HC Deb 27 April 1847 vol 92 cc10-3

rose to move for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the Seamen's Enlistment Act. The naval force of this country consisted of nearly 100 sail of the line, besides frigates and smaller vessels, together with upwards of 150 steam-boats. Since the peace no attempt had been made to establish a regular system for manning the Royal Navy, although he believed that every foreign State had adopted some system of the kind. In Prance very stringent regulations were in force under the name of conscription; the men were collected from various provinces, and were compelled to serve for five years. The consequence was that the French Government could man its Navy much more rapidly, though by no means so efficiently, as our Government. In Russia, Denmark, and Sweden, a system had also been established; and this country was almost a solitary exception to the rule. True it was that the right hon. Member for Dorchester (Sir J. Graham) had introduced a Registration Bill, under which all seamen were registered, and an Enlistment Bill, by which the Crown was enabled to call upon men to serve. Those Bills were strongly opposed by the mercantile marine, and it was not without considerable difficulty that they were carried. He now came to Sir James Graham's Enlistment Bill. By that Bill the Government had authority to issue proclamations calling on all seamen in Great and Ireland to come within five days and volunteer to serve in Her Majesty's Navy. If they did so volunteer, they received a double bounty, which amounted to something like 5l. in the case of an able seaman: if they did not, they rendered themselves liable to impressment at any moment. It also gave power to Her Majesty's naval officers to board merchant ships at sea, or in harbour, and to offer the men half an hour to decide whether they would volunteer. That was certainly rather sharp practice; but he did not think that the power which the State possessed at present was one whit too great. For instance, suppose it was found necessary suddenly to increase the Navy four or five sail of the line, without some such power it would be impossible to find men for them. It was clearly proved in 1840 and 1841, when it became necessary to increase the Navy in the Mediterranean, that to depend on voluntary enlistment was totally out of the question. The great objection to Sir James Graham's Bill, however, was, that in the event of the Government requiring an addition to its naval force of two or three thousand men, they had no other means of getting seamen than by calling out the whole of the seamen in the merchant service, and subjecting themselves to an expenditure of 300,000l. or 400,000l. In the case of a popular war, though perhaps only a few thousand men might be wanted, the probability was that some 20,000 or 30,000 men would come forward in the hope of receiving the double bounty, the consequence of which would be that the whole commercial navy would be deranged, whilst immense expense and inconvenience would be occasioned. The measure which he proposed, instead of adding to the expense, would cause a considerable saving to the country; and he really did not see how any one in that House could possibly object to it. It would have given him great satisfaction if the Government had brought forward the measure; but as the Admiralty had not, he felt it to be his duty to introduce the measure himself. His proposition was, that Her Majesty should call out at any time, in peace or war, by proclamation, whatever seamen might at any time be required. The registered men would be called on in rotation, as they came out of their apprenticeship, for one, two, three, or four years. They should first try to gain the number by voluntary means; hut, when that failed, then they should issue a proclamation, calling on those who had been one year released from their apprenticeship to come forward; then, if these were not sufficient, call on those two years out of their time, and so on. He would not have any impressment; but he would have it so ordered that no merchant ships should be allowed to ship any seamen who were thus called out. His object was in the first place to get the number of men they required in the time of peace—to enable, in fact, the Crown to call them out whenever they might be required, without waiting until the country was actually engaged in a war. He thought it reasonable, however, that the seamen should not receive double bounties until war had actually commenced; and he would limit the word "war" to actual hostilities with one of the great nations of Europe, or with North America, leaving it optional with the Government either to give the bounty or refuse it in such cases as the war in Syria or China. To the horrible system of impressment, he trusted they should never again revert; indeed, he was quite certain this country would never tolerate the system of impressment again. At all events, he was certain the seamen would not stand it; if they did, all he could say of them was, that they would be great fools. Then, with regard to pressing men on shore. In the time of war, a man could not walk about the streets of London without being picked up. No man was safe, nobody was respected; and had the Speaker himself happened to be walking near the dock, he would certainly have been carried away. The House might have been waiting for their Speaker, while the Speaker himself might have been caged up in the press-room of the guard-ship anchored off the Tower. The men who were pressed were denied the use of ink or paper, and before they could find out where they had got to, they were shipped off, to the Nore. To such a system it would be impossible again to have recourse. He trusted the Government would open their eyes and do all in their power to favour voluntary enlistment. Even with all the inducements they could use, they could not wholly succeed. A north-country sailor, who traded to Hull or to Newcastle, regarded the service on board a man-of-war with horror, and would not, on any persuasion, enter the Navy. He thought they ought to begin at once, and do something to alter the present condition of things. He believed that if this Amendment were agreed to, the seamen would soon get accustomed to it, and it would not be considered a hardship. It would place this country in a position to meet any great emergency that might arise, and he begged to press it upon the attention of the House.


said, it was not his intention to give any opposition to the introduction of the proposed Bill. He had not yet seen it; and he could take no share in the merit if it succeeded, or any part of the responsibility if it failed. It was a very large and difficult subject, so large and so difficult that the hon. and gallant Member had himself complained of the indisposition of every Government to interfere with it. He should be most happy to see any practical and practicable mode suggested in the Bill for accomplishing what was so desirable, viz., the laying the foundation for a naval reserve in this country, and the turning to some advantage the extensive machinery of the Registration Act, which up to this time had produced very little benefit.

Leave given.