HC Deb 09 May 1848 vol 98 cc816-24

MR. MACGREGOR said, that in rising to bring forward the Motion of which he had given notice, he begged to assure the House, that he was influenced by no other motive than a sense of public duty. He never would consent to any measure which would enfeeble our maritime strength; but he must express his opinion that the expenditure upon the naval dockyards might be very considerably reduced without diminishing the naval power of this country. He considered that there had been a great want of economy in the expenditure upon the building and altering many ships of war; and that if the system which had been pursued in the naval dockyards had been Adopted in the yard of any private shipbuilder, it would have been attended with absolute ruin. He admitted that great improvements had been made in some dockyards, especially at Woolwich, Portsmouth, mid Sheerness; but the greater number of slips built under the superintendence of the late Surveyor of the Navy had required frequent alterations, which had been attended with very considerable and most unjustifiable expense. The ships constructed according to the plans of the late Surveyor had cost, or would cost, above 1,500,000l.; and although he would not deny that many of those ships were magnificent in appearance, and would prove, if engaged, formidable in war, yet the expense of alterations, if even these were complete, was unnecessary if blunders had not been committed in their original plan and construction. The hon. Member then read some statements with reference to the Queen, the Albion, the Superb, the Vanguard, and other ships, with regard to which most erroneous calculations had been made, and which had cost very considerable sums for alterations; the alterations and repairs of the Union alone, a 98-gun ship, had entailed on the country an expense of 45,000l. Some time ago it was considered that great advantage might be derived from altering some of the old 74-gun ships to screw ships; and he believed, as far as regarded the Blenheim, and one or two other ships, most useless expense was incurred upon that head. With respect to Devonport, a plan was submitted to the Admiralty of either forming a new dock or a new basin: there was now a plan for an open basin; but it was supposed to be liable to great objections, and it was said that the expense would be enormous, at least 300,000l. if persevered in, and that it would even with that outlay be utterly inefficient. Now, if an inquiry were made into the whole expenditure of the dockyards from 1832 to the present time, he (Mr. Macgregor) believed it would be found that one-third of the money might have been saved to the country. He (Mr. Macgregor) regretted that the subject should have fallen into the hands of one so little practised in addressing the House; but with the prospect of a deficiency of 2,000,000l. or 3,000,000l., including the deficiency in January last, of revenue in the year which would end the 5th of January, 1849, unless it should be provided for by the forthcoming budget, he could not, with his apprehensions for the public credit, and with his knowledge of our oppressive taxation, refrain from bringing the matter under consideration. He could enter into more startling particulars with regard to wasteful expense in our dockyards; but with the confidence he had in the first Lord of the Admiralty, and the economy which necessity would impose on the Government, he would hope that something effectual in retrenching wasteful outlay would be done. without trenching upon the efficiency of the Navy. It was disagreeable to his (Mr. Macgregor's) feelings to bring forward a question that might be considered invidious with respect to our justly most venerated and admired establishments. No doubt this was a tender and delicate subject. No sentiment was more cherished than that Britannia is rules the waves; and nothing would have induced him to move in the matter but the belief that we could greatly diminish our naval expenditure, and at the same time render our force sufficient to cope with all the naval forces in the world. With regard to Deptford dockyard, the increasing commerce of the Thames would at no very distant period require all the room that could be had betwixt Woolwich and London Bridge—nay, more, we might have to enlarge our space, so as to have room enough, at Woolwich, Sheerness, Portsmouth, Devonport, and Pembroke, for all naval purposes. The old system must be given up with respect to training and bringing up those who were to be intrusted with the management of the dockyards. He was very far from wanting confidence in the noble Lord at the head of the Admiralty, and in the hon. Member for Sheffield, and those who acted with them; but, from want of time, or from some cause or other, they had not, he feared, as yet fully gone into the subject. Cunard's and other steamships of private individuals did not require such alterations as those in the Royal Navy. The contractors were bound to render them in every respect efficient. It was notorious that our men-of-war steamships had turned out to a great degree failures; and the vessel which might have been expected to be most perfect of all—Her Majesty's Yacht—had been one of the most unmanageable steamers. Even the Sidon was complained of as a crank ship. The Terrible and a few others were efficient and formidable; and he must do Mr. Laing, the master shipwright, the full justice to say, that the Prince Albert, 120 guns, a frigate of 50 guns, and a steamship, all raised on the stocks at Woolwich, would prove, he believed, superior to any ships of the same size in any navy in the world. He was not asking for a reduction of our naval power, but to have it rendered efficient at less expense. The most formidable power we could wield against any other country must be one maintained with economy, not with extravagance; and public opinion was now demanding economy in every branch of the expenditure. The people of this country were enduring the burden of taxation with less ability to bear it than for many years past. The hon. Member than moved for a Select Committee to inquire into the management and expenditure of the naval dockyards of this country.

