HC Deb 10 May 1805 vol 4 cc731-9
Mr. Jeffery

said, he rose in pursuance of the notice had given, to have the honour of submitting to the house a motion for the production several accounts relating to the naval department of the country, during the administration of earl St. Vincent. Having read the motions on a former night to the house, and being of opinion that some time should be taken to deliberate on their contents, he now rose to submit his motions to the consideration of parliament. He was persuaded when the accounts were laid upon the table, and perused by the members, that he would be borne out in the view which he had taken of the subject, and the intention for which the accounts were brought forward. He would not trouble the house with any further observations until he heard whether his motions were opposed, or met with the approbation of the house. He therefore should move, "That there be laid before the house an account, shewing the number of line-of-battle ships and frigates built between the 1st January, 1783, and 31st December, 1792, distinguishing the number of ships launched from the merchants' yards, from those launched from the king's yards."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he had no objection to the motion now offered; but as those which were to follow were very voluminous, he wished to have it understood, that he must oppose the production of any papers tending to show the state and condition of the ships in 1804, as it might afford improper information to the enemy. He should also object to the production of any correspondence explaining the state of British and foreign timber, as it might disclose the foreign resources of the navy, and thereby perhaps enable the enemy to embarrass them.

Sir John Sinclair

entertained great doubts with respect to the propriety of bringing forward the long list of motions which the hon. gent. stated on a former night, as they embraced almost every branch of the naval service of the country. He submitted if at this late period of the session, it were adviseable; and he would be glad to know from any gentleman conversant with the official business of the board of admiralty, if these accounts could be prepared without distracting its attention from the other important concerns, in which, at this con- juncture, they are engaged. He understood, if these motions were agreed to, the friends of earl St. Vincent would move for other papers, which would still embarrass the public business. He was desirous to be informed, if, at any crisis like the present, the lords of the admiralty could peruse the voluminous accounts moved for by the hon. member, without material injury to the public service in the present state of the country? He was of opinion, that the preparing the accounts would be attended with manifest inconvenience, and would answer no good purpose whatever.

Mr. Jeffery

considered the observations of the hon. baronet premature, as he could not know whether the accounts would lead to enquiry or not. He would not contend, if any thing criminal occurred in the administration of lord St. Vincent, it should be passed over, and that an enquiry into his conduct ought not to be instituted. He declared, on his honour, that he did not act through party motives, he was an unconnected individual, not belonging to any man or set of men; his conduct arose from his feelings for the situation of the country, and his knowledge where the faults were imputable, with respect to the administration of earl St. Vincent. The reduced state of the navy he attributed to the noble lord, and if enquiry was to be dispensed with the present session, he knew the difficulty of obtaining enquiry hereafter. He knew he had undertaken an herculean task in the first instance, but he had cogent, ample, and sufficient reasons for bringing the measure before the house. He trusted that no member would object to his motions, that parliament might decide whether enquiry was or was not necessary. He moreover trusted that no gentleman would be against the production of the papers, until they knew what they contained. They were neither as voluminous nor as intricate as some members might imagine; and he pledged himself that they could be produced in a week or ten days, without giving any extraordinary trouble to the lords of the admiralty in perusing their contents. He thought them absolutely necessary to be produced as he would take upon him to prove, that lord St. Vincent had disgraced the British navy, and was the greatest enemy to the country and the navy of Great-Britain that the country ever knew.

