HC Deb 21 June 1861 vol 163 cc1465-75

paid, he wished to call the attention of the House to the nature of the Fortifications about to be erected at Spithead with reference to the very great changes now taking place in Naval Armaments; and to inquire if the Government intend to reconsider the question, whether Floating Batteries would not prove more effective for the defence of the Arsenal than the Forts proposed to be constructed on the shoals? He did not wish to deprive the Government of the money necessary for the defences of the country, but simply to induce them to reconsider their determination; because, as it appeared to him, the construction of stationary batteries at Spithead was a great mistake. The question now at issue is, whether the proposed sea-forts, in conjunction with a small auxiliary floating force and other adjuncts, will protect the roadstead and dockyard of Portsmouth; or whether in lieu of these forts, at no greater expense, iron ships, as proposed by Admiral Sir Richard S. Dundas, may be substituted; and putting us thereby in possession of an infinitely superior force, able to effect that which the forts might fail to do. The letter of the Admiral clearly shows and recommends that available ships of the line could be fitted with engines and converted into iron-cased ships, for this local purpose, carrying thirty of the heaviest guns, at £60,000 per vessel, thus giving fourteen of these vessels for the sum estimated for the three forts (namely, £840,000), or if it should be expedient to take vessels already fitted with engines, they could be converted for £40,000 or £45,000 per ship, giving 20 or 196 vessels for the same cost as the forts. The Admiral concludes his letter with the following remark:— Taking into account, therefore, all the expense and all the difficulty which must necessarily attend the construction of batteries upon the shoals at Spithcad, and looking also to the contingency that stationary batteries alone might not be sufficient to prevent the passage of iron-cased ships, and would imperfectly defend the entrance of Spithead against vessels so protected, I am of opinion that any immediate outlay of money to be expended in the course of the ensuing financial year would be more profitably employed upon the equipment for purely defensive purposes of ships of this description, and it might be proper that the attention of the Secretary of War should be called to the subject in order that reports if necessary from the Comptroller of the Navy may be called for without loss of time. The objection that the vessels would be of too great a draught might be met by the observation that if any attack was to be made it must be made by vessels of equal draught; and the question of speed did not arise, because the proposed floating batteries would be simply for the protection of that part of the coast where they were placed. He reminded the House that stationary batteries were of no use while ships kept out of their range; and from the situation of Portsmouth it could be shelled from a position on which it could not bring its guns to bear. Again, it was admitted that those fortifications would not prevent iron ships passing them; so that, practically speaking, they would be useless. Another of the recommendations of the Commissioners was the use of explosive machines; but the late Russian war had proved the worthlessness of such means of defence as these. They also advised the construction of a number of iron-cased forts on the shoals at Spithead. It should be remembered, however, that Spithead was practically Portsmouth harbour, because vessels of war could not enter Portsmouth except at certain tides. And what would happen if the enemy's iron-clad ships came in and attacked the merchant vessels and ships of war? Why, that the forts could not fire at all; for if they did so they would inflict as much injury on friend as foe. Moreover, it was well known that such was the smoke arising in an action that soon after the commencement of a battle no objects were seen. He contended, therefore, that the dockyard might be shelled without the forts being of any use at all. The question was, then, whether they were spending the public money for the protection of the right place? Would Portsmouth dockyard be in future what it had been in the past, when ships of war were of comparatively light draught? Being adapted only for the repair of wooden vessels, was it likely to be continued hereafter for the repair of iron vessels? He believed that with forts, auxiliary ships, and explosive machines, and all these acting together, the only result would be to paralyse one another and create confusion. In his opinion ships were preferable; for they could choose their position, act as steam-rams, and board the enemy. Another objection which he entertained to batteries on the shoals was that they would serve the purposes of buoys. He appealed to the Government, then, not to act precipitately in carrying out the Commissioners' recommendations. He had endeavoured to ascertain what were the opinions of many eminent men in both the army and navy on the subject; and all had agreed that neither of the Commissioners' Reports was based upon practical data, and that the Government were not justified in proceeding to incur such an enormous expenditure upon Reports so made. They might depend upon it that recourse to this Chinese mode of defence and painting of tigers' heads would not do for us. The French knew well how far these forts were an adequate defence; and if they would be able to effect all the mischief they desired, just as if the forts were not erected, then the fact that these defences were not what they were intended to be—namely, a means of absolute and perfect security—would prove the justification of the Government in hesitating to adopt the recommendations of the Commissioners.


