HC Deb 16 March 1852 vol 119 cc1151-6

rose, pursuant to notice, to call the attention of the House to certain alleged frauds in the supply of coals by contract to the various Government departments. He disclaimed any desire to prejudge the question, or prematurely to fix a stigma, or even a suspicion, upon any particular parties connected with the supply, or the superintendence of the supply, of coals for the use of the various Dockyards and Government establishments. There was a general impression upon the minds of individuals connected with the coal trade, namely, the coalowners of the north, the coalfactors in the metropolis, and the coalmeters of the city of London, that frauds were committed upon the Government, and he asked for an opportunity of making those inquiries which would show the manner in which the coal contracts were fulfilled. The article of coals constituted an item of vast magnitude in the catalogue of articles supplied by contract for the public service. The expense of this article to the country was very considerable, perhaps not less than 1,000,000l. annually. All would admit the necessity of watching over this branch of the public expenditure; all would admit the liability there was to the practice of imposition, and the strong temptation offered to dishonest persons to make undue profits from their contracts; all, too, would admit the possibility of inducing subordinate officers to connive at impositions. The House, therefore, would not think it a strange thing that he should ask for an inquiry into so important a subject as that before them. He (Mr. G. Thompson) would state distinctly the na- ture of the frauds which were alleged to have taken place in the delivery of coals by contracts to the various depôts of the Government. The charge was that the parties taking in cargoes of coals in the north, delivered these cargoes in London and elsewhere, not under the inspection of meters connected with the Coalmeters' Office, but of the servants of the contractors themselves, under the superintendence of officers connected with the depots where they were delivered. A vessel left the Tyne with a certain amount of coals on board—say, for example, 310 or 315 tons. She reached the place of delivery, and her coals were weighed under the inspection of the servants of the contractor and the officers of the dockyard. Upon delivering the coals it turned out that the vessel that left the Tyne with only 310 or 350 tons of coal on board, obtained a certificate for 350 or 400 tons, and this additional weight the Government paid for out of the monies voted in that House out of the public purse by the representatives of the people. In other cases coals were put on board barges in the river, to be lightered up the stream, and discharged at Somerset House. The fraud in these cases consisted either in the barges discharging more than they had received in the Pool, or in the abstraction from the barges of large quantities of coals, and the delivery, or pretended delivery, afterwards, of the amount specified in the certificate. Frauds of the nature of those described, were, it was gravely alleged, systematically practised; and what he asked was a Committee to take evidence on the subject, with a view of satisfying the public mind on the subject. He believed he was not stating more than the truth when he affirmed that amongst those engaged in the coal trade, whether as shipowners, factors, or office meters connected with the port of London, there was a general impression and belief that frauds of the nature alluded to had been extensively committed, and that the public purse had suffered very greatly in consequence. As he had no other object in view than the promotion of the public interest, no one would be more haypy than himself to find the impression he had alluded to erroneous, and to be able to lay upon the table of the House a Report from the Committee assuring the House and the country that all parties concerned in the execution of coal contracts had done their duty, and that the servants of the Government were perfectly blameless. It would naturally be expected of him that he should indicate the nature of the evidence he intended to produce, and the facts which that evidence would tend to determine. Previous to the change in the method of weighing coals—a change which took place about twenty years ago—the Corporation of the City of London appointed meters and regulated the trade. Since that period a Committee, called the Sea-Coal Meters' Committee, had existed, for the purpose of protecting the interests of all parties connected with the coal trade. This Committee was appointed, jointly, by the coalowners of the north, and the factors resident in London. They had an office at the Coal Exchange, called the Coalmeters' Office; and in connexion with it was a body of respectable men, called coalmeters, charged with the duty of superintending the delivery of coals from vessels in the Pool and elsewhere, within the jurisdiction of the city and port of London. Now, these office coalmeters not only gave a certificate of the amount of coals actually weighed out of a vessel, but supplied to the Coalmeters' Office a counterpart of the certificate; so that it was possible to obtain a correct account, for a series of years, of the amounts deliver d from any particular vessel bringing her coals to the port of London. It was alleged that certain vessels which, when weighed by coalmeters for the trade, had never delivered more than a given amount, had, when weighed at Government depôts, by the servants of contractors and other persons not connected with the Coalmeters' Office, obtained certificates for twenty, thirty, and forty tons more than their average cargoes. Here, then, to go no further, was a tangible subject for inquiry, and a simple mode of thus ascertaining whether the Government had been imposed upon, and the public purse robbed. But not only did the coalmeters' certificate afford the means of ascertaining the fact of fraud, but there was also the amount of duty paid to the City, which, in the case of coals delivered for the Government, would, it was alleged, be found to have been paid upon a much smaller quantity of coals than that paid for by the Government to the contractor. He (Mr. G. Thompson) would illustrate this part of the subject by a reference to the delivery of four ships. The first of these, when fairly weighed, averaged, during 20 years, 390 tons; but when delivered for Government 450 tons. The second, when fairly weighed, 340 tons; but when delivering for Government 400 tons. The third, when fairly weighed, averaged 285 tons; but when delivering for Government 310 tons. The fourth, when fairly weighed, 305 tons; but when weighed for Government 340. These cases were only four out of a great number which it would be in his power to bring before a Committee; but he was willing to rest his case for inquiry upon them. Within the last three days the following facts had been communicated by the captain of a collier. He stated that he carried a cargo of coals to Plymouth to be discharged into a Government hulk; that the average cargo of the vessel was 315 to 320 tons; that on this occasion she discharged 40 tons more than the average, and that having done so, and being afraid of awakening suspicion, the delivery ceased, while there remained 10 tons in the vessel; that on this occasion it was a convict who acted as weigher under the superintendence of an officer of the Government, and a servant of the contractor. He would say no more on this branch of the subject further than that he had a long list of ships and of witnesses, and would be prepared to furnish to the Committee the fullest opportunity of ascertaining the truth of every allegation of fraud. He would now mention the alleged frauds at Somerset House. The coals delivered there were taken up the river in barges, with certificates of the amount of coals in each barge. These certificates should be in existence, and it was the duty of persons at that office to see that the coals delivered corresponded with the certificates. But it was alleged that extensive frauds had been committed—that the men employed in discharging the barges had practised what was technically called light labour, that is, had carried less than the proper weight, which was one cwt. and a half, and that so the amount had been increased. This allegation the Committee would also have the means of investigating. It was alleged that the certificates had been destroyed. This could at once be ascertained, and if any were missing they could call for the coalmeters' books, and compare the actua amounts in the barges with the amounts charged to the Government and paid for. He was aware that these matters had been brought under the notice of the late First Lord of the Admiralty, and that the Solicitor to the Admiralty had been instructed to prosecute an inquiry. He was also aware that a number of witnesses had been examined, and their evidence taken down; but he was not aware of the nature of the report made by the solicitor, or of the proceedings which the Admiralty Board had adopted thereupon. He could not sit down without expressing his conviction that the public were under deep obligations to a gentleman of the name of Upton, connected with the Coalwhippers' Office, for the zeal and perseverance he had displayed in the collection of evidence on the subject now before the House. That gentleman had placed in his hands the highest testimonials as to character; and he (Mr. G. Thompson) believed he had been prompted throughout by a sincere desire to promote the best interests of the public. He would now move for a Committee of Inquiry, in the full belief that the House would deem the matter worthy of a serious and impartial investigation.

