HC Deb 07 June 1867 vol 187 cc1733-40

said, he rose to call the attention of the House to the case of the old Seamen who paid the Greenwich Sixpence before the year 1834. The merchant seamen were a patient and enduring class, and when they united to complain of a grievance the probability was that the grievance would prove to be a real one. Formerly the seamen in the merchant service had to contribute sixpence per month towards the funds of Greenwich Hospital. The old seamen whom he represented in this instance, believed that they had a claim upon the country on account of the sixpence per month which they had paid to the funds of Greenwich Hospital out of their wages. This payment was discontinued in the year 1834, on account of its manifest injustice. Though so many years had since elapsed, the seamen concerned had not forgotten their claims. A few months ago there sprang up an agitation in the northeastern ports, that they ought to receive what they thought to be their due. The genuine character of the agitation was shown by the petitions which had been presented in respect to it; those petitions had not been hawked about; signatures had not been canvassed for. Yet in the course of a very short time the petition at Shields was signed by 430 old men—the lowest term of service of any one of them being thirty-three years. The petition at Sunderland was signed by 330 old men, whose average age was sixty-six years. There was something almost pathetic in the sight of the signatures and the marks scrawled over a long roll of pages of copybooks rudely pasted together. He thought he should best perform his duty by simply laying their hopes and wishes before the House, without moving any Resolution for a Committee. The demands of the petitioners were so small that they might be almost covered by the expenses of a Select Committee and a couple of blue books. He would be content to leave the subject to the just consideration of a Government which, rightly or wrongly, was considered by the seafaring classes as peculiarly favourable to their cause. The sum involved was an extremely modest one; but in the eyes of these poor old seamen it assumed very different proportions, and was a grievance that they considered to be by no means a contemptible one. Their case was this:—The sixpence per month contributed out of their wages was or was not accepted with the intention of its securing some prospective advantage to the merchant service. If it was not so intended, it was great injustice that the men should have been called upon to contribute to the expenses of Greenwich Hospital. If it was intended that the payments should accrue to the ultimate benefit of those who made them, these old seamen were prepared to prove that they had never received any compensation or advantage whatever in return for the sixpences deducted from their wages. A Committee which sat on the subject in 1844 reported that it was just that the men should receive, in some shape or other, re-payment of their contributions. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir Stafford Northcote), when President of the Board of Trade, had acknowledged that these poor men had a moral claim upon the Government. The scheme of a sort of naval infirmary at Greenwich Hospital for the benefit of the merchant service did not meet the views of the petitioners, who would rather take out their claims in tea, coffee, butchers' meat, and little comforts. It might be said that the State never refunded money; but the petitioners said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer ought to be just as willing to pay conscience money as they saw by the advertisements in The Times he was willing to receive it. They pointed to the precedent of the Indian officers, and though they had no spokesman in this House connected with their body, no clever lawyer who would advocate their cause, and no funds with which to carry on agitation, he hoped that this very poverty and want of advocates would induce the House and the Government to lean to their side, and not at their age postpone the relief to which they were entitled.


