HC Deb 13 June 1865 vol 180 cc164-78

said, he rose to move— That, in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Ministers should now adopt measures for the construction of some of the Harbours of Refuge on the coast of Great Britain and Ireland re- commended by a Committee of this House in 1858, and by a Royal Commission in 1859. Much as he had regretted the absence of his hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland (Mr. Lindsay) from the House, he never regretted it more than on the present occasion, for if his hon. Friend had been there he would, no doubt, have brought the subject before the House, and he (Sir Frederic Smith) would have liked to have the honour of seconding him. His hon. Friend had devoted himself for years to this great question, and he (Sir Frederic Smith) was a humble follower. It was within the knowledge of many Members of the House that in consequence of the great number of casualties on our coast a Committee of the House of Commons investigated the subject in 1857–8. The Committee was presided over by the late Mr. James Wilson, and the Chairman and nearly every Member of the Committee were of opinion that harbours of refuge ought to be constructed, and that their construction would result in the saving of one-third of the number of lives and the same proportion of property that were now annually lost, and they recommended that a Royal Commission should be issued, as being more able to investigate the subject than a Committee of that House. A Commission was accordingly appointed, composed of men well qualified to conduct such an inquiry. Sir James Hope, one of the best officers in the naval service, presided; and the late Admiral Washington, Hydrographer of the Navy, Admiral Sullivan, and other men of ability and experience, as naval officers and engineers, and the Member for Sunderland and himself were Members of the Commission. They examined witnesses at every port in the kingdom, and they reported in favour of the formation of various harbours of refuge, giving estimates for the works which they recommended, and in short coming to conclusions not very different from those of the Committee. As showing the accuracy of the calculations made by the Commissioners, he might observe that contractors were to be found who would undertake the construction of those harbours of refuge at the estimated cost. Unfortunately the Report of the Commissioners was followed up by a document emanating from the Board of Trade in 1861—the work of a civilian, though of great talent, yet totally unfit, from his want of knowledge of nautical affairs, for the task. If his right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, with his great nautical skill, had drawn up that document of course the result would, no doubt, have been different. The document of 1861 attacked the Commissioners' Report as to the estimates and the probable saving of life and property, and the Commissioners were accused of speaking of the foundering of vessels as if such foundering could be avoided by harbours of refuge. But was not the cause of these disasters the very fact that harbours of refuge did not exist? The harbours on the East coast were tidal harbours, and could only be entered at or nearly at the top of the tide. It was well known that the very wind which stopped the laden vessels coining from the north was the wind which took the light vessels down from the south, and that at Flamborough Head collisions took place, and that these collisions would not take place if harbours of refuge were provided, as the laden vessels would put in there, and the light vessels would pass on to their destination. They were told by the document in question that the age of vessels was a fruitful cause of destruction and wreck. What said the Wreck Report of 1863? Why, that the great majority of vessels lost did not in age exceed seven years. Another cause assigned by the document of 1861 for this loss of vessels was bad seamanship. How could this be proved when, in most cases, all hands were lost? The statistics of the Wreck Chart of 1863 gave some extraordinary facts. The annual average of wrecks for eight years to 1862, inclusive, amounted to 1,298; in 1863 they were no less than 1,664—and no wonder, looking at the vast increase that had taken place in our shipping. In the year 1843 the total tonnage of the United Kingdom was 7,000,000 odd British, and the foreign 2,600,000, or an aggregate of more than 9,000,000 tons. At the present moment the aggregate was not 9,000,000, but actually 26,000,000 tons—17,000,000 British, in and out—9,000,000 foreign, in and out; showing an increase quite marvellous. But this great increase in tonnage made the necessity for harbours of refuge still greater. No sailor would get up in that House or elsewhere and say that harbours of refuge were not needed for our coasting trade, for it was in that trade that the casualties chiefly occurred. Notwithstanding that the coal trade was now chiefly carried on by means of steamers, yet the casualties in that branch were still increasing. The total number for the five years ending 1858 was 5,594, but in the five years which followed it had risen to 7,441, being an increase of 1,847 in five years. This was a question of humanity. We were spending money in all directions on objects which were not necessary, and yet in a matter of this sort, where lives were to be saved, the Government would not spend a single farthing. Much stress had been laid upon the adoption of one of the recommendations of the Commissioners to lend money to inhabitants of places willing to construct harbours of refuge on their own account; but where were the Government themselves forming such harbours? 