HC Deb 07 December 1867 vol 190 cc681-6

called attention to the proceedings of Her Majesty's Government respecting the Postal Service between England and the United States; and asked the Secretary of the Treasury what course they intend to pursue? It was generally admitted that our intercourse with the United States was so extensive that we had arrived at a point when it was undesirable that any contract should be made in the nature of a subsidy for carrying the mails, or giving encouragement to one Company at the expense of others. The true interest of this country consisted in encouraging the greatest amount of competition. The Government, acting upon that view, had invited tenders for the mail service, and several companies sent in proposals. The Bremen Company tendered for Tuesday; the Messrs. Inman for Thursday; the Hamburg Company for Friday; and he believed Saturday was left open as the day for the Cunard Company. Thus proposals were made for a service four times a week; and there was no reason why one Company should have any advantage over another, provided they rendered the same service in the same, or nearly the same time. There was also a fifth Company which made a tender, but it was said that it was for such a slow service that New York would be reached as soon by the succeeding steamboat. If that were so, it would be a sufficient answer. But he understood that the Government had accepted the tenders for Tuesday and Thursday, but not for Friday. He would like to know upon what grounds the Government had declined to accept the tender for that day. Was it thought that the service would not be sufficiently expeditious, or that the sum demanded was excessive? It appeared to him that there was no reason for rejecting the tender on these grounds. But he was told that the Hamburg steamboat taking the mails from Southampton on Friday would come into competition with the Cunard boat starting on Saturday evening. But then it should be borne in mind that the Hamburg boats starting from Southampton would require only 4 hours between the closing of the mail in London and the departure from Southampton; while the Cunard boats, though professing to go in a shorter period, starting from Queenstown, would require 18 hours. If therefore they added to the length of the voyage of the Cunard boat the difference between 4 hours and 18, it would seem that the tender of the Hamburg Company for 11½ days would be very nearly equal to that of the Cunard Company. If that were so, it was quite clear that it would be for the advantage of the public that there should be a despatch of mails on Friday as well as on Saturday. Now, it would be well to consider the free system as compared with the system of subsidies. He had been told that while on the one hand the whole amount required was only £200 a voyage, the amount payable to the Cunard Company, under special contract, would be about £1,600 a voyage. Unless some substantial reasons could be given it was highly impolitic to grant a set of merchants a subsidy to the extent of £1,400 a voyage over what was required by others. It appeared that the Government were attempting to diminish the payments to the Company by spreading the contract over a number of years; but that would be only an aggravation of the evil. He hoped the Government did not contemplate such a bargain as they had made with the Peninsular and Oriental, binding themselves for a number of years. The system of contracts was a bad one. He hoped even now that the Government would take a more liberal view of the matter, and give equal payments to all companies engaged in ocean navigation, for what they were doing at present was making one company pay for another. He trusted also that the hon. Gentleman in his reply would not introduce, as he had done on a former occasion, any remarks of a personal character. The constituency which he represented was one that had the largest interest in commercial matters of any constituency in the world, and the question was one which affected not only individuals, but the public at large.


protested against the economical principles laid down by the hon. Gentleman. For his own part, he was perfectly disinterested, for he had no shares in any of the companies concerned. It was altogether impossible to throw open to competition such a service as this. To carry it on, it was necessary to have an immense amount of capital, a large number of vessels, and that preparations extending over several years should be made. He thought arrangements made by the Government were the best possible under the circumstances.


