Robert Ephraim Lambert (1900-1978) an RN Writer
As written & told by RNWA Honorary Life Member Paul Martin
Special thanks to the RNWA for their tremendous help with my research and for allowing me to tell “Pop’s story”.
Pop was standing on the dock at Southampton, as he had stood on many docks at Portsmouth, Liverpool, Malta and others. Only today Pop was not starting his next assignment for the Royal Navy, he was bidding us farewell. My family and I were boarding the Queen Mary. Thousands of travelers and well-wishers were on the dock. As we boarded the ship, Pop might have been thinking about his own life’s adventures, and how we were about to start ours. We climbed to the top deck of the ship and waved to Nana and Pop, who were somewhere in the crowd below. Off we went. It was 1967; my parents, five siblings and I were immigrating to America.
I would only see Pop a few more times after our Queen Mary trip. My memories are thin and surely influenced by my parents. He was small in stature with arm muscles as big as cricket balls, soft spoken and kind, taught us silly songs and nursery rhymes and he enjoyed it when we laughed. My mother called Pop the “Great Enabler,” as he made sure everyone enjoyed themselves.
We had a great life growing up in America, enjoying all the things kids do. Nana and Pop would keep in touch by post and they would visit every few years. Sometimes Mom would tell us tales of Pop and his job as Clerk Comptroller for the Queen Mother at Clarence House. I remembered my trips to visit Nana and Pop at their home at Bushy Park in London. Pop gave me a silver desk calendar that was given to him by the Queen Mother. I was happy with my shiny new calendar, but was really hoping for a shiny new bicycle. Pop passed away in 1978, the same year that I graduated from High School. After college and 20 years of hard labor in corporate America, I settled down to a wonderful family of my own near Washington, DC.
Now I find myself searching back through my own family history and becoming interested in learning more of the “Royal” desk calendar given to me by Pop. The TV show, Antiques Roadshow was coming to town. I was a big fan of the Roadshow and thought this a great opportunity to learn more of my “Royal” desk calendar. I was sure that the Roadshow would select me to be on television, so I prepared my story. When my moment came with the Roadshow Appraiser, she looked at the “Royal” desk calendar, and only said “Where is the provenance?” I was disappointed. I was not sure what she was asking for, I later found provenance to mean: To gather evidence as to the time, place, and the person responsible for the creation, production, or discovery of an object.
So I was now in search of provenance. I carefully wrote a letter to the office of the Royal Household. A few weeks later, I received a wonderful response back which detailed Pop’s workings as Clerk Comptroller for the last two Queen Mothers from 1948 to 1972. To my great excitement, I found the last paragraph to read:
“Our files on Robert Lambert include an envelope containing what appears to be a collection
of private photographs – Naval and family. There is no explanation to why they are in the file.
We wondered if you would be interested in having them?”
I immediately called the International phone number given. The operator answered with “Windsor Castle”. Wow, was I happy! I had not discovered any provenance, but I was to receive a mysterious envelope that had been hidden away at Windsor Castle for 60 years.
Two weeks later, the package from Windsor Castle arrived. It was mostly filled with some of Pop’s Royal Navy documents and photographs mixed in with a rosary, family pictures and some cartoons that Pop had drawn. It was a time capsule for sure. The documents told me Pop joined the Royal Navy in 1916 and retired in 1948. He was a boy seaman in World War 1, a commissioned officer in World War 2. Pop had served onboard some of the finest British ships during his naval career including the WW2, Battlecruiser HMS HOOD (sunk on 24 th May 1941 by the BISMARCK with only 3 survivors out of a crew of 1418 – luckily Pop served onboard pre-WW2), Battleships HMS RODNEY and HMS NELSON, and many other ships and shore establishments all over the world. He was on the staff of Commanders in Chief and famous Admirals. My Mom shared my excitement and we had talks on Pop’s adventures in the Royal Navy. She explained that he was a Royal Navy Writer. Did that mean he wrote books for the Royal Navy? Mom explained that the rating of Writer was some sort of a clerk, keeping track of all the coming and goings-on of a Royal Navy Ship; I have since learnt and now know that is not quite right!.
