HC Deb 11 May 1855 vol 138 cc436-41

, in rising to draw attention to the state of the transport service, observed that unless he brought forward the subject in its present form, the whole session might pass over before he could have an opportunity of referring to it. The hon. Gentleman then proceeded to allude to the ease of the Seringapatam premising that a gentleman who had served in the navy was cautioned by an old messmate before taking his passage in her, for that she was not seaworthy. He mentioned this circumstance to show that, with a very little inquiry, the Government might have found out that the Seringapatam ought to have been looked into before being intrusted with the conveyance of troops. The plea of the great scarcity of shipping could hardly be adopted in the present case, because a fortnight after the accident to the Seringapatam one of Mr. Bligh's A 1 ships sailed, which was perfectly capable of conveying troops. The hon. Gentleman then quoted General Sutherland's report, dated October 12, 1854, from which it appeared that the Seringapatam was in a dangerous and un-seaworthy state, and that the troops on board were exposed to imminent peril. She was a ship of 17 years' standing, lettered "* Æ." A few Weeks before leaving England she had returned from Bombay, and although then, it would appear, in a leaky and shaken condition, received only trifling repairs. On getting to sea, Major Simmons, the commander of the troops on board, observed that the deck and sides of the ship leaked unusually; but although the evil increased, and in rough weather the deck was literally inundated, the captain informed Major Simmons that nothing could be done to remedy the defect. The leak at length became dangerous, and it was found necessary to throw overboard the deck-guns and some 200 tons of cargo. The soldiers worked at the pumps like galley-slaves, while the crew scarcely ever assisted in pumping, but became in subordinate got drunk, and plundered the cargo. Although no really very bad weather was experienced during the voyage, the whole frame of the vessel was dislocated, the iron fastenings were generally loose, the copper was worked off in many places, butt-ends were started, and the oakum was worked out of the seams. "Indeed," added the Major, "had we met with any very bad weather the ship must have been broken up." The report of the harbourmaster of Port Louis, Lieutenant Kelly, entirely confirmed the report of Major Simmons, except that it stated the weather to have been fairer than Major Simmons represented, and also that the soldiers had run very considerable danger from the improper stowage of a cargo of large masses of corn, though there was not sufficient on board to have done any damage to the vessel during her voyage, had it been properly stowed. On receiving these reports, General Sutherland issued a general order in which the conduct of Major Simmons and the soldiers of the detachment was spoken of in the highest terms. The reports of the professional man employed to survey her, showed that she was in a very unseaworthy state, and that very extensive repairs were necessary before she could be fit to carry cargo. This was certainly not a proper vessel to be taken up for the conveyance of Her Majesty's troops. By a letter which he had received that day from a gentleman who was a stranger to him, he was informed that the Seringapatam had not been surveyed since her return from India, when she was sent for repairs into Mr. Green's private dockyard. This letter was signed "Henry Bell." He had now shown that a grievous act of negligence had been committed in sending out these troops in such a vessel as the Seringapatam. He had brought this subject forward from no factious motive, and nothing was further from his wish than to embarrass the Government in carrying on the war; but when officers like Major Simmons and Lieutenant-General Sutherland sent home reports, of which no notice appeared to have been taken, it was the duty of some private Member of that House to afford the Government an opportunity of making such explanations as it might have to offer, and of showing to the officers of the army that it might rely upon it that their reports would not be treated as mere waste paper, and that our soldiers would be as much cared for as the poorest emigrant who left this country without a sixpence in his pocket.


could assure the hon. Gentleman that he did not object to this case being brought forward, but he should have been glad to have had a more specific notice of what case was to be discussed, for he could not gather from the notice of Motion what particular case was to be brought forward.


said, his reason for not giving a more specific notice was, that as the Secretary of War had signed the papers connected with the case, he supposed that he had submitted so gross a case to the proper authorities, and he was not aware that he would be answered by the First Lord of the Admiralty.


