HC Deb 31 March 1862 vol 166 cc263-89

said, he rose to call the attention of the Secretary of State for War to the reports of an engagement between the American iron-clad frigate in the naval service of the Confederate States, called the Merrimac, and an iron vessel, called the Monitor," in the naval service of the Federal States, having a shot-proof roof; and to ask whether, in consequence of the results of that action, it will not be prudent to suspend the construction of some of the proposed forts at Spithead until the value of such iron-roofed vessels for the defence of our ports and roadsteads shall have been fully considered? Upon former occasions he had felt it his duty to protest against the construction of works upon Portsdown Hill, because he thought it would never be possible adequately to garrison all the forts. He thought so still. He had not voted with the hon. Member for Liskeard when he proposed to abandon all the forts at Spithead, because at the time he thought such measures of defence were necessary there; but recent events had induced him to alter his opinion, and, as the subject was one of vast importance to this country, he felt it to be his duty to invite the attention of the House to it. He would have brought forward the subject on Friday last but that he desired to do so in the presence of the noble Lord at the head of the Government, whom he congratulated upon his improvement in health and re-appearance in the House. The great question of iron-plated ships against wooden vessels had been brought to an issue, and, happily, without any action on our part. It appeared that a vessel, the Merrimac, which a few months back was a wooden ship, was sunk, was then raised, cut down to within three feet of the water, cased with iron two feet below the water-line, and the iron casing brought over the deck in the form of a roof, but not absolutely forming a ridge, an aperture being left on deck for ventilation. In order to break the blockade of the Chesapeake that vessel moved down to Hampton-roads, where she found several ships of war of the Federal States, constructed of wood, with considerable power, most of them well armed, but not all well manned. She engaged those vessels, destroyed one by running into her; was injured herself in so doing; she destroyed another by firing her, and kept the rest of the squadron at bay. That was a gallant exploit, and showed that the captain must have had great confidence in the iron casing of his vessel, which there was reason to believe was five inches thick. Private letters stated that the shot flew off from the iron covering of the Merrimac without having the least effect upon it, although one shell appeared to have entered the aperture on the roof-deck and killed the Captain and several men. So far that showed the success of covering vessels with iron decks; but it might be objected that such vessels could not navigate the sea in bad weather. That point, however, was soon settled, for on the following day to that upon which the Merrimac made her appearance, another iron vessel, of different construction, designed by Captain Ericsson, of the United States or Federal Navy, arrived in Hampton Roads. That vessel had come round from New York in half a gale of wind, and had proved herself a good and safe sea-boat. The Merrimac and the new comer, the Monitor, soon went into action; both were well fought and well handled. That contest was of great importance, and appeared to him to settle the question of the best means of defending our ports and roadsteads at the least cost and in the most efficient manner. The money had been voted a year and a half ago to construct the forts at Spithead, but little progress had been made. He now rejoiced that so little progress had been made, because they were still in time to stop if they were in a wrong course, and to diminish in some degree the number of those costly forts. He had originally been an advocate for some of those forts, but he had now seen reason to entirely change his opinion. Let the House consider the question how those forts could be fought. They were to mount 380 guns, and would require 2,700 trained gunners, who would have to fire at moving objects with heavy guns. The right hon. Baronet would perhaps say that the forts were in course of construction, that contracts had been entered into, and that it was intended to place guns of enormous size upon those forts. He had heard that guns throwing 1,000 lb. shot were to be mounted; but he hoped that was not the fact, because if the service proportion of powder—one-third the weight of the shot—was to be used as the charge, it would be like springing a mine, and would be perilous to the men in the fort. What danger would there be of a foreign fleet anchoring in the Solent if they had a fleet of twenty or thirty Ericsson Monitors in portsmouth harbour, which could be constructed at one-tenth the cost of the forts? The noble Lord, the Secretary to the Admiralty, would recollect the statement of an able officer, Captain Sullivan, that there would be no danger to an enemy's fleet in running past the forts by night, and but little by day; while even if they threw 1000 lb. shots, in all probability only a few would hit the ships. Apart from the question of constructing forts at Spit-head, there was a proposition to erect powerful forts along the north shore of the Isle of Wight, to prevent an enemy from occupying positions on shore from which he could bombard Portsmouth Dockyard. Such forts would do no injury to vessels like the Monitor, which was almost even with the water's edge and strongly plated. In giving up the Spithead forts they should give up the works on the Isle of Wight. The passage of the Needles must be defended, and there were forts there already and the landing-places must be guarded; but to occupy a few spots of ground in the Isle of Wight, in order to prevent an enemy from bombarding Portsmouth dockyard, was a pure waste of public money. The officers who fought the action in America to which he had referred regarded the question between wooden and iron vessels as settled for ever. The Navy Department at Washington had issued invitations for tenders for the construction of vessels of all descriptions, partly of wood and partly of iron. These were to be vessels of certain draught of water for harbour duty, vessels for river service, others for coast defence. The tenders were to be sent in by the end of March, and immediate steps would be taken to form a fleet of a most formidable character. Those vessels which were intended to defend harbours and the coast were to steam 15 knots, to carry 11 days' coal; and were to be armed with 11-inch guns. In England they had heard of an immense mortar; but nothing came of it, and the same result would probably follow in the case of that enormous gun, which, we are told, is to throw a shot of 1,000 lb. weight. He did not believe that the various parts of the metal could be amalgamated so as to render it proof against the large quantity of powder which would be necessary to propel from the gun so enormous a shot at a high velocity. Perhaps the first two or three trial guns might be well constructed; but by-and-by less care would be taken with them, and some serious accident would then happen. Even with the Armstrong guns accidents occasionally happened, although there the amount of metal was comparatively small. With regard to the forts, if the Government had not gone too far, they could surely suspend their operations. He was told that two forts were in progress. Let this system of defence be confined to them, and, at all events, give up the forts in the Isle of Wight. The estimated cost was £ 1,000,000; but he believed the forts would cost a great deal more, and that they would be very lucky if they got out of it for less than£ 2,000,000. It would be better to stop the works and pay a penalty to the contractor, than to spend so much money so uselessly. The hon. and gallant Member for Wakefield (Sir John Hay), than whom no man was more competent to give an opinion on the subject, in a letter addressed to The Times upwards of three years ago, called public attention to the importance of building iron vessels. Mr. Laird also published a most admirable letter descriptive of a ship so constructed as to run into and sink an adversary. But even in America blunders were made, and it appeared that the stem of the Merrimac was too weak. No doubt, the noble Lord the Secretary to the Admiralty would bear that lesson in mind. There was time to give our ships now in course of construction much greater strength in this respect. The Warrior could not run into such a vessel as the Merrimac without receiving very serious injury; but if her present very handsome stem were removed, and a strong, useful stem substituted, she would be a much more serviceable vessel. It was quite clear that, in constructing the forts at Spithead, they were proceeding in a wrong direction. But it was not too late to draw back, and there could be no more opportune time for doing so than on the last day of the financial year. One point which the House should remember was the difficulty in getting 2,700 well-trained artillerymen to man the forts. Such a force could not be spared, even if the Volunteer movement continued, and was it right, then, to go on constructing forts which they would find it impossible to man? But there would be no difficulty in manning small vessels carrying two guns, which would be enough to keep at bay, if they did no more, vessels infinitely more formidable than the Merrimac. The action in question had changed his opinion with regard to the Spithead forts, and he was now fully impressed with the necessity of making the best use of the lesson which they had just been taught. The House would also remember that his lamented friend, Sir Richard Dundas, was of opinion that for the defence of the Solent it was better to rely on vessels than on forts, though the latter might be useful. That officer was a high authority, and had proved almost a prophet upon the question. Captain Coles had advocated the same thing, and the country was much indebted to him for his services. The question of sloping sides, which had been much canvassed, was one of detail. No doubt if, they could present to a shot a sloping and not a perpendicular side a much thinner metal covering would be sufficient to turn or resist that shot. In the Merrimac the amount of vertical surface placed opposite to the line of fire was only two, or at the most three, feet, and there was thus complete protection for the men working the guns, and plenty of air. How Captain Coles's cupolas would work was a matter of experiment, but there was a ship which, after being exposed all day to the fire of several powerful vessels and batteries, went off without injury from them; and after a five hours' engagement on the second day, exposed to the fire of guns much heavier than her own, it was a question whether a single shot penetrated her sides. If her sides were penetrated, they clearly must have been pierced by the fire of shot weighing 200 or 178 pounds; but, at all events, the Monitor sustained not a single crack in any of her plates. Although fighting almost muzzle to muzzle with the Merrimac, the Monitor was not damaged in the least; and if that were so, no one need fear that small iron-cased vessels in the Solent would suffer from the fire of larger vessels entering, because the vessels for harbour defence could carry both heavier guns and much more impenetrable armour plating than any sea-going vessel could do. Under those circumstances, it was hardly justifiable for the Government to proceed with the construction of works on the northern shore of the Isle of Wight, or with the whole of the forts originally proposed. The hon. and gallant Member concluded by asking the question of which he had given notice.


