HC Deb 08 March 1832 vol 10 cc1311-24
Sir Matthew White Ridley

rose in pursuance of the notice he had given, to apply for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal so much of the Act of 20th George 2nd, c. 28, as related to the contribution of sixpence per month from the merchant-seamen towards the support of Greenwich Hospital. He was happy to say, that it would not be necessary for him to occupy much of the time of the House by troubling it with a long statement on this subject. He was perfectly aware of the difficulties under which he laboured, in endeavouring to bring forward a measure which had been objected to by such high authority as the distinguished Baronet the Governor of Greenwich Hospital, whose letter on the subject, pointing out the fallacy of the grounds on which his Motion was founded, must be in the hands of hon. Members. He trusted, it was hardly necessary for him to assure the House, in the outset, that he had not the slightest intention to do anything which would have the effect of injuring the establishment of Greenwich Hospital in any way whatever; nor had he any wish to withhold from the Hospital, those advantages which were so munificently and properly extended towards it. He was perfectly aware it had been stated, that the funds of the Hospital had not, on all occasions, been directly applied to the particular circumstances for which they were intended under the Act of Parliament, and that the strictest justice and impartiality had not, in some particular instances, been displayed in the selection of individuals on whom the benefits arising from the institution had been conferred. He would, therefore, take this, the earliest opportunity of stating, that from the best inquiries he had been enabled to make on the subject, he fully believed that there was no ground whatever for such accusations. On the contrary, he had every reason to believe that the funds were most properly applied, and that a strict course of impartiality had been pursued in the selection of the individuals who participated in those funds. But the case to which this Bill was intended to apply was one of a very simple character. It was no doubt known to the House, that soon after the establishment of the Hospital in the time of William 3rd, an Act of Parliament was passed regulating it, in which it was enacted, that sixpence a month should be taken from the pay of the mercantile seamen for the purpose of contributing towards the funds of the Hospital. The preamble of that Act stated, that for the encouragement of the service, it was fit and reasonable that seamen should be supported at the public charge, and therefore Greenwich Hospital was selected for the reception of these individuals. That Act was altered and amended by several subsequent enactments. In George 1st, the collection of the sixpences formed also a part of the Act, and it was expressly understood at that time, that the money was to be applied for the general use of the Hospital, and that the merchant-sea-men were to be entitled to participate in the advantages of the Hospital. In the 18th George 2nd, an Act was passed for the application of the rents and profits of the estates of the Earl of Derwentwater, to the support and maintenance of the Hospital, and prescribing the mode in which the profits of those estates were to be applied to that purpose. That Act contained a clause which implied that the provisions of the Act of 8th George 1st. extended only to seamen or marines in the naval service of his Majesty; for it said, "It is further enacted, that any seaman or mariner aboard any merchant vessel belonging to a subject of his Majesty shall, in consideration of his having contributed towards the support of the hospital be entitled to the benefits arising from it, if he has been wounded in the service of his Majesty." That Act, therefore clearly recognized the right of a merchant-seaman to be admitted to the hospital, on the ground of his having contributed towards its support. It was discovered, a few years after the passing of this Act, that the funds of Greenwich Hospital were rapidly decreasing, and that the applications for admission were so numerous that it was impossible to provide for the reception of the whole of the applicants. It was considered advisable, therefore, that the merchant-seamen should not be entitled any longer to the benefits of the institution; and the Act 20th George 2nd, cap. 38, in taking that benefit from them, laid down the necessity of establishing some institution for their support. The annual amount of their contribution to Greenwich at present was about 25,000l.; and he trusted that, even in the present state of the Exchequer, taking into consideration the manner in which the interests of these poor people were affected by this enactment, the noble Lord would not find it difficult to accede to his proposition. He had a list in his hand, of the number of merchant-seamen who, together with their widows and children, received pensions. The earnings of these poor men were comparatively very small. He might be told that the deduction of 6d. a month was very small too. But it was not small to them when compared with the amount of the earnings of these individuals. A man who had been all over the world, who had been exposed to fatigues and hardships of every description, and whose constitution had been injured by exposure to the different climates, and the numerous vicissitudes attending the naval service, received in his old age, a pension of 3s. 4d. a month. For a child he was allowed 1s. 6d. a month, which, with his own 3s. 4d. would not make quite 5s. for their support, And, even with regard to these miserable pittances, the funds were at present in such a state, that, in consequence of the repeated applications for admission, the trustees were placed under the disagreeable necessity of either contracting the amount of these pensions, or refusing to allow them at all; and the poor creatures were, in consequence, placed in a state of the greatest distress. This was the case at Newcastle-upon-Tyne; and also at Liverpool; and when it was recollected that these people had themselves contributed towards the support of Greenwich Hospital, it must be admitted that it was a case of very great hardship. He knew no case analogous to this—he knew no other institution in which private funds were required to contribute to public services—and it was neither fair nor just that the seamen should be called upon to do so. It was perfectly right that people should contribute to funds which were hereafter to support themselves and their families; but, in this case, the contribution was for the support of a great public establishment, whose merits he was quite ready to admit; but it was asking too much, to require that funds for the relief of disabled seamen should be supplied from the wages of these persons, when they were not allowed to participate in the benefit of their own contributions. He trusted that the House would give him leave to bring in a bill to repeal so much of these Acts as compelled merchant-seamen to contribute 6d. a month towards the support of Greenwich Hospital, and that the fund so taken away should be supplied by Government. Notwithstanding the difficulties under which the public treasury at present laboured, there was no very sufficient ground of objection to this proposition; because it appeared to be only an act of justice towards the best interests of the country. The very reason given by the distinguished individual whose letter he now held in his hand, in support of the view he took of this case, appeared to him (Sir M. Ridley) to afford the strongest arguments in favour of the proposition he was about to make. He must further observe, that these individuals were in a state of the greatest distress; and he, therefore, called upon the House, as an act of common justice and proper feeling, to acquiesce in the motion he now submitted to it. He moved for leave to bring in a bill to repeal so much of the Act of 20th George 2nd, cap. 28, as compels the payment of 6d. per month from merchant-seamen to Greenwich Hospital.