700 or 800 of our sailors and marines were lost every year, and in 1863 there were lost 2,001 ships, of these 1,600 were known to be British, and of them 443 were foreign going ships; and therefore the large proportion of the entire must have been coasters; 533 were total wrecks, 332 owing to stress of weather, and only 31 from defects of ship. These were facts which the President of the Board of Trade ought to take into account. With regard to the cost there had been great exaggeration, and some stress had been laid on the different estimates made by the Committee and the Commission. The Committee only recommended an expenditure of £2,000,000, but when the Commissioners went about and inspected the various sites they found it necessary to increase the number of harbours and the expenditure. Certainly, as one of the Commissioners, he could say that they had entered on their task with an anxious desire to do their duty to the country. For himself, he could say that he had never undertaken any duty with more anxiety, and while desirous not to impose any unnecessary charge on the taxpayers, he was also desirous to provide places of safety for these poor mariners. In the report to which he had alluded it was said that so much was not needed for the East coast, but the Returns showed that it was on the East coast that the casualties chiefly occurred. The value of property lost in the last five years amounted to £4,292,812, and that, without taking into account the loss of life, was a matter of some importance to a commercial country. The Returns showed that 8,114 sailors were lost in the same period, a great portion of whom would have been saved had there been harbours of refuge. That was surely a matter of national importance, and one which the Government might well be asked to consider. He was one of a deputation of Members of the House of Commons who waited on the Prime Minister; and the noble Lord, having listened for two hours to their tale of sorrow, gave them reason to believe that his sympathies were with the sailors, and that he would turn his attention to the subject. He (Sir Frederic Smith) hoped that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would devote a portion of his surplus to the relief of the sailors, the only class for which he had as yet done nothing. Of the wrecks and casualties for five years, which amounted to 1,971, there were 1,200 from stress of weather, and the men lost in the ten years would have been enough to man fifteen or twenty line-of-battle ships. The scope of the Motion did not point out what was to be done, but left to the Government to consider what most required assistance. In 1863 he brought forward a much narrower Motion, in which he specified the harbours of Wick, Carlingford, and Waterford; but it was raised as an objection that, in thus selecting harbours, he was taking the matter out of the hands of the Government; but that could not be said upon the present occasion. He only wished that the hon. Member for Sunderland had been present with his manly eloquence and practical knowledge to support him upon this occasion. It was said that shipowners did not care for those harbours; but it was natural that in the case of large vessels they would not, for these were sent out to sea, and avoided the dangers of the coast. It was in behalf of the coasters, which were liable to be dashed on a rock-bound coast, that he spoke. But it was objected that these were too fully laden. If they did not take heavy cargoes they could not compete with the railways, and the trade would leave them, and thus the best school for the navy would be lost to the country. Then it was said that harbours of refuge would tempt men to go to shore when they ought to keep out at sea; hut this was absurd. It might be said that the estimates for this subject could not be relied on, He admitted that the estimates of the Committee were not sufficiently detailed and carefully prepared; but those prepared by the Commission were made by competent men, who would be responsible that the works would be done for the money; and although Holyhead and Portland were given as instances of harbours the construction of which exceeded the estimates for them, it was to be recollected that the change was the cause of the increase in the plans made by successive Governments. If an action took place between the Humber and the Firth of Forth there was no harbour into which a disabled man-of-war could betake itself, and it would be liable to be dashed ashore not being able to weather the headland. All that was wanted was a sum of £1,340,000 to be spread over a period of ten years, or an annual outlay of £134,000, which would be sufficient for the construction of harbours along the most important points on our coast—harbours that would lead to the saving of a vast amount of life; and it would be niggardly, on the part of this great country, to refuse so moderate an expenditure for the accomplishment of so desirable an object. The hon. and gallant Member concluded by moving the Resolution.