Motion made, and Question proposed— That a Select Committee be appointed, to inquire into certain alleged frauds in the supply of Coals by contract to Her Majesty's Dockyards and Public Offices.


, in seconding the Motion, said it had come to his knowledge that there was an intolerable nuisance in the management of the department alluded to. He had pressed the inquiry on the late Government, but they had not acceded to it. He hoped it would take place without delay.


said, he had no doubt the inquiry, if instituted, might result in proving, not only that the meters connected with the Admiralty were wholly blameless, but that they were highly efficient. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. G. Thompson) had misled the House by the terms of his Motion. It embraced all the twenty dockyards and stations where coals were received, and was not limited as to time. But the hon. Gentleman in his speech had principally referred to the dockyard at Plymouth; and probably the evidence he had to lay before the Committee was restricted in like manner. It was easy to show that the machinery for the inspection of the delivery of coals at the dockyards was most effective. The hon. Gentleman had given no names, alleging that he would reserve them for the Committee; but this was not the way to make out a case for inquiry. Let the hon. Gentleman make a specific charge, and then it could be met by a specific answer. It was impossible to answer charges so vaguely made as those referring to a certain ship; and they were not entitled to any consideration from the House. The hon. Gentleman said he had had much in- formation from a coaldealer in the city. He had so, and his name was Upton. He (Mr. Stafford) had no hesitation in naming him. He had complained to the Admiralty of the delivery of coals at Woolwich; the solicitor caused inquiry to be made, and though Mr. Upton's statements were found to be somewhat exaggerated, enough was discovered to cause the suspicion of fraud. Arrangements had now been made by Commodore Eden to have a sworn coalmeter to superintend the delivery, so that fraud was now impossible. The hon. Gentleman ought in fairness to have stated this. The inquiry, if gone into, would be a long and tedious one; and if confined to some dockyards only, would be partial and incomplete. It would also tend to protract the duration of the Session; and he put it to the hon. Gentleman whether there would be any advantage in pursuing the inquiry further.

Motion by leave, withdrawn.