Sir James Graham

was aware the House was anxious to proceed to the discussion of another matter of considerable importance, and, therefore, he was unwilling to detain it on this subject. He should not, however, although he felt compelled to object to the Bill in its first stage, be under the necessity of troubling the House at any great length, because the letter, to which the hon. Baronet had alluded, embraced the greatest part of the reasons on which he was disposed to rely in resisting this proposition. In the first place, he begged to call the attention of the House to the very early period at which this particular grant was made to this institution; and he trusted the House would allow him to state, very shortly, what was the nature of the grant in question, and. the purposes to which it was applied. It appeared that the hospital was instituted in the reign of William the 3rd, for the purpose of inducing able seamen to enter the King's service. Its avowed purpose, therefore, was to encourage the interests of the King's service, and to raise it in the estimation of mariners generally, and that purpose was distinctly recognized by another Act, which granted certain privileges connected with Greenwich Hospital to merchant-seamen. It was also necessary to remind the House, that, although this custom had existed for nearly a century and a-half, in no one instance had a representation against this impost been made to the House until within a very recent period. It was, he believed, within the last four or five years, that the merchant-seamen first presented a petition to this House against it. He thought it was also right that he should state to the House, that advantages derived from Greenwich Hospital, as it was at present constituted, Were enjoyed by merchant-seamen. There were in that establishment about 2,200 seamen; and one-half of that number had been in the merchant-service before they entered into his Majesty's navy. Many of them had been engaged in that service twenty or thirty years. It was quite clear, therefore, that the prime of their lives had been dedicated to the merchant-service and not to that of the public. There were also other advantages enjoyed by merchant seamen from this institution. There was a school for 400 boys, of whom 300 were the children of petty officers or seamen in his Majesty's service, the remainder being the children of merchant-seamen. He was aware that, by a recent alteration, in consequence of the establishment being changed, certain difficulties had arisen with respect to nomination; but he had to inform the House, that by an arrangement now in contemplation, and about to be carried into effect, each fourteenth nomination would belong to the merchant-service exclusively. He must frankly state to the House his opinion that this motion, which professed to consult the interests of merchant-seamen, did not, in fact, relate to them so much as to the ship-owners; and he was quite confident that, in the present state of wages and great competition, even if the House removed this impost, no addition would be made to the wages of the men employed in the merchant-service. He had no doubt his hon. friend was perfectly aware of a letter addressed to the Governor of Greenwich Hospital, signed by Mr. Woodrooffe, on behalf of the merchant-seamen. He had in his hand a private letter, written by Mr. Woodrooffe, who signed the petition on behalf of the merchant-seamen, in which he frankly stated to the Governor of Greenwich Hospital the nature of the motives which had induced the merchant-seamen to agitate this question, from which it would appear that their complaints did not arise from the particular grievance of the impost in question, but from the reduced rate of wages which they received from their employers. This gentleman said— I am directed to state, that the seamen hare perused your letter which has been published, and acknowledge the justice of your observations: and, that if they had the means of continuing to make this contribution, they never would have complained of it; and they also state, that if they received the wages which were paid them at the close of the war, they would consider it nothing but just and necessary to make the contribution. They state, that they have in vain endeavoured to obtain from their employers an increase of wages; and it is in despair of settling the dispute between themselves and their employers, that they have applied for the removal of this impost of 6d., which, in no case, amounts to more than 4s. in the course of the year. The real question for the House to consider, therefore, was, on whom ought the burden, necessary to the support of this great national establishment, to fall? He had already stated, that, from the reign of William the 3rd up to the present period, this deduction had existed; and he must now shortly state to the House that, in consequence of the very great reductions which had been made in that establishment, no further reductions could, at the present moment, possibly be made in the income of Greenwich Hospital. Within the last twenty years, a reduction had taken place in the expenditure of the institution, on an average, to the extent of 7,000l. a-year. Within that period, also, a diminution of the income of Greenwich Hospital had taken place to the extent of 37,000l. per annum, as he would explain to the House. In the first place, there