HC Deb 19 May 1865 vol 179 cc577-82

said, he rose to call attention to the petition of Widows of Warrant Officers of the Navy, and to move that the cruel exception which deprived those who became widows prior to 1860 of any Pension is not approved by that House. The subject was not one of great importance, either as to the amount of money involved or as to the influence which the class of persons interested in it could command. But though they might have no influence on a general election, and their case had not created much interest in the community at large, yet he believed the justice and generosity of the House would be disposed to comply with their prayer. The Warrant Officers of the navy were a class whom that House was desirous to encourage. Persons who rose from before the mast to the rank of Warrant Officers formed the elite of our seamen, and it had always been the practice both of the House and of those who administered the affairs of the navy to encourage the best seamen to rise to that rank. There had been, however, considerable difficulty in inducing seamen to avail themselves of the promotion thus placed within their reach, and among the inducements held out, and wisely held out, was the grant of a pension to their widows. Up to 1830 the widows of Warrant Officers received a pension; but from 1830 to 1860 pensions were given them only under certain exceptional rules. These exceptional rules were made very much to his credit by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Portsmouth (Sir Francis Baring), who, when First Lord of the Admiralty, thought it hard that the widows of Warrant Officers who fell in action, or were drowned, should not receive pensions; and accordingly, in 1861, those who became widows in either of these ways were entitled to the boon. In 1859 the Royal Commission upon the Manning of the Navy took the whole matter into consideration, and they stated in their Report that Warrant Officers complained that their widows had been deprived of the pensions to which they were formerly entitled; and they said that they were of opinion that the benefit conferred upon officers of the higher ranks should not be withheld from those seamen who had risen to the rank of Warrant Officers, and they also recommended that the favour should be made retrospective. The Royal Commission were, therefore, of opinion that those who had become widows between 1831 and 1859 should receive pensions according to the rank their husbands held. In 1860, very much to the credit of the present Government, pensions were given, but not retrospectively, and the result had been that there was a class of persons, whose petitions he now held in his hand, who felt aggrieved, and were in bad circumstances in consequence of the pensions not being made retrospective. He would mention an instance. There were two Warrant Officers who had both served in the trenches before Sebastopol. One died, not in action, but of disease in India during the mutiny; the other lived to the year 1861, died without having served in the Indian mutiny, and his widow has received a pension, while the widow of the other had not. That was an instance of the way in which the rule worked unjustly. He believed that the Admiralty only required the sanction of this House to induce them to carry out the views of the Royal Commission, and to relieve from abject destitution the widows of those poor persons who had deserved so well of their country. The Commissioners had unanimously recommended that the pensions granted to the widows of deceased Warrant Officers should be retrospective; and the sum required to carry out this recommendation was so small that he hoped the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when the subject was fairly explained to him by the representatives of the Admiralty, would throw no obstacle in the way of doing this act of justice. In their petition the widows of the Warrant Officers stated— That in the generality of cases their husbands joined the Royal Navy at a very early age (in some cases below fourteen years of age), and by good conduct, bravery, and general ability, obtained promotion to the rank of Warrant Officers, which they held to the date of their decease, giving the utmost satisfaction to their officers, and assisting, as they believe, to uphold the dignity of their profession and the honour of the British flag. Your memorialists would respectfully mention that keeping in view the anxious wish of the Admiralty and your honourable House to elevate the social standing of the British Navy, their husbands expended all their earnings in maintaining a respectably-elevated position, their salaries being far below that at present allowed; but the consequence to their widows has been poverty, degradation, and wretchedness, consequent on the want of any provision being made for them at the death of their husbands, which has been accelerated by exposure in different climates and the various other contingencies belonging to their exposed position. Your memorialists respectfully pray your honourable House to examine the evidence taken before the Royal Commission for Manning the Navy and the recommendations of the Commissioners founded on that evidence, where they unanimously agree that the pensions granted to the widows of deceased Warrant Officers should be retrospective, and they venture on humbly appealing to you, as the representatives of the national honour as well as the guardians of its resources, that, as in justice they are proved to be deserving this consideration, so in mercy they require it to save them in their old age from perishing from want, or, what is nearly equal to a respectable person, to be forced to end their days in the pauper's home, the mark of derision to the scoffer, who points to their degradation as the reward obtained for the honest and manly defence by their husbands of their country's rights and liberties. And your memorialists, on behalf of about 100 widows similarly circumstanced, will ever pray.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the cruel exception which deprives those Widows of Warrant Officers of the Navy who became Widows prior to 1860 of any Pension is not approved by this House,"—(Sir John Hay,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, Sir John Hay that the present Secretary for the Colonies (Mr. Cardwell) was mainly answerable for the terms of the Report agreed to by the Royal Commission, for he had drawn it up, and there never was a Report which received more general and stronger support from the House and from the country. He therefore claimed the aid of the right hon. Gentleman on their behalf. He had presented petitions on this subject from some of the widows of those Warrant Officers. They were the widows of men belonging to the class of all others which ought to be made most contented and respectable in the position they occupied. The Commission had reported in unmistakable terms that the widows' pensions should be retained, and that the restoration should be retrospective. At the same time, he was bound to say that these poor people did not look for full justice. All that they claimed was that henceforward they should receive pensions due to the rank of their husbands, but they would not look for the arrears of past years. As the opinion of the House could not now be taken, the House having divided once upon the main question and done justice to a more powerful body, he hoped the Admiralty would attend to the case and would not neglect the claims of the widow and the orphan, where the injustice was so flagrant and the amount of money asked for was so small.