did not make it a subject of complaint, but all he wished was, to show that unless some sort of notice of what was to be asked of the Government was given, it was difficult to give a proper explanation, and he hoped the House would not impute to him want of care in not being acquainted with the details of a particular case, when the notice was only "to call attention to the transport service." He could state that a reform had been made in the transport service; a Board had been constituted of three gentlemen—a captain in the navy, an experienced captain in the transport service, and an officer in the army—all of whom were the most competent persons that could be found, and he had every reason to hope that the service would be efficiently performed. With regard to the particular case of the Seringapatam, he was glad that these papers had been brought forward, for they showed how great had been the skill and gallantry of the officers on board this vessel, and how creditable to them their conduct was. He was sorry that anything of the kind had happened; but he was glad that an opportunity of explanation had been given, which enabled him to show that no care or precaution had been omitted before the vessel left this country to ensure her being in a proper state. There was a survey, and there was no reason to suppose that she was not in a fit state for the voyage. He happened to have with him one or two documents relating to the Seringapatam; for when the report of General Sutherland was received, the Admiralty called on the proper officers to report on what had been done. It used to be a complaint against the Transport Board that they did not take up ships from the best owners. In this case, out of eight ships which were tendered, six belonged to owners who were said to be favoured, while two, of which the Seringapatam was one, belonged to Messrs. Green, one of the first ship-building firms on the Thames, and their high character might fairly have been considered presumptive evidence that she had been offered for the voyage in seaworthy condition, but besides that, she was warranted by them. It appeared that the vessel was built in 1837, and was classed "A 1" at Lloyd's for twelve years; at the end of that time—in 1849—she was re-surveyed by Lloyd's, and was found in so good a state that she was continued in the same class for four years more. In 1850 she was again surveyed by Lloyd's, and placed in the second class, or "* Æ," which was next to the first class, or "A 1." It was stated by Messrs, Green that before she was taken up, the vessel was put into thorough repair. She was also surveyed by the transport officers before she was taken up, which was indispensable, and the report of the surveying officers was that she was in thorough repair. When General Sutherland's report was sent in, these officers were called on for an explanation, and they sent in a report dated January, 1855, [which the right hon. Gentleman read]. It therefore appeared, whatever the vessel might have suffered in the course of her voyage, that there had been no negligence on the part of the surveying officers, or the persons taking up the vessel, in ascertaining whether she was seaworthy. If there had been an improper stowage of heavy iron which caused her to labour, that did not show that she was not properly looked to before she sailed.


said, he was glad to find that the First Lord of the Admiralty was in a position to state that the proper measures had been taken to test the condition of the ship, and was able to deny the statement, so discreditable to the authorities, which had been made. He (Admiral Walcott) did not, however, consider the explanation of the right hon. Baronet quite satisfactory, for he doubted whether the improper stowage of the iron was sufficient to account for the dangerous state of the vessel when at sea, a state so critical that it was evident that, had she met with a heavy sea or bad weather, our gallant troops must have gone down in her. He gave every praise to Captain Milne, the head officer of the transport service, than whom no one performed his duties more zealously or indefatigably; but, looking at the magnitude of that service, it was impossible for him to give sufficient attention to minor details, and therefore he (Admiral Walcott) suggested that there should be a naval officer, in whom the Government could put the utmost confidence, appointed at every port from which transports sailed with troops, who should inspect them previous to their sailing and be responsible for their seaworthiness.


said, it appeared from the report of Major Simmons, that the vessel was not provided with a fire-engine, pumps, or fire-annihilators, and had only eighteen buckets on board; and he did not think that those officials whose duty it was to carry into execution the orders of the First Lord of the Admiralty had performed their duty in a satisfactory manner. He wished to know if they had made a report on that point, and also on the manner in which the ship was loaded? It was reported that the circumstance was brought under the notice of Mr. Green at the time, but that he said he could not afford to have the cargo moved.


said, as he was altogether unprepared with documents, it was impossible for him to enter into any detailed statement. If the hon. and gallant Member would call at the Admiralty, he should be glad to afford him every information on the subject.


said, there was either a deficiency in the survey or in the qualifications of the vessel. He held that a Transport Board composed of three persons of equal authority could never prove efficient. If they wished to fix responsibility on a department, they should place one man over it as its head, giving to him assistants and advisers, but that his voice should be supreme; but when they made a Board consist of three members of equal authority, one a soldier, another a sailor, and the third a civilian—it was impossible that those members could agree on any knotty point, as each saw from opposite points of view. He believed that, under the conduct of so efficient an officer as Captain Milne, the transport service might have gone on very well as it was, without the revival of the Transport Board, after it had been some years ago abolished by the right hon. Gentleman the late First Lord of the Admiralty. He was sure that, as it was at present constituted, it would not go on satisfactorily, and he supposed they would next hear of the revival of the old Navy Board.

Motion (that the House at its rising do adjourn to

Monday next) agreed to.