was the sixpenny contribution paid by the King's seamen, which was abolished, that had produced 21,000l. a-year. It might be said, that this was an unjust measure without a corresponding reduction from the contribution of merchant-seamen; the grounds upon which this contribution was abolished, however, was, for the purpose of raising the King's service in the estimation of the men, and with the view of increasing its efficiency, that was a consideration that must never be lost sight of, if they endeavoured to do away with or lessen the evils of impressment. The most rational means of avoiding the recurrence of the necessity of having recourse to that odious practice was, to raise the King's service as near to the merchant-service, in point of pay, as possible. He admitted, therefore, that this was, pro tanto, an increase of pay; but, on these grounds, he contended, that it was a very wise and reasonable provision. The second source of the diminution which had taken place in the income of Greenwich Hospital was, that there were some half-pay officers employed in that establishment who had been heretofore paid by the public; they were subsequently paid by the institution for the purpose of effecting a saving to the public. The third source of diminution arose from a measure by which the rate of freight Was diminished. The fourth reduction was one which would be consequent upon a measure which was now in progress. The matter, therefore, stood thus—the income of Greenwich Hospital had been reduced to the extent of 37,000l.; while the expenditure, after every effort that could be made, could not be reduced to a greater extent than 7,000l. The surplus income was at present very small; the tax in question yielded 22,000l. a-year: it was, therefore, obvious that, unless the House was prepared to reduce the establishment itself to a very great extent, this money must either be paid by the merchant-seamen or out of the public purse. With regard to the reduction of the establishment itself, it so happened, that, from its very peculiar nature, even a large reduction in the number of men would produce but a very small saving of money. Almost all the in-pensioners of that establishment would be intitled, if they were dismissed, to large sums as out-pensioners, the greater part of them to about 12l. a-year; while their cost as in-pensioners, for food and clothing, did not exceed 20l. a-year per man; and, consequently, a reduction of 500 pensioners would effect a money-saving of only 4,000l. a-year. So, also, with regard to the officers of the establishment; almost all of them were intitled to half-pay, and the difference between their half-pay and their allowance at Greenwich was so small, that any saving consequent upon their discharge would almost be counterbalanced by their half-pay. He was bound, also, to state to the House, that this was the worst possible time at which this question could be urged. The pressure on Greenwich Hospital was at present more than usually severe, because a large number of men who had been employed during the war, and who had, since its termination, been able to maintain themselves either in the merchant's or King's service, had become decrepit and in extreme distress, and the number of applications for admission was greater than at any ordinary time. There was another reason why the expenses of Greenwich Hospital were larger now than they would be a few years hence. When the prize branch was transferred to Greenwich, it was made liable to all outstanding prize claims. For the first year the demands on this ground amounted to 30,000l.; it subsequently decreased to 10,000l., at present it did not amount to above 8,000l. a-year; and at the end of five years, he believed the demands would cease. There would, at the end of that time, in all probability, be a very considerable increase in the funds of the institution. There was, also, another measure now in progress, which he alluded to the other evening, with respect to a change in the land security, which would also increase the funds of the establishment. Without pledging himself as to the effect of future arrangements, he could undertake to assert, that, at the expiration of a few years, the income of the Hospital might be so much increased as to dispense with the demands on the wages of merchant-seamen. He was quite sure he spoke the feelings of the House, and the highest authorities on the subject, when he asserted, that it was a point of the utmost importance to raise the estimation of the naval service in the minds of seamen generally, and there was nothing which would contribute to that so. much as the knowledge they possessed, that, when wounded or disabled, they could, among the dangers and trials to which they were necessarily exposed, look forward to Greenwich as a certain asylum, and as a place of rest in their old age, after years of toil and danger in the service of their country. Under these circumstances, he thought the House would not consider it expedient to take from the already diminished funds of Greenwich Hospital, a source of its revenue quite unconnected with merchant-seamen, as it was really paid by the owners, who might be fairly called upon to continue it in return for the protection they received from the King's ships in time of war and occasionally in peace. On these grounds he felt it necessary to resist the motion of his hon. friend.

