Fred T Jane was an eccentric visionary concluded Richard Brooks in his evening talk at the Emsworth Community Centre on Thursday, 2nd March. It is 107 years since Jane, one of naval history’s more unusual characters, died in 1916 but his legacy continues. Fred T Jane is best known as the founding editor of the world’s most prestigious and longest-lived naval reference works, (All the World’s) Fighting Ships and its offshoot the Jane Naval Wargame. What is less well known is that he was an accomplished monochrome artist, a novelist, a pioneer motorist, a political activist, a newspaper columnist, and a practical joker.
Richard Brooks bought out all these aspects in his illustrated talk. Jane was born in 1865 and moved to London aged 20 as a monochrome artist. He already had a widespread interest in naval matters and his picture Night Action off Belfast was printed in the Illustrated London News in 1892. The picture was typical of his work in that the emphasis was on small flotilla craft with dramatic use of both light and shadow. Two years later Jane made the front page with a picture of the last Royal Navy ships to leave Portsmouth under sail.
As a novelist, Jane wrote mainly imaginary war and sci fi stories. In 1894 in Guesses at Futurity he predicted teleprinters, shopping malls, solar panels, and space travel. Richard Brooks’ favourite story is To Venus in 5 Seconds published in 1896 where the hero is kidnapped in a spaceship disguised as a summer house and taken to Venus for medical experiments.
Fred T Jane began assembling his warship directory in 1898. The book detailed 1000 ships with 500 sketches engraved on wood blocks and cost 10/6d. Ships’ data were standardised and ships’ silhouettes, as seen on the horizon by bridge personnel, were grouped by the number of masts and funnels. Sketches were replaced by photographs in subsequent editions. He then pioneered the Jane Naval Wargame as a serious way for peacetime naval officers to try different layouts of guns and armour. All the World’s Airships followed in 1912.
Jane married twice and with his family moved to Portsmouth in 1910. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Jane became an interpreter of the naval war. He defended the Royal Navy’s apparent inactivity and cast doubts on the Dardanelles expedition before it started. He died on 8th March 1916.
Jane was a complex, paradoxical figure throughout his life. He was never central to the naval establishment but nevertheless his name is still associated with the original purpose of his greatest book, the provision of accurate technical information to governments, armed services and the public.
A lively discussion followed the talk.
Richard Brooks presenting his talk on Fred T Jane on March 2nd 2023