said, that he wished before the question was answered to make a few observations on the subject. He looked upon the action to which reference had been made as the turning point in the adoption of iron for all classes of vessels in Her Majesty's service. Objections had hitherto been made to small iron vessels of this kind, but the success of the Monitor had clearly proved that ships of a small class were able to resist large ones; and, moreover, though the Monitor had not been built as a sea-going craft, she had made the rough passage from New York to the James river in perfect safety. That one vessel had saved the credit of the Federal navy; for unless she had come up, the Merrimac might have destroyed all the wooden ships there almost at her leisure; and this engagement had now settled for ever the relative capabilities of wooden and iron ships in war. The Americans themselves were so satisfied with the result of their iron vessel that they were going to construct many others; and he saw by one journal that they had abandoned the idea of defending their harbours by means of forts. He had always argued, in respect to iron ships, that it was not a question whether they could make a ship impenetrable to shot, but what would be the effect of such a ship, properly built, coming into contact with wooden vessels. That question had been settled. Objections had been raised to going into that question; but when he looked back and saw the difficulties that had been raised to the adoption of any new principle, he could not wonder at the objections that had been made to going one step further than they had done, and constructing the whole navy of the country of iron. But, he believed, till they did so, they should not be able to reduce their naval expenditure. The adoption of iron as the material of construction would do away with the necessity of keeping large stocks of timber laid up in the dockyards. The Government would merely have to order the iron when they wanted it; if they chose to build ships by contract, they could do so; but they could reduce the establishments kept up at such great cost, and they would be able to know with certainty what the naval expenditure of the country would be. The objections to adopting iron that had lately been made in the House merged themselves into this—that they could not use iron to build a small class of vessels for foreign service, because they were liable to fouling. The only remedy for that, and the one that would be found the cheapest in the end, was to provide more dock accommodation for cleaning and repairing vessels on their foreign stations. The outlay for bringing ships and steamers home for repairs was very large. If an accident occurred to a vessel on the East or West India or the American stations, unless the means of repairing her were at hand, she had to be brought back to this country, and the expense of doing that was enormous. Sooner or later they would have to provide greater dock accommodation abroad. It was stated by Admiral Robinson, the Controller of the Navy, in his evidence last year, that with greater dock accommodation abroad one ship would do the work of two. The Government would save an enormous sum of money by adopting the principle thus laid down, and till they did adopt some such plan they could not keep their steam navy in an efficient state. He hoped the result of what had taken place in America would be to direct the attention of the Government more seriously to the matter, and induce it to pause before proceeding further with the construction of a small class of wooden vessels. They would be utterly useless and unable to cope with the vessels they might have to meet on foreign shores He must repeat his conviction that till some such course was adopted they should not be able to reduce the present enormous naval expenditure.


