HC Deb 12 May 1847 vol 92 cc722-9

SIR C. NAPIER moved the Second Reading of the Seamen's Enlistment Bill. The House was aware that in 1835 the right hon. Baronet the Member for Dorchester (Sir J. Graham) brought in and carried two measures, the Seamen's Enlistment Bill, and the Seamen's Registration Act. The former Bill enabled the Government to call out any number of seamen it thought proper, those who entered the Navy within six days after the proclamation being entitled to a double bounty-10l.; those seamen who were actually employed on board the fleet at the time were, under the same Act, to receive a single bounty. But by that Act, if the Government required only 3,000 or 5,000 seamen, it must call on the whole of the commercial marine to serve, and thus the mercantile navy was paralysed and the men prevented from prosecuting their different voyages. The object of his Bill was to amend that portion of the present Enlistment Act, and enable the Government to call out any number of men it might require, without disturbing the whole of the merchant service. When Lord Minto was at the head of the Admiralty, the inconvenience of the regulation was felt; the ships in the Tagus were undermanned, and, as it was not thought advisable to issue the proclamation, which would have entitled all those actually serving at the time to a fresh bounty, the Admiralty was driven to adopt the system followed in the merchant service; crimps were employed to get men, for whom they were paid 2l. a head by the Government. Was that a creditable mode of manning Her Majesty's Navy? These crimps were the most villanous characters in the whole city of London; and that was saying a good deal. The object of this Bill was to prevent this; and he hoped the House would support him, though he was sorry to say the Government would not lend its aid. At present, when men were called out by proclamation, the whole of the seamen then on service were entitled to a bounty, whether a war took place or not; if 2,000 additional men were wanted a bounty of 5l. must be given to the whole of the 40,000 already serving, requiring the expenditure of 200,000l. or 300,000l. before they could raise a man. He did not think this just, as, if no war occurred, the men were exposed to no peril; he proposed, therefore, to alter this, leaving to the Government the power of giving the bounty to the men if a war took place within a year. He proposed to enact a penalty on masters and owners of merchant vessels keeping men in their service who were called on by proclamation to enter the Navy. He would not use the power of impressment in any way; it was a disgrace to the country, and ought to be abandoned for ever. But the men, being discharged by the merchant captains, would not be able to find employment on shore, and must enter the Navy; that might be called impressment if they pleased, but it was impressment in a much milder form. He did not conceive there was any great hardship in this; if they issued a proclamation according to the present system, they would have to press, or rather they would try to press, for he doubted, with the present notions seamen entertained, whether impressment would be possible. He doubted whether captains, with a crew sufficiently strong, would allow their ships to be boarded as by privateers or pirates, and their men taken away; would it be possible now to turn up all hands in a merchant ship to take the heads from casks to search for men hid away, or thrust cutlasses between bales of goods to stir them up if stowed away there? And if they could not do this at sea, how could they impress on shore? How would they do it in the city of London? He doubted whether the Lord Mayor would back a press-warrant, or, if he did, he would make himself extremely obnoxious; and if he did, who was to carry it into execution? Were they to assemble all the police in London to search all the crimping and boarding houses for seamen? He believed it would be impossible; he did not think any Minister would dare to attempt it. If they could not use the power of impressment in London, how could they do it in Newcastle, Sunderland, Glasgow, and all the outports? If a war took place, the troops at home would be lessened to strengthen foreign garrisons, the West Indies, Gibraltar, Malta; where would the troops come from to enforce the system? It would be impossible, and during peace was the time to begin a better one. They had now had peace for thirty-two years; yet, with the exception of the two Bills of the right hon. Baronet (Sir J. Graham), the measure proposed by the late Secretary at War (Mr. Sidney Herbert), and his own, no steps had been taken to remedy this great evil. If he had had any hope the Government would take up the subject themselves, he would not have brought it forward; it had engaged his attention ever since 1816, and he had la- boured at it, through the public press and in various ways; but till he entered Parliament he had no opportunity of doing anything himself. The right hon. Member for Wiltshire (Mr. Sydney Herbert) intended to follow up his Registration Bill with this very measure; but he left the Admiralty and was made Secretary at War, and was prevented by various other causes from bringing it forward. On different pleas the subject had been delayed and got rid of year after year. But lately he had observed a better feeling growing up in the House with respect to the Navy; more was thought necessary than the construction, of ships; and if he did not succeed in carrying the Bill, he hoped the House would oblige the Government to bring in some good measure of its own. It appeared to him that the whole thought of the Admiralty for the last thirty years had been bent on building ships; all the public money had been spent in building either in iron or wood, or with screw-propellers or paddle-wheels. They had been building morning, noon, and night, one year after another; and when a new Board of Admiralty came in, it directly pulled to pieces what had been built by its predecessor. One heightened a ship, another cut it down; one lengthened the stern, another the bows; and the public paid for all. But they did not consider what ships really were. They were neither more nor less than barracks, or floating castles, useless without men to put on board them. The late Admiralty, though in 1841 it condemned the system of sending ships to sea short-handed, itself returned to the practice; the present Board continued it, and now their ships at Lisbon and in the Mediterranean had diminished crews as formerly. A line-of-battle ship, instead of 1,000 men, had 750 or 800. The French system, he believed, remained unaltered; their ships were fully manned, and at that moment he believed there was in the harbour of Athens an English line-of-battle-ship with 750 men, or something like it, with a French ship having a crew of 900. The system now practised was neither just to the officers nor just to the men; the officers and men of the British Navy were capable of great achievements; but to be enabled to effect anything great, the complement of the ships should be maintained in time of peace as fully as in time of war. It was difficult at any time to induce men to enter the service, and that difficulty was made the more iusur- mountable by retaining the ships ill-manned, for the man who wont on hoard went with the knowledge that an undue share of labour and work would be allotted to him. He had now stated the objects of the Bill; and as it was not probable that he should have the honour of addressing the House again on that or any other subject for a considerable time, he did implore the Government to trifle no longer with the seamen of the British Navy, to adopt a better and more righteous system of obtaining the required number of men, and to abandon altogether the notion of impressment. As sure as they lived, if a war took place, and they resorted again to the practice of impressing, they would lose all the men now in the American Navy, and who, were a better system pursued, would willingly serve their own country.


