HC Deb 09 August 1867 vol 189 cc1285-90

Order for Committee read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."


said, that in the remarks he was about to offer he desired to disclaim any intention of embarrassing either the right hon. Baronet or his Government, or to throw censure either on the present or the late Administration. No one in that House entertained a higher esteem for the distinguished General at the head of the department — General Sir John Burgoyne. He desired to treat a great national question in a broad and national spirit, and as the policy which was to be adopted for the defence of our naval arsenals and dockyards was decided some seven years since, after two nights of hotly contested debate, he had no wish to speak against that policy. But, Parliament having decided to erect fixed or shore fortifications, having voted an enormous sum of money for that purpose, and having entrusted to the proper authorities the disposition of that Vote, did so with the full conviction that the amount to be expended would be applied in the best possible manner; that the structures to be raised as a result of that expenditure should be second to none; and that at least, for an immense outlay, England should be protected by a system of defences equal certainly to those of any other nation, and pronounced to be the best, so far as modern science could form any opinion. It was to that simple question that he desired to invite the consideration of the House. If he was correct in his views, and if he had well appreciated the state of facts, a large proportion of the amount expended, if not the entire, had been uselessly so expended. The fortifications in course of erection were worthless as a means of defence. The systems adopted were not only not the best known, but they had proved to be worthless, if any reliance was to be placed upon experiments; and unless they held their hands and reconsidered what they were doing they would have invested the entire sum voted for the purpose of defence in structures which would tumble about their ears at the first attack from heavy guns. It appeared by the Bill that in March last, the end of the financial year, that of the entire sum voted, upwards of £6,000,000, more than 75 per cent. or £4,000,000, had been applied, leaving something like £2,500,000 to be still provided. Of this latter sum the Secretary of War now asked £800,000 for the year to end in March next. He would endeavour to describe, in popular language, the nature of the forts which were being erected, and the errors which, he believed, existed in the plans upon which those forts are to be built. He would confine himself to two of three classes of structures which had been decided upon. The first might be called the iron batteries, the second the stone batteries. There were to be three iron batteries — one at the Plymouth breakwater two at Portsmouth, on the "Horse Sand" and "No Man's Land." There were to be some sixteen or seventeen of the stone batteries, but a description of one would be sufficient for his purpose. The iron batteries were to be erected upon a basement of granite, 14 feet thick, in which basement were to be the shell-rooms, living-rooms, &c. On this base- ment, which was to be 16 feet high, above high-water mark, is to be placed the iron fortification, and on the top of the iron fortification were to be two moveable turrets; both the iron battery and the turrets were to mount heavy guns. Thus the face of this battery exposed to shot consists first of granite, 14 feet thick and 16 feet high, then a wall of iron, which Avail of iron is to be 15 inches thick. The question, therefore, arose, what would be the effect of a well directed fire from heavy guns upon a face of granite 14 feet thick, and what effect would the same fire produce upon the iron battery which would be standing upon and supported by that granite? The battery was to be built upon what in the scientific world was called the "laminated" principle, and he hoped the House would be so good as to bear that name in their memory, as much of his argument would turn upon it. They were of granite base, with laminated iron superstructure. What evidence had they that granite would resist shot? The only experiments that ever had been tried to his knowledge had most distinctly and conclusively proved that stone could not resist heavy guns. On the contrary, in 1859, the common 68-pounder knocked solid granite of 15 and 18 feet thick to atoms after a few shots, even when covered on the outside with iron plating; and, although the shots did not penetrate the plates, the shock was so great that the stone went to pieces, and when the plates were removed a few rounds carried away the whole structure. There was nothing more clearly proved, and he would add more generally admitted, than that stone was perfectly worthless as a means of defence; and yet, with this knowledge in their minds, the authorities had determined to build stone basements for those iron forts, and to place the forts and guns and turrets upon them. Once attacked as he had endeavoured to describe he maintained that the whole of those structures must tumble to the ground. Let them see now what the iron could do in point of defences. It would have much greater power to resist than the stone, but, being dependent on the stone for its support, its own power could avail but little. But he also objected to the plan upon which the iron walls had been made. They were, as he had stated, upon the laminated principle. Now, this very principle had been condemned in unqualified terms by the two distinguished officers, General Lefroy and his colleague Captain Noble, to whose scientific care the entire of the experiments made at Shoeburyness since 1859 had been committed, and who in their Report, dated last year, distinctly stated that the laminated principle was much weaker than solid iron. They say solid iron of two-third the thickness was better than iron on the laminated plan, or, in other words, 4 inches solid was stronger than 6 inches laminated. Why, then, should the opinion of those officers be disregarded and a principle condemned by them be followed? He thought he had shown that the three main fortifications at Portsmouth and Plymouth were not built upon plans that would bear the test of the experiments. The principles adopted for the base and the superstructure were both wrong, and, as he contended, they would be found useless as a means of defence. He would now say a would as to the second class of forts, which were all built of granite, without any iron forts, but armed with iron, shields let into the granite to cover the ports through which the guns were to be worked. But whatever was the strength, of those shields, he was satisfied that the fortifications into which they were to be fitted being of granite, and granite having been proved to be useless as a material for the purpose of defensive works, those shields could not be held to improve or render impregnable a building so constructed; and that, after the experiments in November, 1865, which were adopted simply to test the stone forts and shield principle, and which proved beyond doubt that the principle was entirely useless, the Defence Committee unanimously declared against this plan, and stated it to be their opinion that a fort of granite fitted with shields would be untenable after thirty shots, and should be abandoned. He had now stated, as concisely as he could, the grounds upon which he rested his opinion that the great undertakings into which they had embarked should not be further prosecuted until they were better informed as to what they were doing. If he were correct in the conclusion he drew from the blue books, they were egregiously wrong in their principle of construction, and if that be so, was it not hotter and wiser to pause before plunging deeper into error? He had now discharged what he believed to be his duty. He had endeavoured to show that a grievous error had been committed. There was not one member of the Fortification Department to whom it was not perfectly well known that iron forts were beyond all question the best. With all the undoubted advantages there could be but one motive for adopting any other material than iron, and that was the desire to economize. He was no advocate for a lavish and ill-considered expenditure; on the other hand, he strongly deprecated an unwise and ill-directed economy, and he felt thoroughly convinced that if the right hon. Baronet persisted in building our new defences upon the plans now adopted, he would have proved to the country the sad effects of an economy, which he (Mr. O'Beirne) had shown to be unwise and ill-directed. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Amendment.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is inexpedient to proceed further with the construction of the Fortifications for the defence of the Dockyards and Naval Arsenals of the United Kingdom until a Select Committee shall have reported upon the plans upon which such works are being erected,"—(Mr. O'Beirne,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he was about to move an Amendment to the Motion of his hon. Friend.


