HC Deb 01 June 1865 vol 179 cc1130-5

said, he rose to ask the Government for an explanation of the extraordinary and extravagant expenditure on the Lighthouse on the Basses Rocks, at Ceylon, and to move an Address for Papers relating thereto. The history of this case, though at the first blush it appeared an unimportant matter, would, he believed, occasion considerable surprise to the House. Hon. Members who looked at the Estimates would observe that in the Civil Service Estimates there was a Vote demanded this year of a sum of £2,000 or £3,000 for the lighthouse upon the advanced rocks of Ceylon. That Vote was passed without any comment, owing, he supposed, to the ignorance of the House upon the point. He was, however, led to inquire into the matter in consequence of a statement which had been submitted to him by certain gentlemen from Ceylon, and he found that the history of this lighthouse was one of a somewhat extraordinary character, and he was sure that a narration of it would not be uninteresting to the House. As far back as 1826 there was a Commission appointed to consider the best means of placing a Lighthouse upon the two large rocks off the Coast of Ceylon. Those rocks stood out about seven or eight miles from the coast. The currents from the mainland were very varying and rapid, navigation was extremely dangerous, and great losses to life and property had from time to time occurred owing to the want of a proper lighthouse upon the Basses Rocks. Amongst those losses was that of Her Majesty's ship Dadalus, which had been wrecked upon these rocks. The risk, therefore, both to the Royal Navy and the merchant service was very great. The Committee of 1826 reported strongly in favour of a lighthouse, but nothing whatever was done in the matter until 1854, when another Committee was appointed to inquire into the matter, which fully confirmed the Report of the former Committee. Sir Fleetwood Pellew, who then commanded in those seas, wrote a strong despatch to the Admiralty, pointing out the dangers presented by those rocks to all ships navigating those seas, and urging the immediate construction of a lighthouse. Admiral Beaufort made a similar report. Now, the House would scarcely believe it credible that nothing effectual had been done since then upon the subject. Complaints had been made two years ago by the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Childers), now a Lord of the Admiralty. It was stated that an iron lighthouse could be erected upon the rocks for the small sum of £17,000. In 1856, Parliament voted £17,000 for this lighthouse, and £6,000 for a steamer to carry the materials out to Ceylon. In 1857, £8,000 more was voted for the lighthouse. In 1858, £10,000 was voted in order, as was stated, to complete it. In 1859, £10,000 more was granted, making altogether a total of £51,000. The Vote then stopped for a year. But in 1861 the House voted £8,000 more for it; in 1862, £2,000; in 1863, £3,000; in 1864, £3,000 or £4,000; in 1865, £2,000 or £3,000. Now, would the House believe it possible that, notwithstanding all those Votes, amounting to £80,000 or £90,000 in the whole, there was not up to the present time one stone raised or anything done towards raising this lighthouse? It would appear that no one could explain this expenditure of the public money, or what had become of it. With the exception of a solitary light-ship placed last year, which cost £1,500, and a flag-staff stuck up on one of the rocks at Point de Galle, there was nothing what ever to show for all this money. Considering the danger to our shipping through the absence of a lighthouse, it appeared to him that the public had a right to express its greatest indignation, and to demand an inquiry into the whole question. He was not one of those who brought trifling matters before the House, or who shared want of confidence in the Executive, but he hoped that the Government would be able to explain how the money had been appropriated, and to justify this continuous expenditure going on for the last ten years. According to the Report which he held in his hand the disbursements upon the supposed lighthouse amounted to £55,891, 10s. \Qd. He objected to those papers, inasmuch as they contained a mis-statement, there being, in fact, no such thing as a lighthouse erected at Ceylon; and, indeed, he believed he might say there never would be a lighthouse there, inasmuch as Mr. Gordon, in his report upon the subject, said that if the Government here remitted £10,000 more each year for ten years, then he thought there might be a lighthouse constructed. He had intended to oppose the Vote the other evening, but happened not to be present at the time. He had no wish to make any attack upon the Government in respect to this matter; nevertheless, he thought that the people generally had a right to complain of this lavish expenditure of the public money.