said, the event that had lately occurred in America appeared to him an entire revolution in the art of naval warfare. It was neither more nor less than that, and the newspapers of the Northern States had been congratulating themselves that, in consequence of what had occurred, the naval superiority of England was at an end. But he took the precisely contrary view. He thought that England, with its great wealth, its mechanical appliances, and ample supply of; coal and iron, could not only provide for; her own preservation, but the maintenance of the superiority on the sea she had hitherto enjoyed. Another source of consolation was that a great portion of the burden of taxation that had weighed upon their shoulders for a long time past, under the impression that it was necessary, would be dispensed with. He entirely agreed with the hon. and gallant Member opposite (Sir F. Smith) that money expended on fortresses would be money thrown away. Forts would only be buoys and indications; by which an enemy might pass into the harbours. The description of the late battle given in The Times stated that the large heavy shot from the land forts fell off from the Merrimac like hail from a tin roof, and shot weighing 180 lb. were fired by the Monitor at the Merrimac when they were lying muzzle to muzzle. If that was the case, what could the proposed forts do? To be of any use, they must have guns powerful enough to crush such ships; mid if they had guns of such enormous magnitude, the bursting of one of them would be like springing a mine within the walls. Jones's angular target of iron, 4½ inches thick, resisted, at a distance of two hundred yards, the Armstrong bolt-shot, weighing 110lb; whereas the Martello Tower at Eastbourne, with walls seven to nine feet thick, crumbled away before the fire of the same shots at 1,032 yards. What, then, had the Government to do but to accept the logic of facts, and accommodate themselves to the new state of things? He would read the advice given to the Government of England by Mr. Ericsson himself, in his letter to the American Naval Department, explaining his reasons for calling his iron vessel the Monitor. The letter, as it appeared in The Times of that morning, said— The impregnable and aggressive character of this structure will admonish the leaders of the Southern rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of the Union forces. The iron-clad intruder will thus prove a true 'Monitor' to those leaders. But there are other leaders who will also be startled and admonished by the booming of the guns from the impregnable iron turret. Downing Street will hardly view with indifference this last Yankee notion—this 'Monitor.' To the Lords of the Admiralty the new craft will be a 'Monitor,' suggesting doubts as to the propriety of completing those four steel-clad ships at three and a half millions a-piece. On these and many similar grounds I propose to name the new battery 'Monitor.' He trusted most sincerely that the vessel would prove a "monitor" to the Lords of the Admiralty. What were the suggestions that presented themselves from that letter? It was clear that by these vessels the means of defence were superior to those of attack. Shot of 180lbs. weight had no effect on the Monitor. Against such ships forts might as well be armed with popguns and squirts as with the heaviest ordnance at present used. Forts might, perhaps, be made invulnerable by plating them with iron; but of what use would that be? Iron ships had only to pass the forts and work their will on the dockyards beyond them. What they required was iron-clad batteries, not fortresses—vessels that could go out and contend with such an attacking enemy on equal terms. Another suggestion from this battle was, that the whole character of naval war was changed. Formerly this country relied on the individual courage of its seamen. When they had once boarded an enemy's deck, it was thought the battle was over. They could not board now; it was a mere tradition of the past. Boarding the sloping side of such a ship as the Merrimac would be like scrambling up the roof of a house. And when an attempt was made to board the Monitor not a soul was to be seen. The bravest boarding party might now, by some new device, be met with a shower of hot water and steam. He was curious to see how much the affair of Hampton Roads had affected the chief question that had been agitated that Session in Parliament. It had solved the whole question of colonial fortifications. It was positively throwing money away to spend it on fortifications in the colonies. The best defences were these floating batteries, which might, like the Monitor, be constructed in ninety days, and only cost £60,000. No fortifications now constructing could beat them. But by building the same kind of vessels the colonies might defend themselves with less outlay. Neither Gibraltar nor Quebec were any longer impregnable. If the Spanish launches had been plated with iron when the Chevalier D'Arcon brought them before Gibraltar in 1782, Lord Heathfield's red-hot shot would have been of no avail, and the Spanish flag would have waved over that fortress. British superiority on the American lakes would be very much endangered by the new class of vessels. It had always been said, that though the Americans might overrun the border, yet in Quebec they would find a difficult nut to crack; but since the introduction of these destructive instruments of warfare the case was very different. If the Warrior had met the Merrimac, it was a matter of grave doubt whether the angular-sided vessel would not have overcome her vertical-sided antagonist; but if the Warrior and the Monitor had met, there was little doubt that the smaller vessel would have plunged her shot into the unprotected parts of the Warrior, and would, in fact, have overcome the pride of the British navy. Again, how useless would the fortifications of Alderney be before such vessels. What could be the use of spending money on fortifications when a battery could come from Cherbourg, sail right in, and knock every ship in the harbour into lucifer-matches without receiving the slightest damage? Cherbourg itself was the most notable example of the folly of building these fortifications. He hoped the Government would take that tremendous subject into their consideration. If, instead of going about like pottering old pointers, sniffing after the traditions of Blake and Benbow, they accommodated themselves to the facts which had met their eyes, and made proper use of this salutary lesson, they might be able to diminish their expenditure, and to provide an impregnable line of defence which all the Powers of Europe would not be able to break through.


