HC Deb 26 July 1861 vol 164 cc1629-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding, £250,000, be I granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of Building Iron Ships by Contract, and of the Plating and Engines for five Wooden Ships, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1862.


I am anxious to afford the Committee some explanation of the Vote which I have now to propose of £250,000 in addition to the ordinary Estimates. It will be remembered that we have had various discussions respecting this most important subject. Since we framed our Estimates of iron-cased ships in December last other nations have very largely added to their iron-clad navy. It was consequently my duty in May last to state that the Government had resolved upon building five more wooden iron-cased ships in our dockyards; but that that of itself could entail no increase on the ordinary Estimates of the year beyond expense of plating and partly providing engines for these wooden ships, but that it would pro- bably be necessary that still further exertion should be made in order to keep pace with foreign Powers. Sir, this Estimate has reference to three distinct items. First, it is proposed to commence the construction of more iron-cased ships by contract. That item amounts to £120,000. The second item is for the plating required for the five wooden ships which I have already mentioned; and, thirdly, we ask for an additional sum towards the expenses of engines for those wooden ships. As to the proposed iron-cased ships, I trust that the intention of the Government to ask for an additional grant for this purpose will create no alarm, because we merely propose now to do, under the sanction of Parliament, that which we have actually being doing during the last three years in the recess without the sanction of Parliament. The Committee will remember that the late Government proposed to build two iron-cased ships of the Warrior class. One of those ships was ordered by them just before they left office, and the other by the present Government. In the autumn of that year(1859)we learnt that other nations were making great progress in the construction of these ships, and the Admiralty thought it their duty, without waiting for the sanction of Parliament, to ask the consent of the Treasury to the immediate commencement of two more iron-cased ships. That made two of the Warrior class in course of construction and two of the Defence class, the latter being of considerably smaller dimensions. These four vessels are now nearly ready, and we trust that the Warrior will be at sea in a very short period. In the course of the next autumn, 1860, the Government again received communications as to the progress made by foreign nations, and thought it was incumbent on them a second time, without Parliamentary sanction, to commence the construction of two more of these vessels, larger than the Defence, but smaller than the Warrior. These vessels will be ready in the course of the next year, and make six in progress. During the present year the Government have commenced the construction of a ship of the Warrior class at Chatham, making the seventh iron-cased ship, and in May last I also announced to the House, as I have just stated, that it was the intention of the Government to make use of the wooden frames of line-of-battle ships under construction which would enable us to construct five wooden iron-cased ships in the dockyards. That makes a total of twelve which are now in course of construction in the dockyards, or being built by contract. My right hon. Friend opposite (Sir John Pakington) about the latter end of May, called attention to the great increase which was taking place in the construction of iron-cased ships by France, and quoted statements made by a gallant Admiral, who had -visited the French dockyards, and had reported that ten new iron-cased ships were being built over and above those already completed. In answer to my right hon. Friend, I stated that the Government were perfectly aware of what was going on not only in France, but in various Continental dockyards, and were carrying out a series of experiments under the control of a Committee, composed of very able men, with a view to ascertain what is the best form of construction. I, also, stated that as soon as we had arrived at some sort of conclusion the Government would, if necessary, state what they thought was requisite for the public service. These experiments have made very considerable progress, and, though I am unable to state that any definite conclusions are arrived at as to the nature, the thickness, and the exact style of casing, we have, nevertheless, decided, first, that it is advisable to have very large ships, carrying great weight; secondly, that under these circumstances it is desirable that those ships should be built of iron; and, thirdly, that, as we have very great facilities in the merchant yards throughout this country these ships should be built by