HC Deb 12 February 1856 vol 140 cc668-77

, in rising to move for "a Select Committee to inquire into the advisability of constructing a harbour of refuge and defence in Cardigan Bay, and whether it may not be advantageous, also, to employ convict labour in the said works," said, I have to solicit the kind attention of the House whilst I submit a statement involving particulars of the last importance—the safety of human life and the preservation of property to an incredible extent, the protection of our country from being polluted by a foeman's foot, and last, though not least, the remunerative and useful employment of the convicts of our country, now festering our social condition, and the evil arising from which will, if not arrested, become a gangrene that will not admit of moral cure. The particulars which I propose submitting are extracted from unquestionable sources, capable of being authenticated in the most indubitable manner, and I can supply, if necessary, the page of every return from whence I have obtained my figures.

Milford Haven is distant from Holy-head ninety-eight nautical miles, or about 120 miles land measure, and comprehends within the Bay of Cardigan twenty or more small harbours or creeks, so difficult of entrance from their intricacy and shallowness that experienced mariners prefer trusting to the mercy of the waves, rather than hazard the uncertain asylum which either of these could afford. All vessels going down channel and requiring shelter try to make for Milford Haven, but often when nearing the headland of St. Davids are driven back the whole distance to Holyhead with a dangerous lee shore on their right; and should the wind shift to the opposite point before reaching Holyhead, they would be wholly unable to make that port, which is inaccessible to ships going up the Channel with the wind pure northerly. Nor is the roadstead of St. Tudwalls at all a secure anchorage, as a gale from south to east would place in danger of being driven on shore every ship riding there at anchor. Lest it should be supposed that the commerce of these small ports within Cardigan Bay is unimportant, I will state its extent in a few of them. Cardigan port alone has 210 ships, with a tonnage of 11,894—Cardigan and Fishguard have entering them strange vessels annually 710, equal to 35,000 tons—five ports within the bay have entering them yearly 5,369 ships, equal to 414,686 tons, therefore the local traffic alone is so important as to demand attention; but when you glance at that which passes up and down St. George's Channel, exposed to all the horrors of shipwreck, without a single port to seek refuge in, it would seem incredible that any Government or people should so long have placed in jeopardy the lives of so many of the bravest of Her Majesty's subjects and so enormous an amount of the nation's wealth. The property covered by marine insurance is at least £200,000,000, a great proportion of this passes by the Bay of Cardigan, and it must be recollected all ships from the southern hemisphere and from America must sail up St. George's Channel, and pay 33 per cent more I am told than if not approaching St. George's Channel. I will not disguise that a portion of this excess is attributable to the difficult navigation of the Mersey; but the larger share by far to that of the channel of the Welsh coast; the annual tonnage up and down which is at least 11,000,000. There is a commander of great experience who now hears me, who navigated a steamer from Holyhead to St. David's Plead, there encountered a gale, and was obliged to run back the whole distance to Holyhead, and in constant peril of being wrecked. An hon. Member of this House who is largely engaged in commerce, told me, there is hardly a year within which he does not lose a ship or two in Cardigan Bay—it is true they are insured, and he does not lose much; but that amount is a loss to the Insurance Company, and so much treasure lost to the nation, besides the valuable lives, the fearful sacrifice of which I will now supply some notion of. Within these few years there have been, The Packet of Cardigan, all hands lost. The Margaret, all lost. Agnes Lee, eleven perished. Thetis, six. Safety, one. A ship unknown, all perished; and not a vestige to tell whence they came. Ship unknown, one life lost. Another unknown, one life lost. Cambrian Press, all perished. Phœbe, all perished. "Reformer," one lost. Diamin, part of the crew lost. Ramley, all lost save one. The tonnage of the above (such as were known) was full 12,000. Four ships became total wrecks, and the tonnage unknown. These were off Cardigan. Off Fishguard, the Trevor, from Glasgow, lost one life. Alert, eight lives. Catherine, all hands lost; the Martha, five perished. A Barque, from Archangel all hands lost. A Smack, unknown, all perished. Union, one drowned. A Schooner, name not known, five men lost. What a fearful catalogue of human sacrifice to the want of human precaution to construct a place of refuge!