Mr. Wrightson

concurred in everything which had fallen from his hon. friend, the member for Newcastle, and would most heartily support his Motion. He thought it a miserable economy which would refuse 20,000l. a-year for such a purpose as this, and most unfair that such a tax should be levied upon the merchant service, whether it fell upon the seaman or the shipowner.

Mr. Hodgson

said, he felt called upon to make one remark, in reply to the right hon. Baronet, who had asserted, that the men employed in the merchant service derived advantage from this institution, because having been brought up in that service, they had subsequently been employed in the Royal Navy. But the House must recollect, that they were not admitted on account of having been in the merchant service, but solely because they had been employed in the public service, and they would just as well have been entitled to the benefits of the institution, had they never been in any other employment at sea but the Royal Navy. The number of persons in the hospital who had been engaged in the merchant service, only showed how much the navy was indebted to that service for hands; and it was a hard case to take them from the service to which they had been brought up, and then make that a plea to reduce their wages. He would support the Motion.

Mr. Dixon

thought, it would be much more just that this sum should be taken from the general funds of the country, than that it should be levied upon a particular interest.

Mr. Schonswar

perfectly agreed in the propriety of keeping up the establishment of Greenwich Hospital; but he contended that the brave men who found an asylum, after years spent in the public service, and suffering from wounds and infirmities, ought to be considered as claimants upon the country. They had an undoubted right to be supported by the public at large,' instead of being partly provided for by one particular class. The merchant service never benefitted by the expenses they were called on to pay; and there would be as much justice in calling upon a farmer's servant to pay to a fund because he might afterwards possibly enlist into the army, as to charge a merchant seaman sixpence a month for the support of Greenwich Hospital. He had himself seen some particular instances of the hardships growing out of this practice, and one of them he well remembered. It was the case of a young man who had lost both his legs; and on presenting a petition to him on this subject observed, "Do you not consider mine a case of great hardship; I have been mutilated in the merchant service, and can receive no benefit from the sixpences I have contributed to the support of seamen. I do not object to paying this sum, but I do think that we ought to share in the benefit." On these grounds he felt himself called upon to support the Motion.

