HC Deb 26 May 1865 vol 179 cc915-21

Sir, I rise for the purpose of asking the Secretary to the Treasury, Whether, in consequence of the recent great loss of life among the Fishermen while pursuing their trade on the east coast of Scotland, it is the intention of the Lords of the Treasury to give effect to the Report addressed to them by Special Commissioners in February, 1857, recommending that an additional sum be granted for the construction of Piers and Harbours under the direction of the Fishery Board of Scotland? The reason which has induced me to ask this question is the fact that enormous loss of life has occurred among the seamen on the east coast of Scotland; and, also the fact that I represent a county on the coast of which there are many villages in which the rate of mortality from this cause has been to my mind most appalling. But I should not have ventured to appeal to the House upon any special, much less upon any local reason, had it not been for the recommendations of the Special Commissioners in 1857. I do not think the public are at all aware of the large amount of loss which is incurred on the north-east coast of Scotland. I am not going to trouble the House with many statistics—in fact, I shall confine myself to my own county, for there I can vouch for the accuracy of the statistics I give, as I know almost every individual case of which I am about to speak. On the night of the 23rd February, 1857, out of three villages, the whole population of which only amounted to 640 persons, no less than 41 fishermen were lost. These men were all lost in one night—being 7 per cent of the entire male population of the parish, and they left 27 widows and 79 children. Between the period to which I have alluded and the present time there have been various casualties, and yet the Government have, in the meantime, paid no attention to the recommendation of the Commissioners. I believe many persons would have contributed towards the erection of a harbour if the Government had acted in the matter; and it is to the non-existence of a harbour of refuge that I attribute the loss of the lives of many of these men. Had a harbour of refuge existed, I firmly believe the lives of many of them would have been saved, and much desolation and misery thus prevented. On the 27th October, there were 27 men drowned in one night; and on the 8th February there were 8 more—making a total of 35 lost out of a population of 500, leaving many widows and children behind them. I do not ask the Government to give any special grant, but I maintain that if they will adopt the recommendation of the Commissioners, and allow a larger sum to be given to the Fishery Board for the construction of piers and harbours, great benefit will thus be conferred upon the people whose claims I am advocating. In the Report of the Commissioners to which I allude, they recommend that, in addition to the grant of £3,000 now secured by Act of Parliament, an additional sum of £3,000—making in all £6,000—should be granted for the purpose of constructing piers and harbours—this sum to extend over a period of eight years, by which time the works would be executed. They say it is very important that this additional grant of £3,000 should be secured by special Act of Parliament for eight years, otherwise there will not be any trustworthy basis of operation, and the Board would be seriously impeded in the matter. The Commissioners had made certain other recommendations, amongst which were the reduction of some officers, and the abolition of others employed on the west coast, which would increase the revenue. The additional £3,000 which they recommended, and the existing £3,000 at present secured, together with the other sums to be brought in, will in all make a sum of £9,300 a year. Such a sum as this would, in my opinion, be most beneficially expended under the administration of the Fishery Board of Scotland. It is quite impossible adequately to estimate the benefit to be derived. I admit it is quite impossible for the Government to give money, but I think they might increase the amount given to the Fishery Board; and that is what I ask them to do. The grant to the Fishery Board, I am sorry to say, has been diminished, and they do not get so much now as they did in 1855. There is another reason why I think the Government might increase the grant, and that is, since the establishment of the herring brand in 1859, the Government have realized a large sum of money, and that brand is not only self-supporting, but I believe the Government have derived a large amount of profit from it. Altogether they have received something like £25,000; and I think that is an appropriate fund from which the fishermen may ask to have assistance granted for the construction of these harbours. Another reason which, perhaps, I may be allowed to urge, is the fact that so small a proportion of the revenue, considering the large amount raised from the people of Scotland, is expended in that country in comparison with the amount expended in other parts of the country. It was only in the early part of the present Session, in the course of an Irish debate, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer called attention to this fact. He said— What proportion is expended in Scotland in proportion to the sum raised in the shape of taxation? I doubt whether one-fourth of the revenue derived from the country is spent within its borders. I am not going to maintain that you are to spend all the money raised in the locality in which it is raised. Such an argument would be quite untenable; but I do think that, when we have £5,500,000 of money taken from Scotland, and only £440,000 spent there, we have some claim upon the consideration of the Government, especially when that claim is backed up by the Report of a Special Commission. It appears to me that the policy of the Government has been to get everything they can out of Scotland, and at the same time to reduce all the expenditure upon the public works. I trust that the Treasury will deal in future in a more liberal manner with these fishermen, who are a class of men who have always been ready to come forward when they are required for the navy, and at the present moment they form no inconsiderable proportion of the Royal Naval Reserve. In conclusion, I can only express a hope that I shall not appeal in vain, but that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury will give the matter his careful consideration. I beg to ask the question which I have already read to the House.