Mr. Tierney

said, he was far from opposing the motion now before the house, especially as the hon. gent. had put it out of his power to do so, by declaring that the noble and gallant earl had disgraced the British navy, and was the greatest enemy to the country that the country that the country ever knew. If the hon. gent. said all this from his own suggestion, it was a pity that he was not a lord of the admiralty, by which he might have obtained greater information than he probably now possessed. The lights, however, which he professed to have obtained, and the decisive line of conduct he had adopted, were rather strange in an independent country gentleman, professing himself to be unconnected with any party. It was equally strange too, that no attack whatever had been made against earl St. Vincent until he adopted measures which tended to attack others. The proceedings of this day were certainly a good warning to any man to be very careful how he ventured to attack abuses. If the hon. gent. had indeed been a party man, instead of an unconnected gentleman, as he described himself, he might have been suspected of having taken a very dexterous way to divert the attention of the house from the other enquiries already going forward; but he could not consider it altogether fair in this unconnected man to assert that he could prove earl St. Vincent to have disgraced the navy, and have been an enemy to his country. After he had heard the minister himself object to some of those pipers which might turn out to be the most necessary for the noble earl's defence; let the fair and full enquiry be granted; and if any of the papers required should appear of too delicate a nature to be made public, let the enquiry be a secret one. At the present moment, indeed, the friends of the earl St. Vincent did not appear to be very numerous in that house; nor were they much wanting to a man who might safely rest his character on the sentiments of a grateful and affectionate people. Whatever that unconnected gentleman might think himself, he fancied he would not find it an easy task to convince the people of England that the earl St. Vincent was the enemy of his country. He thought he had a right to expect, that the right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt) himself would have given some favourable opinion of at least the professional merits of the noble earl, when he heard his character arraigned in such a manner, by this unconnected individual. When he heard so illustrious a character reviled, without any appeal to former friendship, to extend towards it the protection of his own opinion, was no more than what was due from one great man in a high situation to another. They differed indeed in their opinions, on the best means of naval administration; but he should not have thought that a reason why he should so abandon him in every other respect. A fair and manly hostility to the noble earl, like that of the unconnected individual, would, in his opinion, be more becoming in the right hon. gent. than the grant of papers, professing to brand the noble earl in the manner expressed by his present adversary. This was not a charge that respected any particular expedition, or partial failure, but a broad accusation, which ought either to be sifted to the bottom, or all documents be refused upon it. When the hon. accuser seemed to doubt whether these papers might in the result, tend to an enquiry, he must have had a most extravagant opinion of his own motion, to think it would he sufficient of itself for condemnation. For his own part, be was of a very different opinion, and wished, in conclusion, distinctly to state on the part of earl St. Vincent, that all his lordship looked for was a full and fair enquiry.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he did not see why the right hon. gent. should rest his observations particularly on him, as he, no more than any other member, could judge whether the papers might endure an enquiry, until he could examine the nature of them all. When this motion was first noticed, it seemed to be the general wish, on all sides, that the papers should be granted, and he alone wished for a delay, which led him, as he stated before, to object to two of them, as inconsistent with the public safety; but, he could not foresee effect of the remainder. If the house exmined the speech of the right hon. gent. (Mr. Tierney), they would observe it to consist of alternate sentences: the one tending to court, and the other to suppress enquiry. As to what had been alluded to of protection, he had only to say, that he should be always ready to protect earl St. Vincent, or any other man, against injustice. The remembrance he had of the great professional services of the noble earl would a sufficient restraint against any hostility on his part towards him; but, he had long since expressed his opinion of his conduct in the admiralty, and he had not yet seen any reason to retract it. The past professional merits of the noble earl, however great, were not sufficient grounds to defend the faults in his administration. For his own part, he declared that he had no wish for, nor did he intend to submit, any enquiry into the con- duct of noble earl; but, when that enquiry was challenged by his friends, he should not be doing his duty either to himself or to the country, were he to take any measures to suppress it.

Mr. Jeffery

declared that his conduct did not spring from any party connection, but, from the impulse of the moment. He had no communication on the subject of his motions with the minister, or any other person; and, when the right hon. gent. (Mr. Tierney) asked him this day in private whether they were to be carried, he candidly answered him that he did not know.