said, he thought there was no class to whose grievances the House would lend a more willing ear than our merchant seamen. If there were doubts — and there were doubts — surrounding the question, it would be better to give the seamen the benefit than allow them to feel that the House was unwilling to listen to their complaints. In the first instance, he had doubted whether they had a valid claim, but having given as much attention as he could to the subject, he had seen reason to modify that opinion. Looking to the Charter, it was to be remarked that the foundation of the Hospital was not simply an act of Royal munificence; it was a sagacious and deeply-laid scheme of policy, framed with a view to draw into the Royal Navy a constant and regular supply of seamen. The objects set forth were four in number. First, the relief of aged seamen of the Royal Navy and those disabled or maimed in that service; secondly, the sustentation of their widows; thirdly, the maintenance and education of the children of those who might be slain or disabled in the Royal service; and fourthly, the further relief and encouragement of seamen. The words in which this last object was set forth "further to provide for seamen," showed that, though a preferential claim existed in favour of seamen in the Royal Navy, yet that something else was contemplated in behalf of seamen generally. He thought, therefore, the claim now put forward was a valid one, provided all the claims of the Royal Navy were satisfied, and there were surplus funds out of which to meet it. In this position he was fortified by the highest authority—that of the present Controller of the Hospital Estates (Mr. Lethbridge). He said, when examined before the Royal Commission of 1860, that though seamen of the Royal Navy were the first objects of the charity, merchant seamen were not under all circumstances excluded. A Member of that Commission (Mr. Ingham) asked— If they register themselves they will be entitled to the benefits of the Hospital? To which Mr. Lethbridge's answer was— Provided there was room. I think it was held out to them as an encouragement to come in and register, that they should have the benefits of the Hospital extended to them as far as the funds would go. It was admitted, therefore, that the merchant service was entitled to share in the benefits of the Institution after the claims of the Royal Navy were exhausted, always supposing that a surplus remained. The Charter and the statutes clearly laid down the preferential claim of the Royal Navy, and in practice the Admiralty had always acted upon that principle. He did not suppose that there was a case in which a merchant seaman had been admitted as such, unless he had been disabled in fighting the Queen's enemies. The House must not suppose that because their direct claims had not been recognised they had not received extensive indirect advantages. More than half the boys in the upper school at Greenwich had been sons of merchant seamen, and they received an education costing £30 a year. An inquiry was made in 1835 by direction of Sir James Graham, and it appeared that of 2,500 pensioners then in the Hospital, 1,000 were men whose average service in the merchant navy was thirteen years, who had paid £4 4s. 6d. to the funds of the Hospital, in the shape of the monthly sixpences, and whose average residence in the Hospital had been eleven years. The average service of the pensioners in the Royal Navy was at that time sixteen years. In the face of these facts it was impossible to say the merchant service had not derived benefits. He was perfectly satisfied to leave the decision of the matter in the hands of the House, believing that it would exercise a fair and unbiassed judgment in the matter. He could not help complaining that the Correspondence on this subject between Sir James Graham, Lord Auckland, and Sir Richard Keates, in 1831 and 1834, which he had moved for a considerable time ago, had not yet been furnished. If it was produced now it would be of very little use, inasmuch as the purpose for which these papers were required would have passed away.


said, that seamen, when they had been some years in the merchant service, joined the Royal Navy. After a few years' service they became prematurely incapacitated, and then sought refuge in Greenwich Hospital. That was one argument adduced to show that the sixpence was not paid without consideration. The other was the chance of getting children into the schools. These arguments failed to satisfy the House that it was just to continue the payment of the sixpence, and it was abolished. None were received in the school but the children of those in some way connected with the navy. As the compensatory benefits no longer existed those who paid the sixpence up to 1834 had paid it without consideration, and legally and morally they were entitled to some return.


said, he wished, as he had the honour of introducing the Bill under which the Greenwich Hospital Fund was now administered, to remind the House of what took place in the debates which arose upon this subject. The question now raised by the hon. Member was introduced, the whole thing was gone into very carefully, and the House decided that there was no case whatever for this appeal. In the first place, inasmuch as the whole of the revenues of Greenwich were now appropriated, if this claim were allowed it must come as a distinct charge on the country. But on the merits of the claim itself—if it was true that in 1834 the sixpence a month which had been previously contributed by the merchant seamen was remitted, it was also true that the contribution made by the seamen of the Royal Navy was remitted likewise. If therefore the remission had produced effect in the one case as to the claims of the contributors upon Greenwich Hospital, it ought to have produced an effect in the other. As no one had contended that because the contribution made by the sailors of the Royal Navy was remitted they were therefore excluded from the benefits of the Greenwich Hospital, so, on the other hand, it could not be maintained that the seamen of the merchant service were deprived of any privilege to which they were entitled while they paid the sixpence a month. But the fact is that when the merchant seamen's sixpence was remitted in 1834, the main argument for the remission was that the merchant seamen had no claims and no possible interest in the Hospital. How, then, could the House be asked to compensate them for the loss of that in which they had no interest? In 1711 an Act was passed defining clearly the purposes to which Greenwich Hospital should be applied. It appeared from the Preamble of that Act that no seamen could be admitted to the Hospital except those who had served in the Royal Navy, or who had been wounded in action against an enemy. An Act was passed subsequently extending the benefit of that provision to persons wounded in action against pirates. That right existed at present. Those who had served in the Royal Navy, having also served in the merchant service, were entitled just as much as they were before 1865 to the Greenwich out-pension and the benefits of the Hospital. He should be glad to do all he could for the benefit of the merchant service, but he certainly did not think the claim now made could be entertained.


