HC Deb 20 September 1841 vol 59 cc654-8

On the proposal that the remaining half of 50,000l., be granted for the permanent repair and improvement of the Caledonian Canal.

Mr. Williams

said he had been one of the committee appointed to inquire and report its opinion upon the subject of the condition of the canal, and the advantages to be derived to commerce from a further outlay of public money. He regretted to say the subject had been treated very summarily, and in the conviction that the interests of trade were not served in proportion to the enormous expense of this canal he had voted against the report; another Gentleman voted for it, two had signed it without having paid any attention to the subject; and the result on the whole was that, the numbers being equal, the casting vote lay with the chairman, Mr. Robert Steuart, who, being a Scotch gentleman, thought it was desirable to secure to Scotland the advantages of this canal, and thus the proposition, originally for granting 200,000l., according to the estimate of Mr. Telford for the canal, was, in spite of his opposition, carried. It was necessary to state to the committee, that during the last nineteen years, no less a sum than 2,350,000l. had been lavished by the Legislature upon this object, and of so little advantage was it to the trade, of the kingdom, that the tolls on it produced no more than 2,500l. a year since 1821. Since which the expenditure had been 26,000l. above the income derived from it. For the last seven years the actual loss to the country had been on an average 2,070l. a year. This was not the only aspect in which this great undertaking presented itself to their consideration, for it was stated by Mr. Walker, the present engineer, that, in order to render this canal perfectly complete and useful, a still larger sum than the 200,000l. recommended by the report of the committee would be necessary. Mr. Robert Steuart, in order to obtain the sanction of the different commercial constituencies in the country, wrote to five of the principal English ports—namely, London, Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, and Newcastle; he also wrote to Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow, Dundee, and Leith. He alluded to Mr. Walker's report, and pointed out the advantages which would arise from increasing the depth of the canal from eleven feet to seventeen feet, and placing, steamers upon it, and he would now read the answers which were received. The secretary to the committee at Lloyd's, writing in the name of the committee, said:— Their impressions are, that no advantage could accrue to the shipping and commerce of the country by rendering the Caledonian canal more navigable, of sufficient importance to compensate for the expense. And let the House recollect, that a great portion of the shipping insurance is effected at Lloyd's, The answer received from Bristol was:— This port is not materially interested in the question. The communication received from the Chamber of Commerce at Hull was to this effect:— After having made the necessary inquiry of the merchants and shipowners, we have come to the unanimous conclusion, that the trade of this port does not appear to us to be interested in the matter, and, in our opinion, were the contemplated alterations carried into execution, few or no vessels leaving here to the westward would take advantage of the Caledonian canal. Liverpool, from which 666 vessels went north about, the year before, did not condescend to send any answer; and as it was thought the letter might have miscarried, a second was written, and according to his recollection the answer returned was that they considered the project of no value to their trade. From Newcastle no answer whatever was received. The communication received from Dublin was to the following effect;— I am directed by the council of the Chamber of Commerce to inform you that the merchants of this port, engaged in the Baltic trade, are of opinion that no material benefit would accrue to them if the Caledonial Canal was completed and steam-tugs placed thereon. From Belfast the following resolution resolution was received:— Resolved, that the Chamber of Commerce of this town do not consider the advantages likely to be derived to the trade of Belfast to be such as to warrant them in recommending such a large toll as that contemplated for the Caledonian canal. The replies from Dundee, Glasgow, and Leith were in favour of Mr. Walker's plan A return was also made by the Custom House of the number of vessels that went north about, from sixteen of the larges commercial ports in the United Kingdom embracing nearly the whole of the trade of the country carried on in that direction, from which it appeared, that in 1838, the number of ships was 2,042, the tonnage being 391,400 tons. The number of vessels going north about from London, Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, and Newcastle was 1,386, with a tonnage of 274,000. Now, supposing all the other vessels that went north about to have used the Caledonian anal, the number would only have been 656, and the tonnage 117,000. The number of vessels that went north about from Dundee, Glasgow, and Leith was 280, the tonnage 49,000. But to the great number of vessels passing through the Pentland Firth the canal was of no value. The number that went through in 1838, was 1,827, of which 1,175 were British vessels, 206 American, 220 belonging to Northern nations, and 26 from the West Indies. Now, with respect to the expenses. During the last few years they had been nearly five times the sum annually received. Such an expenditure he considered a perfect waste of the public money, and he trusted that the Government would send down some person in whom they could place confidence, together with an engineer, both being unconnected with Scotland, to examine the work and ascertain whether it could be conducted in a manner beneficial to the country. If they would take the advice, he was convinced that no further outlay would take place, and that the Chancellor of the Exhequer would save at least 300,000l. He would now state to the House the evidence on which this outlay was recommended. Mr. Walker was asked this question with reference to the estimate. "And did you make any accurate or minute survey of the canal? "His answer was:— I did: when I say minute survey, I mean such a survey as I should make without taking the depth and dimensions of the different parts. This I requested Mr. May to do when I left the canal. Another question was, What time did it occupy you? "To which he replied," I was about a week altogether upon the line; after having finished the survey, I left with Mr. May instructions as to the detailed surveys. About six months afterwards we met, when the full detail of the works was gone into, and an estimate of every part was formed from his (Mr. May's) detailed survey. Now here was a chief engineer making an estimate without having taken either the depth or dimensions of the canal, relying entirely on the evidence of Mr. May, an ordinary engineer. No doubt Mr. May was a trustworthy man, but from what he (Mr. Williams) saw of him before the committee, he must say that he did not consider him as possessing a sufficient knowledge of engineering to form an estimate of such a work as that now under discussion. The estimate was founded on a very loose calculation, and he thought such a large sum ought not to be expended without some further inquiry. Although the report of the committee was agreed to in 1839, some doubt was entertained on the subject, and the committee was revived in the following year, when Mr. Steuart stated that he had received an intimation that a joint-stock company had been formed, who were ready to take the matter out of the hands of the Government, but the negotiation was not carried into effect. No evidence in favour of the work was adduced except that of gentlemen connected with Scotland; and if the work was likely to confer so much benefit on that country, it was rather strange that some of the commercial towns and counties did not undertake its management. Under all the circumstances, he trusted the Government would consent to postpone the vote until the next Session.