said, he regarded this as a question which deserved the careful consideration of the Government. The fishermen upon the coasts of Scotland were exposed, from the nature of the tempests which occurred there, to great and unusual dangers, from which the fishermen of other parts of the coast of Great Britain were exempt. The storms which constantly arise on the east and north-east coasts of Scotland were of such a character that when the fishermen were engaged in fishing upon banks, perhaps forty miles from land, a sea would arise which threatened to swamp them before, with such boats as they had, they could reach the very imperfect harbours in which they were obliged to take refuge. He believed that Admiral Fitzroy had done a great deal for these men by the introduction of his meteorological system. Many of the prejudices which formerly surrounded this class of men had been overcome, and they now paid more attention to the barometers and to the various scientific apparatus for foretelling storms which were placed in conspicuous positions along the coast. From the coast to which his hon. Friend (Mr. W. R. Duff) referred there were drawn upwards of 1,000 men for the Royal Naval Reserve; and he (Sir James Elphinstone) had no hesitation in saying that they were among the finest men to be found in that force. He felt bound to express in the strongest terms his opinion that the grants for harbours upon the coast of Scotland had not been commensurate with the necessities of the case, and he believed there were many points on the coast of Banffshire, Aberdeenshire, and at Wick, in the northern part of the county of Caithness, at which, if the labour of convicts were employed, and if money were raised at a low rate of interest, for the construction of harbours—the loans being repaid by a toll upon the coasters resorting to the harbours—great improvements might be effected, which would result in a considerable annual saving of human life. The loss of human life in some of the gales which occur upon this coast had frequently been very great. Within his recollection as many as 100 men had been lost in one of those storms; and the loss of 100 able-bodied men involved the beggary and destitution of many families. Under all these circumstances he begged most humbly to support the recommendations of his hon. Friend.


thought that the hon. Member for Banff is entitled to the thanks of the House for having brought this question forward. The question of providing harbours of refuge had occupied the attention of the House for several successive years; and although a division was obtained in 1859 in favour of carrying out the recommendation of the Commissioners, yet in a subsequent year that decision was reversed. If that recommendation had been carried out, there would have been no necessity for urging the matter upon the attention of the House at the present moment; but the question being, as it were, in abeyance, and there being great difficulty in obtaining the construction of harbours of refuge on a larger scale, he thought they would do well to press on the Treasury the necessity of seeing what could be done by means of smaller works for these poor fishermen. Indeed, it is a question of humanity and public policy. The losses sustained by the fishermen were very severe. These poor people lived entirely by the produce of their fishing, and it not unfrequently happened that for three days out of the seven they were prevented from going to the fishing grounds because they had no place to run to in the event of a storm coming on. The result of this was that a great amount of human food was entirely lost. He believed that the produce from the fishing grounds might be doubled if those harbours were properly attended to; and he therefore trusted that the Secretary of the Treasury would be able to give us some hope that this subject will not be disregarded.


said, that having already addressed the House upon the Question of going into Committee of Supply, he was precluded from saying more than a few words in answer to the question of his hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman was in error in stating that the fee on branding herrings was a fund available for carrying out the object he sought. That fund was raised for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the establishment of the Fishery Board of Scotland; and he could assure his hon. Friend that it did not make the establishment self-supporting or anything like self-supporting. It was quite true that a larger sum had been realized from that source than was anticipated when the fee was first imposed; but all the sums received were paid into the Exchequer, and expended in strict conformity with the provisions of the Act of Parliament. The only sum in Scotland available for the improvement or extension of piers and harbours was a sum of £3,000 a year which forms part of the annual grant to the Fishery Board. That sum, which had now been paid for a long series of years, had been applied with great advantage in the construction of piers and harbours for fishing boats at different points on the coast of Scotland. He had no doubt of the advantage which would arise if the works which were said to be necessary could be carried out on the east and north-east coasts of Scotland, and also in other parts of Scotland both upon the east and west coasts. He was quite aware that in 1857 the Commissioners re-commended that a further grant of £3,000 a year should be allowed for a limited period; but he must confess that, taking into consideration the scale on which these fishery harbours were now being erected, he did not think that a grant of even double that sum would be adequate for the purpose. It was estimated that the harbour in which his hon. Friend (Mr. Duff) felt specially interested would cost £33,000. [Mr. R. W. DUFF: £22,000.] It would cost £22,000 if carried out partially, but if carried out to the full extent desirable, it was estimated that it would cost £33,000. Therefore, if the House were to vote double the sum recommended, and it were applied to this single harbour, it would take five or six years before there would be sufficient funds to carry out the work. He was glad that the hon. Gentleman did not claim an unconditional grant of the public money for this purpose. Since the passing of the Harbours Act in 1851, ordinary harbours could only be constructed by public money upon certain terms of repayment, and it would be hardly right or fair with regard to fishery harbours that they should be constructed with public money without repayment. He should be very glad if the thing could be clone, but he must confess that at the present moment he did not see his way towards carrying out the object desired by his hon. Friend.


said, there was a distinction to be drawn in the case of the fishing harbours of which the right hon. Gentleman was perhaps not aware—namely, that in consequence of the change which had taken place in the modes of sea fishing all over the coast of Great Britain a larger description of vessel was now used than was formerly found necessary. The truth was, however, that in most of the fishery harbours on the coast of Scotland the fishermen had very little means at their disposal for making improvements, and they were precluded from adopting that improved system of fishing which is found requisite for deep-sea fishing, because they had not the power of leaving the shallow harbours which nature had provided for them. He had no doubt that a great increase in the supply of fish, not only upon this coast alone, but upon the west coast—and, indeed, all over the kingdom—would be the result, if under proper and necessary precautions money could be advanced for the purpose of improving the fishery harbours.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.