MR. WARD felt it his duty to oppose the Motion. He had no want of sympathy with the hon. Member as to the necessity of the most rigid economy consistent with the efficiency of the service; but he would put it to the House whether a weaker case was ever submitted as the ground for instituting an inquiry into a great branch of the public service. The hon. Member seemed to suppose that the subject was not under consideration; strangely forgetting that a Committee had been sitting for some weeks, whom no department of the Naval Expenditure had escaped, from whom no one fact had been withheld, and which comprised men of great experience and ability. When the hon. Member came to read the evidence taken before that Committee, he would see that there could be no use whatever in instituting a second inquiry upon a subject which had already been investigated with the utmost care. And what were the grounds stated by the hon. Member? He (Mr. Ward) would not pretend to follow the hon. Member into his bill of indictment against the late Surveyor of the Navy; the House had had the story of Sir William Symonds' successes and failures over and over again. Naval men themselves had differed upon that subject, and held very extreme and opposite opinions. The truth probably lay somewhere in the juste milieu; and he had himself come to the conclusion that while Sir William Symonds had certainly introduced great improvements, some things were done with a disregard of expense which no one would wish to see repeated. Every possible precaution that could be suggested had been taken by the late and present Boards of Admiralty to prevent any of that rash and precipitate expenditure, and to avoid any necessity for those experimental alterations of ships against which the hon. Member protested. Every proposal now went through a long and somewhat tedious process of examination before any order was made upon it. The hon. Member next alluded to the subject of the basin of Devonport. There could be no stronger instance of the care and precaution taken by the Government. A plan had been adopted and persevered in for several years; but a doubt having been suggested with regard to its success, the Government had thought it right to institute a most searching inquiry in consequence, and they had as yet come to no decision. The hon. Member said there was a wasteful expenditure going on in the dockyards, and that a diminution was possible. Why, it was not only possible, but promised—pro- mised in the Estimates of next year, and to the extent of full 600,000l. As soon as the Admiralty could see the way clear, it was their anxious desire to extend still further those reductions, which he himself did not wish made with any detriment to the service. The hon. Member suggested that Deptford dockyard might be abolished; but where was the substitute to be found? Not at Woolwich, nor yet at Sheerness, as the hon. Member had suggested, for not one inch of building ground could be found there, the whole of the existing buildings being supported by piles sunk at an enormous expense. As to the system of promotion in the dockyards, the Government had laid down a rule, by which they renounced their patronage, and made preferment the reward of merit tested by the severest examination; so as to give fair play to all, and not to shut out the younger men, whose genius might point them out as likely to insure a succession of officers worthy of the high and responsible duties which they had to discharge. The hon. Member suggested that the Government might learn something from the success which attended contracts connected with the merchant service; but there was a great difference between a merchant vessel and a ship of war. In the former the builder had ample scope, and could place his machinery where he pleased; but in a war steamer the great object was to compress the machinery, and even keep it below water. Besides, it was not true that no war steamer had been found fit for the voyages which merchant steamers had performed. The steam-vessels Terrible and Fury had proved eminently successful; the Later had steamed to Hongkong and back, encountering the monsoon during her voyage, without the slightest repair being required. At present the shipbuilding department was going on well. The notion that the ships for the Navy could be built by contract was preposterous. What private merchant could afford to keep a stock of seasoned timber always on hand for the chance of obtaining a contract to build a ship for the Government? There were no fewer than 60,000 loads of seasoned timber stored in the dockyards; and if that stock should not be kept up, vessels would be badly built, as they were formerly. because their durability depended upon the goodness of the timber. The first outlay for ships built by contract might be somewhat less than for those built in the dockyards; but the expenditure for repairs on the former was usually enormous. An example would suffice to make the House acquainted with the difference in original cost and subsequent repairs between vessels built in the dockyards and those built in private yards:—

The Petrel (built in dockyard) cost £8,219
Repairs in 8 years 1,314
Annual cost 164
The Ranger (built by contract) cost 7,020
Repairs in 8 years 8,225
Annual cost 914
The Penguin (dockyard) cost 8,386
Repairs in 8 years 1,540
Annual cost 192
The Alert (contract) cost 7,478
Repairs in 7 years 5,163 Annual cost 737
The hon. Gentleman concluded by expressing a hope that he had succeeded in convincing the House that it was unnecessary to accede to the Motion of the hon. Memfor Glasgow.