Sir, I rise with considerable satisfaction to support the claims to a pension in behalf of these distressed and friendless widows. I may be permitted to observe, in order to press this claim influentially, that the class of officers I advocate—the boatswain, the gunner, and the carpenter—are at all times selected by the captains of their respective ships for promotion not only on account of their good conduct, but also on account of their perfect qualifications and knowledge of the several departments of the service. They are deserving of every encouragement, and I express my earnest hope the Admiralty will not hesitate to do this act of justice to the widows of this deserving class of officers. Their widows are not many in number, the sum required is small, and year by year will become rapidly lessened by death.


said, that he had a most painful duty to perform every year in resisting these demands upon the Exchequer, and in refusing to allow the retrospective operation of Orders in Council framed for the benefit of officers of the navy. If these claims were confined to a particular branch of the service, an exception might perhaps be made. But hon. Members must remember that this case of the Warrant Officers' widows was not a single one. In or about 1833 pensions were taken away from other classes of persons besides that now in question; and if the rule were relaxed in their favour, it would probably be followed by a claim for arrears, and certainly by a demand for pensions from other persons. ["Name!"] He disliked naming them, because it might induce them to come before the House with their grievance, but he referred to the dockyard labourers. [Sir JOHN HAY: They are not naval officers.] No, but they were public servants, and were as much entitled to consideration, being civilians, as naval officers were. It was quite true that the Royal Commission recommended that these pensions should be made retrospective. But that Commission was only dealing with one subject. They did not enter into the general question of financial policy involved in the claims of other classes. The Commissioners made their recommendation most honestly and conscientiously; but they did not consider that, if pensions were granted to the widows of Warrant Officers, the door would be open for another batch of grievances, which might involve the Government in considerable difficulties. The hon. and gallant Gentleman was mistaken in saying that pensions had been taken away from these widows. That was not the fact. All that had been done was to announce that after a certain date Warrant Officers' wives who became widows would not be entitled to pensions. Soon after he came into office the pensions were granted by Order in Council, and the right hon. Baronet the Member for Droitwich (Sir John Pakington) and others complimented the Admiralty for the efforts they had made on behalf of these widows; but neither the right hon. Gentleman nor any hon. Member opposite had thought of saying that pensions should be granted to persons who were at that time already widows. It would be an agreeable task to him to make application to the Treasury on behalf of these unfortunate widows, if it could be granted without any public inconvenience. But, taking a large view of the subject, and fully appreciating the kind motives of hon. Gentlemen opposite, he felt bound, on the part of the Government, to ask the House not to agree to this Motion.


said, he wished to call the noble Lord's attention to the Report of the Commission, and especially to the words "and we think that in fairness the payments should be retrospective." As the whole amount involved would not exceed £2,500 a year, he thought the noble Lord might undertake the agreeable task of applying again to the Admiralty on behalf of these unfortunate widows.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 62; Noes 42: Majority 20.