I then realized that Pop had a whole life of adventure before joining the Royal Household. I set out to discover about Pop as a Royal Navy Writer. I was armed with my Windsor Castle time capsule, Pop’s Royal Navy Service Records, family stories and most important, the help of the RNWA. I was trying to place Pop at events of 20 th century history. I was on a search for Pop’s adventures.
Robert Ephraim Lambert was born in Monkwearmouth, an area of Sunderland in the year 1900. He came from a long line of Joiners, which are ship carpenters, as Sunderland was a large shipbuilding community. He lived in the shadows of Roker Park, the home of the Sunderland AFC football team. Pop loved his football. Also a stone’s throw from Pop’s house was St. Peter’s Church, the home of the Venerable Bede.
The Great War came to Sunderland, when in April 1916 a Zeppelin raid on Monkwearmouth destroyed many buildings in town. In May of the same year the largest sea battle of the war, the Battle of Jutland was fought just a few hundred miles off the Sunderland coast. Some believe, if not for some bad weather, the battle was intended to be the Battle of Sunderland, as the German Fleet was trying to expose the Grand Fleet by targeting the ship building yards of Sunderland.
Pop could have thought himself safer in the Royal Navy than in Sunderland, so in December 1916 he signed on for a 12 year enlistment. Pop required a “Special Entry” form be completed, as at the time he was five feet tall, two inches shorter than the minimum. He was 16 years old and heading to HMS GANGES, a boys training establishment in Shotley, Suffolk. Ganges’ reputation for harsh tactics and discipline is legendary. Pop was literally “learning the ropes” as Ganges training methods had not converted to steam and coal yet, as the rest of the Royal Navy had. After graduating from Ganges in January of 1918, Pop was assigned to the Battlecruiser HMS REPULSE as an Ordinary Seaman for the remainder of the war.
When peace finally came, the Royal Navy could settle down to its peacetime affairs. It was time for a young career sailor to find his way. On Pop’s enlistment papers, his previous occupation was entered as Clerk. A hundred years ago, before the age of computers, copy machines, and ball-point pens, a Clerk was a skilled trade. The Clerk of a business was the accountant, paymaster, record keeper, and the Human Resources department. The Clerk would be seated near the leaders of the business. The Royal Navy rating for a Clerk was Writer and it was a coveted rating. Examinations to become a Royal Navy Writer were open to all, opportunities were few and competition was keen.
So at HMS Victory (HM Naval Shore Establishment) in Portsmouth, Pop found himself in May of 1919 sitting for the examination of a Royal Navy Writer. being successful, he was rated Writer Third Class and was assigned to HMS FURIOUS ( A battlecruiser, later to be converted into an aircraft carrier). Pop immediately became a member of the Royal Navy Writers’ Benevolent Association (see the ‘Our History’ page, now known at the RNWA), a membership of which Pop was quite proud and I am proud to say also, having been made a Honorary Life Member of the RNWA.
Pop then advanced to Writer Second Class, while assigned to the Battleship HMS BARHAM in 1921; then to Leading Writer, while assigned to the shore base HMS VERNON. It was while assigned to HMS VERNON, that Pop got noticed by a local girl while playing cricket. She admired him from afar in his dressed white cricket uniform. Somehow he got the courage to say hello causing them to spend the next 55 years together.
In 1926, Pop gained advancement and progressed to become a Petty Officer and was assigned to a long stint at HMS EGMONT (much later to become HMS ST ANGELO), classed as a ‘Stone Frigate’, the Royal Navy term used for any worldwide HM Shore Establishment, located in Malta. During this assignment, Pop met fellow RN Writers and life-long friends John Pearcy and William Jones. Family photos show Pop, John, William and wives visiting all of Malta’s beaches. The photos seem like time travel as my grandparents were transformed into twenty-something’s, having the times of their lives on an island paradise.