said, that when the Defence Commission first gave in their Report, he was of opinion that the forts at Spithead, to which alone he should confine his observations, were absolutely necessary, but he had now changed his views, and he was confident that it should be better for the public good if the money were spent in the construction of vessels of the new description for the defence of the port, because these vessels could be made as strong as forts, and a movable fort must be much more valuable than a stationary fortification. Under these circumstances, he agreed in that particular with the gallant Member for Chatham; but there were some special circumstances to which he had alluded which required some slight explanation. He did not quite agree with the hon. and gallant (Gentleman in all the inferences which he had drawn from the late action and from the experiments which had been made in reference to the construction of iron fortifications and ships; nor could he quite agree with the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Laird) in his proposal that the smaller class of ships in the navy should be constructed solely of iron. It was absolutely necessary that the light description of vessels should be built of wood, because they could not carry plates thick enough for their protection, and the destruction which would take place on the thin iron plates of vessels of that size would be much more formidable than the destruction produced on wooden ships of the same size. But all vessels which were to fight in war must not only be of considerable size, but of size sufficient to carry plates of considerable thickness, so as to protect them from the fire of the enemy. There was no doubt that modern artillery had arrived at such perfection that it was positive madness to send people out to fight in wooden vessels. If two vessels met armed with the modem ordnance, not one but both must be destroyed, and no result would flow from such an engagement. As far as he knew, it was not possible to construct ships solely of iron. It was absolutely necessary to have something behind the iron to prevent the vibration destroying the ship. As far as experiments had gone, it was certain that when the plates were very rigid, the attachments or bolts which fastened one to the other were certain to break by the concussion; and it was therefore necessary to construct ships of wood and iron combined, which so far was fortunate, because the best use they could make of their wooden three-deckers was to cut them down to their lower-deck beams, plate them with iron, and cover them with as many of Captain Coles' cupola shields as they would carry. One of these ships so cut down and plated, and provided with six or eight of Coles' shields, would destroy eight or ten line-of battle ships as they now existed. So far it was of value that they had ascertained that there was a positive advantage in having the wood to support the iron, because they could avail themselves of the great number of ships they possessed, which might be converted into useful engines of war. He approved largely of the suggestion of the hon. Member for Birkenhead, that the dock power and accommodation at our different naval stations should be increased, and the money which was to be spent on building the forts at Spithead might be much more usefully employed at Bermuda, Malta, and elsewhere in building docks to receive our iron navy With reference to the necessity for sloping the sides of iron ships, it was certain that it was quite unnecessary to do so. There was nothing to be gained by sloping the sides of a ship, because by so doing I there must be a larger plate to cover the same vertical area. There was no doubt that the iron was better disposed in greater thickness upright than if the same weight were rolled out to cover the same vertical area. It had been tried over and over again. The thicker a good iron plate was, the better it was for defence against the effect of projectiles; and a shipbuilder need not be trammelled by any desire to alter; the form of his ship by a false idea of obtaining sloping sides, when he would get the same thing by building his ship in the best form to perform her duty and plating her vertically.


said, the proposition was to substitute vessels for forts, so as to have a fleet in every port. It was not his province to defend the Admiralty, but his hoped they would proceed with the construction of the forts. Forts were better than ships, and particularly at Portsmonth, as there was not a sufficient depth of water for vessels carrying very heavy guns to manoeuvre about Spithead. This country was foremost in inventions, but the Admiralty seemed always the last to take advantage of those inventions. He attributed it to there being no competent Board to decide what inventions should be adopted and what should not. The Admiralty had allowed themselves to be out-stripped by the French, who had constructed La Gloire before the Warrior was in commission, and by the Americans, who had built the Monitor, although the Admiralty were aware of Captain Coles' invention.


said, that as he had seen the Merrimac, a few words from him would not be without interest. There was some misapprehension with regard to her. Although she was a most powerful vessel, she was not calculated for anything but smooth water. Owing to the weight of the plates put upon her, she was immersed to that extent I that there was nothing above water but the deck for her gun ports. The sides were carried up at an angle of 45°, and at the top was an open bar roofing, through which the ventilation was obtained, the consequence of which was that shipping a sea would certainly sink her. With regard to the Monitor, he thought she was more powerful, because she had made voyage in rough weather from New York to Fort Monroe; but it was no disparagement to the gallantry of the officers and crew of the Merrimac to say that she was only fit for river purposes, and that the anticipation of her being able to cross the Atlantic was not well founded. The hon. and gallant Member for Chatham was, in his opinion, entitled to the gratitude of the House for having brought forward that important question, and he submitted that the time was come when the Government should reconsider the matter, and pause in the construction of costly land fortresses, which practical men were of opinion would not be so efficacious as these new iron vessels in defending our coasts and harbours.


