HC Deb 29 February 1844 vol 73 cc396-406
Mr. Rice

rose to call the attention of the House to the Report of the Committee on Shipwrecks, with reference to Harbours of Refuge. He trusted the House would be of opinion that it was the duty of the Government and of the Legislature to adopt such measures as might appear necessary, not only for the security of our commerce, but for the preservation of life and property from loss at sea. These were the objects for which the Shipwreck Committee of last year was nominated. That Committee was appointed with the sanction of Her Majesty's Government, and if the re- commendations of that Committee were supported by good and substantial evidence (and he believed no doubt could be entertained on the subject), it would be a waste of time if they should be attended with no practical result. The Committee made several recommendations of considerable importance; but he would confine his observations to that part of the Report which had reference solely to Harbours of Refuge, and it was not his wish to trespass on the time of the House by referring to that part of the evidence which related to the plans of different Harbours; neither would he advert to that part of the evidence which recommended any particular localities. It might be supposed, that he felt some predilections in favour of the town which he had the honour of representing, but whatever might be its claims, he thought he should best consult its interest by divesting his present motion of any local character. He trusted that other hon. Members would adopt the same course, leaving the Government to refer the matter to competent persons to decide upon the most fitting places for Harbours of Refuge. He believed the evidence on which the Report was founded would bear him out in the assertion that the formation of one or more large Harbours in the narrow seas, was not only a Measure of great national utility, but one of immediate and urgent necessity. He would now trouble the House with a short extract from the Report of the Committee. The Committee said— Witnesses of the highest authority have given evidence before the Committee, proving the want of harbours accessible at all times of the tide, and urging the necessity which exists for their erection on those parts of the coast where such Harbours do not exist; and your Committee strongly recommend the immediate attention of the Government and the Legislature to the subject. The witnesses, to whose evidence the Committee refer, have pointed out different localities as most eligible: but die Committee abstain from recommending any particular situations for Harbours, from a conviction that these points will be best decided on by a body, composed of scientific and competent persons, whose attention should be specially and exclusively directed to this subject. He might observe, that in the Motion which he had submitted to the House, he had adopted, as far as he possibly could, the recommendation of the Committee to nominate a Committee of scientific and competent persons. The Committee went on to say:— Attaching the greatest importance to this vast project, on national grounds, as well as for the protection and security of trade, your Committee think it most desirable that as large an appropriation of national funds as can be made be devoted annually to the construction of Harbours of Refuge in such localities as may be recommended. The Committee then gave their opinion as to certain Harbours, to which he (Mr. Rice) would not refer for the reasons already given. A great number of witnesses were examined, amongst whom were five or six experienced officers, and several civilians who had taken a great interest in the subject. But, in order not to weary the House, he would only refer to the evidence of two or three individuals, who, from their station and professional experience, were entitled to the attention of the House. He would first take the evidence of Captain Washington, an officer who had been employed by the Admiralty to survey the eastern coast. Captain Washington was asked, "Have you turned your attention to Harbours of Refuge?" His answer was, Yes, I have thought a great deal about them; there is a great want of Harbours of Refuge on the East Coast. We have nothing flow the Forth to the Humber, an extent of a couple of hundred miles; between the Humber and the Thames there is nothing but the port of Harwich; so that there is on the East Coast of England nothing but the Thames, Harwich, the Number, and the Forth; between the Thames and Portsmouth there is nothing at all that I know of. He thought the House would admit that, considering the position of France, that part of the coast from Portsmouth to the Thames was not the least important. That gallant Officer was then examined as to certain localities which he (Mr. Rice) would pass over, for the purpose