Leviathan, flagship of the 3rd Cruiser Squadron, Mediterranean Station, he gained his first great objective by being gazetted lieutenant in the R.N. in July 1905, with seniority from 19 July 1902. He had won a competition instituted by Admiral Lord Charles Beresford for the best essay on the Russo-Japanese War and it was on Beresford's thrice-repeated application on behalf of a 'brilliant' young officer that he was, as an exceptional case, 'elevated to join the list of Supplementary Lieutenants'.

After commanding Torpedo Boat No.6 (1907-08), the destroyer Rother (1908-09) and the cruiser Shannon (1910), he left for Australia in December 1910 on loan to the Commonwealth Naval Forces to command the destroyer flotilla. Already an admirer of Australia, attracted by its bright future, the absence of class prejudice, better prospects of promotion in a young navy, and by higher pay in addition to retirement pay from the R.N., he transferred to the Royal Australian Navy in 1912 in the rank of commander with seniority from 1 January 1911. In 1913 he joined the new battle-cruiser H.M.A.S. Australia in England and sailed in her to Australia. After the outbreak of war in 1914 Australia, as a 'dreadnought', had the important objective of seeking out and destroying the German Pacific Squadron.

In July 1915 Hyde was appointed by the Admiralty to command the light cruiser H.M.S. Adventure in the Coast of Ireland Command. Here he spent two and a half hazardous and strenuous years as flag captain to Vice Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly. An unusual duty occurred during the Irish Easter Rebellion. From 24 to 29 April 1916 when it was feared that the British Army's commander-in-chief in Ireland might be unable to communicate with the outside world, Adventure was sent by Admiral Bayly to provide essential communications and generally to assist. Bayly reported to the Admiralty on 30 April that Hyde had 'performed his duties with great tact and ability'. A sequel to this duty was to convey Prime Minister Asquith from Queenstown back to England after he had visited Dublin and Cork. Duties such as this helped to develop Hyde's ability to appreciate complex political and military situations.

He was mentioned in dispatches and promoted captain on 1 April 1917. A captured German officer commended the courtesy and kindness shown him in the Adventure and the 'perfect discipline, order and cleanliness' in that ship. In December 1917 Hyde went to the Mercantile Movements Division at the Admiralty and on 6 June 1918 he became senior naval officer at Holyhead, England. There on 10 August, with Anglican rites, he married Alice Marjorie Trefusis, née Spicer, a widow; the marriage was dissolved in 1928 without issue. A few days after the wedding Hyde returned to Australia to become director of the war staff at the Navy Office, Melbourne. He remained in this appointment until August 1919.

Earl Jellicoe asked for him to be attached to his staff during his mission to Australia in 1919. Hyde was an aide-de-camp to the governor-general in 1919-24 and he commanded H.M.A.S. Brisbane in 1919-21. He was second naval member of the Australian Naval Board in 1923-24. In 1926 he became commodore commanding the Australian Squadron. During his three-year command he was appointed C.B.E. in 1926 and C.V.O. in 1927, and in 1928 became an honorary A.D.C. to King George V, the first Australian naval officer to be so appointed. Promoted rear admiral on 23 February 1928, he took over at Portsmouth two important additions to the R.A.N., the new 'County' class cruisers Australia and Canberra.

On 16 February 1929, in Sydney with Presbyterian forms, Hyde married Isla, daughter of Malcolm Robertson of Jandra Station, Bourke, New South Wales. At the London Naval Conference in 1930 Hyde was an adviser to the Australian delegate James Fenton. From May 1930 to May 1931, because of his 'exceptional record', he held the Royal Navy command of 3rd Battle Squadron of the British Home Fleet, first in Emperor of India and then in Marlborough. After three months at the Admiralty he returned to Australia to become first naval member on 20 October 1931. He became vice admiral in 1932, K.C.B. in 1934 and admiral in 1936.

