HC Deb 23 June 1808 vol 11 cc1002-10
Mr. Wardell,

pursuant to his notice, proceeded to call the attention of the house to the subject of Army Clothing. The object of his motion he would frankly state at the outset to be, to save an useless expenditure of the public money, by substituting public contract in the place of private, though, as he should afterwards prove, the system of private contract had received such avowed encouragement from the illustrious personage at the head of the army, and from his majesty's present Secretary at War. He would, before he sat down, prove to the house that the public money had been extravagantly wasted by this system of private contract. It appeared from a letter, signed 'William Merry,' and dated the 2d of July, 1803, that the government had at that time contracted that the army should be supplied with great-coats at the rate of 16s.6d. per coat, but that price was then acceded to, upon the condition stated in a letter from the then Secretary at War (Mr. Yorke), that the price per coat then agreed to be given should be reduced in proportion to the reduction of the then price of kersey. Now, he was prepared to prove incontrovertibly to the house, that the price of kersey had been reduced since that period, gradually and considerably, and that the primitive charge of 16s. 6d. per coat had not been at all abated till Feb. last. The decrease of the price of kersey had been from 1804 to the year 1807, in the following proportion: in Dec. 1804, kersey was at the rate of 4s. 6d. per yard; in Dec. 1805, it fell to 4s. 4d. per yard; in Dec. 1806, it sold at the rate of 4s. 2d. per yard; and in Dec. 1807, it was so low as 3s. 6d. per yard; and notwithstanding the proviso insisted on in the letter of Mr. Yorke, still was the public paying for every great coat at the original rate of 16s. 6d. per coat, though the rates by which the price was to be measured had fallen from 4s. 6d. to 3s. 6d. per yard. This he could prove by the testimony of the most respectable clothiers in the country. He held in his hand a calculation he had made of the loss the public had, within the short space of three years, sustained by the non-enforcement of the proviso laid down by Mr. Yorke, namely, the reduction of the charge per coat, in proportion to the reduction of the price of kersey per yard. He would rate the army at 250,000 men, which was 50,000 less than the number stated by the noble lord (Castlereagh), on submitting to the house his plan for a Local Militia; but he (Mr. Wardell) was anxious to proceed in his calculation according to the most moderate ratio. Each man was allowed a great coat once in every 3 years. He took the number of great coats for one year at 80,000, certainly below the fair proportion for the year ending Dec. 1805, during which the kersey had fallen two-pence per yard, being sold for 4s. 4d. per yard; according, then, to the original condition, every great coat should have been sold for 15s. 10d. instead of 16s. 6d. per coat; here, then, had the original contract been adhered to, there would have been a saving of 8d. per coat, which in the expenditure of one year, would have been a saving of no less a sum than 2,666l. 13s. 4d. In the following year, kersey selling for 4s. 2d. per yard, the price of the great coats should have been at the rate of 15s. 2d. per coat, instead of 16s. 6d., which making a difference of 1s. 4d. per coat, would be to the public a saving of not less than 5,333l. 16s. 8d. Again, in the year commencing 1806, when kersey sold for 3s. 6d. per yard, each great coat, according to the original stipulation, should have been sold for 12s. 9d. each, instead of what they were then sold for 16s. 6d. each; whereby, the contractors had a profit of 3s. 9d. per coat; and thus there was an unnecessary waste of the public money to the amount of 15,000l. so that in the course of three years, the saving of the public money, if the original stipulation had been adhered to, would have amounted to 23,000l. It appeared further, that no reduction whatever had taken place in the charge for the clothing (notwithstanding the serious reduction of the price of the material) till the 1st of Feb. last. For this reduction, certainly no thanks were due to the right horn the Secretary at War, but to the repeated offers on the part of the majority of the clothiers to supply the clothing at a reduced price. He would prove, if he had not already done so, that the loss of public money, under this system of favoritism, by the means of private contract, amounted in the course of three years to 23,000l. On the 29th of June, 1806, the firm of Messrs. Scott and Co. offered to supply great coats for 20,000 men, at the rate of 14s. 9d. per coat. To this proposal they never received an answer (hear! hear! from the ministerial benches). It was true that this part of the charge did not affect the gentlemen opposite; but this would shew, that he (Mr. Wardell) was not influenced by party motives; and that in the discharge of his duty as a member of parliament, to the public, he would be equally indifferent to either friend or foe [hear! hear!].—He contended, that had this offer of Scott and Co. been accepted, it would have been a saving of the public money to the amount of 21,875l.; and still more to evince, the folly of not acceding to their offer, it appeared that the same house afterwards accepted of a partial interest in the contract made with Pearse, and actually received at the rate of 16s. 6d. per coat, what they offered to provide at the reduced rate of 14s. 9d. per coat. They had made another offer on the 10th of Feb., 1808, when kersey was as low as 3s. 6d. per yard, to supply great coats at the rate of 12s. each, to this tender they certainly received an answer, and were so far more successful than in their former application, but it so happened, that they received 14s. per coat, through the means of a partial interest, which they had offered at the rate of 12s. per coat; and not only that of Scott's, but any house in London would have supplied that part of the army clothing at the rate of 12s. per coat. He meant from the 29th of June, 1806, to the year ending 1807, and thus there would have been a saving of not less than 16,666l., or at the rate of 50,000l. each delivery. The clothiers, induced by such repeated offers, agreed to take off 2s. 6d. in the price of each coat, instead of 4s. The hon. gent. then read a letter, dated the 11th of Nov. 1807, and signed G. Harrison, in which there was a proposal made to the contractors on the part of the lords of the treasury, that in proportion to prompt payment there should be a reduction