of noticing the evidence of Captain Bullock, who said— I was directed by the Admiralty to follow the steps of the Commission on Harbours of Refuge, and make examinations of the Harbours they had not time to do; to take the soundings, and so on. He was then asked, Is it your opinion that it would add to the security of shipping coming up Channel on that coast if there were a Harbour of Refuge somewhere between Portsmouth and the Nore. And he replied, I reported that that was necessary. Mr. Cubitt, who was one of the Com- missioners appointed in the year 1840 to survey the South Eastern coast and the state of the Harbours, was first examined as to the localities of the place which he had the honour to represent; but he was also asked, Will you state, without reference to that Report, whether you conceive there is a necessity for a Harbour of Refuge for the safety of Shipping between Portsmouth and the Nore?" And he replied. "I think there is. That was strongly recommended in the Report of the Commissioners; and of those places there laid down—that is, the North Foreland and Dover, and Beachy Head, and so on, we all agreed, that Dover was the most important place, from its fortifications and other circumstances connected with the situation, more so than any of the rest. His Grace the Duke of Wellington, the Warden of the Cinque Ports, was also examined. He says:— The attention of the Committee has been directed to the subject of a harbour of refuge between Portsmouth and the Thames. Will your Grace have the goodness to state your opinion as to the necessity for the erection of a new harbour?" "I have no doubt about it. I entertain no doubt that it is absolutely necessary; there is now no security between Portsmouth and the Downs. Dover Roads is a very secure place in the period of a northerly or easterly wind, but there is no security at other times; but, on the contrary, it is a very dangerous place in a wind from the south-west. They can run for the Downs, but there is no great ease in the Downs; certainly there is no security in Dover, except from warlike attempts. But I should say, that considering the want of protection front the weather and from military attacks in the Channel, the trade of the port of London would be in a very precarious situation, and will be a very losing one in a variety of ways in time of war, if something is not done beforehand, if some precautions are not taken. Steam power in moving ships has made such progress at present, that it must have a most material effect on maritime warfare in future times. I use the words maritime warfare in contra-distinction to naval warfare. If anybody will just consider the advantage the French coast enjoys over the coast of this country, in observation of what is passing at sea; it is to the southward; they have the sun to their backs; they see everything quite clear; and it is possible from the coast of France to calculate to a moment at what period a vessel coming up Channel will arrive at particular points, and they may be in readiness to seize her at any point which may happen to be unguarded, supposing the vessel to be without convoy, and supposing that there should be no naval means at that point to take care of her. I should say that the trade of the port of London would la- bour under a great disadvantage if it were found that every vessel coming up from Portsmouth was obliged to come up in a convoy, that she should be picked up unless there were a convoy; and there are no means of providing for that safety except by ports; not one only, but there ought to be, I should say, at least two between the Downs and Portsmouth; I should say one about Dungeness, and another possibly at Dover. I have given a good deal of reflection to this subject, and have thought of it a long while, and that is the conclusion to which I have come; and it is a rational conclusion, for it is founded on what the state of the commerce of this port—which is the great port of the country—will be by-and-bye, if something is not done. His Grace went on further to explain the necessity of harbours for this purpose, and was asked— Your Grace is of opinion that it is absolutely necessary there should be one? His answer was— I think it so desirable as to be in effect absolutely necessary. He (Mr. Rice) did not care, provided a large harbour were made, whether it was a harbour of refuge or a harbour of defence, because a good harbour of defence would be a good harbour of refuge, and a good harbour of refuge would be a good harbour of defence. It was the duty of the Legislature to attend to the commercial interests of the country, and it was the duty of the Government to watch over and provide the means of security, not only for our commerce, but for our coast. He recollected the state of the coast when the country was threatened with an invasion by Buonaparte, and