HC Deb 26 July 1858 vol 151 cc2139-51

said, he rose to call attention to the Report of the Select Committee upon Harbours of Refuge, and move an Address for the appointment of a Royal Commission, in order to the inquiry in the terms recommended in that Report. It was not necessary for him to detain the House at any length on the question, as he believed the Government were willing to grant the inquiry he had in view. The Committee, to whose Report his Motion referred, was appointed by the House, at the request of the late Government, under these circumstances. The House and the Government had been frequently applied to for the purpose of sanctioning the erection of harbours and the expenditure of public money on the different parts of the coast. The great objections that had been raised, not only by the Government, but by the House, had been that no inquiry had been made as to those parts of the coast where these improvements were required; and contentions had taken place as to which point of the coast the harbours should be erected at. In order to remedy those inconveniences, the late Government thought it wise and prudent that a Committee should be appointed. That Committee had been appointed early in 1857, and it had investigated the subject during that and a portion of the present Session. And if hon. Members would refer to their Report, they would find that the enormous losses of life and property which took place every year on our coast were such as to fully justify any Government in taking some decided step on a matter of such importance. In five years there were 5,128 casualties on our coast, of which 2,184 resulted in wrecks or total loss, and 2,944 in damages of smaller or greater degree. During the same period 4,148 persons lost their lives, or an average of 830 every year. Moreover the mere money value of these losses amounted, according to the evidence, to an average of £1,500,000 per annum. These two facts alone, he thought, should be a sufficient inducement for this House care- fully to consider the subject, and try to remedy the crying evils which resulted from the present condition of our coast. These losses were contingent to a great degree on the crowded state of our waters, arising from the great increase which had of late taken place in our shipping. In 1843 the amount of tonnage of British shipping which entered or cleared from ports or harbours of the three kingdoms was 7,181,000 tons, and of foreign tonnage 2,643,000—making altogether 9,824,000 tons of shipping. That was fifteen years ago, while last year the amount of British tonnage was 13,694,000, and of foreign 9,484,000, making a total of 23,178,000 tons. Thus the increase within fifteen years had been more than 130 per cent, and this increase had not been caused by any sudden or momentary impulse; it had been gradual and steady, and even in 1857 was equal to that of any preceding year. There was, therefore, every reason to suppose that this great development would proceed at the same rapid rate as heretofore, and if the crowded state of our waters now led to such enormous loss of property and of life, it was reasonable to expect that that loss would increase proportionately with the increase in our trade unless means were taken to afford greater facilities to shipping upon our coast. Another proof of the rapid growth of our shipping was, that in 1843 the amount of tonnage built in this country was 83,000, while last year it was 250,000 tons. What, then, under such circumstances was the duty of the Government and of this House? As a general rule, the Committee over which he presided had confined their attention chiefly to the question of harbours of refuge, strictly so called, and they had examined upwards of sixty witnesses, among whom were Captain Washington and Captain Veitch, of the Admiralty, Captain Sullivan, of the Board of Trade, professional gentlemen of great eminence, and local engineers and practical men who navigated our coast. The labours of the Committee, he thought, entitled their Report to consideration from the House, and that Report was, he trusted, a fair statement of the facts and summary of the evidence adduced. Generally speaking, they found that the coasts of the United Kingdom were well studded with natural harbours. The attention of the Committee, however, had been concentrated upon a few important points. The first part of the coast which had come specially under notice was that lying between Pentland Frith and the Frith of Forth in Scotland, and in the case of that line of coast the recommendation of the Committee was, that the inquiry should be as large as possible. Of course, the precise spots at which harbours of refuge should be formed was a question upon which it was impossible for an up-stairs Committee to come to any precise conclusion; but they had indicated the locality at which it was desirable that as the coast contained no large natural harbours, harbours of refuge should be erected. The part of the coast which had come next under their consideration was that stretching from St. Abb's to Flamborough Head in Yorkshire, between which points, it appeared, there was no secure retreat for shipping. Now, this line of coast was an important one, including, as it did, Newcastle, Shields, Tynemouth, Sunderland, Hartlepool, and Whitby. In that case, also, the Committee had recommended that no precise locality should be fixed upon, but that the advantages which any portion of the coast possessed for the construction there of a harbour of refuge might form the subject of inquiry. With respect to the east coast of England, the Committee had come to the conclusion that, inasmuch as it was furnished with such places of refuge as the Wash, the Humber, Yarmouth-roads, and the Thames, it was amply well supplied in that particular, while the existence of the harbour of Dovor—though not, he was ready to admit, so much a harbour of refuge as of defence—of the new harbour at Portland, which, when finished, would be one of the most magnificent places of refuge in the world, and of the natural harbours of Falmouth and Plymouth upon the south coast rendered it in the eyes of the Committee inexpedient that any expenditure of public money should be incurred in that quarter. Directing their attention, however, to the line of coast which lay between the Land's End and the Bristol Channel, the Committee had found that there was in that direction a great want of harbours of refuge. They had, therefore, advised the formation of a harbour at St. Ives or some other neighbouring place for coasting vessels, and another in the Bristol Channel for the foreign trade. The trade of South Wales in iron and coals was increasing so fast that the Channel would soon vie for its crowded condition with the north-east coast. With those exceptions, there was no point on the coast of Great Britain at which the Committee had deemed it necessary that expenditure should be incurred, especially when they took into account that a magnificent harbour at Holyhead was now rapidly progressing towards completion. Turning to Ireland, they had ascertained that there were three points which it was desirable that something should be done with the view of affording greater security to shipping. One of those was Carlingford Bay, which simply required that a large sandbank at its entrance should be removed, in order to render it a magnificent harbour, capable of admitting the largest class of vessels. Then, there was Waterford Bay, to which a precisely similar observation applied; and, lastly, Portrush, on the north coast of Ireland, which, by means of natural rocks, called the Skerries, formed an almost natural harbour, but which, owing to the fact that the interstices between those rocks did not admit a sufficient amount of water to endanger vessels. would require that a sum of about £100,000 should be laid out upon it before it could be made thoroughly available as a harbour of refuge. By these means the northern route from Liverpool to America might be made as good as the southern one, which was becoming rapidly insufficient for the commerce of the Atlantic. Those to which he had adverted were the only points along the coasts of those islands which the Committee had recommended as the sites of public works; but in making that statement, he was by no means prepared to contend that the Commission which was about to be appointed night not extend beyond them the scope of its inquiry. He was at the same time of opinion that the Government should be extremely careful with respect to allowing an extension of the limits of the inquiry, because the result might be that the whole question would again be raised, and that works of urgent importance would not in the meantime be constructed with that expedition which was desirable. According to the estimates, the construction of harbours of refuge at the places pointed out would cost about £2,000,000; but if the amount should turn out to be £2,500,000 or even £3,000,000, they must remember, as he had stated, that the annual loss by shipwreck amounted in value to the sum of £1,500,000, which was the subtraction of so much money from the aggregate capital of the country, while the loss of life amounted annually to 800 persons. The evil which the House was called upon to remedy was not one of a merely speculative character, but one which either as involving considerations, of humanity, or of pounds, shillings, and pence, demanded the most serious attention. Of the expenditure which it would be necessary to incur in order to obviate that evil, it had been suggested that the shipping interest ought to bear a portion. In that view he had concurred, because he thought the advocates of the establishment of harbours of refuge would come to that House with a better chance of success if they could state that the classes more immediately interested in the question were prepared to contribute to the attainment of the object which they sought to accomplish. There were others, he was aware, who held a contrary opinion, and he, for one, should offer no opposition to the payment of the whole of the expenditure out of the public money, should that course be deemed the one which it was most expedient to adopt. He did not, however, think that it would be wise to discuss that question at present, deeming it more advisable that it should be left for the future consideration of the Government. The inexhaustible resources of our trade and commerce had been shown by the immense increase of our exports, but our shores were limited in extent and our ports limited in number. It was, therefore, our duty to provide as much accommodation and security for the ships which frequented our coasts as ingenuity and capital could provide. He thanked the Government for the readiness with which they had met his proposal for the appointment of a Commission, and hoped that its labours would result to the advantage of the country.


