HC Deb 08 May 1857 vol 145 cc83-95

rose to put a question of which he had given notice, regarding Her Majesty's ship Transit. The history of the ship was rather a singular, and not a very prosperous, one. On the 7th of April this vessel sailed from Spithead, having on board 30 of the Royal Engineers, 286 of the 90th Foot, and 119 of the 59th, besides officers. On the 8th, the day after, she brought up near the Needles and anchored for the night. She there swung on to her anchor, knocked a hole in her bottom, and returned to Portsmouth in a sinking state. At Portsmouth, so far as he could understand, she was, as regarded her recent accident, sufficiently repaired, and again sailed. The next they heard of her was by letter, dated 19th of April, from which it appeared that she put into Corunna in deep distress. He wished it to be understood that he took these particulars from the public journals, and desired to have an explanation regarding them, making no charge of his own. They were told that the Transit put into Corunna in deep distress; and a gentleman, who was described by the correspondent of The Times at Portsmouth as a person of intelligence, respectability, and rank, and who was one of the passengers on board the vessel, gave the following description of what had occurred on the voyage:— Here we are, done up!—two days' 'Bay' weather sent us in here to be fresh rigged! You never saw a worse sea-boat in your life—crank, top-heavy, and everything that's bad!… Such an old tub you never saw; the rigging never set up, or anything secured; we had hard work to keep the masts from going over the side; if she had pitched instead of rolling, I am sure the foremast must have gone over the bows… In fact, a greater tub to roll I never saw. She is top-heavy. I am certain she will never weather the Cape. … She is a disgrace to the British Government, and more so to the dockyard authorities. … There are not one dozen men (troops) on board with dry hammocks, every seam in her deck letting in water.

The Transit was one of three vessels, namely, the Perseverance, the Urgent, and the Transit, which were bought by the Government from the Messrs. Mare at a time when transports were in great demand. Many Gentlemen of that House must remember the Perseverance, which was allotted to them on the day of the great naval review at Spithead, when he believed many Members were not privileged to see the review at all. This ship on entering the dockyard at Deptford capsized, and did a great amount of damage, not merely to herself, but to the storehouses in the yard. Noble Lords in another place would remember the Transit, for it was the vessel which had been appointed to carry them to the naval review, and it served them even a worse turn than the Perseverance had served the Commons. He was not going, however, to trouble the House with the old stories about noble Lords baling out water, and so on, as they were all gone by. The third vessel was the Urgent, but, as he had not given any notice to the right hon. Baronet the First Lord of the Admiralty of his intention to question him as to this vessel, he should not expect him to enter into any explanation in reference to the various reports which had been published about her. It appeared that the Urgent left Spithead on the 28th of February last, with the 49th Regiment on board, for Barbadoes, and it was stated that, having sprung a dangerous leak in the Bay of Biscay, she had put into Corunna on the 3rd of March in a sinking state, and would certainly have foundered but for the calm weather and the daring act of the second engineer, who set free the valves of the engine pumps. On the 9th of March she put into Madeira, and after sailing thence she broke her engine gear, which was however repaired in twenty-four hours. Her engines were again set to work, but again broke, and she was obliged to proceed to Barbadoes under sail, where she arrived on the 27th of March. Another letter from Barbadoes, dated April 6, entirely confirmed this statement. The writer said that for the first two days of the voyage everything went on right, but that on the third day it was discovered that a leak had been sprung, and that there were eight feet of water in the hold. An attempt was made to set the pumps to work, but it was found that they would not work. There were 800 men on board, and the boats would only hold 300, so that they were obliged to set about making rafts. Luckily they got into Corunna just before the furnaces went out. After leaving Madeira the engines broke down twice, and it was found on arriving at Barbadoes—this was so extraordinary a statement that he could scarcely understand it—that the screw had worked out a large piece of iron from one of the plates in the ship's stern, which prevented the machinery of her screw from working, while she took in so much water that thirty men were kept at work at the pumps during the whole time. These three ships were built by Messrs. Mare and Co., builders of great eminence, who had turned out some very fine ships; but it was stated that after they left the hands of those gentlemen and came into those of the Admiralty, alterations were made in them which entirely spoiled them. It was reported and very generally believed that the Admiralty built large poops and raised forecastles on them, and put masts and yards upon them far too heavy for their tonnage. If this were so, it would be easy to account for the extraordinary statements which had been made. To make the House