said, with regard to the concluding remarks of the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets, he was exceedingly sorry if anything that had fallen from him the other evening could be regarded as of a personal character. He was always most anxious to avoid anything of that kind; but he had thought it necessary to point out on that occasion that the Gentlemen most interested in the matter under discussion were not present to join in the animadversions passed on the Government by the hon. Member. He held it to be very desirable that Gentlemen not personally interested should give the House the benefit of their opinions. With respect to the question now before the House, he had arrived at the conclusion that the mail service to America ought to be self-supporting; but that was quite a different thing from saying that no contracts should be made for a term of years, because Companies would not be likely to put the best ships on the line unless they were sure of a contract for a certain period, quite irrespective of the amount of payment for the service. In his opinion, therefore, the Government ought to secure to Companies competing in answer to their invitation a certain period of time. As to the terms given to the Cunard Company for carrying the Saturday mails to New York, he believed, if looked into, the contract would be found to be self-supporting. The question was hardly between a sea-postage and a fixed sum; both were subsidies in different shapes. His hon. Friend had alluded to the different offers the Government had had, and was correct in saying that they had accepted the offer of the North German Company for Tuesday, that of the Inman Company for Thursday, and the Cunard Company for Saturday. The first two Companies made the tender exactly in the way the Post Office desired; but the Messrs. Cunard declined, and the Government were left without an offer with regard to the day which experience had proved to be the favourite one for sending correspondence to America. Under these circumstances, were they to leave the country in the lurch? The matter was one of very great difficulty, because the Cunard Company insisted upon a contract for a term. It was thought by the Government that the Post Office at Washington might be willing to enter into terms; and, if so, the contract would be for a sea-postage and not a subsidy. But the Post Office at Washington was not favourable to the proposal, and under the circumstances the Government entered into a contract for the conveyance of the mails for £80,000 for the year. But there was this stipulation—that Messrs. Cunard should account to the Postmaster General for the whole of the postage they would earn on the return voyage, the calculation of the Post Office being that the sea-postage would come to £75,000. The Company further undertook to provide for the sorting of the letters and to find subsistence for the sorting officers, which was calculated as equivalent to a sum of £3,500; so that the margin of difference was so small that if the Post Office was right, the matter might be considered self-supporting. As to the convenience of sending the mails from Southampton on Friday, it was quite possible there might be two opinions on the subject. It seemed to him, however, that there was no advantage in having mails leave on a greater number of days under the circumstances in question. The Hamburg-American Company did not sail from Liverpool or Queenstown, but Southampton on Friday, and the time was to be 11½ days. The letters, therefore, would be delivered in New York on the Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week but one, and it was reckoned that the Cunard Company, which would have the letters sorted on board, would deliver their letters quite as soon. In that case it hardly seemed advisable to enter into a contract with the Hamburg-American Company. It was open, however, to any person to avail himself of the Hamburg line by having his letters addressed to be forwarded viâ Southampton by that line. This alternative line might be of some advantage to merchants. Of course, if this contract had been made with the Hamburg-American line, it would have subtracted from the amount earned by the Cunard Company—not, however, for themselves, but for the Government. Under these circumstances, the Government had endeavoured to do justice to all parties as far as they could consistently do so, and when the correspondence was placed in the hands of Members, as it would be in a few days, he thought they would be satisfied that the Government had done the best they could for the public interest, under somewhat difficult circumstances.


said, the published documents did not show that the Cunard boats leaving Queenstown on the Sunday could perform the voyage so as to arrive at the same time as the Hamburg-American boats starting from Southampton on Friday. The average length of the voyage of the Cunard boats was 10 days, 11½ hours; and if you added to this the length of time occupied in the despatch of letters to Queenstown, you had an average outward voyage of 11 days, 5½ hours. The Hamburg-American Company performed the voyage from Southampton in 11 days, 5 hours; and, adding to this the 4 hours occupied in the transit of letters from London to Southampton, you have an average voyage of 11 days, 9 hours. Thus there was only a difference of three or four hours in the length of time occupied in carrying the mails; whereas, on the assumption of the hon. Gentleman, there ought to be a difference of a day or two days. He was at a loss, therefore, to understand the calculations of the hon. Gentleman. It was desirable to have as many companies carrying mails and as many weekly services as possible between this country and America. That was the general opinion of the mercantile world. It seemed, in order to pay the Cunard Company a greater subsidy than could be paid if the offer of the Hamburg-American Company were accepted, letters were to be detained in this country for two days. The hon. Gentleman said that letters leaving Queenstown on the Sunday were likely to reach their destination in America as soon as letters leaving Southampton on Friday. Well, the merchants would be the best judges of this. If they found that the Sunday steamer was the best, they would naturally not send on the Friday; and the result, therefore, of saving a certain amount of money to the Treasury would be accomplished by an additional mail service instead of by inconveniencing the mer- cantile community. Again, if a subsidy had been offered to other steampacket companies, there might have been a competition upon the basis ultimately agreed upon with the Cunard Company. But the Government first issued notices for tenders in a given form, and, when these were of no avail, concluded an arrangement with the Cunard Company upon quite another basis. The great thing in all these cases was to encourage competition, and he was afraid, if these matters were not thoroughly understood, the impression would go abroad that it was not of much use to tender, because the Government preferred to deal with certain great Companies. He was glad that an explanation on this point had been elicited from the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hunt), in order that it might be seen that the principle of competition in these cases was accepted by him and by the House—though in this particular instance he was of opinion that the interests of the mercantile community had not been consulted as they might have been.


asked, what steamers were to call at Queenstown besides the Cunard boats?


The Inman and the Cunard boats.


asked, to what penalties the Cunard Company was subjected for delay?


said, that in the contract the Cunard Company were put under no penalties for the performance of the service within a given time. They always said that such a clause led their captains to be rash and to risk the safety of those on board in their anxiety to avoid the penalties. In the calculation made by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Goschen) with regard to the time occupied in transmitting letters to go by the Hamburg-American line, he had forgotten that their steamers could not take Friday's letters, as they started on Friday morning—they could only carry letters written up to Thursday night. His calculations, moreover, were based entirely upon a consideration of the London correspondence, to the exclusion of the correspondence from all other parts of the kingdom. The letters from the North, for instance, could be much more conveniently sent viâ Queenstown.


said, he had been told that the Hamburg-American Company had offered to run their boats from Southampton at any hour, however late, on Friday.