said, he rose to second the Motion, and in doing so he would observe that he had never read a Report which contained more valuable information than that of the Committee on Harbours of Refuge. He rejoiced that the Government assented to the appointment of the Commission, but hoped that the inquiries of the Commissioners would be limited to the evidence that was adduced before the Committee, otherwise there would be a constant competition of corporations as to the best sites for Harbours of Refuge. He would recommend that the Commissioners should have a steamer placed at their disposal, a competent and unprejudiced engineer, that they should he furnished with the Report of the Select Committee, with the evidence given before it, and all other necessary documents; and, thus it was provided, that they should visit the various places indicated in that evidence, and, if necessary, take any additional evidence upon the spot, the capabilities of which they could examine for themselves. The Report pointed out that the main difficulty was the question of how the means were to be raised, and he was glad to find that the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Wilson) seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that the construction of harbours of refuge was a national object, and that their cost ought to be defrayed out of the Consolidated Fund. The system of passing tolls had, he thought, been universally condemned. It might seem a small thing to impose a tax of a penny a ton upon vessels passing these harbours; but while harbours of refuge would serve also for commercial harbours the result of the application of passing tolls would be that they would tax the ships of other ports to defray the cost of a harbour which would be a rival to them. He thought, therefore, that this should be treated as a national question, and that the Government would feel that, as a great maritime people, it was our duty to provide for the security, not only of the lives and properties of our fellow-subjects, but also of those foreigners who visited our coasts for the purposes of commerce.

