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Captain Sir Robert Beaufin Irving Biography

Captain Sir Robert Beaufin Irving KB OBE RD RNR (Retd.) (1877-1954)

Robert Beaufin Irving was born on the Bickington Estate at Fremington, Devon on 16th July 1877, the son of Colonel John Beaufin Irving later of Bonshaw Tower, Kirtlebridge. His father purchased the estate at Bickington near Barnstaple, north Devon after retiring from the Army and later moved to his ancestral domicile in Dumfriesshire which Robert subsequently inherited.

He was educated at Fullands College, Taunton, Queen Elizabeth’s Ashborne Grammar School and on the training ship HMS Conway which he joined in 1891. He had there a fellow cadet in John Masefield, later to become Poet Laureate. He left Conway in 1892 and entered the “Holt Hill” Register No 97798, a four masted steel barque 2398 grt built by Russell of Glasgow and launched in 1890. He was appointed Midshipman on 13th June 1899.

Trained-in-sail service was followed after some years by miscellaneous experience in steam. He served as 3rd Officer of HMT Princess of Wales, hospital ship of the Albion S.S. Company, during the war in South Africa 1899-1902 for which he was awarded the Sea Transport Medal with the clasp for South Africa and in 1901 served for six months on the SS Blanefield 3411 grt operated by the Seafield Shipping Co. He then joined the Royal Naval Reserve and was appointed Acting Sub Lieutenant on 7th January 1902. On 4th November 1904 the subject obtained his full sub-lieutenancy and was granted his Master’s Ticket (Steam) on 16th May 1904 after having seen service as 4th officer on the Cunard White Star Line vessel “ Veria”. He served successively on many other Cunard vessels including the Caronia, Umbria, Lucania, Carpathia, Lusitania, Carmania, Ivenia, and Brescia. He was promoted Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve on 17th April 1909, and, in 1913, he was appointed Chief Officer of the Lusitania.

On the outbreak of the Great War of 1914-1918, Irving was appointed lieutenant RNR on 27th December 1914 to the light cruiser Yarmouth. He took part in the battle of Jutland and was Mentioned in Despatches, (London Gazette 15 September 1916) being ‘Recommended to be noted for early promotion,’ and ‘Recommended for good service in action’. He was subsequently appointed an Acting Lieutenant-Commander.

Awarded the RNR Decoration on 25th January 1917, he was promoted Lieutenant-Commander RNR on 17 April 1917, and on 22nd May 1917 was appointed to HMS Egmont at Malta for Special Service as a Transport Officer 2nd Grade. This duty included work in the Palestine campaign, and he was appointed an OBE (Military) on 31st July 1919, for ‘valuable services as Naval Transport Officer in charge of the Landing of Military Stores on the Palestine Coast’. Then followed an appointment to HMS President V1 which had been established in 1918 to manage transport service accounts and which, from February 1919, was the base for the Murmansk tugs, whilst handling the accounts of officers assigned to Northern Russia.

Upon his demobilization on 5th July 1919, Irving rejoined the Cunard Line and became Staff Captain in the Mauretania, and shortly afterwards, at the end of 1919, he obtained his first command as Captain of the Vennonia and it was on this vessel that he was later authorised to fly the Blue Ensign by a warrant dated 22nd May 1925. On 31st December 1925, Captain, RNR Irving was appointed one of the two RNR ADC’s to the King holding this appointment until 16th July 1932 when he was placed on the Retired List. From 1925 he was in command of the Samaria, Ascania, Laconia, Franconia and Scythia, and in 1931 he was appointed to command of the Aquitania, which he held for some six years. He was widely tipped for the command of the Queen Mary before the liner was completed, but the post fell to Sir Edgar T. Britten Kt RD and afterwards to Captain R V Peel, who he succeeded as Captain of the Queen Mary in 1937 before Capt. Irving eventually took over the command. It was whilst master of this renowned vessel that he gained international acknowledgement when he docked the Queen Mary at New York unaided, during a general dock strike there.

The newspapers reported:

‘The morning the 81,235-ton Queen Mary sailed into New York Bay last week with day breaking behind her, no hoarse flurry of twelve tugs fumed out to ease her into her mid-Manhattan berth. For three days the harbor’s 300 tugs had been tied up by a strike of 2,000 tug hands, seeking $5 to $10 more a month than the present scale of $3.63 to $5 daily brings them. Last word from longshore tsar Joseph Patrick Ryan had been that the Queen Mary would be left standing in the harbor, “a blow to the prestige of the port.”

What happened when the Queen Mary came abreast of her berth at West 50th Street was no blow to the prestige of the port, but it was a mighty confirmation of the prestige of British seamanship. At 6:10 a. m. the 1,018-ft. ship lay in mid stream. Wind was down, tide was slack. Ten minutes later her 118-ft. beam was dead-centred in the 400-ft. slip between the Cunard and Italian Line piers. From the fo’c’sle head whistled two long, light heaving lines attached to ten-inch hawsers. Two men in a rowboat fished the light lines out, rowed them to the Cunard pier. Soon rhythmically functioning stevedore crews had the ship’s main hawsers fast. Over board went more heaving lines, back & forth skipped the rowboat, and at 6:44 the Queen Mary was snug in her berth, gang planks in position to land her 1,602 passengers. No skipper had ever docked so large a vessel unaided.

Commodore Robert Beaufin Irving, the ship’s greying, trained-in-sail skipper, gave credit where credit seemed due – to the balmy weather and to St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers.

No Roman Catholic, but a stanch Covenanter, Commodore Irving toted two St. Christophers, one a statue given him by a Galway pilot, the other a medal from a passenger. Swore he: “I spun that medal around and said, ‘Well, St. Chris, what about it?’ He said, ‘Go to it.’ Next day sheepish operators and tug hands came to a hasty agreement. Said chagrined Tsar Ryan: “St. Christopher ought to be made to join the union.”

In 1938 Captain Irving became Commodore Captain of the Cunard White Star fleet, the highest rank achievable in the merchant service, in which year he won back for Great Britain the Blue Riband of the Atlantic, having crossed in 3 days, 21 hours and 48 minutes the record having been earlier held by the French liner “Normandie”. He was Knighted in 1943. The honour was announced on 2nd June and conferred on him at Buckingham Palace on July 13th.

He retired from the Cunard White Star Line in 1944, and went to live at his ancestral home, Bonshaw Tower, Kirtlebridge, a few miles from Gretna Green. The original house was built in A.D. 900 and had for centuries been the home of the Irvings of Bonshaw, of which clan he was the head. From 1946 to 1952 he followed in his father’s footsteps and was a Justice of the Peace for Dumfriesshire, and in 1947 he was made a Deputy Lieutenant for the County.

Commodore Sir Robert Irving, KB OBE RD, DL JP married 1902, Florence, daughter of Joseph Brown, of Claughton, Cheshire. He died in hospital at Carlisle, Cumberland on 28th December 1954, aged 77 and was survived by his wife. The present Chief of the Name and Arms of Irving of Bonshaw is Captain Robert Alec Snow Irving RN (Retd.).

Sources and Consultants:

Researched and Compiled by Roger E. Nixon, professional Military and Historical
Researcher at the National Archives of the UK.

R O G E R E. N I X O N
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