in seconding the Motion, said, that although Waterford Harbour was one of those recommended for a refuge, it was not altogether on that account he desired the Motion of his hon. and gallant Friend to pass, as the entrance to the port was deep enough for the local shipping; but many of his constituents were shipowners, and a large number of the inhabitants followed maritime pursuits; both classes were therefore interested in having proper precautions taken round the coasts of the United Kingdom for the preservation of life and property from shipwreck. In selecting Waterford as an instance of the good that might be done in that way for a small outlay, he only did so because he was better acquainted with it than with any of the other harbours of refuge recommended. He must express his regret that the recommendations of the Committee and of the Commission had not been carried into effect. The hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Lindsay), who had rendered such important services in reference to this question, had shown that during ten years the average loss of life on the coast had been 800, and of property £1,500,000; and he had expressed his opinion that from the increase of trade these losses would probably be increased during the next ten years unless harbours of refuge were constructed. His hon. and gallant Friend (Sir Frederic Smith) had appealed to the humanity of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Milner Gibson); but he (Mr. Blake) was not sanguine as to the success of the appeal, because he feared that the holding of office had rather hardened than softened the heart of that right hon. Gentleman. It would be interesting to contrast the sentiments of the right hon. Gentleman as expressed by him five years since with those to which he gave utterance the previous Session. In 1860 the right hon. Gentleman admitted the necessity which existed for the construction of those harbours of refuge, and repudiated any intention on the part of the Government of attempting to shuffle out of the Resolution which the House had arrived at upon this subject. The noble Lord at the head of the Government on the same occasion admitted the absolute necessity which existed for the construction of these works. A year or so afterwards the right hon. Gentleman introduced the Harbours Improvement Bill, a very useful measure, undoubtedly, but not calculated to afford any compensation for the absence of those harbours of refuge. As he had said, his (Mr. Blake's) constituents did not personally suffer from the want of a harbour of refuge at Waterford, because the harbour was at present sufficiently deep for the purposes of the local trade; but nine-tenths of the English ships going to America passed close to the harbour, and those large ships could only enter it at particular states of the tide. In 1861 eight, and between 1850 and 1860 forty-two large vessels were lost close upon the coast of Waterford, and not one of those vessels intended entering the harbour. Between 1850 and 1860, 673 lives were lost in the same neighbourhood. No doubt it might be urged that a good many of these vessels would still have been lost even if the harbour had been improved, and he was not disposed to deny that this would have been the case; but still the benefit would be incalculable if only the small sum of £50,000, which was all they asked for, were expended. Harbours of refuge were also very much wanted for our new iron-clad fleet, which, though very well suited for attack and defence, were not so well qualified to contend with a tempestuous sea. It had been said that most of the vessels lost were insured, but the loss of property was still the same, although it was shifted on to other shoulders; and, in addition, there was heavy loss of life. It might also be said that a great many of the vessels would still be lost even if there were harbours of refuge; but if only one-sixth of the loss were prevented this would be amply sufficient to justify the proposed expenditure. He earnestly joined in the appeal made to the House by his hon. and gallant Friend, believing, as he did, that the interests of commerce and the claims of humanity were alike affected.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Ministers should now adopt measures for the construction of some of the Harbours of Refuge on the coast of Great Britain and Ireland, recommended by a Committee of this House in 1858, and by a Royal Commission in 1859."—(Sir Frederic Smith.)