Sir George Cockburn

said, that some years ago he had been disposed to give way upon this subject, as a relief to the distressed shipping interest, and not because it would be any relief to the merchant seaman. The fact was, that the monthly sixpences were paid by the shipowners, who, of late, had experienced very considerable relief, and had a right to pay this trifling charge in return for the protection they received. In time of war, their vessels were always accompanied by men of war, who, in the event of their being assailed, fought in their defence, while the private ships remained quiet; but should any person in the merchant service receive injury or wounds when engaged in action with an enemy, they were in such case as much entitled to the benefit of Greenwich Hospital, as the crews of King's ships. After what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who had defended the charges on the wages of the merchant seamen on the plea of necessity only, and had stated his intention to dispense with them whenever other funds sufficient for the support of seamen wounded or disabled in the public service could be obtained, he would recommend the hon. Baronet to withdraw his Motion for the present, and trust to the increase of the income of Greenwich Hospital, as a means of entirely getting rid of the charge.

Lord William Lennox

would not have risen, had he not the honour of representing a populous town deeply interested in this question. After the able manner in which the hon. members for Newcastle had stated the question, he would not occupy the time of the House, but merely say, that he thought it an act of injustice that the merchant seamen should be taxed for the support of an hospital that ought to be supported by the country. He should vote in support of the Motion.

Mr. Hume

said, he never heard of a man receiving a pension as a merchant seaman from the funds of Greenwich Hospital. Soldiers were not called upon to contribute towards the support of Chelsea Hospital, and he thought that sailors ought not to be taxed for the maintenance of Greenwich Hospital. No class of men were more deserving than the merchant seamen, and there were none whose interests were in a more miserable condition, or possessed fewer advocates. It appeared that one-fourth of the number of children admitted into Greenwich Hospital School were intended to be taken from those whose parents were attached to the merchant service. He very much doubted the propriety of that institution. He was inclined to think that the children were chiefly selected from persons resident on the spot, or in London, and that the system of favouritism was at work in procuring their entrance. The yearly aggregate of the monthly tax levied on the merchant seamen on behalf of the hospital was no trifling matter. In 1831, the amount deducted from their wages in this way was 24,000l.—an important sum at any time, but especially important in the present distressed state of the shipping interest. Why should the merchants of the country, by whom the taxes was in reality paid—why, he asked, must they be forced to pay 24,000l. a-year for the purpose of keeping up a great national establishment? Even poor as the nation was, and depressed as was the state of our financial resources, the burthen should not be imposed upon a particular class of the community. Nor, though the tax was paid by the ship-owners, would it be easy to persuade the sailors that it was not paid by themselves. For his own part, he did not object to the institution, but he wished that it were supported, like all our national institutions, out of the public purse, and that our liberality should not be exercised at the expense of individuals. He was extremely anxious for the adoption of the hon. Baronet's measure, yet at present he conceived it would be better not to press it to a division, as he was sure that Ministers themselves would next year, or in the course of a few months, see the propriety of coming forward to perform what was barely an act of justice.

Sir George Clerk

said, the remark which had been made by his hon. and gallant friend relating to the support the merchant service received from the navy in time of war, showed that that service derived some benefit from the Royal Navy, and, therefore, that there was such connexion between them that the private service ought to contribute to the support of persons occasionally wounded or disabled in defending their vessels. No other class of persons in the community were similarly circumstanced. The fact was, that this was neither more nor less than a tax of 20,000l. a-year on the shipping interest of the country; and he should be very happy whenever the moment arrived that Greenwich Hospital had a surplus revenue, so that the right hon. Baronet might be able to relieve the shipping interest from that tax; but certainly they received the benefit of protection in return for paying it. Now that he was on his legs, he begged to put a question relative to the Keswick estates of Greenwich Hospital. The other night a question was put as to the sale of some of those estates; and he had understood the right hon. Baronet then to say, that only a small portion of them was to be disposed of in that manner. He now, however, saw by an advertisement in the newspapers that two or three of the estates were offered for sale; he, therefore, wished to know, whether it was in contemplation of the Government to dispose of the larger portion of those estates? With respect to the hon. Baronet's Motion he presumed that he would hardly think it necessary to press it, after what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet, but for the present rest contented with the promise that had been held out.