Sir, two questions have been raised during this debate. One has been raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Chatham, of which he gave notice—namely, whether the recent action on the coast of America has given the Government any reason why they should stop the forts in course of construction near Portsmouth. Another, but a much wider question, has been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Galway—whether, in consequence of that engagement, we should not entirely alter the whole character and structure of our navy, and abandon wooden ships in order to build nothing but iron ships. It has been suggested that the revolutionizing our naval defences will lead to a great economy of the public money. I must venture to express my opinion that, from all the experience which we have had of revolutionizing our armaments, a new system of defence is likely to lead, not to a diminution, but to a great increase of public expenditure; and that, in fact, nothing is so expensive as a systematic change of armaments on a great scale. I do not say that it may not be necessary, in consequence of the experience of the recent engagement, to make a vast change in our naval defences. I am not expressing any opinion upon that subject and its necessity; but I warn the House against entertaining any expectation that that change can be made otherwise than by a corresponding large sacrifice of public money. I think it will be more convenient to the House not to enter into that large discussion at the present moment. It is, in fact, a question mainly affecting the Naval Estimates. If the House-be of opinion that this revolution is to be effected, I apprehend it will probably be the duty of my noble friend sitting near me (Lord C. Paget) to propose a Supplementary Estimate of some£10,000,000 or£15,000,000. That will be the practical result of the naval revolution which has been sketched. I abstain entirely from entering upon that part of the question. I merely wish to advert to the question of which the hon. and gallant Member for Chatham gave notice. The question which he submitted to the House is identical with one which was brought under the notice of the Defence Commission by Lord Herbert on the 18th of February, 1861, and upon which that Commission made a careful report. The question referred to them was, "the possible substitution of iron-cased ships in certain localities for such of the permanent defences as can be constructed only at large cost, and cannot in all probability be completed for a long time." That suggestion had particular reference to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. The Defence Commission, composed of professional military men—Engineers—reported their opinion in the following manner:— 1. We adhere with the utmost confidence to the opinion we formerly expressed as to the necessity for the forts for the protection of Spithead, more especially as regards the two outer works on No-Man's Land and Horse Sand, which give protection to the anchorage as a harbour of refuge for an inferior force of our own fleet, and for merchant vessels, which the 'Spit' and 'Intermediate' forts cannot afford, owing to the depth of water near them being insufficient for anchoring purposes. These two outer defences also command the space more effectually which might be occupied for the purpose of bombardment, and would take in reverse any ships which had succeeded in forcing the passage. The work on the Starbridge is, in our opinion, only second in importance to the two just mentioned. It completes the circle of defences which will afford a concentrated fire on the anchorage, provides a second line against an enemy attempting the passage of the Solent, and gives shelter to floating defences which might have been obliged to retire before a superior force either from the outer entrance to Spithead, or from the defence of the passage of the Needles. There are some further remarks— 2. We consider the mixed scheme of defence by forts and auxiliary iron-cased vessels to be the only practicable mode of effecting the object in view. 3. We are of opinion that no time should be lost in commencing the forts, and in constructing as many iron-cased vessels as are essentially necessary for the above purpose. The Report of the Defence Commission amounted substantially to this:—That the best plan for the defence of Portsmouth is a combined system of forts and iron-cased ships. They did not rely on one or the other, but on a combination of both. The ques- tion is how much that system ought to be modified in consequence of the experience derived from subsequent events. The hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Gregory) seems to think that the recent action points to a revolution in the art of naval warfare. I do not myself presume to speak with authority on the question. I merely judge from the reports which I receive from those who have professionally and technically studied the subject. The information which I have lately obtained leads me to the conclusion that, in the opinion of the most experienced persons, the engagement in question throws little light upon the qualities of iron-clad vessels. I will state what I myself saw with my own eyes. A model of the side of the Warrior was set up at Shoeburyness, and made the subject of experiments in order to test its resistance to very heavy ordnance at a very moderate distance. The result was, that scarcely any effect was produced on the plates. In that instance we had as complete a proof of the qualities of iron-clad vessels as was afforded in the recent action. There is no doubt that the Merrimac is not a sea-going vessel. The Monitor, perhaps, might go some distance out to sea. Of course, we must not assume that an attack on our coast, if ever it take place, will be made simply by wooden vessels, over which our iron vessels might have an easy victory. We must expect to see iron opposed to iron. The question becomes whether, by the improvement of artillery, forts might not be enabled to maintain the same advantage over floating batteries which they have hitherto possessed. It is an axiom, I apprehend, in naval warfare that all floating batteries are inferior to those on land. I am assured that the effect of the recent experiments with iron-cased vessels will only be to stimulate the inventive powers of our engineers in the effort to produce some ordnance which will be forcible enough to smash the sides of the iron-clad ships, and I hope they will not be long in achieving that result. That is the problem which the military engineer has to solve, and he may consider it a triumph in his art if he contrives a gun which those ships which are now invulnerable to artillery will not be able to resist. There is nothing unreasonable in the ambition which encourages him in that aim. We have grounds, then, for holding that a complete revolution in the art of war will not be effected, but that in a few years the disproportion which is now said to exist in point of strength between floating and fixed batteries will disappear. I observe that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Laird), at a meeting over which he presided lately, read a letter from a correspondent in New York, who said— The success of the Rodman gun has induced our Government to try experiments on a scale still larger, and they are about constructing guns of 20-inch bore, throwing shot of 1,000lb, which, it is thought, will crush in the side of any iron-plated ship, no matter what the thickness of the plates. That shows that the belief in the progress of artillery is not confined to this country. I am fully aware of the importance of this question, and of the necessity for our adopting those expedients which are suggested by recent experience. We must, however, beware of taking a precipitate step. The Government ought to be guided by scientific advice, given on mature consideration, and ought not to rush into a series of costly changes. The subject will receive the careful attention of the Government, but I cannot hold out any hope that the construction of forts for which contracts have been entered into, and which are already in progress, will be abandoned.