The gale of October 22nd, 1846, caused no less than twenty vessels to be blown ashore at one spot (Fishguard) and all either wrecked or seriously damaged. I will now read you a letter possessing all the simplicity of truth from a sailor employed under Lloyd's agent at Cardigan, who witnessed most of those fatal scenes I have enumerated, and whose manly emotion was often deeply excited at beholding the brave, but abortive, efforts of the gallant spirits consigned to death within a few yards of those who stood helpless and speechless at the agonising scene:— I have for years been employed by Lloyd's agent, and have been an eye-witness of many painful scenes arising from vessels wrecked, all of which might have been avoided had there been a Harbour of Refuge to run to in their distress. A large vessel called the Thetis, on her voyage down the Channel, was driven by stress of weather upon the Cardigan Bar, and in a few hours became a wreck; out of thirteen lives two only were saved, and these washed on shore on a piece of the wreck. All this time they were within a quarter of a mile of land, but the sea was running so high that every effort which was made to save their lives proved ineffectual. I also remember the Agnes Lee, nearly on the same spot as the Thetis; she stranded on the Cardigan Bar; twelve men constituted the crew, but one alone was left to tell the tale. One November night six ships were wrecked, and nearly every soul on board perished. All these would have been saved had there been a Harbour of Refuge. My hon. Friend the Member for Merioneth tells me that off his coast very recently, four vessels, the smallest of which was a thousand tons burthen, and the largest not less than two thousand tons, were wrecked, and when the hon. Member with other Gentlemen formed a deputation to the Trinity House to direct the attention of the authorities to the necessity for some protection, the heartless official's reply was, "They had no business there," as if it were in human power to resist the storms of Heaven and control the turbulent waves. On this occasion five lives were lost; it is true, not all belonging to the wrecked vessels. One of them, a brave fellow, aged only twenty-two, who from the age of seventeen had been the sole support of six brothers and sisters, unlike the officials of Trinity House, did not wait to consider whether the ships had any business there, but risked his own life to save that of others, and fell an early victim to his courageous humanity. What atonement can be offered by those who neglect a public duty for the life of such a man as this?

There is a shoal or reef in sight at low water, which runs out into the sea many miles off this coast, and is not marked on any chart. A lighthouse was promised here, instead of which something like a railway signal pole has been erected on the summit of a hill which, owing to the descending fogs from the higher mountains inland, cannot be seen five days out of the 365; indeed, you should insure a fine day to get a look at it; and then it is not needed.

I now approach the second part of my proposition, the constructing the harbour of refuge one of defence also. And what, time so opportune to discuss such a question as that when we possess an army capable of any achievement, and a navy that can sweep from the sea any force it may be opposed to. It is when at peace and in security that due preparation should be for times of war and of danger. In the one case the act is precaution, in the other it is fear—without such precaution we endanger our existence in the scale of nations, and place in jeopardy our enormous wealth by trusting our defences to empty sea-boards. There are some here who may recollect the alarm in 1797, and if not, history supplies the facts. There were then 150,000 men called the army of England encamped on the opposite coast of France, and Barras, addressing Napoleon (then General Buonaparte), said— Crown so illustrious a life by a conquest which this great nation owes to its outraged dignity. Go, and by the punishment of the Cabinet of England, strike terror into the hearts of all who would miscalculate the power of a free people—go, and chain the monster who presses on the seas—go, and punish in London the injured rights of humanity. Napoleon went to the seaports—catechised the seamen who knew aught of our coasts and of our people, and returned to Paris, saying—"It is too doubtful a chance—I will not risk it—I will not hazard on such a throw the fate of France. In 1803, again, 1,300 vessels of all sorts were assembled, capable of carrying 3,000 cannon, and when Napoleon was told of the danger of encountering some part of our naval force in the passage across the strait, answered, "Supposing 100 of these craft sunk by the English, and ten or fifteen thousand men lost, you lose a greater number every day in a single battle, and what battle ever promised such results as the invasion and conquest of England." In a few weeks after this threatened invasion, 300,000 volunteers enrolled; but what will they avail against disciplined troops that once had made good a landing, whereas, if there were defences, even of an imperfect character, these raw troops could, as the Russians have done in the Crimea, fight behind them, and arrest the onward progress of invasion till other aid arrived. When the discussion, a few years ago, about Greece took place, France increased her seamen; when that discussion terminated amicably, they were dismissed. We must recollect that the "ditch of England," as Napoleon termed the passage between us and France, is no longer formidable. Steam has overcome the difficulty, and the natural ruggedness and inequality of our coast has ceased to be our security. I now offer the opinions of the greatest man of modern times, and second to none in ancient history—the Duke of Wellington. In his letter to Sir J. Burgoyne, he says— As we stand now, and if it be true that the exertions of the Fleet are not sufficient to provide for our defence, we are not safe for a week after the declaration of war." Again—"I have contemplated the danger to which you have referred, I have done so for years; I have drawn to it the attention of different Administrations at different times. I quite concur in all your views of the danger of our position and of the magnitude of the stake at issue. I know of no mode of resistance, much less of protection from the danger, excepting by an army in the field capable of meeting and contending with so formidable an enemy, aided by all the means of fortifications which experience in war and science can suggest. Common prudence, every principle which should guard our safety, suggests the necessity for action, if we hope to avert scenes of anguish and misery to those more dear to us than life or possessions; for, although strong in our courage, these will serve but little where the appliances of war and means of protection are not to aid us. To those whose thoughts are intent on wealth need I say more, than that the property insured in this kingdom is equal to £1,200,000,000 and how much more not insured? And all this exposed to the ravages of an enemy.

