HC Deb 25 March 1835 vol 27 cc221-4
Mr. Tooke

presented a Petition from the Corporation and Inhabitants of Gravesend, praying that the sale of the Blockhouse Fort by the Board of Ordnance, which was advertised for the 30th inst., should be deferred, in order to afford the petitioners an opportunity of purchasing it, for the purpose of converting it into a place of public recreation. The petitioners stated, that it was advertised to be sold in forty lots, that it was likely to be converted into small cottages, and to become a nuisance, instead of being one of the public attractions of the place. The petitioners, after giving a statement of their negotiations with the late and present Board of Ordnance, for the purchase of this ground, proceeded to say, that the inhabitants of Gravesend would be willing to give a reasonable price for the ground in one lot, but that they would not enter into a competition with other purchasers, if it should be put up in forty lots, as in that case if one lot was purchased by some other party, their object might be defeated, and the place converted into a nuisance. The hon. Member hoped that the Board of Ordnance would attend to the prayer of the petitioners.

Colonel Leith Hay

, as a member of the late Board of Ordnance, wished to give some explanation on this subject. There had been a negotiation between the Corporation and inhabitants of Gravesend and the late Board of Ordnance, for the purchase of this fort; but a difference arose between them regarding the reservation of certain roads, and that the late Board of Ordnance seeing no prospect of those gentlemen coming to a conclusion on that point, felt it their duty to break off the negotiation altogether. They also took the opinion of the then Attorney-General, as to the agreement which had been partly concluded, who gave it as his opinion that the contract had been rendered void by the conduct of those parties; that the Ordnance had a right to put an end to it, and that the Board might, with perfect legality, re-advertise those premises for sale by public auction. The last minute of the late Board was made for the purpose of carrying that object into effect. That sale would then, undoubtedly, have taken place, but that the present Master-General of the Ordnance, without making inquiry from any of the persons of the late Board, or examining the papers which existed on the subject, obstructed it. [Sir Edward Knatchbull: The sale was only postponed.] Well, it was postponed; but it was postponed on a specific ground, not very complimentary to the late Board—namely, that inquiry should be first made whether in a military point of view, it would be necessary to retain those premises. Now, the matter underwent consideration before a Committee, composed of military officers and members of the Board of Ordnance, in 1834, and they decided that the property was no longer valuable in a military point of view, and that it should be sold. That opinion was afterwards submitted to the Inspector-General of Fortifications, and it received the sanction of Sir James Kempt, the late Master-General of the Board of Ordnance, who stood as high in a military point of view as any other Master-General possibly could. Under such circumstances, he thought that the delaying the sale of these premises, was an unmerited reflection on the late Board. If this property had been sold without reservation, he had reason to believe that, it would have fetched 3,000l. or 4,000l. more than had been offered by the Corporation of Gravesend for it. The petitioners, instead of having been treated harshly, had met with the greatest kindness and consideration from the Board of Ordnance.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

complained of the charges which had been made by the gallant Member against the present Board of Ordnance. There had been no intention on their part to cast any imputation on the late Board.

Colonel Leith Hay

had said, that the late Board had determined on the sale of this property, and that the present Board on coming into office, without inquiry had stopped the sale.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

took the responsibility of the deferring of this sale on himself, as he had advised the Master-General to put it off. He assured the hon. Member, that there was not the slightest wish to cast any imputation on the late Board in the transaction.

Mr. Harvey

said, that in point of fact, this was a modest application on the part of the inhabitants of Gravesend, to be allowed 3,000l. or 4,000l. out of the public purse. Now he, as one of the guardians of public property, entered his protest against the proposed mode of dealing with that property. He thought, that the exact value of the property in question ought to be ascertained; and, when that was done, he had no objection to let the town of Gravesend be so far favoured as to let it have the option of purchasing the property at an abatement—of 10 or 15 per cent.

Mr. Warburton

said, that if on selling the property to the town of Gravesend any abatement should be made in its actual value, care ought to be taken that the property was appropriated to public, not to private purposes.

Sir Frederick Trench

was sorry the hon. and gallant Officer should have thought it necessary to censure the motives of the Master-General of the Ordnance. He could venture to say, that the mind of the Master-General was influenced by no other motive than a desire to afford facility to any arrangement tending to promote the health, the interests, or the recreation of the inhabitants of Gravesend as far as was consistent with his duty to the public. [Colonel Leith Hay: I made no charge against the Master-General.] He thought the hon. and gallant Officer had distinctly charged the Master-General with having suspended the decision of the former Board hastily, and without reading the papers. The fact, however, was, that in his desire to do substantial and speedy justice, the Master-General had the voluminous papers connected with this subject sent to him to Scotland, to make himself master of it, even in the midst of the interesting and absorbing occupation in which he was then engaged. The hon. and gallant Officer seemed to think that it was an insult to the late Board, that Sir George Murray should look for data of his own on which to found his opinion. Now, though Sir George Murray entertained the highest opinion of his predecessor, and nothing could be further from his intention than to cast any reflection on the former Board, still he was not a man to be led blindly by the opinions of others, or to take anything for granted, when he had grounds on which to form an opinion of his own, and therefore he directed a report to be made of the military value of the premises, with a view to decide whether it were important to retain a power of resumption, which would of course diminish the amount of purchase-money to be placed to the credit of the public. He had been present at an interview between the Master-General and a gentleman of the Committee, in which Sir George Murray evinced every disposition to favour any plan for the gratification of the inhabitants of Gravesend; but distinctly stated, that as a trustee of the public property, he could not compliment away any portion of it to gratify his own wishes, or to please any body of men, however respectable. He would only add, that the Master-General was utterly incapable of the littleness of mind imputed to him.

Petition laid on the Table.