in the price. He commented on this passage, and contended that it appeared from Mr. Gilgrim's voucher on the table, that the payments had seldom been made earlier than six months. He was willing to give every credit to the noble lords at the head of the treasury, they had done what they could to establish a system of fair and open contract; but their exertions in this respect seemed to have been counteracted by a powerful but improper influence. Here the hon. gent. read a letter signed "Harry Calvert, Adjutant General of the Forces," addressed to the Secretary at War, in which the writer, in the name of his royal highness the Com- mander in Chief, disapproved of any change in the mode of clothing the Army; this letter was dated 11th Nov. 1807. Here the hon. member took occasion to disapprove of the Secretary at War feeling it necessary to consult the duke of York upon the propriety of obeying any orders issued by the lords of the treasury, with respect to Army Clothing. If such applications were made to the Commander in Chief, merely because he was the son of our gracious sovereign, such a principle of false deference could not be too early corrected; if, on the other hand, it was owing to a superior authority vested in his royal highness, it would be right to ascertain whether the orders of the lords of the treasury should thus be permitted to be waved or disputed. The hon. member next read a letter from the Secretary at War to G. Harrison, bearing date the 8th of December, 1807, in which he expressed it to be incumbent on him to communicate with the duke of York on the subject of the instructions given by the lords of the treasury with respect to the clothing of the Army by public contract. In the same letter the right hon. secretary expresses his sincere wish that the lords of the treasury would comply with the highest military authority in the country, on a point on which his royal highness's experience ought to have such weight. That it had appeared that all contracts of a public nature in this department had not been productive either of any advantage to the individual, or of any real service to the public; and that he (the Secretary at War) therefore hoped, that their lordships would not force the mode of supply of clothing by public contract. It appeared then, that though the Secretary at War thought it necessary to have those communications with the duke of York, yet that he, at the same time, admitted the power of the lords of the treasury, independent of the wishes of his royal highness. The hon. member next referred to a letter, dated 8th Feb. 1808, addressed to the Secretary at War, with respect to another offer for the supplying great coats to the army by public contract.—The hon. member proceeded to state, that no sooner had Mr. Pierce received an order to furnish great coats at 16s. 16d., than he set off to a slop-seller of the name of Dickson, and bargained with him to furnish them at 13s. 6d. or 14s. This was a fact which could not be got rid of, and which he was ready to prove at the bar of the house. The loss to the public by this bargain, in one year, was no less than 30,000l., even on the supposition that Dickson furnished the coats at only 2s. 6d. less than Pierce's contract. —He should now beg leave to state a few words on the general clothing of the army. He was as reluctant as the right hon. gent. opposite (the Secretary at War) could be to break in on any of the privileges of colonels, but he could propose a mode of saving to the country without making any alteration in their situation. When ha stated the saving that might be produced from a change in the mode of contracting for Army Clothing at 100,000l., he found on a closer examination of the subject, that he had greatly under-rated it. If a committee were to be appointed, he should have no difficulty in shewing that instead of the price paid by colonels of 1l. 13s. 9d. for coat, waistcoat, breeches, and shoes, these articles could be furnished of the same quality for 1l. 7s. 8d. being a difference of 6s. 1d. on each suit, or of 76,041l. a year. Mr. Pierce stated, that for ready money he would give a discount of five per cent. The contractor gave six months credit; so this would form a deduction of two and a half per cent, and would reduce the saving to the public to about 68,000l. He could shew that there would be a saving on every cap of at least 1s. which would amount to about 12,500l. making together about 81,000l. On accoutrements, supposing them to last five years, there would also be a saving of about 12,000l. making 93,000l. and the annual saving on great coats, amounting to about 8000l. would produce a total of 101,000l.; all this, too, independent of the whimsical and absurd dresses used in many regiments, which seemed calculated for no other purpose, than to excite amusement, if not ridicule, in the public. He was convinced, when every thing was taken into computation, that he might estimate the saving, instead of 100,000l. at 200,000l. If he were to go to the opinions of those who had been in the service of army agents, and to adopt their tone, he should say, that it would even amount to 400,000l. For that, however, he could not vouch; he only gave the story as he received it. It was, however, he understood, no unusual thing for army agents to receive several hundreds a year for recommendations to particular regimental contracts. He should conclude with moving, "1. That it is the opinion of this house, that from an improper adherence to the system of Private Contract, the public have been put to a very unnecessary expence for military great-coats; and it is the farther opinion of this house, that the orders of the Treasury of the 5th Nov. 1807, and 1lth Feb. 1808, directing the great-coats of the army to be supplied by open contract, are highly proper and necessary to be adopted in future. 2. That it is the opinion of this house, that open Contract should be resorted to in all cases where the clothing and appointments of the army are ordered by government. 3. That a Committee be appointed to take under their consideration the Clothing and Appointments of the Army in general, with a view to ascertain, whether by the adoption of a new system, clothing and appointments agreeably to his majesty's regulations, might not be furnished on such terms as would ensure a great saving to the public, and at the same time allow a continuance of those emoluments to the colonels that they have hitherto enjoyed from the clothing of their regiments, or an equivalent in lieu thereof."—He concluded by stating, that it was not his intention to press his motions this session.