contract. I am, therefore, going to invite the Committee to place confidence in the Government, and authorize us to commence the construction of a certain number of these vessels by contract during the recess when we have prepared the drawings, and have come to a definite conclusion as to size, armament, and various other particulars. The item of £120,000 will enable us either to commence six ships, and thus provide for one-tenth of the cost of six ships, or, if is thought more advisable, to make greater progess with a fewer number, in which case we shall have provided during the present year one-fifth of the cost of three ships. What I ask the Committee is, to leave it to the discretion of the Government either to commence the whole number of six ships and proceed at a very slow rate, or commence the construction of a smaller number, making greater progress with them. The course which may be taken by the Government will depend upon a variety of circumstances, and I am not prepared, at the present moment to say which plan would be the more advisable. Of course, much must depend upon the progress which other nations are making in building iron-cased ships. I have before me a list which I can read to the Committee if they wish, showing the number of iron-cased ships building by Continental nations, and that number is increasing very rapidly. It is the duty of the Government of this country that we should keep pace with such efforts, and, therefore, the proposal I have to make is that we should be empowered to commence by contract during the present autumn not more than six of these ships, leaving us either to make a greater progress with a smaller number, or to proceed very slowly with the whole six. Supposing we commence the whole six, we should then have under construction eighteen iron-cased ships; and these vessels, as far as we are at present advised, will be certainly not less in tonnage and armament than the Warrior class. A good deal must depend upon the trials which will be made of that vessel. I need not say that great care will be taken by the Admiralty to watch the performance of the Warrior, and I have great confidence that she will turn out a very fine and formidable vessel. I have stated what is the proposed expenditure during the present year, and I will now state what will be the ultimate expenditure upon all iron-cased ships. The Committee will then see that, however necessary they may be, these vessels are very costly. If the Government are empowered to commence six more iron-cased ships, you will have, of course, a further expenditure to complete them during future years. This expenditure may be spread over several years, and, indeed, it is only proposed to make such progress during the present year as will enable the Government to profit by the result of the experiments which are going on daily at Shoeburyness, and to modify, if necessary, the present system of iron-casing whether by a smaller backing of wood and thicker plates or by doing away with wooden backing altogether and devoting the weight to iron-casing, or to take advantage of these experiments in other ways. Our progress with these vessels during the present year will not be so great but that we shall be able to introduce any modifications which may be thought desirable after the experiments are concluded. Including the sum which is required this year, and including also the plating for the five wooden ships, and a sum which will about complete the expense of engines for the wooden ships, the total cost of these vessels will be £2,340,810, leaving to be provided during future years the sum of £2,090,810 as near as we can at present calculate. We have taken a large sum as the Committee is aware in the present year's Estimates for the other iron-cased ships, and over and above that outlay there will be required for those ships in future years the sum of £114,441, so that the whole cost to the country for iron-cased vessels, beyond the present year's Estimates, may be estimated at £2,455,251. That includes the casing of the wooden ships which are building in the dockyards, but exclusive of the workmanship on the iron ship Achilles, which is building at Chatham dockyard; and, supposing the Committee assent to the present proposal, this is the sum for which they will render the country liable in future years. Before sitting down I cannot help saying a few words respecting the alarm which may be created among the mercantile community in consequence of the additional force which we are about to create. It is no use denying that the whole world is commencing the construction of these ships. Every maritime nation has completely given up the thought of building wooden line-of-battle ships, and, I think, therefore, that the proposal which I have just submitted to the Committee is not of a nature to excite alarm throughout the country, but rather to engender a proper confidence, that we are determined to maintain our maritime position in its integrity.