understand, he must state that those ships were built on very fine lines, long and narrow, and the effect of such alterations as these would be to destroy their stability on the wind. Masts which would keep a ship of 50 feet beam stiff on the wind would be too long and heavy for a ship of 35 feet beam, and would make her anything but stiff. With the top weight above and the fine lines below, every seam of her would open in a heavy rolling sea, and this would account for the men's hammocks being perpetually wet, and for all the other accidents spoken of. He thought it right to add that he did not know he should have called the attention of the House to the case of the Transit, because he thought it hardly fair to attack the Government; for a particular case; but it certainly was extraordinary that all three ships should meet with somewhat similar accidents, or a series of accidents; and he hoped, for the sake of the agonized feelings of those who had relatives on board the Transit, now on her way to China, that the right hon. Baronet would be able to give some satisfactory explanation of these various statements. Having some time ago expressed disapprobation with regard to the manner in which the affairs of the Admiralty were conducted, he was happy to say that he believed there was now a great improvement. Persons who wrote to the Admiralty on business now obtained prompt replies. The deaf and dumb gentleman to whom he formerly alluded had been removed to a position in which it was not necessary to hear or speak, and in which his abilities were of the greatest advantage to the public service; and he did not hear of bull-dogs being chained to the desks of young gentlemen. The questions which he wished to ask the right hon. Baronet were, whether it was true that the three ships to which he had referred were bought of Messrs. Mare and Co., and, if it could be stated, what price was paid for them; whether it was true that after they came into the hands of the Admiralty they were supplied with poops, topgallant forecastles, masts and yards which destroyed their stability?


thanked his hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth for having brought this subject under the notice of the House; and, before the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty answered the questions of his hon. Friend, he wished to ask whether another circumstance respecting the accident to the Transit, which had been adverted to by his hon. Friend, was correct? His hon. Friend's statements were from the newspapers, and his (Mr. Bentinck's) were from the same source. The circumstance of the Transit being allowed to ground on her own anchor showed great neglect and carelessness, but it was stated that the existence of the leak was not discovered until 5 o'clock next morning, when the engineer went into the engine-room. It was almost impossible to suppose that in a vessel of that class, and with that number of men on board, there would be no proper night-watch kept, or that there would be no officer whose duty it was to ascertain the state of the ship during the night, but he should be glad to hear from the right hon. Gentleman whether anything had come out before the Court of Inquiry which had been held on this accident to give foundation for such a statement.


said, he was very glad to have the opportunity of making a statement on this subject, because it was impossible to deny that a very strong feeling had been created in the country by the various reports and the various letters which had appeared in the public papers in reference to these vessels. He trusted the House would excuse him if he went at some length into this matter, for he hoped to be able to remove from the public mind the unnecessary degree of alarm which had been excited by the statements to which the hon. Gentleman the Member for Tyne- mouth had referred. These three vessels were built by Messrs. Mare, who were builders in the river of the highest possible character. They were not built with reference to the anticipated demand in consequence of the war; but, when the war broke out and there was a great demand for troop ships, the Admiralty, hearing that these vessels were likely to suit them, caused them to be surveyed by the master shipwright of Deptford and one of the engineer officers of Woolwich, and, upon their report that they were well calculated to carry troops and stores, purchased them. The only alteration they suggested was that they should be so fitted that their screws could be raised. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Lindsay) had asked whether it was true that these ships had heavy poop decks built upon them, whether they were fitted with the masts of two-deckers, and that such ballast had been put into them as entirely to alter their trim and change them from very safe to exceedingly crank and dangerous vessels. The fact simply was, that the size of their poops had been increased and the fore part of the vessels had been covered over so as to afford greater accommodation for the ship's company, and thus to leave the whole decks clear for the accommodation of the troops. This was done with the lightest possible materials, and did not seriously add to the weight of the upper part of these ships. All these ships had been fitted with lighter masts and yards and with a smaller quantity of sail than was intended to be given to them by their builders. He had not the particulars of the equipment of all the three ships, but he could state to the House