he was quite sure that if another war should arise, steamers might run down upon our coast at any time, unless some efficient means should be taken to prevent them. At the time to which he had referred, if steam-vessels had been employed as much as at present, Napoleon might have easily landed 15,000 or 20,000 men. He did not mean to say that he should have entertained any fear as to the result, but such an occurrence would have tended to destroy the confidence which had been always felt in our insular position. Supposing every one of the invaders to have been cut off, still it would have been shown this country was liable to be exposed to those horrors with which almost every country was visited during the course of the last war. He felt a strong opinion on this subject; and must say, that although England, conscious in her own strength, could afford to stand thus unguarded, yet looking at the great improvement which had taken place in steam navigation, it would be advisable to take every precaution against what might occur in the event of another war. We were now in a state of profound peace, and it was the wish of every right-thinking man in both England and France, that that peace should continue; and he perhaps might here be excused for expressing the satisfaction which he felt at what passed on the occasion of the opening of the Dover railway. The municipal authorities of Boulogne were present, and he was extremely gratified to hear them express their warmest wishes for the continuance of a mutually good understanding between the two countries. He believed that the sentiments of the right hon. Baronet on that subject were fully reciprocated by the French Government. But were the French Government the less active on that account? Were they not increasing their navy, particularly that branch of it which consisted of steam-vessels? He might be wrong, but if so he was of course liable to be corrected; but he believed he was right when he stated, that at the present moment the numerical force of the French steam navy was greater than our own. He did not say that it was more efficient, but he believed it was greater. They had acted according to the old maxim, that the best way of preserving peace was to be prepared for war; and he thought they had acted wisely in taking advantage of a period of profound peace to complete and render efficient the force of their steam navy. They had also improved the whole coast from Dunkirk to Cherbourg—the entrance to the harbours of Calais and Boulogne had been greatly improved, and the harbour and breakwater at Cherbourg were now completed. When he was there in the summer of 1842, there were 400 men employed at the work, and a gallant officer (Captain Taylor), who was examined before the Committee, stated that the harbour of Cherbourg was capable of containing forty sail-of-the-line. When the French Government were thus acting, why were we content to look idly on without doing anything whatever? He asked the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government, when he meant to act on the opinion expressed by him in 1840? He really did hope that they should no longer hear financial objections to the proposal from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. What was the amount of expenditure considered necessary? In the report laid before Government by the Commission appointed by the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer's predecessor in office, to examine the plans and estimates for a harbour of refuge on an extensive scale, the total amount for the three first years was 500,000l. At the end of that time, the harbour, it was supposed, would be so far completed, and would then, in order to give it the solidity necessary for all great national works, require a further period of ten years more at an average of 100,000l. to render it perfect. Ought such a sum as this to form any reason for longer delay? He believed that no one—not even those Gentlemen who assumed to themselves a peculiar watchfulness over the public purse—would object to the outlay of such a sum for such an object. He hoped, therefore, to hear the right hon. Baronet at the head of the Government state that he was prepared to act on the opinion expressed by him on this subject so long ago as 1840. He felt that the subject hardly warranted him in trespassing so long as he had done on the attention of the House; but as the Committee had recommended this subject to their attention, he hoped the House would not deem the observations which he had made irrelevant to the question. The hon. Member concluded by moving, That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty, praying that a Commission of scientific and competent persons may be appointed to consider and advise the best means of carrying into effect the recommendation of the Committee on Shipwrecks.