said, he thought that the discussion ought not to go on. The notice of Supply was only given at two o'clock that morning, and there was not the least intimation in the paper that the sum of £250,000 would involve so large an ultimate expenditure as £2,500,000. So important a Vote ought not to be proposed in so thin a House, and he would, therefore, suggest its postponement till the evening sitting.


said, he quite agreed that the House could not have anticipated the precise proposition that had been made; but at the same time no great delay should be interposed at that period of the Session. He admitted, however, that it was desirable to postpone until the evening the consideration of the Vote. He thought that the noble Lord had rather exaggerated the possibility of alarm among the mercantile classes from the proposal which he had just made. On the contrary, the proposal would rather appease than excite alarm. The public well knew what was going on in different parts of the world, and especially in a neighbouring country. It would be ridiculous affectation on the part of the House to ignore that, and they would be neglecting their duty if they did not make provision for such a state of things. He thought it absolutely necessary to confide certain powers to the Executive in such cases, but doubted whether what was proposed ought not to be finished out of hand as soon as possible instead of delaying for so long a period that reconstruction of the navy which was so imperatively required.


said, he regretted that a proposal of such importance should have been left to so late a period of the Session. The Committee would remember the earnest endeavours made by his hon. Friend (Mr. Lindsay) to prevent further expenditure in the construction of wooden ships, and it was satisfactory to find the noble Lord admitting now that the navy must he reconstructed as an iron navy. He could assure the noble Lord that there would be no alarm among mercantile men at the proposition, but only a feeling of deep regret that the French Government had been allowed to take so far-seeing and practical a view as to the necessity for iron-cased ships, while Her Majesty's Government had fallen so far behind. It had been stated, without contradiction, that since 1858 the French Government had not spent a shilling on a wooden vessel, whereas this country had spent £3,000,000 or £4,000,000. Surely we had gained the same experience as the French Government during the Crimean War, and must have known that wooden ships attacked with the new projectiles would be on fire in a few minutes. For his own part he confessed that, instead of regarding the Emperor of the French as one who was plotting against the peace of Europe, he only looked upon him as the chief of a great nation, who, to secure the efficiency of his navy, was taking a course which our own Government ought to have pursued from the beginning. If Her Majesty's Government had only since 1858 quietly studied this subject, and done that which science and practical experience showed to be necessary, there would have been none of these continuous alarms as to what was being done in France. He repeated that there was nothing alarming in the noble Lord's statement, but it reflected great discredit on the Government that at that late period of the Session, when but comparatively few hon. Members were in London, such a statement should be made. The wisest thing which could be done was that the noble Lord, putting aside all the arts of diplomacy and Foreign Office traditions, should during the recess go to France, and endeavour to come to a clear and distinct understanding with the French Government as to the relative forces of the two countries. He could not understand why there should be any greater difficulty in coming to such an understanding than there was in coming to an agreement with respect to the commercial treaty. On the one hand, the Government were endeavouring to encourage commercial intercourse with France, and yet they neglected precautions by which alone the intercourse could be preserved. From what he knew of the character of the French Emperor and the French people, he believed that so far as they were concerned no difficulty would be experienced in arriving at a satisfactory understanding. He denied that the French Government had in their naval preparations done anything which ought to excite the alarm of this country. They had only fulfilled their duty in acting upon the experience acquired in 1858, and upon their conviction that the fleet of the future must be a fleet of iron. The House of Commons would not refuse any request which our own Government declared to be necessary; but as men of business they hoped that during the recess some means would be taken for preventing all uncertainty and alarm, and for putting an end to the game of "beggar my neighbour." A constant intercourse during the last fourteen or fifteen years with French people of all classes led him to know their feelings, and he believed them to be most anxious to cultivate friendly relations with this country. The friendly speeches at the Mansion House the other day had been responded to most heartily across the Channel, and he had received many letters from French correspondents in this sense. The provincial press of France was full of good feeling, and reproduced at length the speeches of the hon. Members for Koch-dale and Birmingham. That good feeling ought to be reciprocated in this country, and the best way of reciprocating it was by the endeavour to promote such an understanding as he had mentioned.


I must join in the appeals which have been made to the noble Lord not to press this Vote at a morning sitting. It has been said that we need not look for a fuller attendance in this House; but at least we may anticipate another state of the Treasury bench. At present the Government is represented by the noble Lord the Secretary to the Admiralty, the Junior Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Whitbread), and the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Peel). Now, I think such a question ought not to be debated in the absence of the confidential advisers of the Crown. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the question under discussion, and I think it especially necessary that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should be present. If I rightly understand the noble Lord, this is to be treated as an extraordinary Vote beyond the ordinary Estimates of the year. A sum of nearly £2,500,000 of capital is expected to be expended on these ships. Now, is this to be included in time of peace in the ordinary Estimates of the year, or is it to be treated as a capital sum beyond the ordinary Estimates? Again, as the noble Lord has deprecated alarm, I cannot help saying that, to use an expression current on the Stock Exchange, the alarm has been already discounted. Whatever alarm has been created resulted from the speech of the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary, when the question of Sardinia was brought forward. It is impossible to separate this question from that of our relations with France and with other countries, and, to use the mildest phrase, I think it altogether unseemly that the Committee should be called upon to pass such a Vote when not one of the confidential advisers of Her Majesty is present, and I am bound to say that the House could not have been aware, until it heard the statement of the noble Lord, that the sum of £250,000, which is now asked for, is only the commencement of an expenditure of £2,500,000 beyond the ordinary expenses for the year. For the sake of decency in our proceedings, I entreat the noble Lord not to press the Vote.


had no objection to defer the consideration of this Vote till the evening sitting. But he besought the Committee not to run away with the idea that he was suddenly commencing as it were, by stealth, a vast expenditure. [Sir JAMES GRAHAM: £2,500,000.] He had frankly stated the ultimate cost of his proposal, and as long as he held his present office he would never bring forward an estimate without giving to the House a clear explanation, as far as he was enabled to judge, of what would be the ultimate expense to which would pledge itself, supposing that it should agree to the estimate. He, therefore, thought ho was rather hardly dealt with when it was said he had taken the Committee by surprise, or had not given fair notice. He could only say that notice was on the paper for two days.


said, that between 1859–60 and 1860–1 inclusive, the House had voted £1,500,000 for iron-cased ships, and that amount, added to the sum now proposed, would make£4,000,000, He hoped the noble Lord would state on a future occasion how that sum had been expended.


said, that no sufficient reason had been given for the construction of these six vessels, and the only result would be that France would build six more. Then, the chances were that next Session the House would be told that, France having added six ships to her navy, Her Majesty's Government had, during the recess, ordered the construction of twelve additional vessels. Where was that to end? He admitted that the country ought not to be behind France in her naval force, and that if she had twenty we should have thirty such ships; but from what had come under his observation when in France, he believed that the Government of the Emperor was willing to enter into some such arrangement as that indicated by the hon. Baronet the Member for Finsbury (Sir Morton Peto) respecting the relative amount of the forces of the two countries, and if difficulties existed as to any such arrangement, he was afraid that they originated at home.