greatly regretted, as it had been stated by his hon. and gallant Friend that this was the last measure he was likely to bring forward for a considerable time, that it was his (Mr. Ward's) duty to oppose this Bill. It was, however, under present circumstances, utterly impossible that the Board of Admiralty could give their sanction to such an enactment. He begged that there might be no mistake made: with reference to manning the Navy, the importance of taking advantage of a time of peace to ensure efficacy in a time of war, and with respect to all those general considerations which the hon. and gallant Member had properly urged upon the House, Government was as desirous as the gallant Officer could be, and it was to be hoped much better prepared than he supposed, to make adequate provision. [Sir C. NAPIER: The old story over again.] It was no doubt the old story over again; but it was a sufficient answer to such a complaint that nothing could be more dangerous than to tamper with such questions as these before the time was ripe for the settlement. He had already pointed out to the hon. and gallant Member that even were his course to be unopposed by the Government, he would find himself surrounded by difficulties in any attempt at this moment to legislate on the subject of the Navy. If the hon. and gallant Member had not been overwhelmed with protests against this Bill, it was solely because a confidence prevailed that Government would never consent to support it at the present juncture. The hon. and gallant Member proposed in lieu of the general right of impressment in emergencies, inhe- rent in the Crown, to substitute a system which would connect the merchant seamen with the Queen's service, but of which the effect would be to disturb to a degree greater than could by possibility happen under existing arrangements the whole mercantile marine. There was no proposition to assert the right of the Crown to call out the naval population of the country, of all classes, in the event of war; and, after all, the machinery suggested by the fourth clause was merely to starve the men from one service into the other. The hon. and gallant Member had particularly dwelt on the importance of altering the system of bounties; that was a very grave and very extensive question, and the hon. and gallant Member might rely upon the attention of the Admiralty being anxiously directed to the point. Just at this moment, however, a Commission had been appointed to inquire into the Seamen's Fund; and if it was found expedient to enter on this subject next year it would also be advisable to take into consideration the various questions referred to by his hon. and gallant Friend, and all of which were intimately connected with the condition of the seaman. He hoped that, before any long time had elapsed, they would see a proper organization of a proper naval reserve. He believed this might be effected with a far less destructive disturbance of commercial interests than would be occasioned by the Bill now proposed to be read a second time; and he was sure he only expressed the unanimous decision of the present Board in stating that, both on public and on private grounds, they were bound to oppose such a Bill. He was excessively sorry the good intentions of his hon. and gallant Friend could not be met in any other way; but he hoped the rejection of the measure would not induce his gallant Friend to conclude that there was not on the part of the Board of Admiralty the most earnest desire to see carried out the objects which had been so frequently recommended to their consideration. He moved that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.


agreed with the hon. Secretary to the Admiralty, that the time was inopportune for introducing the Bill.


expressed a hope that his hon. and gallant Friend would see the expediency of withdrawing the Bill for the present.


replied: He did not think the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Admiralty, had given any just reason why the Bill now before the House should not meet with the support of the Government. The hon. Gentleman said, an inquiry was going on, and that the Merchant Seamen's Fund was in process of being regulated. Why the Merchant Seamen's Fund had been in course of regulation for the last three years. The subject had been brought forward year after year, and yet up to this day there was not the slightest prospect of anything being done beyond instituting inquiries.

Amendment agreed to. Bill put off for six months.