In 1929, Pop returned to HMS VICTORY in Portsmouth and was soon rated Chief Petty Officer Writer.
In August of 1931, Pop’s only daughter was born. Mom was two days old, when Pop joined HMS HOOD as it set out to Invergordon, Scotland. HMS HOOD was the Flagship of the British Atlantic Fleet which was meeting at Invergordon for maneuvers. Pop must have been conflicted; his new baby daughter at home vs. CPO Writer on the Flag Ship HMS HOOD. I am sure Pop was trying to figure out how to be in both places at the same time. Probably the rosary I later found in the Windsor Castle envelope got a little extra use on the way to Invergordon.
It’s hard to know exactly what duties Pop was attending to onboard HMS HOOD. He was a CPO Writer and not yet assigned to a senior officer’s staff. I think it’s safe to assume that Pop was involved in the sailor’s pay, as that is what Writers do. When HMS Hood arrived at Invergordon, the newspapers were full of confusing reports about pay cuts for all sailors as a measure to help England deal with the Great Depression. Some papers had the cuts at 10%, while others reported 25% pay cuts. To add to the confusion, the Admiralty had not given any clear communication to HMS HOOD or the British Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon. Over the next few days, the Hood crew assembled and in protest, they refused to set out to sea for maneuvers and then eventually ceased all but essential duties. The ‘mutiny onboard’ was joined by most of the other ships’ crews in the British Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon. The mutiny raised concern about the Royal Navy’s ability to protect Britain’s interests all over the world. Panic ensued in the financial markets and led to the decision that Britain would go off the Gold Standard. Pop was not a big player on either side of the mutiny, but as Paymaster on the Flag Ship HMS HOOD, he was at the center of it all.
Pop stayed with HMS HOOD for another 3 years, taking in cruises to the West Indies and the Mediterranean. He was a member of the deciphering team and decoded signals that were confidential for HMS HOOD’s Senior Officers. Also whilst onboard HMS HOOD he passed education for Warrant Officer Rank, learning among other things the formal way of dining in the Wardroom.
During the rest of the 1930’s, Pop spent time between HMS VICTORY in Portsmouth and the Mediterranean where he was assigned to the Destroyer HMS DOUGLASS, and Submarine Depot Ships HMS CYCLOPS and HMS MAIDSTONE, it being on its maiden voyage. Submarines were growing in significant numbers and distant operations required constant re-supply. HMS MAIDSTONE was designed to look after nine submarines, supplying over 100 torpedoes and mines. Similarly, the Writers on depot ships would have needed to spread their duties among the submarines the ship was supporting.
Entering 1940, Pop was now eligible for Pension and was planning to wind down his RN career, but the Admiralty had other plans. The Royal Navy could not afford to lose his experience with the drum beats of world war in Europe. In 1940, Pop commenced his Royal Navy extended service. Soon after, Pop was promoted to Warrant Officer Writer. Pop was now a Senior Officer’s secretary and ran all aspects of a Senior Officer’s daily routine.
It was 1941 and Pop had been back at HMS VICTORY in Portsmouth for a year. It was not the best place to be as the Blitz in Portsmouth was at its height. For safety Nana and the kids were sent to Nana’s parent’s farm in the country side near Fareham. It was said at night in the distance, you could see Portsmouth burning. It must have been a complete terror for children.