Sir, the question before the Committee is rather what we are now to do than where this is to end. The hon. Gentleman says that our naval strength ought to exceed that of France. I was glad to hear such an admission from him, and I hope he will act in that spirit. Sir, I agree in the necessity of postponing the Vote until the House assembles in the evening, but, although the noble Lord's statement has been a surprise to me, I have listened to it with the greatest satisfaction and the warmest approbation, for in submitting this proposal the Government are doing no more than their duty. It is said that ten ships are in progress in France. That statement creates an erroneous impression as to what is going on across the Channel. There is no doubt that at this moment sixteen iron-cased vessels are in progress in France. Moreover, there is no doubt that the French Government are not building them so slowly as my noble Friend seems to contemplate. On the contrary, for some reason or other, the French Government are pressing on the construction of these ships so rapidly as to excite public attention in France, as well as some alarm. I will not cuter now into the reasons; I will only dwell on the fact. Meanwhile, what is the position of this country? Until to-day, to set against those sixteen ships, nearly half of which are launched, we only knew that the Government intended to build twelve, of which only seven have been as yet commenced. The Government now propose to build six more, the general result being that when these are begun—and it is doubtful whether that will happen in the present autumn, and whether six or three will be commenced—we shall then only have a prospect of possessing two more of these armour-plated ships than are now actually in progress in France. Under these circumstances I must express my earnest hope that this Vote may not be postponed with any idea of rejecting the proposals made by the Government. These six new ships are to be of the Warrior class, and the right hon. Gentleman (Sir James Graham) seems startled by an ultimate expenditure of £2,500,000. But the cost of the Warrior and Black Prince are well known to the Committee. Multiply that cost by six, and you will have very nearly the amount stated by my noble Friend. I think, therefore, that he deserves credit for his perfect candour to-day. I was struck by the hope expressed by the hon. Members for Finsbury and Sunderland, that we should check this expenditure by entering into some arrangement with France respecting the amount of naval force which the two countries are to maintain. I cannot hear these observations without expressing my strong opinion that any such arrangement is absolutely impossible. In itself, no doubt, it is very specious and plausible, but my firm belief is that if you wanted to lay the foundation of future misunderstandings and quarrels with France you could not adopt a surer course than by entering into such negotiations, and by attempting, as between two powerful nations naturally jealous of each other's influence and power, and in some measure rivals in the exercise of that power, to define in a treaty what should be the number of ships or the relative armaments which they should maintain. Looking to the empire we have to defend, I feel that no such arrangement would be for the interests of England, and that it would be equally dangerous to the future friendship between the two nations. I must also dissent from the opinion expressed that the English Navy hereafter must be an iron navy. That opinion has been frequently expressed in the course of these discussions, and there is a strong tendency in the House to jump to the conclusion—and, as I think, the erroneous conclusion—that, because we have found it necessary to embark in a large expenditure in armour-plated ships, there is necessarily an end to the utility of our wooden vessels. I entertain no such opinion. Considering the extent of our empire, I believe that none of us will live to see the day when our wooden navy will not be most valuable and important to us in all parts of the world, though with a view to possible contingencies in Europe we now find it necessary to embark in this outlay upon an iron navy.


asked, whether in the sum of £2,500,000 was included the cost of completing the five vessels, as well as the construction of the six proposed to be built?


said, that the total expenditure, as he had stated, would be £2,500,000, which would include the plating required for the wooden ships, the total expenditure of the six iron-cased vessels proposed to be constructed, and, likewise, the completion of the, vessels of that class at present building, with their engines, and also the engines for the wooden ships. The new ships would carry ninety guns each, with a tonnage of about 5,000 tons.


said, he wished to disclaim all intention of opposing the Vote, and at the same time to admit the propriety and candour with which it had been submitted to the Committee by the noble Lord. As regarded the conduct of France, the Emperor always appeared to have acted very candidly, and to have said, "I have nothing to do with you; you may do what you like; but I shall maintain an efficient navy, and that is the best way of preserving peace between the two countries."

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House resumed.

Resolutions to be reported To-morrow.

Committee to sit again this day, at Six of the clock.