HC Deb 23 May 1850 vol 111 cc279-85



I rise. Sir, for the purpose of calling the attention of the Government to the importance of making provision, by legal enactment, for speedily and effectually manning her Majesty's fleet in the event of a war. Nothing, Sir, but a very strong sense of duty would induce me to bring this subject before the House—a firm conviction, arrived at after mature deliberation, that whatever inconvenience may arise from its being debated, is more than counterbalanced by the manifest peril to which the country would be exposed on a war breaking out, with the exsiting traditions and enactments, which are not only inefficient, but prejudicial to the objects which they profess to attain. I need not dwell on the paramount importance of securing resources to send a powerful fleet to sea on a declaration of war. Upon the rapidity with which that fleet could be equipped, upon the efficiency of its organisation, might depend the issue of the struggle; nay, not only a triumph on foreign shores, but the safety of our own from insult and invasion. What would be the exigencies of the Navy in the event of a war? Mr. Ward, in his evidence before the Committee on the Navy Estimates, states, that to man our Navy in 1848, including ships in commission, in ordinary, and those progressing on the stocks, 112,000 officers, men, marines, and boys, would be required; of these, 70,000 petty officers and seamen. We have now 26,000 of the latter. Therefore, to maintain the whole power of our Navy afloat, we should require in addition 44,000 petty officers and seamen. Let us examine what facilities the existing law affords for obtaining these men. The Act 5 & 6 Will. IV., c. 24, recognising the undoubted right of the Crown to the service of all seafaring men for the defence of the country in the event of a war (they being exempt from the militia ballot), contemplates a proclamation of a compulsory term of service for five years. It promises a double bounty (understood to be 10l.) to every man volunteering for the Navy within six days of the proclamation, on his arrival in port. It also gives the bounty to those serving in the fleet, or engaging for a fresh term of service. These are the inducements to volunteers to enter the Navy. That they would be insufficient to compete with the high wages that would be offered by the mercantile marine in that emergency, is so well understood by those conversant with the subject, that a further compulsory power is acknowledged to be indispensable. What is that power, our only resource at present? Impressment. Now, Sir, after maturely considering the subject—after testing the most valuable opinions, both in and out of the service, for several years, I have arrived at the conclusion that the boldest and most frank way of dealing with the question is also the wisest, and that impressment by armed gangs should be abolished, as contrary to the spirit of the constitution, derogatory to the honour of the country, and injurious to the efficiency of the Navy. That, fully recognising the right of the Crown to the services of its subjects for the defence of the country, that prerogative should be exercised in a constitutional manner, by legal enactment, to obtain the successive service, for a limited period, of seafaring men on board Her Majesty's ships in time of war, without distressing the mercantile marine; but, on the contrary, a fair and legal machinery being established, that service would cheerfully contribute to a force, on the efficiency of which its own existence must depend. Now, what would take place on war being declared under the existing law? The dread of the pressgang would drive thousands of our best seamen to foreign service—not the dislike to the Navy so much, as disgust and apprehension at the method of compulsion. Well, you would have the bounty—a most vicious and expensive method, which would lead to an outlay of a million in the first year of the war. The merchant service would outbid you, and you would fall back on the pressgang. I have great doubts whether you could impress men as you did last war. The opinion of the country would rise against you as one man, and compel you to a more constitutional course; but in the interim your fleet would be lying idle, and the demagogue and political agitator would be sowing the seeds of discontent, and paralysing your energies. Seize time, then, by the forelock, and now, in profound peace, enact a wise and practicable law, which would enable you to meet war without doubt or apprehension. I will now explain the system which I would substitute for impressment; but I must premise that I think the Board of Admiralty are those whose duty it is to take the initiative, and who, from their experience and the means of information they possess, are better qualified than myself to originate a plan. Upon the declaration of war, the Crown would, according to the emergency of the case, issue a proclamation specifying the term of years for which all seafaring men should be called on to serve. Every seaman should be liable to be balloted four times in each year; and after serving the time specified in the proclamation, he should be entitled to a protection, unless the continuance of a war should necessitate the proclamation of a further term. The register ticket, which would also exhibit his claim on the Merchant Seamen's Fund, should bear a stamp of ballot or protection, as the case might be. Ballot on shore would take place at the shipping offices, and afloat on board merchant ships, both at home and abroad, conducted by a commissioned officer from the man-of-war requiring men, under stringent regulations, not to distress short-handed ships. In this manner I assume that 25,000 petty officers and seamen would be obtained from the merchant service. I would make the Navy so justly popular, that the remaining 20,000 would be furnished by volunteers. Not much remains to be done to effect this, so greatly has the condition of the seaman been improved during late years. For instance, the increase and better quality of his provisions, by the abolition of banyan or meatless days; regular supplies in harbour of fresh beef and vegetables; salt meat and bread of very superior quality; preserved meats for the sick, with the best medical attendance and stores; cheapness and better quality of slop clothing; more accommodation between decks, from the increased size of ships in each class, and height of lower deck; more frequent leave on shore; increase of wages 4s. 6d. per month since 1797; allowance abroad of one-third of pay; good service badges and reward money now extended to able seamen. Add to this, diminution of corporal punishment, and their morals, health, and comfort more cared for. I believe that the present as well as the late Board of Admiralty have been most anxious for the welfare of the seamen; but still it is a fact that there have been occasions on which it has been most difficult to man ships when put into commission, and it is also notorious that a large proportion of our sailors have shipped ii foreign services, more especially in that of the United States. There is a strongly prevalent but not well-founded opinion, that the men are better off in that service. I have taken some pains to ascertain the comparative scales of wages, pensions, and provisions, in the two services. They are from official sources, and, I believe, correct:—