VISCOUNT INGESTRE would take that opportunity of asking the Government for information on a subject of great importance. The office of Surveyor of the Navy had recently been filled up by a gallant and distinguished officer; and it was understood that the duties of the office were to be reconstructed and altered. It would be, therefore, very desirable if the Secretary of the Admiralty would state to the House what those duties were, and in what particulars these alterations had been introduced. Hitherto the duties of that office had been ill-defined and worse executed. The Board of Reference had been some check on the extravagant expenditure on changes and alterations of plans and ships; and he stated at the time when the appointment of the board took place, that he thought it a step in the right direction. He still entertained that opinion, and was sure that every man acquainted with the service would admit the Committee of Reference had performed their duties well and ably, and had done good service to the country. When he heard, therefore, that the late Board of Admiralty appointed a similar Committee, he was glad of it, and he thought their example might be followed with advantage by their successors. He had heard it recently stated that the Committee was broken up, or about to be dissolved, and he was, therefore, desirous of knowing, should this statement prove correct, what substitute the Admiralty proposed to establish. He quite approved of the appointment of so distinguished an officer as Sir Baldwin Walker to the post of Surveyor of the Navy; but he hoped to hear the gallant gentleman would have sufficient advice at his command, that he might not fall into the errors of his predecessors. He had often pressed on the Admiralty the necessity of appointing a board of scientific men to assist them. Sooner or later they would have to do so, or fail in the performance of their duties, for with the present march of science it was absolutely necessary to have men of high attainments to whom the Board should refer new plans and inventions for their opinion. Such an institution would, he was convinced, be attended with the greatest advantage to the Board, to the service, and to the country. He quite agreed with what had fallen from the hon. Secretary (Mr. Ward) with respect to vessels built by contract, and he was only surprised to hear that recently some vessels had been built in merchants' dockyards. He did not see why we should have recourse to private establishments at all, more especially in times of peace, when we possessed such dockyards as those of Portsmouth, Chatham, Devonport, and Milford. Before he sat down he could not but express his opinion that the country had been deeply indebted to the members of the School of Naval Architecture. He had always advocated their claims, and he heard of the dissolution of the school with regret, inasmuch as he believed the institution to have been most useful and meritorious. In conclusion he hoped the hon. Member would not press his Motion to a division, but would give way to the sense of the House.

ADMIRAL DUNDAS was understood to say that the Board of Admiralty would lay before the House papers containing the information required by the noble Lord who had last addressed them. The only ships recently built in private yards were the packets for the Holyhead mail service.

CAPTAIN HARRIS quite agreed with the noble Lord, and the Secretary to the Admiralty, that it was a mistake to suppose the country gained any advantage by contract built vessels or contract work. A reference to the extravagant outlay entailed on the country during the late war by the contract system, would convince hon. Members that doing away with any of our dockyard establishments (as bad been suggested respecting Deptford) would be rash and ill-advised retrenchment. No one could say how soon the country might be called on for a development of her na- Val power; and were she thrown upon the merchant yards for the construction of ships, a ruinous expenditure would result from these apparently economical reforms. He did not agree with those who contended that the late Surveyor of the Navy had been unsuccessful; for he entertained a very different opinion. He would not go into details upon this part of the subject, which had been fully discussed on the Motion of the hon. Member for Montrose last Session, and which had ended in a triumphant issue for Sir W. Symonds; but he must remark that he considered that gallant officer fully entitled to a retiring pension equal in amount to that of his predecessors. Sir Robert Seppings had been a zealous servant to the Crown; but the genius of Symonds had furnished the country with some of the finest ships that ever floated in any sea. The present Motion was altogether uncalled for, and no reason had been shown why it should be granted, and he should therefore give it his opposition.

MR. HUME concurred with much that had fallen from the hon. Member for Glasgow with respect to the lavish expenditure that had taken place in altering and changing vessels without rhyme or reason, and often without giving them a trial; but he believed the present Government were taking steps to do away with the system and prevent its recurrence. He was satisfied, however, that very soon they would have to institute a specific inquiry into the interior arrangements of the dockyard establishments. A Committee had been recently appointed on the subject of naval expenditure, on which were many Gentlemen perfectly aware of the nature of the questions which the hon. Member had laid before the House. He hoped, therefore, that he would withdraw his Motion, and leave to the Committee the task of inquiring into those matters. If they left anything undone, the hon. Member could bring the question again before the House; but meantime let him give them fair play, and not press his Motion to a division. He could assure the noble Lord near him, and hon. and gallant Gentlemen opposite, that there was no one branch of the public service which he was so anxious to see really efficient as the Navy, and that there was not in the House a man more willing than himself to vote every sum or agree to every expenditure necessary to sustain it on a liberal and effective scale.

CAPTAIN PECHELL said, if he did not believe the Board of Admiralty to be sincere in their desire to effect those improvements which the country called for, and which many hon. Members had pledged themselves to support, he would certainly take a very different course from that which he now thought necessary, and would support the Motion of the hon. Gentleman; but lie believed that the inquiry now going on would lead to very beneficial reforms. With regard to the duties which were to be performed by the Surveyor of the Navy, an extreme anxiety existed on the part of the naval profession as to what they really were. He hoped that a copy of the warrant issued to Sir Baldwin Walker would be published, in order that it might be known what were the services to be expected from that able and excellent officer.

Motion withdrawn.