HC Deb 12 February 1852 vol 119 cc461-6

moved for Copies of the Tender made, or Agreement or Contract entered into, with the West India Mail Packet Company, to carry the Mail to the Brazils at three shillings and twopence per mile, and the number of voyages performed by that Company under such Tender, Agreement, or Contract. In bringing forward this Motion, it was necessary for him to make a short statement as to the course pursued by the Admiralty in reference to this subject. Up to 1849, Government was in the habit of carrying, through the instrumentality of their own officers, the mail from Holy-head to Dublin at an annual cost of about 56,000l. At that time Lord Auckland deemed it advisable that the service should be contracted for. It was put up to tender, and the Dublin Steam Packet Company offered to do it for 45,000l. a year. A director of the Mail racket Company was told by the Lord of the Admiralty, whose peculiar province it was to regularly to transact such business, that their tender was accepted. However, certain parties connected with the Chester and Holyhead Railway thought it necessary to remonstrate with the Admiralty. It appeared that a transaction by the Admiralty must have a counter signature at the Treasury. Taking advantage of this, although the lowest tender had been accepted, the Treasury thought it necessary to interfere, and insisted that the matter should be reopened, and these gentlemen were forced to take it afterwards much under that sum, for the protection of their Liverpool traffic. If that had always been the course pursued, perhaps he should not have so grievous a case; but his complaint was, that that had not been the course, and that, on the contrary, a totally different principle had been acted upon. In 1849, Lord Auckland deemed it advisable that the last of the sailing packets from England to the Brazils should be superseded by a steam-packet, and he entered into an agreement with the Screw Steam Company, that the mail should be carried at a certain rate, the lowest rate that at that period had ever been agreed to by any company. The screw steamers were prepared to carry out this agreement, but the Treasury pursued the same course as in the case of the Dublin Steam Packet Company. They stated that they would not sanction it unless the services were put up for tender. A tender was accordingly made by the West India Steam Packet Company at 3s. 2d. per mile, and the contract was given to them. Now, the Screw Company were prepared to have carried the mails at 3s. 2d. per mile, whereas the other Company had only one small screw steamer, the Esk, which was totally unfit for the service. They never took any steps to carry out the contract, nor were any proceedings instituted by the Admiralty to force them to do so, although it was clearly their duty to see the public service performed. So matters went on until the contract for the carriage of the mails to the West Indies expired, and then a joint contract was given, without a public tender being called for, to the West India Mail Company, for the carriage of the double mails at the enormous sum of 270,000l. a year. He really could hardly credit the statement he was about to make, but he was informed that this contract had been given for the period of ten years, although a tender from another Company equally competent was in the possession of the Admiralty, to do the same service for 80,000l. a year. Thus, a sum of 190,000l. of the public money had been wasted. He knew no reason why this particular Company, either on public or private grounds, should be peculiarly favoured; yet no stipulation had been introduced into the contract, that the ships should be of timber of a certain scantling, or that they should be able, in case of war, to carry guns of a certain calibre; which he had been informed they would not be able to do. Again, though the Admiralty, in spite of the advantages offered by the employment of iron in shipbuilding, had decided against the use of iron vessels, they had, nevertheless, allowed them to be used by this favoured company. Again, the Admiralty had taken no care as to the kind of wood of which the ships were made. The vessels of the Screw Company were of oak, whereas those of the other company were of pine; and they had seen the evil effects of the use of pine, in the calamity which had occurred to the Amazon. That ill-fated vessel was built of pine, and the turpentine in that wood had added fury to the flames. The West India Company were now not efficient in the performane of their duties, for complaints were constantly being made against them. Letters from the West Indies were sent to New York to be brought to England by Cunard's line, for expedition. The company had not been selected for their patriotism, for they had adopted in the West Indies a Danish island for their station. Seven of its vessels had already been lost, five of which, according to the evidence of their own secretary, had been wrecked in consequence of the gross negligence of their commanders. It had been said that the reason of the favour which had been shown the Company was in commiseration of their losses; but even there they were unable to make a case, for their directors had stated that they had a fund of half a million for the building of ships, and they had made a dividend of 8 per cent. He had been informed that at this moment the Admiralty had entered into a contract for the Australian service, with a company which had yet to be formed; and which had offered terms so ruinously low that it was impossible for them to be fulfilled. It was essential that the mail service of this country should be efficiently performed; and yet it was said that the Admiralty had entered into a contract with a company which had neither ships nor capital. There were two companies perfectly competent to have taken the contract—the Oriental and Peninsular, and the Screw Company—and yet the Admiralty were said to have selected a company which might or might not be formed. In conclusion, he had only to state that he had received the information which he had laid before the House from persons high in authority in the different companies to which he had referred; and no one would be more gratified than himself if the explanation of the hon. Gentleman opposite should prove satisfactory. The hon. Gentleman concluded with his Motion.