Mr. Grey

reprobated, in the most forcible language, the mode in which this subject was brought forward. An hon. member moved for the production of a number of papers, which he said possibly might not authorise enquiry, and yet in the introduction to his motion he made use of the strangest language which could be applied to any case, even after a charge of improper conduct was established upon proof before the house. All that he could understand by the expression of his right hon. friend (Mr. Tierney), by the word "protection" was, that it meant to signify fairness, though in fact, he was sorry the word had been used at all. Thee fairness he claimed on the part of the earl St. Vincent was, that whatever objections there might be in point of convenience, all the papers should be produced which might be necessary for the enquiry. The hon. gent. (Mr. Jeffery) seemed surprised, that any gentleman should oppose the papers, without knowing what they were; but he forgot, that when the papers should be produced, it would be too late to oppose them. He acted, in this respect, like the judge, who was reported to have told a barrister from the bench—"I will not allow you to open your mouth, until you tell me what you have to say." As to the right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt), he must do him the justice to say, that he acted consistently, and he had uniformly expressed himself hostile to the naval administration of the earl St. Vincent.

Mr. Tierney

explained. He said, what he meant by protection was, that ministers should not, at this late period of the session, suffer such motions to be brought forward, and had no reference in his observation to the particular friends of the noble earl.

Mr. Wilberforce

agreed with the right hon. the chancellor of the exchequer, that the gratitude due to earl St. Vincent's professional character, should not be a bar to the consideration of his official conduct. The accounts should comprise the administration of lord Chatham, when the navy was placed in the condition which laid the foundation of its future glory; and even the administration of lord Sandwich, when it had received a great addition. He thought the motion could not be considered as hostile to earl St. Vincent, but rather as directed to obtain information highly material to the public interest. He condemned the contemptuous language with which a right hon gent. (Mr. Tierney) had spoken of individuals connected with no party. He was jealous on this point, as he was aware he himself would be frequently classed with this description of members. If it appeared that the ships were not so numerous in lord St. Vincent's administration as those before it, and that the short and feverish peace we had enjoyed was not employed to prepare for a war that must have been easily foreseen, it was fit the blame should be cast where it ought to be; he alluded also to the chief of interfering with the authority of captains of ships, as the depreciation of the respect paid to them might lead to the alarming state of things in the navy which every one remembered with so much pain. He then pronounced the highest panegyric on the virtues, talents, and other excellent qualifications of lord Barham, the present first lord of the admirality. It was, he understood, the fashion of some gentlemen, to represent his great qualities as chilled by the influence of years; but from the opportunities he had of judging, he must declare him to be, in his opinion, the man of all others, the best qualified for his situation.

Mr Pytches

here called the hon. gent to order: thinking such high panegyrics on the new first lord of the admiralty, were by no means relevant to the present motion.

Mr. Wilberforce

thought himself perfectly in order, when it was considered that lord Barham was comptroller of the navy under two of the administrations to which these motions referred.

Mr. Curwen

thought, that after earl St. Vincent had been acquitted charges in the last session, when the right hon. gent. (Mr. Pitt) moved for papers to criminate him, it would, at least, have been decent to abstain from any harsh expression towards him, until the paper now moved for should be properly examined. The language used by the hon mover appeared to him much too strong to be lightly applied to so good and exalted a character; and he thought the panegyric on Lord Barham the more unnecessary in this debate, as not a single reflexion had been cast upon him. He made no doubt, but when the enquiry should be made, the noble earl would appear in as exalted a sphere of character as he had always done before; and, until the trial, he conceived that great character entitled to every degree of approbation.

Mr. Bastard

was of opinion, that the enquiry, which ought rather now to extend itself to the dominion of the sea, ought not to be confined to limits of earl St. Vincent's administration. Instead of party motions of this kind, it would more become the house to enquire into the disorders in the West Indies, and the circumstance of the dominion of the sea being now in the hands of the French, who dared not shew their faces on the ocean during the administration of the gallant earl St. Vincent. During that vigourous and active administration, the French could presume to shew themselves only in be defeated, and how shameful was now the reverse, when the British squadrons were obliged to fly before them. The hon. gentleman concluded with observing that the great object of our enquiry should at present be, by what means we might be able again to put ourselves into the same situation in which earl St. Vincent had left us?

Mr. R. Ward

said, he must absolutely and distinctly deny that the enemy were now in possession of the dominion of the sea, or were able to cope with our fleets in any part of the world.