I do not rise to advocate the claims of any particular port, for this seems to me hardly a fitting time to do so. I cannot, however, help expressing my regret at the apathy which the Government has shown with respect to this question since the departure from England of that most able public servant, Mr. James Wilson, who had it so much at heart, and whose premature death in a distant portion of the empire was not the least of the misfortunes which have fallen upon the Liberal party during the continuance of the Parliament that is now drawing to a close. That nothing should have been done during the earlier years of that Parliament towards carrying out even the schemes of the Royal Commission, is intelligible enough, for vast and immediate national exigencies had to be satisfied, which left no sufficient surplus in the hands of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do trust, however, that the right hon. Gentleman who presides over the Board of Trade will give us to-night some brighter hopes for the future. Making due allowance for the unseaworthy state in which vessels are too often sent out, and for those chances and changes of the seas which harbours of refuge could not remedy, I do think that such harbours would, if judiciously placed, be of great benefit. Before I sit down, I wish to say a few words on another subject. It seems to me that the nation would find its advantage in aiding the seafaring population of Scotland, and probably of other parts of the United Kingdom, in obtaining better boat refuges than are at present at their command. The size of fishing boats has much increased of late years upon our north-eastern coast, and harbours which might once have answered very well, are now quite inadequate. In the long nights of summer as many as 10,000 men are often at sea in the Moray Firth, and if a sudden gale comes on are placed in the greatest danger. I should like to see the Government take this matter seriously in hand, and whether by a Commission or otherwise investigate the question, whether—as was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Banffshire—some additional small portion of the taxation which Scotland pays to the Imperial Treasury might not be applied to making boat refuges at various points on the south side of the Moray Firth, as well as at whatever other points in other parts of Scotland there may be proved to be an equally pressing need.


observed, that the Resolution they were called on to affirm was in these words:— That, in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Ministers should now adopt measures for the construction of some of the Harbours of Refuge on the Coast of Great Britain and Ireland recommended by a Committee of this House in 1857, and by a Royal Commission in 1859. Now, he begged to remind the House that the hon. and gallant Gentleman had not advised them to really carry out the recommendation of the Committee. What was the recommendation of the Committee over which the lamented James Wilson presided? The recommendation was to spend £2,000,000 on harbours of refuge; but, looking to the considerable benefit which was to be conferred on the shipping interest by the saving of their property, the Committee also recommended that three-fourths of the cost of those harbours of refuge and three-fourths of the expenses of their maintenance, should be defrayed by the shipping interest to be benefited by the outlay. Now, the shipping interest objected altogether to pay for harbours of refuge. They had never so appreciated the benefit to their property by the construction of these harbours as to be willing to submit to any toll or tax for their construction and maintenance. Then as to the Commission, it was not authorized to make any recommendation to Parliament on the question of finance. All it was authorized to do was to point out what were the sites on which harbours of refuge might be most advantageously constructed by the outlay of £2,000,000, which the Committee had recommended should be expended It must strike every one as most extraordinary, if all those millions of property were to be saved by so small an expenditure, that the great shipping interest of England should be unwilling to contribute to that outlay. If the benefit was so indisputable, why was this case to be an exception to all rules? why were they to find that a great interest could not be made sensible of the benefits which harbours of refuge were to confer on it and willing to contribute to their construction? He received a few days since a deputation from shipowners urging the erection of a lighthouse upon the eastern coast of England in order to facilitate the navigation. He asked at once whether they were willing to pay the requisite tolls. The reply was, certainly; they were quite willing to pay the additional toll that would be cast on them, because they were convinced of its utility; but he could truly say that since he had been connected with the Board of Trade he had never had, to his recollection, any representation from any shipowners on the subject of these harbours of refuge. On the contrary, so far as his communications had gone with them, they had shown in some cases, if not opposition, at least great indifference. He had not found the same indifference in the persons inhabiting the particular localities in which it was proposed to expend these large sums of money. The hon. and gallant Member proposed as the best sites Filey, Wick, Waterford, and Carlingford. [Sir FREDE-RIC SMITH: That was in 1863; now he left the matter entirely in the hands of the Government.] He must decline the responsibility of agreeing to such a Resolution. It would be very unwise and imprudent for the House to bind itself by a proposition so very indefinite as this. He did not deny that it was a great advantage when a ship was in difficulties to have a good port under her lee, but he