Sir, I think the speech of the right hon. Gentleman will not be deemed very satisfactory by the House. He was modest enough to say that he did not hold himself to be an authority on a question of this kind, but I must say the facts he quoted did not appear to be much to the point. The report of the Defence Commission was written more than a year ago, and cannot, therefore, refer to an event which happened about a fortnight since. The right hon. Gentleman has, therefore, said really nothing to the proposition of the hon. Member for Chatham. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman in his comments on the remarks of the hon. Member for Galway. On the occurrence of a single event such as the recent action, however important—and the man must be particularly stupid who does not see its importance—it would, I think, be very unfortunate if the Government at once adopted the scheme of naval reconstruction which is very much favoured by the right hon. Member for Droitwich. Nothing could be more costly or calamitous to the country than that we should have such sweeping measures carried out by aspiring Lords of the Admiralty every half-dozen years. The question which has been raised is very simple, and the Government ought not to be allowed to escape from it without a definite statement to the House. The question is, whether the batteries which we are about to erect at a vast cost in the neighbourhood of Portsmouth harbour are capable of resisting the entrance of iron-plated vessels, such as the Monitor. The old questions, whether there is any danger of invasion, whether any fortifications are required, and whether we can get them manned, are not discussed now. They remain just where we left them; but, as far as I can learn from their conversation, those who voted for the fortifications two years ago are generally very much ashamed of that vote. What we have to consider is whether, heedless of the proofs which are being given of what iron-plated ships can do, we are to go on spending on fortifications—I am afraid to say how much, and, indeed, the ultimate cost was never very clearly set before the House. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that nothing is to be assumed as absolutely concluded by what has taken place in the James river, but the probability is that something has been concluded. I do not require to be a great naval authority, to pronounce it a very serious event, and I think the House may fairly call upon the Government at any rate to suspend these works, which are costing many hundred thousand pounds in the locality I have mentioned, and which will involve an outlay of millions if we include all the fortifications which we were invited to sanction two years ago. Some hon. Members have an idea that money is to be dug out somewhere, and that nobody is any the poorer when it is paid out of the Exchequer for such things; but the fact is that somebody works for it, somebody sweats for it, somebody receives less of the comforts of life for its expenditure, somebody pays it to the taxgatherer, often grudgingly, and suffers for the loss of it. Even the most determined spendthrift in the House must see that the necessity of spending that money at all has, at least, been rendered doubtful by recent events. Surely we may call on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who sometimes upbraids the House for its profligate expenditure, to support the proposition of the hon. and gallant Member for Chatham in the discussions in the Cabinet. I understand that the revenue returns, concerning which we are to hear something on Thursday, will present an appearance more favourable than, or rather not so unfavourable as many persons had expected; but I can assure the House that, judging from the state of things in the North of England, there is a very high probability that during the next six months or during the next year there will be a very considerable falling off in the revenue, and very great suffering among the working classes—infinitely more, a thousand-fold more suffering, than we know anything of, because it is borne so silently and heroically. But the less the people complain, if they are in distress and from no fault of their own, the more carefully ought the Government and this House to watch that not a single farthing of the money which is extracted from them is expended on works which have been shown by one of the greatest authorities in the country, the hon. and gallant Member for Chatham, to be unnecessary. I think we are fairly entitled to ask the Government not to commit themselves to anything further in this respect, and to abstain from involving the country in further expenditure. We may be sure that before long we shall receive from the other side of the Atlantic the reports of scientific men, and more complete information with regard to this matter. Without going into the question of the great revolution which I agree with the hon. Member for Galway is inevitable, but which is not, perhaps, so far proved as to justify a great change of policy, we may call upon the Government to suspend proceedings, and thus save to the country at least a million of the outlay to which we committed ourselves so hastily.


said, he was glad that the question had been raised. He had always pressed upon the Government that the greatest caution ought to be observed in following out the principle of iron shipbuilding. Two years ago opinions were very much divided upon the question whether the forts at Spithead should be built or not; and two different reports were made, one by the commission upon which Sir Richard Dundas sat, and the other by the defence Committee. The question was, what was the use of solid fortifications built in the water when they could have equally solid fortifications in the shape of iron vessels, which could be moved where they were wanted? Of course, if the defence were required on a spot where it must be on land, there was no choice; but, otherwise, there was no comparison between the advantages of the two kinds of defence. Two years ago the hon. and gallant Member for Chatham (Sir F. Smith) voted in favour of having these Spithead forts, and the hon. Member for Wakefield (Sir J. Hay) spoke in favour of them; but experience had now shown that there was a mistake upon that matter. He therefore hoped that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for War would; reconsider the statement which he had just made, and would take time to see whether the altered circumstances which had just occurred should not modify his views.


Sir, I was in hopes, after the numerous and distinguished instances of conversion to a conviction of the non-necessity of these forts which we have heard to-night, that we should have heard also of that of Her Majesty's Government. I have been very much disappointed at the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War because, if we are to collect anything from that speech, it must be that Her Majesty's Government are about to rush into this enormous expenditure in spite of the great lesson they have received from the events which had occurred in Hampton Roads. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright) has been unnecessarily hard upon the right hon. baronet the Member for Droitwich, (Sir John Pakington) because there can be no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman was the first to draw the attention of the country to the defective state of our navy, and he ought not to be taunted with what was in fact a great merit on his part. It has been said that the Admiralty are opposed to all change, but I would remind hon. Members that it was the Admiralty of that day that proposed these very floating batteries. It was my late lamented Friend Admiral Sir Richard Dundas, then First Sea Lord, who brought forward this very scheme, and proposed to convert twenty useless line-of-battle ships into floating batteries to defend Portsmouth and other harbours. He proposed to do that—and would have done it—at a cost not exceeding £840,000, instead of erecting enormous forts which will cost considerably more than a million and a half. That proposal was negatived by the Engineers, who thought there was nothing like stone and mortar for building; and therefore I do not think that the Admiralty are open to the insinuation that they set themselves against this improvement. From the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War, we seem to be going blindly on, throwing these millions of money into Spithead, without knowing exactly either what is to be the cost of the forts, or what is to be their use when they are built. The right hon. Baronet has spoken rather slightingly of this great and bloody experiment which has been made in Hampton Roads. But what is the evidence of the doctor who was on board the Congress? It is most conclusive. He says that as soon as the Merrimac, or, as I believe she is now called, the Virginia, got within range— We opened fire on her. We might as well have fired at a moving iceberg. The shot glanced off her iron sheathing like hailstones off a tin roof …Nearly all the guns were dismounted, the bulkheads blown to pieces, rammers and handspikes shivered, the powder boys all killed. If that is not evidence, with what evidence will the right hon. Gentleman be content? Whether it be evidence or not, I think that the House is justified in calling upon Her Majesty's Government to suspend—at least to suspend—these extensive operations, which are likely not only to be most expensive but most unnecessary. I do not think that justice has been done to Captain Cowper Coles. His plan was brought forward last year, and on that occasion I think that it was very much discouraged by the noble Lord the Secretary of the Admiralty. [Lord CLARENCE PAGET: No, no.] At any rate, no ship has been built on that plan.


There is a ship now building on that plan.


I am very glad to hear it. What does Captain Coles offer? He says that he will for a small sum of money convert line-of-battle ships which are lying idle into shield ships, which may form a coast patrol to defend your harbours. I am glad that this discussion has taken place, but I think that it will be totally useless if we—not only the converts, but the thirty-nine articles, of whom I happen to be one, who originally voted against this outlay—if the House does not insist upon Her Majesty's Government not spending another shilling upon these forts until we are in a position to know that they will be able to hold their own against the monsters of the deep which are now being constructed.