If he had correctly understood the view of his hon. Friend, it appeared to be that he thought the defences of Portsmouth should be entirely confined to ships of war of some kind, and that land defences or forts on shoals would be useless; and he grounded his case in some degree on the difficulty which he fancied the defensive batteries would have in seeing an object after firing once or twice owing to the smoke of the guns. But that was an objection which would apply with equal force to the attacking party, as it would, indeed, to every battery along the coast. His hon. Friend also complained that the second Report on the proposed Fortifications and system of defence had been made by the same Commissioners who drew up the first Report; and, perhaps, U might have been more satisfactory had other Commissioners been employed; but whilst he (Sir Frederic Smith) had objected to many of the recommendations in the first Report, he did not object to any of those which were in the second. The arguments of the Commissioners, indeed, had only confirmed him in the opinion he had long held, that forts on the shoals ought to be erected. For twenty years past he had been considering officially the question of the defence of Portsmouth and the Solent, and he had never doubled for a moment that the forts now proposed should be constructed for the defence of Spithead and Portsmouth Harbour, It was intended that these works should be covered with iron of considerable thickness, though what the thickness should be was still doubtful. Experiments at Shoeburyness showed that 10-inch iron was not shot-proof; and that being so, was it probable that enemy's ships clad in 4½ or 5-inch iron would dare to venture within reach of these forts? Firing was accurate from a fort at even the distance of 5,000 yards; but that from a ship was inaccurate at so long a range. His hon. Friend said that objects would not be seen from the forts after the first round. He (Sir Frederic Smith) contended that they would be seen, unless it were a calm, and then the enemy's ships would be as much enveloped in smoke as the forts, for they must bring too, or anchor to obtain any accuracy of fire at long ranges. Under these circumstances the argument that Portsmouth dockyard could be destroyed by ships, whilst the ships themselves were safe, at once fell to the ground. Further, he would ask if the batteries in Stokes Bay were to count for nothing? As he understood, the whole line of that coast was to be furnished with strong and powerful batteries; and if that were so, they would have a range equal to the ships which proposed to bombard the dockyard. He hoped, then, that the Government would act on the determination they had already formed to construct these forts with all despatch. It was, of course, a work of time and expense, and he believed they had greatly underestimated the cost; but even if the cost were doubled, he should prefer seeing those forts erected rather than those which had been projected for Portsdown Hill, which he considered an useless waste of the public money. He would now ask the Secretary to the Admiralty under what department the experiments now being made were conducted? Were they under the War Office or the Admiralty—or both,? If of both, these departments were certainly very slow in their operations, for as yet they had only come to this conclusion, that 10-inch iron was not shot-proof at 400 yards. They ought to have discovered by actual experiments long since what was the minimum thickness of iron required to resist shot of a certain weight. If 10 inches of iron were not shot-proof against a 120-pounder, what would be the effect of a 300-pounder of 2,000 yards? With a range which we should shortly have, he should like to know what ships of war would stand a 300-pounder. A fleet might come into the Solent, but they could not remain longer there than they were master of the seas.

He firmly believed that if we had even powerful shore batteries alone, no fleet would ever venture there, but he strongly urged the noble Lord that no lime should be lost in completing these forts, which would render Spitliead a perfectly safe anchorage for British ships. The question of the thickness of iron was not very pressing, because the iron could, be prepared when they knew the thickness it was required to be. But the formation of the foundations under water was a very tedious operation, and should be entered upon without delay and prosecuted with vigour. He believed that 10 inches would not be sufficient but if these forts were to be of the curve form, they would not require the same thickness as if they were straight lined. What he complained of was that the experiments were not pursued with sufficient earnestness. They were building ships cased with iron 4½ inches thick, which was ridiculous if they expected these ships to be shot proof.


, notwithstanding the opinion of the lion, and gallant General, thought that at the present moment Government would not be justified in going to great expense in the erection of forts, and for this reason, that only a few weeks ago they were led to believe that iron plates, 4 inches thick, would be sufficient to withstand shot, whereas they were now told that 10-inch plates would not be sufficient. He had no doubt that his hon. and gallant Friend would be delighted to see a mangnificent fort erected, but they must remember that forts would buoy ships into Spithead. His firm belief was that ships would be of equal advantage, and in time of need they could be removed elsewhere.


observed that every inch thickness of the iron plates with which a ship was covered required 1,000 tons of measurement, and if they had plates seven or eight inches thick they would require the ship to be 7,000 or 8,000 tons burden. Then, again, he differed with the gallant General in his depreciation of the Committee. The Committee had now sat three months, and what had been done? They had shown that the whole of the expenditure which France had incurred in iron ships had been thrown away, and that we must be careful not to waste our money in the same way. Sir Howard Douglas had been spoken of as having been the encourager of these iron vessels, but if there was one man more than another who had been against the building of these ships it was Sir Howard Douglas. He felt perfectly conscious that the Government would not be goaded into having so many ships because the French had that number. They would act with caution, as they had done with regard to ordnance, in which we were far ahead of any country.