Motion made and Question proposed,— That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to give directions for the appointment of a Royal Commission, to complete the inquiry in the terms recommended in the Report of the Select Committee of this House in the present Session on Harbours of Refuge.


said, he could bear his cordial testimony to the ability and fairness with which the Chairman of the Committee had presided over its proceedings. He rose, however, for the purpose of remarking that one-half of the wrecks which took place on the coast of England took place on the northeast coast. He thought, therefore, that that coast had especial claim to the attention of the Commission, and he hoped he should receive from the First Lord of the Admiralty an assurance that this should be given. He also hoped to receive from the right hon. Baronet a pledge that he would see to the impartial constitution of the Commission, and that in every particular any engineer placed upon it should be free from local bias. He thought it was impossible to regard this as other than a national question, when they looked at the waste of life and property that took place annually on our coast from the want of harbours of refuge; and, therefore, he quite concurred in the propriety of constructing these works out of the public funds, although he would be willing that a small tax should be laid on the shipping interests rather than the works should be delayed.


Sir, I have stated on a former occasion that it was the intention of the Government to grant this Commission. It is, therefore, quite unnecessary that I should detain the House by following either the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Wilson) or any of the other speakers in the remarks they have made. But I cannot help saying that I agree with the hon. Gentleman opposite that the Committee to whom this important inquiry was entrusted have done full justice to the interest and importance of the subject. I have read with great interest the able Report which has been presented to the House by the hon. Gentleman opposite, who was Chairman of the Committee, and I do think, and on behalf of the Government I am glad to be able to say, that I think the Report of that Committee fully justifies the recommendation it has given, and on that ground we have felt it to be our duty to concede the Commission which the Report recommended. The wish and intention of the Government will be to constitute a Commission both competent and impartial, and I hope that on the part of the House there will be no indisposition to provide the funds necessary to carry out a work that I believe to be extremely important for the protection of that shipping which has been increasing, and is increasing with such astonishing rapidity, and which is so closely connected with the welfare and prosperity of the country.


said, that he did not wish to depreciate the value of the wreck chart appended to the Report of the Committee, but it afforded, after all, a very inadequate criterion of the real loss sustained on various parts of the coast. It indicated only the number of vessels lost, and not the comparative value of the property or the number of lives; whereas, he contended, that if the value of the shipping wrecked and the number of the lives lost were taken as the test, the southern coast would have an equal, if not greater, claim for consideration than the coast between Flamborough Head and St. Abb's Head, which had been described as the most dangerous. It appeared that in the five years from 1852 to 1856 inclusive 763 vessels were wrecked between Flamborough Head and St. Abbs, while between Portsmouth and Dovor only 177 vessels were wrecked in the same period. But he found, on referring to the registers kept at the Admiralty and the Board of Trade, that the 763 vessels wrecked between Flamborough Head and St. Abbs involved the loss of 260 lives, while the 177 vessels wrecked between Portsmouth and Dovor involved the loss of as many as 218 lives. It was, therefore, clear that even apart from military considerations, the claims of the south coast upon the attention of the Committee were very great indeed. The hon. Member for Teignmouth had spoken as if the Committee had come to a decision with reference to the mode of paying the expenses that might be incurred, but he did not understand that the Committee had made any distinct recommendation that the charge of these harbours should be defrayed by a passing toll upon shipping; they had only recommended that a portion of the charge should be defrayed by the shipping interest. And he did not think that they were pledged to any particular suggestion with respect to the mode of defraying the expense of these harbours.