Sir, the question which was raised very ably and clearly, and with a very kindly spirit, by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chatham is a question of extreme import- ance, but it is not an Admiralty question. The question is whether the Government is determined, without any pause whatever to proceed with the construction of the forts at Spithead. I do not consider it possible to regard the tidings which we nave received of this extraordinary action fought in America otherwise than as novel and most important. I entirely agree, however, with the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War, that it would not be wise for us, in the transition state in which we now are, to be carried away or suffer our policy to be affected by every report that may come across the Atlantic; but, on the other hand, it is impossible to deny that the circumstances of the action in James river have been most remarkable. It is also impossible to deny that those circumstances are closely connected with the opinion which has been throughout expressed by that high authority Captain Coles, that the erection of the forts would not be the best mode of defending Spithead. Surely some additional light has been thrown on that question; and I cannot but express my regret at the language we have beard from the Secretary of State for War, and from which I gather that Her Majesty's Government are disposed to attach no weight at all to this occurrence but to persevere at all hazards, without any delay, and without any further consideration or reflection, to spend this large sum of money upon the construction of these forts. The question is a very difficult one; but the impression made upon my mind by the intelligence from America is such that, considering the great expense involved and the doubtful policy of constructing these forts, I wish the Government had intimated more clearly than the right hon. Gentleman has done that they were disposed to consider anxiously what is the real tendency of that intelligence before they determine to persevere with these works.


Sir, I must say that I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Droitwich (Sir John Pakington) has rather misled the House as to what was said by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for War. What he said, as I understood him, was—and with that I entirely concur—that important as is the event which has recently occurred on the other side of the Atlantic, it shown nothing so decided as to the merits of iron-cased vessels of which we were previously ignorant as to oblige the Government suddenly to set aside a plan which has been adopted after the maturest and gravest deliberation. Important as this action has been, what, I ask the House, has really been taught us by it? We have known for some time that vessels cased with armour of a certain thickness would resist the projectiles which are known in the present day; though how long that impenetrability will last, in view of the daily improvements of guns and projectiles, is a doubtful matter. We have been going through very careful experiments at Shoe-buryness, and we know that iron-cased ships are very much superior to wooden ones. What has been the result? Why, that we have ceased to build large wooden ships and have taken to building iron-cased ones. What other things do we learn from this action? That an iron-cased ship can what is termed "give the stem" to a wooden ship, and cut her down; but it did not require this action to prove that. We have known that for a long time, and have constructed all our iron-cased ships with a view—the hon. and gallant Member for Chatham shakes his head, but I assure him that every iron-cased ship, beginning with the child of my right hon. Friend the Member for Droitwich, the Warrior, has been so constructed, by strengthening the stem and the bows and other arrangements, as to enable her, if necessary, to run down her enemy. So that when we are told that the Americans have taken the lead in building vessels strong enough to run down others, my answer is, that that is in fact what we have been doing for the last three years. Some hon. Gentlemen would lead the House to believe that the Government ought immediately to bring in a supplementary Estimate. ["No! No !"] What is the proposal of the hon. Member for Birkenhead? He tells us that, putting aside our wooden vessels, we ought to construct a great mass of iron ships, and build docks in all parts of the world for them. Are we to build docks all along the American coasts, at all the new settlements, at the Feejee Islands, and other outlandish quarters where we have vessels of war stationed? [Mr. LAIRD: I said distinctly, at our foreign stations in different parts of the world.] The suggestion is needless, for at most of our principal colonial stations there are already docks belonging either to private merchants or to the Government. Because we have heard of the extraordinary success of iron ships on this occasion, are we to reconstruct the whole navy of England and to give up building small wooden vessels for distant service? I maintain that, at all events, the time has not yet come to do so.

With regard to Spithead, naval men naturally prefer ships to forts; but in war time merchant ships running up and down Channel will continually seek refuge in any emergency in that very best of Channel harbours; and I want to know whether you are to keep a large fleet of iron-cased ships locked up between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, simply with a view of guarding the merchant navy? I can quite believe that you will require iron ships as adjuncts to the forts, but I maintain that nothing which has taken place across the Atlantic in any way alters the position of the question. Let it be remembered that, as regards ships, there must be a limit—I do not say we have arrived at it yet—to the size of the gun and the thickness of the plate which they can carry. But in a fort there is no limit. If we can construct a gun to carry shot of 1,000lb. weight we can mount it on a fort; if we can make iron plates, aye, of five times the present thickness, they can be put on a fort. But I question whether any very great increase either in the armour plating or in the weight of the guns can be safely carried by sea-going ships. Without, therefore, entering into the question how far it may hereafter be the duty of Government to modify the plan for the defence of the port of Spithead, there can be no doubt that forts must ever be stronger than ships Some hon. Gentlemen have quoted my friend, the late Sir Richard Dundas, as an authority against these forts. It is true, seeing the great progress which France had made in iron-cased ships, Sir Richard Dundas recommended that we should devote our earliest energies to the construction of more iron-cased ships; but that Sir Richard Dundas always considered these forts absolutely necessary for the protection of Spithead, and that he was an advocate for their erection, I can assure the House and the country. I have been told that the Admiralty have done nothing towards preparing vessels of the class of the Monitor. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Liskeard (Mr. Osborne) gave the House to understand that the Admiralty had not taken up Captain Coles's proposal, and that I personally was very much opposed to it. If he takes the trouble to ask Captain Coles, he will ascertain that I was one of the earliest advocates of that system. I believe, moreover, that the system is capable of very large development. But I would wish the House to remember that Captain Coles's cupola ship—like the Monitor—is not a sea-going vessel. We do not profess that she would be able to cross the Atlantic, though she would be a very superior vessel to the Monitor, because she carries her guns nine feet out of the water. She would, no doubt, be a very valuable and very efficient vessel for our Channel defences. But when we are told that the Americans have built this Monitor to beat us, and that if she came across we have nothing like her, I will ask, hare hon. Gentlemen read the account of her voyage from New York, when, upon the statement of her own engineer, she was at times completely under water, and the green seas went down the funnel? That does not look as if she was fitted to go across the Atlantic and to keep the sea; though I believe her to be remarkably well adapted for the particular service for which she was designed. I have no doubt that the grave attention of her Majesty's Government will be given to the question whether we ought not to have vessels of that class for the defence of our coast. But I protest against its being said that either the Admiralty or the Government is not taking every possible means for the security of the country.