said, that it was not competent for anyone to move an Amendment to the Amendment of the hon. Member, unless the latter Amendment should have been first adopted by the House.


said, that he should have no objection to withdraw his Amendment in order to allow of the noble Lord's Motion being substituted for it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


said, it was not his intention to trouble the House with any lengthened remarks at so late an hour. He had reason, however, to believe that the system of fortification by means of iron shields had been determined upon without sufficient experiments being made, and therefore he begged leave to move an Amendment.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House it is inexpedient to proceed further with the construction of the Fortifi- cations for the defence of the Dockyards and Naval Arsenals of the United Kingdom until the strength and sufficiency of the proposed Fortifications and Iron Shields has been tested by actual experiment, by submitting them to the fire of the most powerful known guns,"—(Lord Elcho,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he was of opinion that iron plates of a total thickness of 15 inches would be sufficient to resist the attacks of modern ordnance. The principle in respect of the application of iron sheathing, was superior to that adopted in the case of the Russian fortifications.


said, he thought the mixture of iron and stone sufficiently strong to resist fire from ships, and that was the purpose for which they were designed. They were not designed to resist the fire of land batteries. He was acting on the best advice he could obtain, and was bound to regard the consideration of expense. He saw no reason for changing the present plan and adopting one which would incur an additional expenditure of more than £1,000,000, besides the loss which might arise from suspending the contract. He, however, had no objection to any experiments being tried which might relate to the construction of future works. Without any disrespect to the hon. Member for Cashel (Mr. O'Beirne), he was compelled to say that he was not justified in acting in accordance with his unsupported opinion in defiance of the Report of the Committee authorized to advise him.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question, put, and agreed to.

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)


said, that a communication was going on between th Treasury and the War Office on the subject of the accounts of fortifications. Probably the Accountant General of the War Office would be called on to render an account under certain heads. As soon as the matter was settled, it would be embodied in a Minute which would be prepared, he hoped, in. time to lay upon the table before the prorogation of Parliament.

House resumed.

Bill reported, without Amendment; to be read the third time To-morrow, at Twelve of the clock.