said, he thought the country were much indebted to the Government for the readiness with which they had consented to the appointment of a Commission, which he hoped would be immediately appointed and would consist of competent and impartial persons. As to the mode in which the construction of these harbours should be paid for, that was a matter for the subsequent consideration of Parliament. It was premature to discuss it then, for they did not even know what the cost of these works would be.


said, that the Government had done a great national service in consenting to the appointment of a Commission, and that service would be increased if they should eventually decide that the cost of the construction of harbours of refuge should be defrayed out of the Consolidated Fund. The erection of such harbours was a national duty, and the advantage derived from them would not be confined to the shipping interest alone. He hoped the Government would not, in this case, fall into the error which had so much prevailed of late years, that particular classes of the community might to pay for what were great national works. When the Commission reported, it would be time to consider the best mode of paying the expenses; but he hoped the fact would not be lost sight of, that these harbours of refuge would be for the benefit of the whole community, and not of the shipping interest only.


said, he agreed in all that had been said in praise of the Committee, but complained that they had overlooked an important part of the Irish coast, near Skerries, in the county of Dublin. He hoped that the attention of the Commissioners would be drawn to that harbour. For many years past petitions had been presented to that House, from Scotland as well as Ireland, in favour of a harbour of refuge at Skerries, which was easy of approach, and a good hauling ground. He would therefore move an addition to the Motion, directing the Commissioners to extend their inquiry to the harbour of Skerries, as regarded its capabilities and circumstances as a site for a harbour of refuge.

Amendment proposed,— At the end of the Question to add the words, "and to eitend their inquiries to the Harbour of Skerries, in the county of Dublin, as regards its capabilities and circumstances as a site for a Harbour of Refuge.

Question proposed, "That those words be there added."


said, he had no doubt that, under the terms of their Commission, the Commissioners would have full power to institute the inquiry suggested by his hon. Friend. He hoped, however, that the whole body of Commissioners would not be expected to inquire into the four divisions of the question which had been recommended for consideration, but that the work would be distributed among them in such a manner that their inquiries might be brought to a simultaneous conclusion.


observed, that only one hon. Member connected with the ports on the eastern coast had been placed upon the Committee; but, as representing Yarmouth. he might state that his constituents regarded this subject with considerable interest. The harbour accommodation at Yarmouth was amply sufficient for the trade of the port; but, as the most easterly point on the coast, the place was in time of war a naval station of great importance, and an immense amount of shipping passed through the roads every year. He thought, therefore, that the attention of the Commission- ers ought to be specially directed to that part of the coast. As many as 2,000 ships had been known to pass through Yarmouth Roads in a day; there were frequently from 1,000 to 1,400 vessels of various sizes at anchor in the roads, which comprised the space of water between the mainland and some sands which lay about two miles out at sea. He was sorry to add that there was scarcely ever a gale, especially from N.N.E. or S.S.W., in which loss of life did not occur. Efficient shelter for shipping might be provided by comparatively small expenditure, and he hoped the attention of the Commissioners would be directed to the subject.


said, he wished to express his satisfaction at the statement of the hon. Member for Devonport, and his conviction that, if the Commissioners followed the course of inquiry suggested by the Committee, the result of their investigations would be most advantageous, not only to the maritime interests of Great Britain, but to those of the whole world.


said, he wished to express his thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for having promised that the Commission should be both impartial and competent. He also wished to observe that the Committee did not receive any evidence as to the desirableness of constructing small tidal harbours of refuge. He wished to know whether there would be any opportunity of laying such evidence before the Commission. Many parts of the coast of Scotland required small harbours of refuge, and it was owing to the want of such that forty-two seamen lost their lives some months ago on the Banff-shire coast.