Admiral Markham

said, if the right. hon. gent, (Mr. Pitt) already objected to two of the motions while he was willing to grant the remainder, it must also follow, that he should have to object to many others which he should think it right to submit respecting the supply of foreign timber, which would be so necessary to the earl St. Vincent's justification, though he should be sorry, on any other account, to propose the disclosure of any thing might be supposed embarrasing to government. When the same right hon. gent. last year moved for an account of the foreign timber imported, he objected to it as a disclosure which he thought at that time improper, but being now out of office, he was not capable of judging whether a similar communication would not be equally injurious at the present time. All he should think of asking for would be such papers as were barely necessary for the vindication of the noble earl, who wanted no other protection but what he could hope to derive from the justice of his country. The gentlemen opposite him would never think on such papers as might be sufficient for a vote of one night; for, if the enquiry respecting lord Melville required to be referred to a committee, though comparatively it lay in a nut-shell, how much more necessary would it be on a subject which embraced the conduct of a whole administration? He must once more observe, that all he should require was, that the case should be fairly, fully, equally, and impartially tried. This he was peculiarly anxious for, because, as he loved his country much more dearly than he did earl St. Vincent, he considered a just and full enquiry to be the best means of securing it. If a committee should be appointed on it, he wished it to consist not of party men, as on the late occasion, but of proper people (order! order!)—He did not mean to say that any set of gentlemen would be actually partial.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

here interrupted the hon. admiral, as being disorderly in anticipating what sort of committee the papers might be referred to, before they were produced.

The Speaker

said, that in fairness he must acquit the hon. admiral of being more out of order, in that instance, than others who preceded him; but, he must at the same time inform the hon. admiral, that it was highly disrespectful to speak of committees appointed by the house, as if they were the nomination of any individual.

Admiral Markham,

after apologising, went on to proceed in nearly the same way, when he was again called to order by Mr. Dent. The hon. admiral said, he did not conceive himself irregular in adverting to what he meant to be the objects of his own motions; when, the Speaker said, he must now imperatively interfere, and acquaint the hon. member, that he was not at liberty to pass by the subject of discussion, or refer to his own motions, till the present was disposed of. After some further conversation, the motion was agreed to.

Mr. Jeffery

then moved a long string of motions, for "the number of line-of-battle ships and frigates in commission, in 1793, distinguishing their rates, &c. ditto, in 1794, and from thence to the 18th of February, 1801-2-3-4, and 5, distinguish their rates, and whether in the king's or merchants' docks; also the ships of the same description out of commission; the numbers building during these periods; when launched, or likely to be launched; ships laid down, and meant to be built; the timber in store; the quality of the articles, ? all of which were agreed to.

Mr. Dent

then, in pursuance of a former notice, in order to probe things to the bottom, and draw a comparison between the administration of earl Spencer and the earl St. Vincent, moved, "that there be laid before the house, a list of all persons raised to the rank of lieutenants in the navy, from lieutenants to captains and commanders, and from captains and, commanders to post captains, from the 1st of Jan. 1795, to the 1st of Jan. 1804." He said, that if the papers were agreed to, he should follow them up with a specific motion.

Admiral Markham

thought it invidious to draw this comparison, as he, together with all the friends of earl St. Vincent, had ever spoken and thought in the highest manner of the purity and zeal of earl Spencer's administration.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

proposed an amendment, for bringing the account to the latest period, which would include the administration of viscount Melville.

Sir J. Sinclair

renewed his former objection to the multiplication of enquiries at this late period of the session.

Mr. Kinnaird

said, that, to do away the invidious distinction between the administration of earls Spencer and St. Vincent, he should propose as an amendment to the motion, that it should begin at the year 1793, instead of 1795, which would include also the administration of the earl of Chatham.

Admiral Markham

said, that, as the object was to shew that earl St. Vincent employed a greater number of officers than any of his predecessors, it would be right to shew the reason of the promotions which were made at the end of the late war, for the reward of naval services, and to amend the motion, by going back to a comparative estimate with the promotions made under the administration of earl Sandwich, at the close of the American war. However, as he did not wish to crowd the table of the house with too many papers, he should not persist in the amendment.—The amended motion was then agreed to, commencing with the year 1793.

Back to