the facts as to the Transit. The Transit, instead of having the masts of a two-decker, or of a vessel of that tonnage, according to the Admiralty scale, had the same masts as were put into the 20-gun corvettes which had recently been built and sent to sea, and which were reported to be so stiff that the Admiralty were about to build another vessel of the same size, and to give her an upper deck. The Satellite was one of these corvettes, and the masts of the Transit were similar to those of the Satellite. The tonnage of the Satellite was 1,460 tons, that of the Transit 2,580 tons; the length of the Satellite was 200 feet, that of the Transit 300 feet; the beam of the Satellite 40 feet 4 inches, that of the Transit 41 feet 6 inches. Therefore, so far from having the masts and yards of a vessel larger than herself, the Transit was rigged according to the scale of a vessel 100 feet shorter, 14 inches narrower, and 1,120 tons less than herself. The whole weight of the upper works of the Transit was 62 tons; that of the guns and shot carried on the upper deck of the Satellite, 84 tons. The area of the sails intended to be given to the Transit by her builders was 18,800 square feet; the area of those which she actually carried was only 16,400. The result of all these arrangements was that the stability of the Transit as compared with that of the Satellite and her sister corvettes was as 3 to 2. These vessels were not built for troopships, but, so far from having spoiled them by the alterations which they had made in them, the Admiralty had very considerably improved their stability. They were built for carrying cargoes, which would be put low into the ships, and would be carried during the whole of the voyage; therefore, when they came to be used as troopships, it was necessary to put ballast into them to counteract the effect of the less weight of troops and their baggage as compared with deadweight cargo, and to provide against the diminution of weight by the consumption of water and provisions on the voyage. Into none of them, however, was there put so much ballast as to sink them below the point intended by the builders to be their water-line. In the case of the Transit the Admiralty were not satisfied with the calculations alone, but made experiments upon her at Sheerness, both with numbers of troops placed on board and with deadweight, and the result of the practical experiment so tried was entirely to confirm their previous calculations. A few hours before he came down to the House he had had put into his hands a publication called the Mechanics' Magazine, containing an article upon the Transit, written, he believed, by a person of considerable science who was a witness of these experiments, and in that article there was the following passage:— If we express in numbers the ratios of the moment of stability to the moment of the sails—which is the measure of the stiffness of the ship under canvas, then while the Pearl and the Satelliteare each represented by the number 54, the Transit will be represented by the number 69. This is when the vessels are light. When they are deep the numbers are,—Pearl and Satellite each 84, and Transit 119. The relative stiffnesses under steam alone are, when light, Pearl and Satellite each 53, Transit 67; when heavy, Pearl and Satellite each 82, Transit 116. As a further evidence of the stiffness of the Transit, we may compare her stability with that of the Adventure (formerly the Resolute), which was justly praised in The Times of Tuesday, May 6, by Mr. J. Laird, of Birkenhead, who built her. These ships are of about the same size, the displacement or weights differing only by three tons—that of the Transit being 2,751 tons and that of the Adventure 2,748 tons. The stability of each of these ships was estimated approximately; the decks, engines, masting gear, equal weights of ballast, &c., being taken into account; and while the stability of the Adventure was found to be 5,130 tons, that of the Transit was no less than 8,484 tons. He hoped, therefore, that the House would be satisfied that both by calculation and by experiment the Transit had been proved to be as steady a vessel as could be sent to sea. The experiments of which he had spoken were tried after the poop and forecastle were put on, and therefore showed the quality of the vessel, not as she was when she was purchased, but as she was at the present time. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Lindsay) had referred to the case of the Perseverance. It was true that an accident occurred to that ship when in dock at Woolwich, which occasioned some alarm, but since she had been at sea she had done her duty remarkably well. On the day of the naval review, complaints were made by hon. Members of a delay on the railway, but he was not aware that any one had made any complaint of the accommodation on board the Perseverance, or of the manner in which that vessel had performed the service for which she was appointed. About a week ago, a letter was received from her Commander, Captain Macdonald, one of the officers present at the time of the accident to which the hon. Gentleman had referred. The letter stated,— You need not be in the least anxious as to this ship's being top-heavy; for on our arrival at Barbadoes we had only four tons of coal dust and a very few days' bread and provisions left. The Perseverance, therefore, had performed her duties without the slightest complaint of any sort or kind. With regard to the next vessel to which