said, he was unable to explain why it was that no evidence had been taken before the Committee with regard to the harbour of Skerries; but he believed it was the opinion of nautical men who were competent judges, that there was no place on the eastern coast of Ireland the fitness of which as a harbour of refuge ought more to be inquired into. As he understood his hon. Friend (Mr. Wilson), he did not wish to exclude the Commission from inquiring into any particular locality within the four divisions which they might conceive to be fit and proper to convert into a harbour of refuge. And, of course, it would be an important question auxiliary to that to inquire how far the smaller harbours might be assisted. It would be the first duty of the Commissioners, however, to follow the line which was chalked out in the Report of the Committee, and direct their attention to such great harbours of refuge as were necessary for the protection of life and property along the coast. He felt that the utmost credit was due to his hon. Friend (Mr. Wilson) for the part he had taken in reference to this important subject. His hon. Friend had been instrumental in the first instance in promoting this great inquiry; and all he (Mr. Hamilton) would say on behalf of the Government was that in the selection of the members of the Commission the greatest possible judgment would be exercised, and those only appointed in whose experience, efficiency, and impartiality the public would have the greatest confidence.


observed, that it would be inexpedient to add any particular harbour to the Motion; for if that were done in one instance, hon. Members might wish to do it in others. At the same time he was anxious that the question of improving existing tidal harbours should not be neglected by the Commission.


urged an inquiry into the necessity of establishing harbours of refuge on the coast of Wexford, the evidence taken by the Committee on that part of Ireland being very meagre and unsatisfactory.


said, he wished to express his gratification at the determination of the Government to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into the best points for the construction of harbours of refuge along the coast, as the loss of life and property owing to the increase of commerce had greatly increased of late years. He anticipated the most gratifying results from the Commission, but he trusted that the inquiry which the Commission were to institute would embrace all the circumstances connected with the different localities.


said, he thought that great praise was due to the Committee for the ability and judgment with which they had fulfilled their task. The formation of these harbours would unquestionably effect a great saving of life and property, and that was the duty of all Governments. He knew from his own experience that to avoid the payment of harbour dues ships had been wrecked and lives lost, and therefore he trusted that the Commission would direct their attention to those dues. He was confident that when the Commission made their Report the House would not be niggardly in the performance of its duty.


said, he hoped that the hon. Member for Drogheda (Mr. M'Cann) would not persevere with his Amendment; because, although he did not deny the merits of Skerries Harbour, the authorities of the harbour had been exceedingly remiss in not bringing the case before the Committee. He had no doubt that it would not be overlooked by the Commissioners; but it was obvious that if the Motion went beyond the limit to which the Committee went in their Report, there would be no end to the inquiry.


said, he also would recommend the hon. Member to withdraw his Amendment.


said, he did not think they ought to look forward to any part of the expense of the proposed harbour being met by passing tolls. The advantage of harbours of refuge would be greatly reduced if they were not thrown open freely to every flag and every vessel that passed our shores, and he for one would never consent to levy a passing toll upon shipping for their support; but he would be ready at any time to vote a large sum of money to be laid out for the purpose of averting that national scandal, the enormous loss of life which now annually took place along our shores.


said, that unless the Commission which was about to be appointed exercised a good deal of caution, a large amount of money would be wasted to very little purpose. The idea of harbours of refuge was remarkably popular with shore-going men, and with hon. Members who represented seaports—and no doubt it looked very pretty upon paper—but until both the foreign and the coasting trade should be carried on much more generally than it was at present by steamboats, harbours of refuge would be really vain and useless things. An experienced seaman navigating a sailing vessel always avoided the shore when a gale came on, and he did not think, therefore, that the advantages which hind and philanthropic people were apt to attribute to harbours of refuge were likely to result from their more general establishment. He cautioned the Government to be careful how they listened to representations from the county of Wexford and distant ports, the inhabitants of which were all anxious to have harbours, and not to be led away by the idea that the in- surance upon vessels which had to pass harbours of refuge would be lessened in consequence. He pointed to the hardship imposed upon London shipowners in having to pay duties for passing Ramsgate Harbour, when it was notorious that ships of a certain burden could not cuter it, and instead of multiplying the occasions for these imposts, he called upon the Government to diminish those which already existed.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved,That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will be graciously pleased to give directions for the appointment of a Royal Commission, to complete the inquiry in the terms recommended in the Report of the Select Committee of this House in the present Session on Harbours of Refuge.

House adjourned at Ten o'clock.