British. American.
Warrant Officers. Warrant Officers.
1st Class 91l. per an. 1st Class 1401. per an.
2nd Class 71 per an. 2nd Class 125 per an.
3rd Class 61 per an. 3rd Class 105 per an.
1st Class Petty £ s. d. 1st Class Petty £ s. d.
Officers 2 12 0 Officers 4l. & 3 15 0
2nd Class ditto 2 8 9 2nd Class ditto 3 2 6
A. B. 1 16 8 A. B. 2 10 0
Ordinary 1 8 2 Ordinary 2 1 8
Landsmen 1 5 0 Landsmen 1 17 6

It will be seen that in the scale of provisions there is no material difference; in that of wages those of the United States are much higher; but, on the other hand, they have no pension for long service, no good-service reward, and no institution which can be compared to Greenwich Hospital. There is also much abuse in the distribution of their slops; so much so, that petty officers and men are frequently in debt to the purser the whole amount of pay due to them on their discharge. Their comforts are not equal to those of our seamen; for instance, they have no mess tables, but take their food off the deck; the discipline is more irregular and severe—the practice of dry-starting still existing there. I have lately visited American men-of-war, and found more than half the crew were British, but they were a very inferior class of men. Yet I think that a moderate increase of wages in our service would be a fair and prudent measure. I would make up the first-class petty officer's pay to 3l. per calendar month, the second class to 2l. 10s., the able seaman 2l., the ordinary seaman to 1l. 10s., and landsman to 1l.. 5s. I would give a pension at the end of fifteen years, to increase 1d. a day each succeeding year for an indefinite period of service. I would restore the pension of warrant officers' widows to the footing on which they stood previous to 1830. I believe this would be a measure both of justice and sound policy. The warrant-officer is, or ought to be, a man superior to his shipmates in character, conduct, and ability. Strong inducements should be held out to men of the first stamp to seek this station, which we know is often refused by the best petty officers. There is no incentive to duty so strong in minds of a high order as the knowledge that they are toiling for those whom they love. This feeling is the true chivalry of civilised life. It will make a man face danger with a cool courage, wounds and disease without repining, and the passage to death as a debt due to the country which cherishes those dearer to him than the life he lays down. I would also suggest a better method for the distribution of prize money. I think Government should take it in their own hands, thus affording more facility and security to seamen advancing their claims; for it is notorious that at present, from the bankruptcy of agents, they frequently lose it, and from the delay in payment, their absence on foreign stations, loss of papers, and ignorance of business habits, they do not obtain what is due to them. This, Sir, is no party question. The officers and men of Her Majesty's fleet are of no political party. There was a time, indeed, during the last century, when faction found its way on board our ships amongst officers of the highest rank, distracting their councils, and paralysing their energies, even in the hour of battle. But Nelson laid the evil genius. The pure example of his generous spirit and patriotism without alloy, banished it, I trust, for ever from the fleet; for, with a legacy of undying glory, he left a password to the Navy, that to servo our country with undivided zeal and energy is to do our duty.


cheerfully admitted that his hon. and gallant Friend had brought forward the subject in a fair and candid spirit; but he could, at the same time, assure him that not only the present but preceding Boards of Admiralty had taken it up in the same spirit as he had introduced it. He was further proud to say, that owing to the improved arrangements in the naval service, the number of desertions were daily decreasing, and were now so few that the smallness of the number was really wonderful, compared with the desertions of a former period. With respect to the mode of manning the Navy, he assured his hon. Friend that the present Board of Admiralty, as well as preceding boards, had taken the greatest pains to have a reserve in hand, and that that reserve could be made use of whenever the Government thought proper. With respect to impressment, he had endeavoured to trace the objections of the men to it, and he had been able to find only one petition from them against it. That petition was presented in 1760, and he had no doubt that the same spirit animated them now which animated them then. That petition wound up by stating that if it could be shown that impressment was the only mode of manning the Navy, so anxious were they for the honour of the country, they would submit to it without a murmur. He himself neither desired impressment, nor thought it necessary; but, should the necessity ever arise, he was satisfied that British seamen, sharing the sentiments he had just cited, would willingly bow to it.

Subject dropped.