My lion. Friend the Member for Finsbury (Sir Morton Peto) has adopted the views of a very intelligent officer, Captain Cole, and no doubt prima facie there is something very plausible in them; but I confess that, after full reflection, and after hearing the arguments on both sides, I cannot concur in the conclusion at which the hon. Baronet and Captain Cole have arrived. It is somewhat remarkable that in this very short discussion we have had military men arguing in favour of forts, and naval men arguing in favour of floating defences. So it will always be; and that was one of the difficulties which the Government experienced in coming to a decision upon this matter. But I think the argument is entirely in favour of forts as against ships. Let us just consider for a moment what the object is which we have in view. That object is the security of Portsmouth. What is it that Portsmouth is to be attacked by? By a fleet coming into Spithead. Now, that fleet, as may be supposed, would be the strongest fleet that the enemy, whoever he may be, could concentrate upon that point. It would consist of ships of the largest size, and of the most formidable armament; and to meet those ships we ought to have a fleet of equal strength. Does my hon. Friend propose that we should have permanently stationed at Spithead ten iron-cased ships of the largest dimensions and of the most formidable armament, equal to any fleet that might be brought into Spithead for the purpose of attacking Portsmouth? Why, unless your fleet were equal in force to any fleet that might be brought there you would only lay-in store for yourselves defeat and disaster. You are, then, for the defence of an arsenal which is useful only for the creation of a fleet, which fleet is to operate wherever required, to lock up another fleet equal in size and strength to the one produced at the place which it is your object to defend. Again, you could never reckon upon having your floating defences on the spot when they were wanted. If there was an alarm, upon another part of the coast do you imagine that the Government would allow these ten formidable ships—ships which must necessarily be of the first class—to remain at anchor at Spithead? Public opinion and the exigencies of the service would infalliby cause these ships to be sent elsewhere; and then, when the enemy, having made a feint at Plymouth, or in some other direction, came to Spithead, your floating defences would not be there. Take the expense. The forts we propose will, probably, not cost so much as the large fleet which, according to the theory of Captain Cole, should be permanently stationed at Spithead, for the purpose of defending Portsmouth. Moreover, the ships would decay; they would require constant repair; they would require a large body of sailors to man and work them. A much larger number of men would be required in the ships than in the forts we propose to construct. In point of economy, therefore, either in first construction, or in maintenance, or in permanence, the balance of opinion is in favour of forts as against ships. They would require less money to make them, they would require less money to keep them in repair, they would require fewer men to man and work them, and they would be always on the spot. My hon. Friend says that ships could not be hit from the points at which these forts are to be built. I doubt that statement. There seems to be scarcely any limit to the power of modern artillery: but there is a limit to the resisting power of ships, because there is a limit to the capacity of ships to float with a certain weight upon them; and I defy you to construct a ship covered with iron coating of sufficient thickness to repel the heavy shots which are now sent from cannon, and yet to be buoyant enough to float on the water. But that is not the case with a fort. There is no floating in a fort. You may make the walls of your fort as thick as experience may show to be necessary to resist the attack of the heaviest ordnance. Then, ordnance of a certain weight is unmanageable in a floating ship. You may have your guns upon deck; but upon deck they are exposed to the fire of the adversary, and may be soon disabled. In the embrasures of a fort they are protected. You may have any amount of ordnance in a fort. You are limited in regard to the weight of ordnance which you can put on board ship, whereas you may have in these forts guns of any calibre; and I venture to say, in spite of all the calculations that have been made, that if the forts at Spithead were to be con- structed and armed with such cannon as Sir William Armstrong and others are able to put into them, any ships which might come to attack Poitsmouth would very soon be sent to keep company with the Royal George. Therefore, though I quite agree with my hon. Friend that in a matter of this sort, in which repeated experiments are necessary to enable you to feel sure that what you are doing will answer your purpose, you ought to proceed with the utmost care and circumspection, yet, on the other hand, I concur with the hon. and gallant Member for Chatham (Sir Frederic Smith) that no time should be lost beyond what is necessary for seeing your way clearly, and I am quite sure that the course which the Government have determined to adopt with respect to the construction of these forts is the course which ought to be pursued. My hon. Friend says truly enough, that there are defects in Portsmouth arising from an insufficient depth of water, and that some other place may be found better adapted for the building and repair of an iron fleet. That is one of the considerations which led the Government to think that Chatham might be made useful to the public service. I only make that observation in passing, hoping that my hon. Friend will bear it in mind when we come to discuss the question about the dockyard at Chatham. Upon the whole my opinion is, in spite of the ingenious arguments which Captain Cole has urged in favour of floating as against permanent defences, that permanent defences are indispensable. I do not mean to say that they may not be assisted by floating defences—we cannot rely upon permanent defences alone—but, no doubt, you would always have at Ports-month a certain number of ships to assist your forts, and your forts and ships together would be sufficient. It it said that these forts would serve as so many buoys to guide the ships of the enemy into Spithead. Does anybody really imagine that any naval Power on the Continent or elsewhere would require the assistance of these forts to find their way to the anchorage at Spithead? We have charts which indicate with the greatest nicety the course which ships ought to pursue. We know well that all foreign Governments which have navies are in possession of these charts. We also know that visits of vessels of war belonging to foreign Powers have not been unfrequent, and that there is no part of our coast which has not been accurately surveyed, and which is not as familiar to the naval officers of other countries as to the officers of our own service. So much, then, for the subject to which my hon. Friend has called attention. I am bound to say that there is nothing in his arguments or his figures which leads me to think that the Government have arrived at a wrong conclusion in proposing permanent defences. Before sitting down I may be allowed to answer a question put by an hon. and gallant Member opposite (Colonel Dickson) with respect to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The question is what are the relations between the Lord Lieutenant and the Government, and whether Lord Carlisle intends to continue in the performance of his duties in Dublin. Without going into the question of the Galway contract, I may say that the relations between the Lord Lieutenant and the Government are the relations fixed by law and by usage, that the relations actually existing between Lord Carlisle and Her Majesty's Ministers are of the best possible description, and that I have no reason fur supposing that my noble friend is not willing to continue his valuable public services.