reference had been made, the Urgent, he could only state that he was not aware that any well-founded complaint had been made against that vessel as distinguished from her engines. It was true that, as regarded her engines, a complaint had been made about an occurrence which took place when first she went to sea, but the House must remember that the engines of those vessels and the machinery connected with those engines were not manufactured in Government dockyards, but by enginemakers in different parts of the country. The engines of the Transit and Urgent were built by the Messrs. Napier, of Glasgow, builders of great celebrity, for the Russian Government, and they had been seized at the commencement of the war and placed in those vessels. Now, what had happened in reality to the Urgent? It was perfectly true that an accident happened to the Urgent in the Bay of Biscay, but the accounts which had appeared in the newspapers were founded rather upon the imagination of the writers of them than from the real facts of the case. In order to show to the House what actually did occur, he would read the letter which had been received from the commanding officer, and which ran as follows:— Her Majesty's ship Urgent, Corunna, March 5, 1856. Sir,—Exaggerated accounts will find their way to England about the Urgent and the 49th Regiment having to put into Corunna. I shall take the liberty of laying before you the facts:—The leaden joints or washers inserted between the blow-off pipe and the Kingston valves proved rather too slight for their work, and were blown out, thus dividing the pipe by which the water from the boilers is driven into the sea. It is my belief, also, though I have no proof to offer, that some small substance, such as a bit of wood or coal, was driven through the Kingstons, and temporarily prevented their closing after blowing off. My letter to the Board states the time and circumstances of the water coming into the ship, and which at one time rose nearly up to the fires. Under the circumstances—made so much more grave from our not knowing how to account for the leak—we manned all the pumps, made use of the fire-engine, and of all the buckets to bale. The compartments forward and aft were tight, and confined all the water to the stoke-hole, and in a short time we had mastered the water. By one P.M. the ship was dry, and the cause of the leak discovered. The chief engineer stated that the defect could be made good at sea, but as Corunna was not much out of the way, I determined to put in there and coal, instead of stopping at Madeira for that purpose, by which means the defects would be made good with more certainty and with more satisfaction to those persons embarked in the ship; but I have no hesitation in saying that the ship might have gone anywhere without anchoring to repair the defective joints, although we should have found ourselves obliged to blow off much of the water in the boilers into the bilges—a very objectionable proceeding, and, of course, involving the necessity of pumping it out again. Since arriving here we have made iron joints instead of those broken, and having nearly filled up with coal, I hope to proceed to Barbadoes at two P.M. C. G. PHILLIPS. Captain Milne, R.N. Gentlemen making these attacks always seemed to imply that it was only Government vessels that suffered from bad weather. The right hon. Gentleman opposite had complained before Easter of the Megœra having been compelled to put back into Plymouth from injuries caused by heavy weather, which was repaired in a couple of days. He had learnt since that a fine merchant steamer had encountered the same weather, had been totally dismasted, drifted to the coast of Portugal, and, after considerable delay, returned to Plymouth with jury masts. As regarded the Transit's engines, they were, as he had already stated, originally built for the Russian Government, and he would frankly admit that they had turned out ill, and had broken down move than once; but all the accidents which had occurred were to be attributed to the engines, and not to the ship itself. During the war the necessity for the services of the vessel was so great that it was found impossible to lay her by and put in new engines, and all that could be done was to repair the existing engines as well as possible, but at the close of the war they had been taken out and new ones substituted for them, and the ship was put into a perfect state of efficiency to go to sea. With regard to the particular accident to which reference had been made, he would inform the House how it occurred. The ship left Portsmouth, and proceeding towards the Needles, encountered a thick fog, and the commander, finding that there was a large number of merchant vessels about, determined to anchor. He did so, and in the course of the night, the tide having changed, the ship drifted over her anchor, which upon being raised was found to have had its stock broken, and the hole in the bottom of the ship had clearly been caused by the vessel striking the anchor-stock. The conduct of the captain was, no doubt, exceedingly negligent, and the court of inquiry had not, as had been stated in the newspapers, acquitted him of all blame, but, on the contrary, had reported this careless conduct, and he had been reprimanded most severely. He was an officer of high character, and had served with great credit to himself, and it was not thought that a single instance of carelessness should, in his case, be visited by his being superseded.

