Invergordon is located on the Cromarty Firth north-shore and boasts stunning views towards the western Beins and Black Isle.
The shoreline road (B817) to Invergordon forms part of the historic Pictish Trail and the Ross and Cromarty Naval Trail both of which are a welcoming and less travelled detour off the A9 trunk road and Moray Firth Tourist Route.
By 1931 Britain, in common with the other major industrial nations, was in the grip of an economic crisis. The National government, a coalition led by Ramsay Macdonald, had to find ways of cutting expenditure and, among a number of unpopular measures, decided to reduce the pay of all military personnel.
The Royal Navy pay scales had already been reduced in 1925, for new recruits only. Now all would be forced on to the 1925 scales, even those who had joined up earlier. The way the cuts were applied meant that ratings – the ordinary sailors – received a proportionately much greater cut than higher ranks, in some cases reducing their pay to a level where they felt they could not support their families. The pay of Admirals was to be reduced by 7%, Lieutenant Commanders by 3.7%, Chief Petty Officers by 11.8% and Able Seamen by 23%.
News of the cuts broke on September 11th 1931, just as the Atlantic Fleet was gathering at Invergordon for manoeuvres. The cuts were to come into force from October 1st, long before the men could get home to speak to their families and sort out their affairs. To add insult to injury, the news emerged haphazardly, some of it leaked through the press. This led to inaccurate and confusing rumours which only served to increase the men’s sense of grievance. Three days of mutiny
On Sunday 13th September unusually large numbers of men went ashore. Discussion among small groups in the town throughout the day culminated in a mass meeting in the shore canteen in the evening. Several men made speeches and rousing songs were sung. Able Seaman Len Wincott of HMS Norfolk called for a strike: “It’ll be passive resistance and no bloodshed”. When the canteen closed the men made their way peacefully back to their ships, which were Hood, Rodney, Warspite, Valiant, Malaya, Repulse, Dorsetshire, Norfolk, York and Adventure. Centurion, Shikari, Snapdragon and Tetrarch arrived on Monday 14th and Exeter on Tuesday 15th.
On Monday 14th further meetings were held ashore in the canteen and sports ground. These were more disorderly than on the previous day and officers were alarmed to observe civilians among the men. Patrols were sent ashore from Hood and Valiant and the men returned to their ships, but this time remained on deck singing and making speeches until late into the night.
On Tuesday 15th several ships were due to go out on exercises. Repulse sailed as planned, but the other ships were unable to follow as the men refused to carry out the necessary duties. The exercise was cancelled, Repulse returned, and all further shore leave was stopped. For the rest of the day the men on most of the ships carried out minimum duties only and remained on deck cheering and singing. Rear Admiral Wilfred Tomkinson, who was temporarily in charge of the fleet, sympathised with the men’s position and from the outset had put their case to the Admiralty, stating that he thought discipline would deteriorate further unless the men’s complaints were answered. The response was that “Their Lordships confidently expected that the men would uphold the traditions of the Service by loyally carrying out their duties” and an instruction to continue with the planned exercises. Tomkinson replied that this was impossible and on Tuesday afternoon sent his Chief of Staff down to London by train to fully explain the situation and try to elicit a more reasonable response from the Admiralty.
By the morning of Wednesday 16th the level of protest had increased, with no work at all being done on several ships. Tomkinson sent an urgent telegram to the Admiralty saying that the situation would get completely out of control unless concessions were made and putting forward detailed proposals for the men’s pay. By this time the matter was under discussion at cabinet level. The government was nervous about the possible spread of social unrest to other groups.
The situation continued to deteriorate as the day wore on. Threats of interference with machinery had been made, and Tomkinson was concerned that men would start to move between the ships spreading disaffection. He contacted the Admiralty again, and this time received a swift response that the ships were to disperse and return to their home ports. It was not certain whether all the ships would be able to sail, but by just after midnight all had left the Cromarty Firth. Within a few days the Admiralty announced that the pay cuts would be restricted to a maximum of 10%.
The unrest at Invergordon and its possible implications caused financial panic. Foreign investors rushed to exchange their sterling for gold. On Thursday 17th, in an attempt to quell the unease, the Prime Minister announced that there would be no victimisation of those involved in the mutiny, but this had little effect: by the next day £18 million pounds worth of gold had been withdrawn. On Sunday September 20th the government announced that to prevent further withdrawals it was suspending the gold standard and an act of parliament was rushed through the next day. The pound no longer had a fixed value in gold and was allowed to find its own level. It immediately fell by 30% from $4.86 to $3.40. This was the start of a new era of currency management.
In the aftermath of the mutiny a considerable number of men were discharged from the Navy, from within the Atlantic Fleet and elsewhere, and the careers of several of the senior officers involved were affected. Rear Admiral Tomkinson in particular was the Admiralty’s scapegoat: they claimed that he could have prevented the situation by taking firm action at the outset. The records show that in fact he handled a volatile situation carefully and did his best to mediate between the men and the Admiralty. There was no serious damage or violence and in the end the fleet dispersed without trouble. What might have been the outcome if the Admiralty’s more hard-line suggestions – including shelling the fleet from the hills around the firth – had been acted upon?
Able Seaman Leonard Wincott was serving on HMS Norfolk at the time of the mutiny. He became one of the men’s leaders and was the author of their manifesto, which stated that they would refuse to serve under the new rate of pay unless they received a written guarantee that their pay would be revised. Of his involvement, he said: “Had I not made the first move someone else would have done so. The men wanted a speaker who would express their resentment at the cuts. What I emphasised was the need to strike”. Despite the Prime Minister’s statement that there would be no victimisation following the mutiny, Wincott and other leading participants were discharged from the Navy on November 3rd 1931, immediately after the General Election.
Wincott was born in Leicester in 1907 and joined the Royal Navy in 1920. He was said to be a clever man who could speak nine languages. After his discharge from the Navy he became a workers’ hero in Britain and it is thought that this is when his involvement with the Communist Party started. He was unable to find work and by the mid 1930s had left the country to fight against General Franco in Spain. By 1938 he was living in Leningrad and later became a Soviet citizen.
During World War 2 he lived through the siege of Leningrad and received a medal for his part in the city’s defence. In 1946 he fell out of favour with the authorities and was sent to a Siberian labour camp for agitation against the Soviet state. Ten years later the new Soviet leader Kruschev came to Britain and during his visit was petitioned by family and friends seeking Wincott’s release. Wincott was set free in 1957 and apart from a few brief visits to Britain spent the rest of his life in Moscow, where he died in 1983.
At his own request Wincott’s ashes were committed to the sea in Plymouth Sound. The arrangements for this were made by friends from the Navy with whom he had remained in contact. The Navy provided a fleet auxiliary vessel flying the white ensign at half mast, and Wincott’s Russian widow was present. This was a fitting end for a man who almost accidentally had played an important part in 20th century naval history and been severely punished for it. His widow said at the ceremony: “In the depths of his soul my husband was an Englishman who remained proud to have served in the Royal Navy”.