The quiet achiever

Published by Peter Collins on

Guarding the Seas.
Silent Work of the Navy.

Commander’s Reminiscences.

GREY phantom shapes moving through the morning mists, guarding the shipping lines of the seven seas, silently doing their work that the life blood of a great Empire may pulse evenly through its veins and that the humblest individual of the greatest Commonwealth of Nations the world has ever seen may rest in peace knowing that nought will come to trouble him; the silent navy of the British Empire about which romance has wreathed its glamour and on the doings and ideals of whose men and officers have been built the traditions upon which, in turn, depends our very existence.

Mighty ships that proudly ride the waves, in all their pride or slip quietly through the night, always watching, always ready to do, or dare in securing freedom for a far flung people.

But behind the silence of the Navy, behind the secrecy, the tradition and the romance there is another side, human, businesslike; just a matter of a man doing his work, day in and day out, never coming into the limelight but who, when he comes to the end of his period, has a scrapbook filled with kindly references, with official documents phrased in stereotyped form and with that most prized of all things, mention in official dispatches.

A week ago last Saturday [ 13 April 1929 ], Commander E.S. Mutton [ Edward Smith Mutton ], District Naval Officer, Brisbane, received a printed form on which was stated the bare announcement that his work with the navy was finished.

Reason— “Reached age limit, 60.”  This differs from all the others he has in his possession.

They, in every instance, contain the opening sentence that he was being transferred and that he had carried out his duties “with sobriety and to my entire satisfaction”.

That is the stereotyped phrase an admiral fills in on the official “flimsy” he hands in to his next of command when the latter goes to take up a higher position.

It is the Navy’s curt way of saying that the recipient did what he was expected to do.

Born in 1869, Commander Mutton went to Bowles College, Portsmouth, England, where he commenced training for a midshipman on the Britannia.

When he was 10, however, his father died and a change in the family plans was necessary and the budding middy was transferred to the Greenwich Royal Naval School.


But in his blood there was the urgent call of the sea inherited from his father who had also been in the Navy. He never became a midshipman.

Instead he joined a windjammer of the Black Ball line, at that time owned by R. Green and Co., which firm later became the Orient Company [ Orient Steam Shipping Line ].

And there in the rough old days before the mast he learned his sailoring, laying the foundation of a knowledge that has stood him in good stead through the later years and which enabled him to carry out the important transport work at Albany during the years of the war in such a manner as to gain that most coveted of all honours, mention in official dispatches.

In 1886 he came to Victoria still as a seaman and there it was that a friend gave him some advice that altered the remainder of his life.

“Why stick at being a sailor?” asked the friend.

“Leave your ship and join the Victorian Navy,” for at that time every State had its own navy, ready to defend its shores not only against outside attacks but also against those of the navy from other States if necessary.

There was only one thing likely to cause a hitch in the arrangements, and that was that you could not walk off a ship once you had signed on.

As everyone knows there are always times when a man has to make up his mind to step a little way from the beaten path and he did so.


The next thing was that erstwhile Seaman Mutton became a seaman in the Victorian Navy and a little later was made a torpedo instructor which carried with it the rank of Petty Officer.

But they had curious ways of doing things in those days, and Petty Officer Mutton took advantage of them.

He went up to Melbourne Town and sat for the public service examination.

What is more, he passed it, and was then loaned by the Navy to the civil service, where he was appointed as a tax assessing and income tax officer.

Then the Navy suddenly remembered that one of its Petty Officers was overdue on loan and once more he trod the decks of a warship.

But the public service asked for another loan and, doffing his uniform, he joined the staff of the Government Statistician and collected the wheat figures for the southern State.


But the Navy is nothing if not persistent, and once more brought him back again.

Then another change was made and this time the sailor-long shoreman was transferred to the military — also on loan.

The Boxer Rebellion had broken out and the years 1900 and 1901 saw him in China serving under General Lorne Campbell.

There he had charge of the transport arrangements and won high praise for the way in which he carried out his work.

He was not at the Siege of Pekin [ sic, Peking ], but made visits to other Fronts with the General.

The Rebellion over, he was brought back to Victoria, and for some years the Navy allowed him to remain with-out being loaned out to anyone.

Then in 1906 he was made a Warrant Officer and had the job of starting the training depot at Portland, Port Fairy, and Warrnambool, in Victoria.

Once he had completed the organisation for this scheme he was again transferred, this time to Western Australia, where, with headquarters at Fremantle, the into being the Naval Forces for that State.

For some years he remained on the job there and then, in addition, was told to take charge of the training of the naval trainees in Fremantle and Albany.