I now enter on the third part of my proposition, the employment of convict labour to construct these works; and, by thus engaging them, with the knowledge that their labour defrays the cost of subsistence, and that at the end of a given period, the surplus gained will be their own, you inspire, for the present, obedience, and a manly independence that they live by the sweat of their brow, and, for the future, the hope, the certainty of means to

Annual Loss. Average daily number of Prisoners. Average Annual Cost. Average Annual Earnings.
£15,775 2 11 In Pentonville are 412 £29 6 £5 9
14,277 19 0 Parkhurst 541 30 14 £4 6
32,388 17 11 Millbank 702 57 7 11 5 0
Portland 1,477 31 16 6 29 0 0
Out of those 1,477 are 988 employed on Government works, and they earn £35 10 6 annually, being £3 15 0 more than the cost of maintenance.
37,506 14 0 Dartmoor 1,100 35 10 8 5 14 6
Portsmouth Prison 1,022 31 5 0 31 11 6
An excess of gain of 6s. 6d. each man. "Stirling Castle" Hulk 374 no returns 6 17
Woolwich Hulks—"Warrior" 436 no returns 21 7 10
"Defence" 515 no returns 20 4 3
£85,948 13 10 loss on four establishments annually. 6,579; of whom 2,400 are employed profit ably, and earn more than the cost of keep.
Average expenditure or cost of keep, each man £36 0
Average earnings of 6,579 15 1

If the Ministry fear the amount of outlay, will this House for one moment place the expenditure of a moderate sum, which the loss on these four establishments will nearly cover, in the balance with such momentous, such national questions? Besides, the harbour can be made profitable by imposing a tonnage duty on all ships discharging there, and a lesser duty on all those seeking refuge. But I ask not for money, I solicit only inquiry, and if the Select Committee, composed of able men, possessing experience and knowledge, each member, on some particular branch or division involved in the inquiry, should not recommend the proceeding with the work, there will be no harm done; or, if it be found that any part of this island should more require these works of protection and safety, I am perfectly ready to forego any claim on behalf of the locality whose requirements I now advocate, in favour of the place whose demands are more urgent; but, in order to divest my advocacy of all interested character, I beg to state that I know not which is the spot best calculated for the harbour, but leave that for the decision of the Committee, re-establish themselves in some honest calling or pursuit, with a restoration to that society they once belonged to, with credentials to ensure re-admission; instead of which their labour is now all but unproductive, and when released as ticket-of-leave-men, their ruffian violence renders private life insecure, they corrupt the youthful mind of those cast on the world unfriended and uncared for, and thus add to the pollution which now excites the apprehension and the sympathy of every considerate mind.

based as it will be on the evidence of intelligent and disinterested persons. I appeal with confidence to the noble Lord opposite; his antecedents, the estimation he has been held in as desirous of promoting what is for the public good, create a demand for his approval of the propositions, whereby he will establish a claim inferior to none of his exertions. Prudence, humanity, and social order alike require action on the subject.

Motion made, and Question put— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the expediency and practicability of constructing in the most advantageous part of Cardigan Bay a Harbour of Refuge, to afford protection against the injury to commerce, and to avert the harrowing scenes of woe attendant on the frequent shipwrecks which occur in Saint George's Channel, which Harbour may be constructed also to servo as one of defence against invasion. That it be an Instruction to the said Committee, to inquire into the feasibility of employing the convicts of this country on that work, making their employment remunerative to the country, beneficial to themselves, and at the same time preserving our social condition, the security of which at present is so affected by the return to it of Ticket of Leave men.


said, before he addressed himself to the object of the Motion—namely, the construction of a harbour of refuge in the particular port within the district which the hon. Gentleman, represented—


Or, in any eligible portion of the coast; for he had distinctly disclaimed any wish to confine it to his own immediate district.