said, that so much had been said by his hon. Friends who had preceded him that they had left him little to say upon the subject. His hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trevelyan) stated that it was asserted by those whose interests he represented that the merchant seamen's contribution was instituted for the benefit of the merchant seamen. The fact was it was instituted not for their direct, but for their collateral benefit. He could not show that better than by reading an extract from a letter addressed by Sir Richard Keates, Governor of Greenwich Hospital, to Sir James Graham in 1831. Sir Richard Keates said— This assessment on merchant seamen was evidently not made with a view to their having any direct advantage from Greenwich Hospital in return, but rather upon the broad principle of protection and security afforded to the merchant shipping and commerce of the country by the navy, for whom the Hospital is provided. This fact is established by the preamble, and, indeed, the whole terms of each Act of Parliament relating thereto, wherein it is explicitly stated that the benefits of Greenwich Hospital shall be for seamen maimed, wounded, or worn-out in the King's service, and it is thus limited for the express purpose of giving encouragement to seamen voluntarily to enter themselves for that service. But, though the contribution of the merchant seamen's sixpence was not established for their direct benefit, there could be no doubt that, even directly, they had derived benefit from the Hospital more than proportionate to the amount of their contributions. He held in his hand a letter from Lord Auckland, also addressed to Sir James Graham in 1834, as to the great benefit which merchant seamen received from the institution. Lord Auckland said— The merchant seaman contributes to the support of the Hospital, and is not as such, unless wounded in action with an enemy or pirate, entitled to admission; but one day of service under the King gives him a claim to all its benefits, and, in fact, the age, sickness, and decrepitude which find refuge in the Hospital are acquired in the merchant service in a much greater proportion than that service contributes to its support. Out of a revenue of £140,000 the merchant seamen contributes £21,000, and of 2,710 men in the hospital upwards of 1,000 have served in the merchant service, averaging in it thirteen years each man, while in the school are 117 children, whose fathers have never served in the navy. It is false, therefore, to say that the merchant seamen receives no benefit from the hospital; hut, even if it were so, the tax upon him (or, as it may be more properly stated, on his employer) may be justified as due for the protection which he receives from the King's navy during war, and his exclusion from the Hospital, unless after service in the navy, may be supported as an encouragement to him to enter the King's service, and as auxiliary to the wish which exists of connecting the two services and of finding substitutes for the severity of impressment. If further proof was required that Greenwich Hospital was not looked upon as an institution established for the benefit of merchant seamen, it would be furnished by the Report of the Commissioners on Greenwich Hospital in 1860, from which it appears that special provision was made for the merchant service by an Act passed in 1747 for the express purpose of providing separately— For the relief and support of married and disabled seamen, and the widows and children of such as shall be killed, slain, or drowned in the merchant service. It was clear, then, in the first place that the merchant seamen's sixpence was not levied for the benefit of the merchant seamen; and, in the next place, that if it were they had already derived more advantage than would be equivalent to the amount of their contributions. He would ask the House, therefore, not to consent to the claim put forward by his hon. Friend, although he could assure him that, if he thought it would be defended on any principle of justice, he would be the last person to oppose it.


said, he did not think that any one who had addressed the House had alleged that the merchant seamen had any legal claim, because, if so, they would have a legal remedy without having recourse to Parliament. The claim was put forward upon equitable and moral grounds, and was one of substantial justice. A large sum of money had been compulsorily exacted from the merchant seamen without their having any further claim upon the fund which those exactions established. With regard to the 1,000 inmates of Greenwich Hospital in 1834, mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Corry) as having served in the merchant navy, it must be remembered that their admission was not in any way consequent on their having been in that service, but on their having afterwards been in the Royal Navy. In his borough (Sunderland) there were about 400 disabled seamen, who in early life compulsorily contributed sixpence a month for a period varying from twelve to thirty years to this fund. They, though now in penury — about thirty of them being in the union workhouse — were not allowed to share in its benefits. There was no charge of maladministration. He admitted that according to the terms of the Charter, the object of which was evidently to induce merchant seamen to pass into the Royal Navy, the benefits of the fund might be restricted to the latter service. But that was a very insufficient ground for exacting contributions from them to a fund in which they had no legal claim to participate. He hoped the Government would consider whether some concession could not be made in favour of these disabled seamen, some of whom were verging on 100 years of age.