entirely denied that there was any evidence to show, if the larger expenditure recommended on particular harbours of refuge on the coasts of the United Kingdom took place, it would have any perceptible effect on the loss of life which unfortunately took place annually on our coast and in seas adjacent to the coast. He held in his hand a statement of the number of lives lost in certain districts on the coast of the United Kingdom. In 1863 the whole number of lives lost on the coast of the United Kingdom was 620. That was considerably less than the average of the last five years—the average being 875. But if they took the lives lost actually on the coast, in order to see what benefit harbours of refuge would give, they must to a great extent confine themselves to ships lost along the coast and in a situation to avail themselves of harbours of refuge. The total loss on the coast during 1863 was 330, which was nearly 400 below the average of the previous five years. There were many losses during the last year, but they were not attributable to the absence of harbours of refuge in this country, but rather to those violent westerly gales which drove many vessels on the coast of Holland. Taking the year 1863, he found that between the Farn Islands and Flamborough Head there were in all only three lives lost; so that if a harbour of refuge had been constructed at Filey that was the highest amount of life which could by its means have, during the year, possibly been saved. But it was not on the east coast that the greatest loss of life occurred—it was between the Skerries, Lambay, and Fair Head; it was where lesser sacrifice of life took place that the hon. and gallant Gentleman wanted to have harbours of refuge constructed. Be that as it might, he would venture to say that any hon. Gentleman who took the trouble to enter into the statistics on the subject which had been laid before the House, in a fair and impartial spirit, could not fail to arrive at the conclusion that the harbours of refuge which the hon. and gallant Member recommended would have but a very small effect in reducing the loss of life on the coasts of these kingdoms. There was, he might add, a gradually increasing saving of life on our coasts. By a judicious and, he was happy to say, successful expenditure on lifeboats, rocket apparatus, and such other appliances as could with facility be made available at the spot required, much had been effected in the saving of lives. In the case of a ship in danger, there was comparatively small chance of her being in such a position as to be able to avail herself of the shelter of a single harbour on a considerable extent of coast; but if the appliances which he had just mentioned were placed along the whole coast, ships, when stranded, would almost invariably find that aid could be afforded and life saved. There had, he might observe, of late years been many important changes in the law, all tending to the saving of life from shipwreck. At the present moment, under the operation of a Bill which had been introduced by his right hon. Friend the Secretary for the Colonies, there was a salvage claim on ships for the rescue of lives therefrom, which had been recently extended to the cargoes, so that an inducement was held out to persons to exert themselves for the purpose of saving life as well as property. Bounties for the saving of life were also given out of the Mercantile Marine Fund, and his belief was that such means tended to secure the end which they who advocated the construction of harbours of refuge professed to have in view. He, at all events, felt satisfied that the construction of one or two such harbours would not be followed by the results which they seemed to imagine. While these were the views which he entertained on the subject, he retained the opinion that it was desirable to aid voluntary efforts in improving the harbours which were already in existence, and which were the natural places of resort for large numbers of vessels. That had been done to a considerable extent under the Harbours Act. Up to the present time, under the Harbours Act, money to the amount of £1,000,000 had been advanced, or promised to be advanced at a low rate of interest. The money so advanced had been laid out in many cases in the actual improvement of the entrances to harbours, where formerly vessels were compelled to lie outside during the long nights under circumstances of great danger; and it would, he thought, be found that sailors preferred bearing up for their own port, though it might be more distant, to putting into a strange harbour, where they, perhaps, had no friends or connections. In the case of the Tyne £100,000 had been advanced. At Wick, too, the people had set to work themselves, and were receiving under the Harbours Act, something like £60,000. They had applied for £20,000, and their request was under consideration. Other harbours, the names of which he could mention, had also received sums of money. Carlingford, he believed, had obtained a provisional order, and was applying for an advance from the Public Works Loan Commissioners. Now, that appeared to him to be a more wholesome system than the giving the grants to places through the operation of Parliamentary influence in that House. The grants were made at a lower rate of interest than that at which the money could be obtained in the market, and were therefore so far in favour of the particular localities which received them; but they were advanced, on good security, to persons who were desirous of helping themselves, and who were engaged in many cases in the improvement of harbours which were likely to contribute to the saving of ships and life. He hoped, under all these circumstances, the question having repeatedly been discussed before, that the House would not assent to the Resolution of the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite.