Sir Robert Peel

was of opinion that the towns and counties of Scotland were much too wise to accept of the offer. A sum of money had been expended on the undertaking, which there was a natural reluctance to lose; but if no public advantage was likely to accrue from following it up, he thought the sooner it was abandoned the better. It would be wiser not to proceed than to incur the loss of several hundreds of thousands of pounds more. He, therefore, had no hesitation in agreeing to postpone the vote, and thus afford an opportunity of considering what steps should be taken to prevent the loss of what had already been expended. No further expenditure ought to take place until an impartial inquiry should be entered into with respect to the probable advantages which would result from the carrying out the project.

Sir G. Clerk

did not consider the work likely to be of benefit to Scotland, and had protested against the large sum which had been annually voted. The work was undertaken not on the recommendation of any person connected with Scotland. It was commenced about forty years ago, on the suggestion of Lord Colchester, Mr. Isaac Hawkins Brown, and Mr. William Smith, of Norwich, whose political opinions were essentially different, but who philanthropically suggested that it would afford employment to persons residing in the Highlands of Scotland. After the works had been contracted for, persons accustomed to excavations were engaged; and he believed, that not a single Highlander was employed. He understood that some portion of the work was in a dangerous state. One part of the canal had been constructed by damming up one of the large locks twelve feet above its natural level. The embankment was now rather insecure, and if it should give way a large district would be inundated, and probably a great sacrifice of life and property would take place. He was quite satisfied, that the work would never pay its own expenses. Such works ought not to be undertaken as national works, but by individuals, who would be more likely to take an interest in their management than any public commissioners. He trusted the expense which had been incurred in this instance would be a warning to the House not to undertake the execution of public works. The hon. Member for Coventry had alluded to the committee of 1840, and to a proposition for transferring the canal to the management of a joint-stock company. The canal was to be placed under their control, they undertaking to make all the necessary repairs, and to be restricted to a certain amount of toll. It was true the negotiation had been broken off at that time, but within the last few days another proposal had been made on the subject. It was quite clear, that certain works must be proceeded with forthwith, but he believed, that sufficient sums remained for that purpose out of the supply last voted.

Vote postponed.