Sir J. R. Reid

as a practical man connected with the shipping interest, had no hesitation in saying, that Dover would be the best place for a harbour of refuge. He did not say so from being one of its Members; but he said so because it was his firm conviction that a harbour of refuge at. Dover would be of the greatest benefit to all those connected with the shipping interest. He trusted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would not offer—he would not say some absurd objection—but he hoped he would not offer any objection of a financial kind. There was no difficulty in raising any amount of money at a moderate interest, and nothing would gratify him more than to be entrusted with a commission to raise the amount of money required. He knew the locality and the necessity which existed for a harbour of refuge, and he hoped to hear the right hon. Baronet opposite state that it was the determination of Government to proceed forthwith to execute so desirable and so excellent a work as that alluded to by his hon. Friend who introduced this subject to their attention. It was with the greatest pleasure that he seconded the Motion.

Sir R. Peel

could assure the hon. Gentleman who made this Motion, that the subject had for some time occupied the attention of Government. He had not the least doubt that the object of the lion. Gentleman in bringing forward this Motion, was to promote the interests of humanity; but he thought it rather singular that such a Motion should have been made by one of the Members of Dover, and seconded by the other. He would ask the hon. Gentlemen whether they did not think that there existed a necessity for harbours of refuge in other places besides Dover. In the evidence taken before the Committee, Admiral Dundas asked Captain Washington, "Have you turned your attention to harbours of refuge?" The answer is, "Yes, I have thought a great deal about them. There is a great want of harbours of refuge on the east coast. We have nothing from the Forth to the Humber, an extent of a couple of hundred miles." He had no doubt that some hon. Member representing some place on the eastern coast would tell him that upwards of a million might be usefully expended in the construction of harbours of refuge on that coast, and although the right hon. Baronet the Member for Dover said, that he could raise any amount of money, he did not point out any mode by which it could be repaid. But with regard to Dover being a suitable place for a harbour of refuge, he found there was a difference of opinion on this point, for on referring to the question (1579) put by the gallant Officer opposite (Sir C. Napier) to Captain Washington, he found that the question of the gallant Officer strongly implied that he did not consider Dover a fit place for such a harbour. But take the west coast, and the evidence was most conclusive as to the necessity of having a harbour of refuge, and for facilitating the communication between this country and Ireland, and if he were asked to say what point should be selected for such a harbour, he should certainly select Holyhead. He did not undervalue the considerations thrown out by the hon. Member for Dover with regard to possessing harbours of refuge in the Channel. Considering the recent advance made in the use of steam-vessels, he thought that steam might make such an alteration in naval power as to form an additional reason for their taking into consideration the question of harbours of refuge. There were, no doubt, strong grounds in favour of Dover, but at the same time there were high authorities against it. The opinion of the gallant Commodore opposite was against Dover being selected; and Government felt embarrassed in making up their minds as to which was the best port at which a single harbour of refuge could be constructed. If they were to do anything let them begin with one. Considering the great expense, they could not undertake to construct at once all that were recommended. If they should undertake the work, it would be true economy to make one harbour complete rather than to begin several in an inefficient manner. He thought that such a harbour ought to be made, not only a harbour of refuge, but a great naval harbour, which in case of war could be used offensively and defensively. A great many considerations were to be kept in mind in selecting a port for such a harbour, but three considerations were especially important. Such a harbour should be able to afford refuge for vessels during a storm, it should also be a great naval harbour, capable of being used offensively and defensively in case of war, and it should also be a harbour which could be easily defended from the attacks of an enemy. He had already said that Government had looked at the whole of the evidence, and he had to state, that they were not prepared to submit any proposition to the House at the present time upon the subject. They would reserve altogether the question of expense, and would commit themselves to nothing on this point; but, while so doing, he proposed that they should appoint a Commission, consisting of eminent naval authorities, of persons connected with the commercial marine, and of one or two civil engineers, acquainted with the construction of breakwaters. No satisfactory conclusion could be arrived at until the whole subject had been thoroughly investigated and considered; and he thought he had said enough to show that Government were fully alive to the importance of the question, and that they could not make any proposition until they knew the opinions of the eminent authorities whom he proposed to entrust with the Commission, and by whose recommendations the Government would be in a great measure guided.

Lord R. Grosvenor

was understood to ask whether Government contemplated making Holyhead Harbour a harbour for large steamers, and, at the same time, a harbour of refuge? He asked these questions because the determination of Government would be of great importance to the Chester and Holyhead Railway Company.

Sir R. Peel

said, that Government had well considered the various reports made relative to the advantages possessed by the different ports on the western coast, for the purpose of facilitating the communication with Dublin and with Ireland generally; and on a consideration of the evidence they had come to a conclusion in favour of Holyhead. Reflections, however, had been made on the impartiality of the persons who made the report, and Government determined to institute a new inquiry. They deputed two naval officers and an eminent civil engineer (Mr. Walker) to make a second examination of the coast, and they confirmed the report previously made. The noble Lord must give the Government a little time to consider the matter further.

Sir C. Napier

had hoped that the hon. Member who brought forward this Motion would not have recommended any particular port for the construction of a harbour of refuge; but would have called the attention of the House to the question of harbours of refuge generally. With regard to Dover, be ventured to say, that it was not at all suited for a harbour of refuge. Vessels were detained in the Downs when the wind was west-southwest, and Dover in that case would be of no use to them as a harbour of refuge, because it would be impossible for them to get there. The best place for a harbour of refuge would be somewhere near the Downs. If the right hon. Baronet was determined to undertake the construction of only one harbour, he ought to give the preference to the Downs. Holyhead might be all very well for the purpose of communicating with Ireland, but it was not of the same importance as the Downs in case of a war breaking out with France. He agreed with the right hon. Baronet in the propriety of appointing such a Commission as that proposed, but he hoped that it would not be made a job.

Mr. Rice

was very happy to have heard the statement of the right hon. Baronet, which appeared to him as much as he had a right to expect. He offered his thanks to the right hon. Baronet, and he bagged leave to withdraw his Motion.

Motion withdrawn.