thought that the President of the Board of Trade had dealt unfairly with the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Sir Frederic Smith), who stated distinctly that he did not wish to name any specific harbour on which that money should be expended. A Committee and a Royal Commission had reported on this subject; the House of Commons had voted in favour of harbours of refuge; hopes had been held out that something would be done; and what they asked the Government to do, was to do something in accordance with the recommendations that had been made.


said, the House was placed in some difficulty with regard to the question before it. The hon. and gallant Member (Sir Frederic Smith) had not specified any particular harbour to which he wished money to be applied, but left it to the choice of the Government to select the harbours which should be assisted; and the Government absolutely refused to assist any harbour. This was a matter which had attracted public attention, so much so that a Committee, of which he (Mr. Liddell) was a Member, sat for three years; a Royal Commission had been appointed to inquire into the subject, and Parliament had discussed it over and over again. The claims of the coast with which he was connected had been repeatedly admitted. It was the most defenceless, both for purposes of war and trade, of any coast in the world. The loss of life and property was augmenting annually. The President of the Board of Trade had said that great efforts were made to save life; but he wanted to know how the Government aided those efforts, which were the result of the voluntary subscriptions from private individuals. [Mr. MILNER GIBSON: We give a subsidy to lifeboats.] He was glad that the Government at last did something. But he wanted to call the attention of the House to this really national question. The Government had been for years apathetic on this subject. What was now asked for was, not that public money should be expended on any particular port, but for the benefit generally of the commerce of the world, in such places as the Government might consider best. He objected to a Minister of the Crown forcing figures on the attention of the House, because that was easily to be done in a case of this kind. If the money was not forthcoming let the question be deferred, because it was probably not a fitting time to bring it forward in an expiring Parliament; but it was the bounden duty of the Government to promise to do something.


thought the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade had made a mistake in stating that the Government made a contribution towards lifeboats. There was one from the Mercantile Marine Fund, but he was riot aware that any public money was voted by the House for that purpose. He quiteagreed with his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chatham, that it was the duty of the Government to do something to alleviate the dangers to which our shipping were exposed; and he must say that the conduct of the Government in this respect was not creditable to them. He had recently visited Harwich, and he found that the Government in getting rid of Felix-stow Point had diverted the course of the tide to such an extent that it had narrowed the harbour from 400 yards to 100 yards, so that they had considerably damaged that harbour. It had been suggested by the right hon. Gentleman that the Public Works Loan Commission could advance money for these improvements; but as one of the Commissioners, he (Sir John Hay) was able to state that at many of the places where harbours of refuge were required, there was no property upon which such loan could be satisfactorily granted, and those places were of the greatest importance to the commerce of this country. Take Filey, for instance, and there was no local property upon which they could grant loans. And yet it was of the utmost importance that contributions should be made in the very way that had been suggested by the Royal Commission. The right hon. Gentleman had said that the loss by gales on the eastern coast would be very little lessened if harbours of refuge existed; but he would venture to say that if there had been such harbours the vessels that had been wrecked on the coast of Holland would have been at anchor in the harbours and the losses would not have occurred.


reminded the House that it was the Government and not the localities who first instituted this movement. The right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade had stated that vessels would bear up for their own ports instead of going into harbours of refuge. No doubt they would do so if they could; but what he wanted was harbours of refuge for them when they could not bear up to their own ports.

Question put:—The House divided;— Ayes 99; Noes 111: Majority 12.