Later in 1941, Pop was assigned to HMS EAGLET, a large Royal Navy Base in Liverpool. The Command of Western Approaches had recently moved their Headquarters to HMS EAGLET Command protected the Merchant Navy and the needed supplies they were carrying from German U-boats. England was fighting the Battle of the Atlantic and Liverpool and Pop were in the thick of it. Pop got the thrills of another German Blitz as the Luftwaffe rained down on Liverpool. Pop was assigned to the office of Captain (D) which was operating out of Derby house. Captain (D) was the designation for the Commander of a destroyer squadron which was responsible for anti-submarine warfare. U-boat killer and hero Captain Johnny Walker, was Captain (D) at Derby house for a brief time in 1942. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear Pop singing Captain Walker’s signature song “a hunting we will go, a hunting we will go…”. Exactly what duties Pop was performing is unclear. Possibly his experience with deciphering was used to communicate coded messages between his officers and the Admiralty. He also worked very closely with WRNS at Derby House. HMS EAGLET in Liverpool was one of Pop’s longest assignments in the Royal Navy. Even today, Mom will say that her home town is Liverpool.
In 1944, Pop was promoted to a Commissioned Warrant Officer Writer. Pop was now a fully-fledged officer. I am told the Royal Navy did not make it easy for promotion from the Lower Decks, so Pop would have been at the very top of his profession and fellow officers would have hung on his every word. In November HMS RODNEY in Portsmouth hoisted the flag of Admiral Sir Henry Moore, Commander in Chief of Home Fleet. Pop was assigned to his staff. HMS RODNEY was honored by a Royal visit in September of 1945. After the war, Pop’s Writer skills and leadership were very much still in demand. Pop stayed assigned to the Commander in Chief of Home Fleet. The flag ship of Home Fleet (and Pop) moved from HMS RODNEY to HMS NELSON to HMS KING GEORGE V to HMS ANSON and in 1947 to HMS DUKE OF YORK.
In early 1948, Pop’s Royal Navy extended service had expired. He was released under Class A category. Pop served 32 years in the Royal Navy, all in all an impeccable Royal Navy career. Upon his retirement, Pop was granted the war service rank of Lieutenant.
The Royal Family rewarded retired Military officers with posts in the Royal Household. Pop’s Writer work for his Admirals had gotten him noticed for the post of Clerk for the Royal Household. Leaving the Royal Navy, he went directly to work at Marlborough House in London for Queen Mary, the Queen Mother. Growing up, I had imagined Pop working in the office next to the Queen Mother. Each morning changing her “Royal” desk calendar and giving the Queen Mother a cheery good morning. Pop’s duties really involved anything to keep Queen Mary’s household running and he would rarely see the Queen Mother, except on special or Royal occasions.
Upon Queen Mary’s death in 1953, Pop transitioned to the Household of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as a Clerk Accountant and was later promoted to Clerk Comptroller. In 1961, Queen Elizabeth appointed Pop to be a member of the Royal Victorian Order. In 1968 Pop’s health was suffering and at his office in Clarence House he received a visit from the Queen Mother. She directed Pop to take a rest each afternoon and gave him a silver medicine box to keep his pills in. Pop was in full agreement with Her Majesty. He continued to work at Clarence House part time until 1972, at which time he retired completely from the Royal Household.
For much of the time that Pop served the Queen Mothers, he was given Barton’s Cottage, a Grace and Favour home in London. Barton’s Cottage is set next to a pond in the kid-friendly Bushy Park. It was at Barton’s Cottage that I visited Pop as a boy and have some of my clearest memories of England. It was a moment in time where Pop and I crossed paths. Pop was doing all the things that a Grandfather does with his grandchildren. I wish I had those moments again to ask him about all about his times onboard al of Her Majesty’s Ships, Marlborough and Clarence House. Pop was not a powerful or rich man nor did he influence history, but he did experience firsthand many 20 th century historical events, like so many of his time.
In my journey, I had crossed paths with Pop again. I began my research to find the provenance of a silver desk calendar. Instead I found provenance in Pop’s life and his adventures. Finding Pop gave me a sense of discovery and hopefully to my children a sense of their beginning.
I do hope you enjoyed my story of Pop remembering this article may not sound or appear historically perfect as I am neither a historian, journalist or Writer but with every intention of conveying what I deem to be a true life reflection of my findings.
Outside Clarence house, Pop announcing the birth of Princess Margaret’s son in 1961