Now, this transaction was the foundation of a very amusing article in a newspaper; it was suggested that he (Sir Charles Wood) ought to be sent to sea in the Transit, and that the Board of Admiralty had been guilty of more than Crimean mismanagement; and yet it must be obvious to everybody that no precaution on, the part of the dockyard authorities or the Board of Admiralty could have prevented such an accident. With regard to the Transit having put into Corunna, the hon. Gentleman had referred to a letter describing the dangers which the ship incurred in the Bay of Biscay. He did not know whether the Gentleman who wrote that letter was suffering from that depression of spirits which sometimes displayed itself on board ship in those not accustomed to the sea, and who therefore took a gloomy view of matters; but he could only say he had received a very different account. He would read to the House a letter which he had received from a friend of his, whose brother was in command of the troops on hoard the Transit:Dear Sir Charles,—I received last night a letter from my brother, written on board the Transit, at Corunna, the tone of which is so different from that of one which I have just read in The Times, that I think it right to let you know what he says. My brother is in command of the troops on board, and though by no means given to grumbling, would not be likely to conceal from me any serious complaint in such a matter. He says that the Transit had to encounter a four days' gale in the Bay of Biscay, the wind blowing right in their teeth; that they shipped a good deal of water (no mention of any leak), and that their foremast rigging having got loosened, they have put into Corunna in order to get it put to rights, and expect to be off again the following morning. He speaks in high terms of the general arrangements for the comfort of the troops, who he says are in perfect health, and is warm in his praises of Captain Chambers. His whole letter is written in the best spirits, and certainly conveys no idea I of any misgivings as to the safe arrival of the Transit." It was by no means an unusual thing for the rigging of a newly-rigged ship to stretch, and the rigging of the Transit had, no doubt, stretched and required to be set up. He had been told by a naval officer an instance of a ship which, after having been at Portsmouth ten months, merely went across the Bay of Biscay, and in that case the rigging was so stretched By the change of climate, that it was necessary to set it up on arriving at Lisbon. The operation of setting up the rigging of a ship might, he understood, be performed at sea, but in the present instance it had been thought more convenient to do it at Corunna. The ship was reported to be an easy ship. He would read an extract from the report of the sailing qualities of the ship Transit, dated the 22nd of August, 1856, signed by the commander, master, and the carpenter:— Does she ride easy at anchor?—Yes, so far as tried. Does she roll easy or uneasy in the trough of the sea?—Deep, but easy. Does she pitch easy?—Yes. Is she, generally speaking, an easy or uneasy ship?—Easy. The statement which he had made would, he thought, serve to show the House that the Transit had been tried in every possible way. He might add, that there was now no complaint made with respect to her engines, and ho was sure the House would not fail to see that the first accident which had befallen her was not to be attributed to any omission upon the part either of the Admiralty or of the authorities at the dockyard, but rather to negligence upon the part of her commander, while the accident which had happened to her in the Bay of Biscay was one to which any ship might under similar circumstances be liable. He trusted he had now satisfied the House upon the subject, and would venture to express a hope that what had fallen from the hon. Gentleman the Member for Tynemouth would induce the observance of more caution and more forbearance in laying such letters as they have heard read before the public. He did not, of course, in the slightest degree complain of any attacks which might be made upon the Board of Admiralty. It was but natural that they should expect to be found fault with; but such statements as had been put forward were cruel to the relatives of those who were embarked in these vessels. After the vessels had sailed, no possible good could ensue from such statements published in the newspapers, and they were cruel to the relations and friends of those on board. When a ship went upon a long voyage, a considerable time must elapse before any information could arrive with respect to her crew, and much unnecessary anxiety was caused by communications which raised the greatest alarm, whilst it was impracticable from there being no possible communication from the vessels for weeks or months, that such alarm should be removed.