When Hyde took over as its professional head in 1931 he found the R.A.N. in a much-reduced state as a result of the Depression. He expressed concern in public speeches, warning of the inadequacy of naval defence, deploring decreases in the navy and stressing the importance of British sea supremacy. He attended a conference of naval commanders-in-chief at Singapore and in 1935 visited England for technical discussions at the Admiralty. During this visit, as adviser to the Australian high commissioner S.M. (Viscount) Bruce, he participated in the discussions that led to the London Naval Treaty of 1936. After this era of disarmament had passed and international peace was being threatened again he bore as first naval member a major responsibility for the rebuilding of the R.A.N., insisting on the maintenance of the closest association with the R.N. He could see no alternative to this policy and was unshakeable about its wisdom. He continually stressed the need for regular exchanges of R.N. and R.A.N. ships, for special training of Australian officers in the R.N., and for keeping in close touch with British naval thought. He was convinced that all this was vital, as a small navy could not advance solely on its own resources. It was possible to realize many of his hopes, for the adverse attitude in Whitehall to Dominion navies had changed to one of encouragement.

Although Australian naval expenditure more than doubled during Hyde's tenure of office as first naval member, expansion had to be geared to the financial stringency of the Depression economy. It was therefore his difficult task, but one most ably performed, to choose what expenditure to recommend to the Australian government for building and maintenance of ships and equipment, recruiting and training and shore support. British naval weaknesses came to be recognized fully in Australia only after his time. It is a matter of conjecture whether an officer less Admiralty-minded than Hyde would have discerned these weaknesses and looked for alternative policies.

Throughout his life Hyde had enjoyed excellent health. He was treated for sub-acute pneumonia in 1915 but otherwise was in robust health until 1933 when he was operated on for cancer of the mouth. In April 1937, however, his health deteriorated and he had several falls. It was at this time, while he was concerned about his health, his lack of rapport with the minister for defence, Sir Archdale Parkhill, and the prospect of retirement in October without a pension, that he suffered the shock of accidentally running down a pedestrian while driving his car on 20 June. The pedestrian died and, while a coronial inquiry absolved Hyde from blame, the distress which this accident caused him undoubtedly hastened his death. On 28 July 1937 while still in the appointment of first naval member, he died in Melbourne of pneumonia. The funeral service and cremation were private in accordance with the admiral's own wish; there was no ceremonial naval funeral. His wife and 4-year-old daughter survived him.

Many tributes were paid to his memory: by Prime Minister J. A. Lyons, 'he has done so much for his country'; by Sir Maurice Hankey, 'he was such a splendid man, so full of courage and enthusiasm under all sorts of difficulties'; by the Melbourne Sun, 'he was known not only as a brilliant tactician but as a most able administrator, and he was loved by his men'. Captain P. E. Phillips, R.N., who had served as second naval member with him, wrote that Hyde's 'views on Empire Defence, which embraced all Services, were extraordinarily sound'.

When, two years after Hyde's death, war came again, Australia was able to call on a navy which within its limits was well equipped, well balanced, well trained and imbued with fighting spirit. This preparedness of the R.A.N. for war in 1939 is perhaps Admiral Hyde's best memorial and he was not the sort of man to seek any other. His single-minded devotion to the navy appears to have caused some lack of sympathy from the general public. But of his zeal and devotion to duty, and of his demands for the highest professional standards in himself and in others, there can be no question. His energy, determination and decisiveness were outstanding.

Hyde had begun life without social advantages in the England of Queen Victoria at a time when to attain and sustain commissioned rank in the navy depended largely on class and family means. By ability and force of character he gained his commission in the R.N. through the side-door of the merchant service and the R.N.R. and, transferring to the young Australian navy, gained there the highest rank and filled its most senior appointments. He was its first officer to become a full admiral and first sea-going officer to become first naval member of the Australian Naval Board.

Select Bibliography

  • H. J. Feakes, White Ensign — Southern Cross (Syd, 1951)
  • R. Hyslop, Australian Naval Administration 1900-1939 (Melb, 1973)
  • J. M. McCarthy, Australia and Imperial Defence 1918-1939 (Brisb, 1976)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 July 1937
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 July 1937
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 29 July 1937
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1937
  • Times (London), 29 July 1937
  • B. N. Primrose, Australian Naval Policy 1919-1942 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1974)
  • Navy Office correspondence files (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert Hyslop, 'Hyde, Sir George Francis (1877–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hyde-sir-george-francis-6782/text11731, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 June 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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