said, it must be admitted that there was a good deal of truth in the statement of the hon. Gentleman with regard to the ill success of the attempt to erect a lighthouse upon the reef of rocks off Ceylon, known as the Basses Rocks. The facts were, as far as he was able to judge of them from the correspondence that had taken place on the subject, that the difficulties of erecting a structure upon those rocks had been from the commencement greatly underrated. The money was voted before the rocks had even been surveyed. The difficulties of carrying out such a work were almost insuperable. The necessary supply of labour could not be obtained, and the supply of materials from the coast of Ceylon to the rocks increased both the difficulty and expense. The money that was expended upon the works had been really thrown away. It was at the bottom of the sea and could not be recovered. "What had been recently done would, he believed, effect all that could be desired. A light no doubt would be very desirable to the trade passing the coast of Ceylon, but that will be obtained by a light-ship. It was always the opinion of the nautical authorities that a light-ship moored near these rooks was the right thing, but unfortunately they were overruled by engineers and others, and an unsuccessful attempt had been made to erect a lighthouse. Some of the sums of money mentioned by the hon. Member for Honiton as having been recently voted for this purpose had been merely re-voted, and the sums really expended were no more than was necessary to construct a light-ship and place her at her moorings. Some additional expense would, however, have to be incurred in providing for a reserve ship to take the place of the ship that was now moored there when the cutter might have to be repaired or put into dock. The present light-ship had been moored near these rocks for the last two years. It was a very good light, and the ship was likely to ride there in perfect safety. There was every reason to believe that by the imposition of a small toll on the ships benefited by the light the light-ship would be self-supporting. From the experience of the past he doubted if it would be a useful undertaking to attempt to construct a lighthouse upon these rocks.


said, there had been no attempt made to erect a lighthouse.


said, that a quantity of material was taken out for that purpose, but it was all lost, and a great expense had been incurred under the advice of men who it was thought at the time were competent engineers. He was willing to admit that the attempt had been a great failure, but except as a warning he did not think it would be practically useful to go further into the inquiry. It was the same with governments as with individuals, in attempting a great undertaking they were liable to failure. He had every reason to believe that the present arrangement would prove to be successful, economical, and afford all the facilities required for the navigation of the coast.


said, the answer of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Milner Gibson) appeared to leave the case in an unsatisfactory condition, because he had not explained to the House the cause of these repeated and remarkable failures in connection with the erection of a lighthouse on these rocks. He asked the right hon. Gentleman to state whether they arose from natural causes or the want of ability in the engineers, and, if from the latter, whether they had been removed and others engaged, so that we might expect to get some return for the money we had expended. Was the lighthouse at present in the course of construction? [Mr. MILNER GIBSON: No.] Then it had turned out a failure. He regretted that after so much money had been expended there was not some further information given on the subject. After so much money had been thrown, as the right hon. Gentleman had said, into the sea, in so laudable and desirable an attempt as the erection of lighthouses, it was but right that that House should fully know and understand the cause of the failure, in order to guard against such remarkable casualties in future.


Was the lighthouse ever commenced at all?


said, that as he had had something to do with the matter the House would allow him to say a few words. It was clear from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman that the money which had been spent was clean gone, and that the country need never expect to see a farthing of it again. The right hon. Gentleman was not quite correct in stating that no surveys were made, for if he remembered aright, the survey held by order of the Admiralty was handed over from the Admiralty to the Board of Trade, and by him (Mr. Henley) to the right hon. Gentleman. If, however, the House would recollect the difficulties which attended the construction of the Eddystone, Bell Rock, and other lighthouses in this country where the engineers commanded every appliance that skill and science could supply, it would not appear surprising that there had been a failure to construct a lighthouse upon rocks more exposed and presenting greater difficulties than even the Eddystone or Bell Rocks. He believed that an engineer was sent out from this country, and that in accordance with the plan of the engineers here the stone for a lighthouse ready cut was landed somewhere on the isle of Ceylon. When they had got it there it was found that when the monsoon set in a direction that rendered it possible to reach the rocks it raised so much sea that it was impossible to work. On the other hand, when the sea was calm and they might have worked, the monsoon blew in such a direction that it was impossible to get to the place where the stone was to be put. Altogether the scheme presented such a phalanx of difficulties that nothing was done. In 1858, when he was at the Board of Trade, he called upon the Treasury to say whether the works ought to go on or be abandoned. It was determined that it was useless to proceed with the work, and that the next best thing to a permanent lighthouse was to place a light-ship on the spot. Whether the expense was to be defrayed by the House or by the shipping, it was necessary that there should be a lighthouse on the spot in question. They might say if they pleased that the money had been wasted, but it was necessary that the attempt should have been made.


said, he had not meant to say that there was no survey, but that there was none previous to the original estimate. In fact the scheme was founded upon incorrect and imperfect data.

Motion agreed to.