said, that if the question now under consideration had not been introduced by the hon. Member for Tynemouth, he had come down with the intention, as a matter of duty, of moving for a copy of the inquiry instituted, in consequence of the Transit having sustained injury whilst at anchor off the Needles; and, likewise, for any official document relative to that vessel having put into Corunna to repair damages, as such papers were indispensable to a clear understanding of these circumstances. With regard to the former point, ho very much doubted the propriety of anchoring in such shoal water as had caused her to ground upon her anchor, whilst ho admitted the force of the statement of the right lion. Baronet that a thick fog prevailed at the time. It had been stated in the newspapers that the commander of the Transit had been fully acquitted; but it now appeared that the Board of Admiralty had adjudged him exceedingly negligent, and pronounced a severe reprimand on his conduct. He (Admiral Walcott), as a naval officer, must acquiesce in the justice of that sentence, as it was evident that he had not taken those precautions which the circumstances of the case demanded, and had anchored his ship in a position which left only two feet of water between her keel and the ground. The greatest care was requisite, and every attention should have been paid to the tide, so that, by hoisting the sail ordinarily used, the ship might have been kept clear of her anchor on its change. The lion. Member for Norfolk had alluded to a fact (which, as it had not been contradicted by the right hon. Baronet, he must accept as proved) as one of a singular character, that the water in the Transit had risen to a considerable height before it was discovered. It was not found until five o'clock, when the engineer went into the engine-room, whereas it ought to have been known an hour previously; the uniform custom being for the carpenter's mate to sound the well, and to report to the officer at the expiration of each watch. In this respect also he (Admiral Walcott) must observe great negligence had occurred. However, by Divine Providence, no danger had resulted; with a celerity very creditable to the authorities, the repairs had been effected in Portsmouth dockyard, and the ship again proceeded to sea. He never, without feelings of the deepest distress, lifted his voice against the conduct of a brother officer, but, in the case before the House, he must observe that great neglect had been shown by the commander of the Transit; and, considering the distrust and anxiety of which it had been the cause to 900 officers and men, as well as the grave censure which the right hon. Baronet said it had called down from the Board of Admiralty, it might have been the better course to have appointed another commander to that vessel. The Transit afterwards experienced severe weather in the Bay of Biscay. The observations of the First Lord of the Admiralty on that point he must also corroborate. Every naval officer knew that when a ship went to sea and encountered a gale of wind with new rigging, the latter invariably stretched, so as to necessitate incessant attention to the safety of the masts. Under such circumstances there was a clear course for the commanding officer to adopt. He should take in the slack of the leeward rigging, then wear his ship, and take in the slack which had been the windward rigging. The right hon. Baronet further stated that the water which the vessel shipped did not enter by the seams of the deck. If it had so come in, the fact might be attributed to a straining similar to that of the rigging, and the caulkers aboard could readily have prevented its recurrence. Although he could not understand the reasons which had induced the commander to put into Corunna, he felt perfectly persuaded that the Transit was seaworthy, and, instead of foundering, as it had been predicted, while off the Cape of Good Hope, would make a safe passage.

He earnestly hoped that the object of that voyage might be successful. Although he had never given his approval to the Chinese war, and still adhered to his opinion, that, by a timely display of sound judgment and sagacity, it might have been averted; yet, now that hostilities had been commenced, he would be foremost in giving every support to the Government in sending out sufficient reinforcements, and adopting such measures as would ensure to it such a termination as would be satisfactory to the country. In conclusion, he would express his hope that the mind of the public would be relieved of all anxiety as to the safety of the Transit, from the expressions of confidence which had been made in the House that evening. It was his own conviction that no apprehension was to be entertained with respect to the ship, and that she was neither overmasted nor overtopped in her poop or forecastle, so as to endanger her safety; such, he trusted, would be also the belief of those concerned most nearly with the valuable charge of human lives committed to her conveyance.