So efficient was his work there that at a conference of the Australian Natives’ Association a special resolution was carried him on the efficiency with which he had carried out his duties.
Soon after this he was made Chief Gunner, a position that carried with it a commission.


Then came 1914 and with it the great task for which all his previous years of training had fitted him. He was transferred to Hobart to take charge of naval transport, but the Naval Board stepped in and said that it could not spare him from the important work lying ahead of him at Albany.

So it was that during the whole of the war period every boat that came and went from this jumping off point of the Commonwealth moved only under orders from Chief Gunner Mutton.

And of those days, although so strict is the code that he cannot even now tell the real story, he can give some slight insight into the wonderful network the Navy spread through the world guarding the possessions under its charge.

The first transport to arrive consisted of 62 ships. These were made up of 28 Australian transports and 10 New Zealand, the remainder being men-o’-war and store ships.

Every detail in connection with the handling of this enormous fleet, all arrangements for leave ashore for the thousands of troops and the thousand and one details that cropped up during their stay preparatory to sailing across the world, were in his hands.

It is not hard to visualise what lay behind a quiet remark dropped by him in passing as he was giving these details.

“We had a lot to look after and during that time I was working 24 hours a day.”

But this was not all. Every ship that left Australian shores followed a route marked and set down by Chief Gunner Mutton.

There was not a part of the great oceans that was not patrolled by British men-o’-war or her allies and this was so charted out that when a ship was sent from Australian shores it was known — unless she deviated from her instructions — just exactly where the patrols would pick her up, report “All well” and see her on her way to the next point of contact.

Some of them were sent back 60 miles along the coast before they were allowed to strike out on their course.

“What for?” was the eternal query from ship masters.

“Orders,” was the laconic response of the Chief Gunner.

And so during the years of upheaval he sat there at the point of the Continent directing the stream of shipping to its varied destinations, meeting the incoming tides, arranging for transports, for the comfort of troops; sat there in the midst of the maze without ever hesitating and without ever being in error.

And when his work was over and he was transferred his “flimsy” read that he had done his work “with sobriety and to my entire satisfaction”.


But his scrapbook contains messages and letters of appreciation from men standing high in the service, from Generals down to ordinary officers and from Lord Jellicoe down to plain Commanders and all of them say the same thing — thanks, not only for having carried out an official duty, but thanks, also, for having done that little more, for having given that extra effort that meant so much to everyone on board.

And in culmination came the mention in official dispatches — the highest honour a man in the Silent Service can get.

The war over, life gradually swung back to normal again and he was transferred to Newcastle, New South Wales, as Sub-District Naval Officer in charge.

In the three years there he reorganised many things and, incidentally, kept a watchful eye on the naval coal reserve, some 250,000 tons of coal lying at grass and which had to be checked at regular intervals for fear of combustion.

Then came his transfer to Brisbane in the position of District Naval Officer, where the work and courtesy of Commander E.S. Mutton is too well known to require comment.

Today he is having a rest.

“I am 60,” he said, “but I am in perfect health and do not feel inclined to sit down and just watch the flowers grow.

“I don’t know what I shall take up yet, but I shall certainly do something.

“I am too old for the Navy but don’t forget that I still hold a Chief Officer’s ticket and that may be something.”

— from page 2 of “The Telegraph” (Brisbane) of 23 April 1929.


ABOVE: Edward Smith Mutton was born in the June quarter 1869 at Portsea, Hampshire, England, He was the son of Joshua Hopkins Mutton, a Boatswain on the permanent Royal Navy list, and the former Everald Penn Crosoer. The-then, Seaman Edward Smith Mutton, married Ellen (Nell) Mary Troy in 1891 at Portland, Victoria. CMDR Mutton died, aged 74, at Pymble, Sydney, on 30 July 1943. His wife predeceased him on 29 October 1935, and was buried at Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery. Below are the respective funeral notices that appeared (top) in “The Argus” (Melbourne) of 2 November 1935 (page 17), and “The Sydney Morning Herald” of 2 August 1943 for CMDR Mutton.


ABOVE: A group photo which appeared on page 13 of Brisbane’s “The Daily Mail” of 13 May 1926. It shows the instructional staff who the-then LTCDR Mutton lead as District Naval Officer at Brisbane.


ABOVE: When his retirement was gazetted on 13 April 1929, the-then LTCDR Mutton’s career had encompassed being Honorary Aide-de-Camp to two Governors-General of Australia – firstly in 1925 to Lord Forster (Sir Henry William Forster) and then to Baron Stonehaven (John Lawrence Baird Stonehaven).

Categories: RAN Milestones