remarked, that if the House had had to consider the question whether some corrupt borough should be allowed to continue practices of corruption 500 or 600 Members would have been present; but when the defence of the country was brought forward there was a large amount of empty benches. This showed a defect in a portion of our representative system. He had just heard with the deepest regret an opinion expressed by the head of the Government in favour of building these forts; for he believed that every shilling of the expenditure might as well be chucked into Spithead. The opinion of Captain Cole was borne out by the opinion of naval officers throughout the country. Government ought to remember that the Commissioners had reported twice, and that signal and glaring contradictions existed between the two Reports. The noble Lord had talked of the enemy sending his best fleet to take Spithead; but he (Mr. Bentinck) hoped that we should always have as fine a fleet as any the enemy could bring against us. The question was whether Spithead could be best defended by forts or ships; but if we had as good ships, and as numerous as the enemy, there was no argument in favour of forts. As to smoke, ships would sail out of their own smoke, which forts could not. As to the comparative expense of the two modes of defence, ships would be less expensive than forts, especially when the forts would be built without foundation. The estimated expense of £840,000 would probably be doubled or trebled.


said, that he had heard naval men say that no fleet could put into Spithead if the buoys were taken away. The noble Lord had said no limit was to be placed to the power of modern artillery, and that it was impossible to say how far artillery might be made to carry. But it was stated that the object in building those forts on sandbanks was to get thorn as closely as possible to any enemy's fleet entering Spithead, and, therefore, if the argument of the noble Lord were to prevail, that for building those forts on sandbanks must fall to the ground. Why not build them on shore at Portsmouth, or on the Isle of Wight? He was disposed to place more importance in the training of our men in arms, and if they had volunteers on sea as well as on land, for his part he believed the country was safe.


thought the fair way to put the, question was this: If a foreign commander had his choice, would he rather have the forts to show him the way into Spithead or not? A naval officer, who was reckoned one of the ablest surveyors afloat said that with a simple chart he could pilot a fleet into Spithead during the greatest fog which was ever known in the Channel. With regard to the apprehended inconvenience from smoke in casemated forts, experiments showed that no difficulty of that kind need be feared; and he might also state that a tender had actually been received for the construction of one of the forts, at a price less than was originally estimated. Hon. Gentlemen who were disposed to underrate the labours of the Commission forgot that two of the most distinguished officers in the navy, Admiral Elliot and Captain Cooper Key were upon that Commission, and brought to its inquiries the advantage of their great experience in scientific knowledge. In reply to two questions which had been addressed to him in the course of the discussion, he wished to mention that £20,000 would be taken this year for the supply of additional articles to the soldiers; it was not proposed to give all the articles which had been recommended at once, but when these were all issued there would be equal to an extra pay of 1d. a day. The Committee on Iron Plates carried on its experiments under the joint authority of the War Office and the Admiralty, both these Departments being interested in the result of its investigations.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

House in Committee, Mr. MASSEY in the Chair.