Mr. Baring

said, that all sea-faring men had an interest in Greenwich Hospital, because, from the manner in which Government manned its ships, no one who entered the merchant service was free from the liability of being pressed into the service of the King. He admitted that they were not taxing the seamen by this, but the commercial marine of the country; and, certainly, if it could be got rid of, it would be very desirable. He thought, however, that he could suggest a means of saving enough out of the funds of Greenwich Hospital to pay for this expenditure. According to a paper which he held in his hand, explanatory of the gross rents and disbursements of the Derwentwater estates, it appeared that the disbursements had frequently been as great as the receipts. In this he was speaking only of the estates, and not of the mines; and he fancied that as most Gentlemen understood something of the management of estates, they would be a little surprised at the statement which he had made. The amount of the rents last year was 25,000l., and of the disbursements 17,000l.; but this was comparatively low, for in some years the expenses had risen to upwards of 40,000l. He, therefore, really thought that, with proper management, a saving on those estates might be made equal to the amount of the seamen's expenses.

Sir James Graham

assured the hon. Gentleman that the expenses of the Derwentwater estates had not escaped the notice of the present Board of Admiralty nor of the last. But his answer to the statement of the hon. Gentleman must be, that the expense was already incurred, and there was, therefore, now no help for it. The estates, however, had been placed in the highest state of culture, and the consequence was, that they would be highly productive without incurring any great outlay for some considerable space of time. With respect to the sale of the estates, he had certainly thought it right to direct that some of them should be sold for the sake of ascertaining their value; the sale, however, had been confined to the outlying estates, and the main body of the property had not been at all dismembered. As the thing had only been done by way of experiment, it was impossible for him to say whether any further sale would be deemed advisable.

Mr. Goulburn

trusted that, before any further sate took place, an opportunity would be afforded for the discussion of the subject in that House.

An Hon. Member

was not disposed to withdraw a single farthing from Greenwich Hospital; and he thought it was an unreasonable argument to say, that, because a man was liable to be called on to serve the king, he ought also to be required to pay sixpence a month while in the merchant service.

Mr. Weyland

said, if he saw any security that the money raised by the tax would be distributed among the men from whom it came, he would not object to its continuance. He, however, had a proposition to make to the hon. Baronet. It was well known that, by paying ls. 3d. a month to a Friendly Society, every man was able to obtain an allowance in sickness, and an annuity in old age. A similar provision in this Bill, or any other of the same kind, should have his support. But he would not consent to exact the payment of 6d. a month from the seamen, unless he could be sure that it was to go towards a fund, the result of which was to be the moral and temporal benefit of the sailor.

Sir Matthew White Ridley

said, there were two points in which he had been misunderstood. When he had opened this discussion he had distinctly stated, that he had no intention whatever to propose a deduction from the funds of Greenwich Hospital; be had merely taken it as a question between the Consolidated Fund and the pockets of the seamen. Neither was it, as supposed to be, money deducted from the pockets of the seamen into those of the ship-owners. His object was, that the subscription of the seamen should be applied to their own local funds, and swell them into importance and utility. With respect to Greenwich Hospital, though some hon. Gentlemen would seem to find fault with the appropriation of the funds of that charity, he felt bound to say, that he had made an inquiry on the subject, and his belief, in consequence, was, that there was no such misapplication. The appointments appeared to be fairly dealt out, and there seemed to be no just ground of complaint on any account. He felt much gratified at what had fallen from the right hon. Baronet; and finding that the sense of the House appeared to be, that he should adopt the suggestion thrown out on the part of the Government, he was willing to withdraw his Motion in the present instance, and look forward to the time when the right hon. Baronet should be able to carry into execution that which he proposed.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.