The Secretary at War

replied to the observations of the hon. gent. Those who were well acquainted with the woollen trade, had informed him that the prices had remained stationary from 1803 to the present time, With respect to the price for great-coats that had been fixed in 1803, namely, 16s. 6d. he could only say, that as far as he understood, that price had not been fixed without due deliberation, and a full consideration of every circumstance connected with the subject. A reference to the opinion of military men, and particular] v to that of the Commander in Chief, was indispensable on questions of this nature, and consequently the inferences of the hon. gent. did not apply. When the business was referred to the commander in chief, he communicated it to the board of general officers, who, of course, were perfectly disinterested, and who after due deliberation, declared their unanimous opinion, an opinion in which the commander in chief had concurred. The soldier's great-coat was to last him for three years: it was frequently his only covering, and it became therefore most necessary that the coats should not be of an inferior quality. On this principle, the board of general officers and the commander in chief had objected to any change in the system by which these coats had hitherto been furbished. The secretary at war had no con- nection whatever with the appointment of those who were to furnish the clothing of the army. Every colonel of a regiment selected his own army clothier. The war-office, therefore, could have no interest in the question. It was not to be expected, that the treasury would suppose any orders of this nature issued by them upon this subject were final, without consultation with the military authorities. The treasury had recommended a new system, but the board of general officers and the commander in chief were so strongly impressed with what they conceived would be the injury which the army would sustain from the change, that the treasury acquiesced. He did not think the least advantage would accrue to the public from taking the clothing out of the hands of the colonels; although he was satisfied that (provided a fair compensation were made to them) the colonels would be much benefited, and would be very happy to have the clothing removed from their hands into those of the public. He should move the previous question on each of the motions.

