HC Deb 24 May 1860 vol 158 cc1677-82

I am unwilling to interpose between the House and a division, but having received a letter from an hon. Gentleman opposite informing mo that he intended to make a statement affecting me on going into Committee of Supply, I think I may claim from him that he should make the statement with which be has threatened me on the occasion on which he said he desired to make it. I received the following letter this morning: — Mr. Lygon presents his compliments to Lord Clarence Paget, and has the honour to inform him that it is his intention, on going into Committee of Supply this evening, to call the attention of the House to the reports which are current respecting his connection with the house of Messrs. Green & Co. of Blackwall. I trust the hon. Gentleman will now fulfil his intention.


I am quite in the hands of the House. I can assure the noble Lord that it is not my intention to bring forward this question in a hostile spirit. The question is not one with regard to which it will be necessary for me to detain the House at any length; and, in common with every other Member of the House, I shall rejoice if the noble Lord, as no doubt will be the case, should be enabled to give a satisfactory explanation. I entirely disclaim all hostile feeling towards the noble Lord, and I can assure him he entirely mistakes my object if he supposes that my inquiry is made with any such purpose. But everybody, I am sure, will agree that under the circumstances which have taken place, when contractors have publicly acknowledged that they were the builders of certain gunboats which have suffered very severely from decay, and when it is reported in commercial circles that the Secretary to the Admiralty was a partner in the firm at the period when the gunboats were built—every hon. Member of this House will see that it is for the advantage of the service, of the House of Commons, of the Board of Admiralty, and of the noble Lord himself, that these circumstances should be explained. I, for one, have no doubt that they are capable of a satisfactory elucidation; and so far from the Motion being received by the noble Lord in a manner implying that he regards it as one which is brought forward in an unfriendly spirit, it ought, I think, to be matter of gratification to him to have the opportunity of meeting the reports which are current as to his being largely connected with Messrs. Green and Company. Such a report has gained notoriety, and must, it is evident, be most pre-judicial to the public service. It is needless for me to enter into the question of the gunboats or the culpability of contractors. I have simply discharged a public duty of a very painful character. But the importance cannot be overrated of clearing up and setting at rest all misapprehensions which may exist on a matter so vitally affecting the credit of all public servants.


I must ask the indulgence of the House, having already spoken on this question, and very few words, I think, will suffice for the purpose I have in view, which is to clear ray character from any imputations which may have been made upon it. The hon. Gentleman opposite I understand to state that he has heard it confidently reported that I am a partner with Messrs. Green of Black-wall?


That you were connected with them at the period when the gunboats were built.


That I was a partner with them when the gunboats were building. I do not make any complaint of the hon. Gentleman for having called the attention of the House to this subject; on the contrary, I think that he—having been a Member of the department with which I have also the honour of being associated—if he heard any reports of a nature which he considered derogatory to my honour, either as an officer or a Member of this House, was quite right in bringing them forward. If I were disposed to make any complaint it would be that he had not placed the matter on the notice paper, in order that any hon. Member, if he had desired, might have come down to the House to deliver his opinion upon it. I might answer the accusation very much in the same vague way in which it has been made, because the hon. Gentleman brings no proofs, but merely states that lie has heard certain reports, and I think I might satisfy the House by giving my word of honour that those Reports are utterly without foundation. But it is always best to be perfectly frank and fair in all matters where the personal honour of individuals is concerned. All thoroughly ingenious stories have some sort of foundation, by which a great deal more may be made of them than they are really worth, and, therefore, in order that there may be no misunderstanding — although I really; scruple to take up the time of the House with a. matter of this sort—I still think it my duty, holding as I do a very high and honourable position in Her Majesty's Government, to state exactly the circumstances of the case. It is perfectly true that for many years past I have been—alas! a very small, but still a shareholder to some I extent in certain ships in the Australian trade. In 1857 my right hon. Friend, now the Secretary of State for India, did me the honour to invite me to take a seat at the Board of Admiralty. I will not quote his letter, because it was in terms rather complimentary to myself, and I wish to confine my observations exactly to the point in issue; and if I read my answer to that communication, at least that part of it which relates to these transactions, it will, I think, be quite sufficient to dispose of this charge. I should state that previously in that same year my right hon. Friend, through his private secretary, Captain Drummond, also an intimate Friend of my own, expressed his desire that in the event of a vacancy taking place I should hold myself in readiness to fill a seat at the Board of Admiralty. I told my Friend, Captain Drummond, that I had great scruples of conscience in the matter; for, although I had nothing whatever to do with shipbuilding, or with any vessels likely to be taken up by contract for the Government, yet, nevertheless, to hold a seat at the Board of Admiralty, and at the same time to retain a connection with shipping concerns, was what I thought would not be fair or proper. This, therefore, was the reply which I wrote to the very flattering letter of my right hon. Friend:—