said, it appeared to him, with all due deference to the House, that there had been a good deal of exaggeration in the opinions which had been expressed on that question. He did not think, with the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Gregory), that the action which had taken place on the other side of the Atlantic was likely to be a source of economy; nor did he agree with the right hon. Gentleman who had spoken, that his noble and gallant Friend (Lord C. Paget) would be called upon to bring in a supplemental Estimate. He believed that the question lay in a nutshell. The House always voted liberally, and in his opinion wisely—the money required for the defence of the country, and the question was simply this—What was the best way of laying it out? He was bound to say that he had heard with great regret the statements made by the Secretary at War and by the noble Lord the Secretary to the Admiralty. He gathered from those answers that it was the intention of the Government to continue as before the operation of building the forts; and the noble Lord asked them what they had learned lately to induce them to alter their mode of proceeding. The noble Lord implied, if he did not assert, that there was nothing in the recent action which ought either to make them pause in their present operations or to lead them to consider the question whether their whole system of defence might not be revolutionized. He thought that that answer was the result of a total misconception of our position. Within the last month they had had what they had never had before—a practical proof of the value of iron sheathing for ships, and of the comparative value of vessels and forts when in collision. They had found that so far from there being no reason to alter their views and opinions, this had occurred, that whereas ships had hitherto always got the worst of it in engagement with forts, ships could now compete with forts and come off unhurt. If they had not learned anything from that, when would they find anything from which they could learn? It was providential that we should without loss be able to find the comparative value of iron and wooden vessels; and were we to go on following the course which might have been right before, but must now be considered doubtful? Instead of saying that we had not learnt anything from the late contest, we ought to look on it as a providential occurrence in which, without cost or loss of life, this country enjoyed an opportunity of testing the value of iron-sheathed-ships. There was one part of the question which had not been touched upon except slightly by his noble and gallant Friend (Lord C. Paget), and that was as to the condition of merchant vessels at Spithead. Let the House suppose, in case of war between this country and France, that a large fleet of merchantmen was lying at Spithead for shelter from the enemy's squadron; the forts at Spithead would be no protection to those vessels whatever. Two or three of the enemy's iron ships could run into Spithead and capture or sink the merchant vessels there without receiving any injury. Were the forts there to blaze away indiscriminately, striking alike friends and foes? He defied any man to prove that the forts at Spithead would be of any good for the protection of he ships; they would only be available to fire a flying shot at the vessels endeavouring to run the channel. By the accounts of the last action in the American waters heavy batteries were firing away all day at an iron-plated ship, and did it no material damage. What possible damage, then, was it likely would be done to two or three of these iron-plated ships running through the channel into Spithead at night and in thick weather? It was, in the first place, a million to one against the vessels being hit, for it would be a flying shot; and once having passed the forts they could not be fired upon without the certainty of injuring the merchant vessels which it was the object of the forts to protect. That was a most important question, and he ventured to express a hope that the Government would at least admit that the time had come when the question of the mode of defending Spithead and other ports ought to be reconsidered. He contended that they had learned enough from the experience of the last month to show them, that if the whole question had not been entirely revolutionized, it had been so completely altered in all its bearings, that to persist in acting on the old system would be to do precisely that which had been condemned by the right hon. Baronet on the Treasury bench. For it would be to deal hastily with the subject, for nothing could be more hasty or inconvenient than that they should, in the teeth of recent information, continue a system commenced before that experience was acquired. All that was desired was that the Government should pause in carrying out a system which might have been good last year, but which had now fallen into disrepute by increased experience. They asked for further time for consideration, in order that money for the defence of the country might not be spent on works which in a short time might prove quite useless.


said, he could not but express his regret that the Government had decided against the reconsideration of the system of fortification. He had ventured on a former occasion to express an opinion that the system of constructing iron men-of-war was still in its infancy, and he believed that vessels would some day be built which would be able to send a shot through the Warrior just as if she were a bandbox. He was one of the first to recognise the importance of the Lancaster gun; and when he saw them he expressed an opinion which he still entertained, that they would bring about a complete revolution in the science of warfare, and that ships would be constructed to carry guns of the heaviest calibre. Already there were schemes on foot to build men-of-war to carry sufficient coal to enable them to steam round the world, and which could deliver a bow broadside from guns of the heaviest calibre. It was simply a matter of scientific calculation to ascertain, having the thickness of iron plate given, what sized shot could, under various circumstances, penetrate that plate, and he believed that as certainly as a rifle bullet would go through a deal board, so could shot penetrate the sides of the Warrior. Probably, it might be found necessary to construct vessels with plates twice the thickness of those on the Warrior, in which case the size of the ship must be proportionately increased. Again, efforts were on foot to apply steam to the working of guns. He, therefore, strongly deprecated any expenditure on a large system of land fortifications; and he should likewise deprecate an expenditure on colossal vessels, which he believed to be a mistake, for it was likely that a vessel having greater speed than the Warrior might engage her with success. Choosing her own ground for the purpose, she, having invulnerable bows, might keep them always directed towards the Warrior, and might sink her without receiving any material damage. He thought the Admiralty had always been very slow learners of these scientific truths, and with that protest he ventured to hope that the Government would pause in the system which they were pursuing.