Mr. Whitbread

could find no answer in the speech of the right hon. gent. to a single one of the statements of his hon. friend. The speech of the right hon. secretary at war had consisted principally of a panegyric on great-coats. That the comforts arising from the use of them should be secured to the soldier, he would be one of the last to dispute; but, on the same principle, great part of the rest of the dress of the army should be abolished. Some of them were dressed in such a manner as to be the ridicule of every person who passed by. Some of the cavalry were seen equipped with immense mulls, caps, or hats, which whether the weather was cold or hot, wet or dry, must be equally insupportable; others had immense things hanging over their arm, under which they seemed ready to faint with fatigue. Whiskers too, it might be supposed, were extremely comfortable! He agreed that if a more comfortable great coat could be furnished to the soldier for 16s. 6d. than for 14s. it would be proper he should have it. But what was the position of his honourable friend? That the soldier had precisely the same coat on his back for 6s. 6d. that he might have for 14s. What greater comfort, then, he asked, could the soldier have in this? His hon. friend had stated, that one house had furnished at 6s. 6d. the very same articles which he had offered at 14s. 9d. because he could not get the latter tender accepted of. He agreed, that the commander in chiefought to be consulted, but he objected, that the second order of the treasury should only have been considered by the secretary at war, as a hint as to their opinion on the subject. He was surprised to find, that the right hon. gent. had offered no apology for his conduct; if so much of the comfort of the soldier depended on his great-coat, and this comfort was to be endangered by the change, in insisting that if his mode of furnishing was not to be followed, the business should be transferred to the commissary general. This shewed but little regard for the comfort of the soldier, that because the change was likely to endanger his comfort, he would give up all controul in the matter. As to the Committee of Finance doing any thing on this subject, he thought, it was in vain to expect it. If the chairman of that committee were a man of iron, if he were to live to the years of Methusalem, from the mode in which that committee was now proceeding, little good was to be looked for. The great-coats might be worn out again and again before any relief would be afforded from that quarter. He should therefore support all the Resolutions of his hon. friend.

General Stuart

thought it signified not what was the dress of soldiers, provided they were well disciplined. The dress alluded to by the hon. gent. was adopted in some light regiments of cavalry, in consequence of several Germans having come over to this country, who belonged to regiments that dressed in that way. Such dresses were considered as well adapted to cavalry employed at outposts. The saddles they used were particularly useful on such services. Several Hussar regiments were equipped in imitation of the German cavalry, by, order of the Commander in Chief; and he did not see that their dress was more ridiculous than the long tails and the monstrous inconvenient cocked hats, formerly worn by cavalry. If the business of providing for the clothing; of the soldiers was taken out of the hands of the colonels of regiments, it would produce no benefit to the army, nor any saving to the public. The soldiers would not then be so well off as at present; because it was the ambition of a colonel, who always had a regard for his regiment, to make the soldiers have as good an appearance as possible: and he generally spent more for the dress of the soldiers than was allowed by government for the purpose.

Mr. Whitbread

congratulated the Church on the vigilance of the two Archbishops, who he conjectured were a few days ago visiting its outposts, as he had discovered them mounted on hussar saddles. [A laugh, and a cry of order!]

Mr. Huskisson

thought every thing the hon. member could wish was now fairly in train, and likely to be accomplished. He defended the treasury from any imputation of blame, but reprobated the idea of open-contracts, as tending to raise the price of commodities to government.

Mr. Fuller

concurred with the hon. gent. (Mr. Whitbread), in ridiculing the dress of some of our regiments, and especially the sudden changes of regimentals, the expence of which had compelled many officers to quit their regiments. Adverting to the scantiness of clothing in some cases, he declared that he had seen instances in which the dress of the soldiers of a regiment had been made so tight, that it had been burst by the sudden contraction occasioned by a shower of rain; and the poor fellows were left with nothing but their shirts to cover a part of their bodies which he would not name. [A laugh.] On the whole, however, he believed that the clothing was conducted on a very equitable principle.—After a few words in explanation, Mr. Wardell withdrew his motions.