"Plas Llanfair Oct. 22, 1857.

"Dear Sir Charles,—I hasten to express my obligations for the flattering and friendly communication I have this day received from you, dated the 21st. When during the last Session the subject of my going to the Admiralty was talked over between my friend Captain Drummond and myself, I, from a sense of honour, stated for your information that I could not conscientiously undertake the contract branch, which I believe falls to the Junior Lord, because I have for several years been, and still am, a shareholder in some ships belonging to Messrs. Green, and it would ill become me to open tenders in which they might be offered, for Government service. As to building, I have no connection with him or anybody else, but I should be very loath to discontinue my connection, small as it is, with that eminent firm."

And I concluded by saying, "I have no alternative but to decline your offer." Thus ended this transaction. I was altogether independent of the Board of Admiralty until the present Government was formed, when my noble Friend the First Lord of the Treasury did me the honour to invite me to join that Department. I stated to him exactly as I had stated to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for India, that I had been the owner of shares in a few ships, with which, however, I had nothing further to do, any more than one would have by holding shares in a railway, but that as long as I retained them I felt it incumbent on me to decline all connection with the Admiralty. "Well," says the noble Lord, "have you still those shares in the ships?" To which I replied, "No;" because on the occasion of my bringing forward during the last Session circumstances connected with the building of ships for the navy, to which, as an officer, I felt it my duty conscientiously to call attention, there were—I will not say open accusations— but there were inferences drawn, in certain speeches of hon. Gentlemen on that occasion, to the effect that as I was personally connected with a shipbuilding yard, I was therefore desirous of having ships built by contract there, instead of in the dockyards, and was consequently desirous of running down the dockyards. From that moment I determined that it was impossible for a public man, and particularly for a naval man, who wished to take a part in this House which would be beneficial to the service, to continue longer exposed to such suspicions, and that the sooner I got rid of these shares the better. There and then, —and I am bound to add at considerable loss to myself, for everybody knows that last year shipping was much depressed—I sold my shares. After personally accepting the appointment from the noble Lord, I wrote to him as follows:—

"2, Ennismore Place, S.W., June 16, 1859.

"My dear Lord Palmerston,—In accepting the post of Secretary to the Admiralty, I feel it due, no less to your Lordship than myself, that I should advert to the reasons which principally deterred me from joining your Lordship's Government in 1857. I was then, and have been till lately, a shipowner in the Indian and Australian trade, and while so employed I felt I could not conscientiously fill a post where, questions of personal interest to myself might possibly have to be decided; such as contracts for troopships, transports, &c. Various circumstances having induced me to dispose of my shipping property, I am now perfectly free to accept without scruples of conscience the office your Lordship has been good enough to offer me."

Let me acquit the hon. Gentleman who has introduced this subject of any intention to lower my character in this House; I trust that was not his wish, and I am glad to have had the opportunity of making the statement which I have now done, and to offer my sincere gratitude to the House for the kind reception it has met with.


As my hon. Friend beside me (Mr. Lygon) has spoken already, he is not therefore at liberty again to rise. But I hope the House and the noble Lord will allow me to express what I am sure is the feeling at this side of the House, and which I am glad to believe is shared in by the House at large, that if it be the fact—of which I confess I was not before aware—that rumours of the nature alluded to have been current regarding the noble Lord, it is matter of satisfaction that in this place, where alone opportunity can be given to the noble Lord to meet those rumours, the subject should have been brought forward, and we must all rejoice to feel, after the full and frank explanation which he has given, that neither in nor out of this House can any such rumours continue to prevail.

Motion made, and Question put, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."

The House divided:—Ayes 135; Noes 109: Majority 26.