said, that the only objection he had to the Motion of the hon. Gentleman was, that no such documents were in existence. There had been no tender made for 3s. 2d. per mile, and there was, therefore, no agreement, and no contract, consequently the return must be nil. Of course, if the hon. Gentleman liked to move for the returns, the Admiralty would make no objection, for they desired that the most searching inquiry should be made into the whole of the circumstances. The hon. Gentleman had said that he should bring grave charges against the Board of Admiralty; but it appeared that they all amounted to this, namely, that in three cases the Admiralty had made bargains ruinously low to the contractors. With reference to the last, the Australian Company, the contract was certainly very low; but the company was composed of persons of capital and substance, who had a good name in the City, and who could give effectual security that they would perform their undertaking, or pay the penalty to which they would be exposed if the contract should be broken. As to the conveyances of the mails between Dublin and Holyhead, it was quite true that the Admiralty had at one time entered into an agreement to pay 45,000l., and had ultimately made a contract to perform the same service for 25,000l., thereby saving 20,000l. a year. That charge was perfectly correct. They were on the point of entering into a written agreement for the former sum; but, fortunately, before any formal document had been executed, another party stepped in and signified their wish to tender. The first negotiation was therefore broken off, and the result was a saving of 20,000l. a year to the public. He could speak with confidence and certainty upon this subject, because, since then, it had been brought before a Committee of that House, which had reported in terms of the greatest approbation of the Admiralty's conduct; and it was certainly no great matter of reproach to save 20,000l. per annum. With regard to the Brazilian contract, the lowest tender was accepted, being that of the West India Company. It was true the Screw Steam Packet Company made a proposal and laid a plan for the sevice before the Admiralty; but instead of accepting that proposal at once, they called for tenders, and as the Screw Company did not make the lowest tender, they did not obtain the contract. So far the result was favourable to the practice of the Admiralty. The tender of the West India Company was accepted; but after its acceptance the Company found their vessels were, by age, unable to compete with the more rapid vessels put into those seas by the United States, and that they must go to a large expenditure to procure more efficient vessels of greater power; they made a proposal to the Admiralty for a fresh contract. [Mr. FRENCH: How long after?] In the year 1849. Their proposal was not agreed to, because a Committee of the House of Commons was then sitting on the subject, and it was thought desirable that the whole of this contract should be made the subject of examination before that Committee. Nothing was thus actually done for a year and a half; and the West India contract expiring, a proposal was made to do the double service of the Brazils and the West received 240,000l. for the single service and therefore if they received 270,000l. for the double, it was clear that the Admiralty only gave 30,000l. more than they had given before. There was no public tender; but the offer of the other company was about 30,000l., and if the Admiralty; had accepted its offer on the moment, the cost of the two companies for performing the double service would have amounted together to precisely the same sum, The public, however, had been the gainers by much as instead of vessels of only 100 horse-power, ships of 400 horse-power were used, and the service was conducted in a much better manner in consequence. It was quite a mistake to suppose that the contractors had not executed an engagement with respect to the manner in which the ships should be built. The regulation as to the armament of the vessels was strictly enforced; and it had been ascertained that it had been rigidly fulfilled. It was true that there was no agreement as to the character of the wood to be employed, and therefore the Admiralty could not interfere on that subject. There was no case in which iron vessels had been allowed by the Admiralty in the conveyance of mails, except in one instance, where they had applied for permission to use an iron ship as an indulgence; and as the company had besides that ship the full number which they were required by the contract to have, the Admiralty could of course have no objection to their having an extra vessel. It was probably this circumstance which had misled the hon. Gentleman. If, then, there was any just reason to reproach the Admiralty, it would only be on the part of the companies who might perhaps complain that the Board had driven too hard a bargain with them; and as the hon. Gentleman was understood to take a warm interest in one of the companies, he (Mr. Cowper) could understand why the hon. Gentleman complained. The Admiralty, however, had not dealt harshly with the companies. They had certainly endeavoured to make good bargains with them, as they were bound, but they had never treated them unfairly, or shown the slightest partiality or favour.


said, the explanation of the Admiralty was perfectly satisfactory to him, and he merely rose to impress on the Government the importance of giving our Indies. The West India Company had colonies the advantages of the penny post age. A letter could be sent to Ireland or the Channel Islands for a penny; and he could not see why every one of our colonies should not have the same advantage. We were paying for foreign postage service 600,000l. or 700,000l. a year, and the amount of postage receipts was inconsiderable. In vessels of 2,000 tons there could be no difficulty in devoting a hundred tons to the mails instead of thirty or forty tons; and it would be so beneficial, and so high a satisfaction to those who were obliged to expatriate themselves, that he trusted Her Majesty's Government would place our colonies in the same position as Ireland or the Channel Islands. It might be done without increase of charge for the service, though he anticipated a reduction of receipts; but when the House saw how inconsiderable those receipts were, he was sure there would be no objection to placing our colonies within the range and facility of penny postage.


would be very happy to take the return in any way the Admiralty might wish; but surely the hon. Member for Montrose had not been in the House when he (Mr. French) made the statement that 270,000l. a year was being paid for a service tendered at 80,000l., or the hon. Member would not have expressed himself so perfectly content with the explanation of the Admiralty, which left that statement unanswered. If the hon. Member was content, he was the only person that was so.

Copies ordered.