Well, the words of the Motion were "in Cardigan Bay;" and that was in the district which the hon. Gentleman represented. The construction of a harbour of refuge and of works of defence in Cardigan Bay would not, in his opinion, be of much use in resisting a hostile force on the coast of Boulogne, should an invasion be attempted from that quarter, He (Sir C. Wood) remembered that on one occasion 300 Welsh women in their red cloaks did good service on the alarm of an invasion. But, if any danger should really happen to that part of the coast, there was a dockyard at no very great distance from the spot, which was a place that must necessarily be fortified. With reference to the employment of convicts, he did not think that it was a matter which at all bore upon the particular question referred to in the hon. Gentleman's Motion. If it were supposed that at this moment there was a want of employment for convicts, he could inform the House that a very large building was being erected at Chatham as a convict prison, where employment could be given to as many convicts as his right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Home Department could supply him with for many years to come. He did not therefore think that either any danger of invasion from France, or any necessity for providing for convict labour, could be urged as reasons for the erection of a harbour of refuge at Cardigan Bay. He might at the same time observe, that he did not consider any argument could be derived from the necessity of a harbour being provided in St. George's Channel on some part of the Welsh coast, because within a recent period a harbour of refuge had been constructed in a most convenient part of the channel, in which no less than 3,000 vessels had taken refuge in the course of last year. When the hon. Gentleman was good enough to intimate his intention of bringing the subject forward, he consulted the hydrographer of the Admiralty, as to the advisability of constructing a harbour of refuge in Cardigan Bay, and his opinion was, that not only would it be unadvisable to construct such a harbour, but that it would be positively injurious to the navigation of the Channel. No vessel which could by possibility help it ought to put into Cardigan Bay, and any mariner who knew his business would take good care to keep out of a bay on the lee shore. The Trinity Board had taken care so to light the coast of Wales as to give to every vessel ample indications by which this bay might be avoided; and, besides this, on the northern coast of Wales was Holyhead, and on the southern Milford, both of which harbours were well lighted and were open for the reception of vessels. True, the distance from Holyhead to Milford Haven was about 100 miles, but that was no great distance for a ship to avoid when there was a capital harbour of refuge at each point. He must, therefore, repeat that the hydrographer of the Admiralty declared it would be a mischievous and dangerous thing for the navigation of the Channel to entice, as he said, vessels from the Irish side of the Channel by the prospect of a harbour of refuge at Cardigan Bay. He hoped, therefore, that the House would refuse their assent to the appointment of a Committee.


, in his reply, said, I never was so much impressed before with the conviction of the utter unfitness of a civil Lord being at the head of the Admiralty, although the fact had been constantly, repeated in the House. What ! the First Lord of the Admiralty to betray such deplorable ignorance of the coast as to forget that St. David's Head interposed and prevented the possibility of any ship coming down channel in a storm making Milford Haven, with a wind blowing up the channel, and that before she could get back again to Holyhead the wind might shift to the north, or partly north west, and prevent her ever getting there with a lee shore and no port of refuge during 100 miles full of shoals and dangers. If the right hon. Baronet had any nautical knowledge at all, he would know that the indraught of the water into Cardigan Bay was so great that no ship which came within a given distance could possibly avoid being influenced by it; and if the right hon. Baronet speaks of the opinion of the hydrographer, is he afraid of permitting that Gentleman to be examined before the Committee, and the I value of his opinion to be tested by the experience of others? Why, the hydrographer had not even marked on any chart reefs that run miles into the sea, and which, for want of being so marked, caused disasters which neither skill nor precaution can avert.


said, it was the duty of the Admiralty to establish harbours of refuge wherever they thought it desirable, if they could obtain votes of money for that purpose; but, however desirable it might be that Cardigan Bay should be a harbour of refuge, he felt the hopelessness of anything being gained by the appointment of a Committee, even if the House consented to it. He would, therefore, suggest to the hon. Gentleman who had introduced the subject, whether it might not be more properly left in the hands of the Admiralty than that of a Committee, after the unfavourable opinion that had been expressed by those connected with the Admiralty.

The House divided:—Ayes 44; Noes 118: Majority 74.