HC Deb 20 March 1868 vol 190 cc2034-46

said, he rose to call attention to the Report of the Select Committee on Dockyards, and to move, That in the opinion of this House the number of Dockyards ought to be diminished. He said that as the question was one of policy rather than of detail, he thought it better to make it the subject of a separate Motion, rather than bring the subject forward on the Estimates. Various suggestions had been made from time to time as to the possibility of reducing our Dockyard expenditure, and in 1861 and 1864 Reports were presented from two Committees, who had taken the matter into consideration; but until now no direct Motion, dealing with the question, had been brought under the notice of the House. The time, however, had arrived when the House should endeavour to see whether it was not possible to effect some reduction in our large and increasing expenditure on Dockyards. He was not an advocate for an injudicious economy in connection with naval matters, since he regarded the efficiency of our fleet as being necessary to our safety. The Report of the Committee of 1861, founded as it was upon the evidence of many distinguished naval authorities, was entitled to great weight, and he would read three paragraphs from it which bore strongly on the point he was about to discuss. Those paragraphs were to the effect that the public Dockyards did not afford sufficient space in the floating basins and in the dry docks for the larger ships, and that much delay, as well as risk, expense, and inconvenience was incurred in consequence; that this want had mainly resulted from the continued and rapid increase in the dimensions of our ships; and that this state of things would render it impossible to equip a fleet rapidly and safely if one were hastily required. A large extension of Chatham was deemed necessary to meet these great wants. Following upon that Report was another, presented by the Committee of 1864, in which they recommended further extensions at Portsmouth, the estimated cost of which, added to the Chatham and Keyham extensions, amounted to £4,379,000, and those extensions were now to a great extent in progress; and the Committee suggested, in order to meet this heavy outlay, and because the smaller yards were unsuitable and unnecessary, that Deptford, Woolwich, and Pembroke Dockyards should be suppressed and disposed of. If that were effected, the money arising therefrom could be applied in the concentration of our arsenals and to the extension of our principal Dockyards—namely, Chatham, Portsmouth, and Devonport. Now the area of all the yards was, in round numbers, 900 acres. That of Deptford, exclusive of the victualling yard, was thirty-eight acres, of Woolwich fifty-six, of Sheerness fifty-seven, and of Pembroke seventy-six; making together 227 acres, or two-thirds of what would be the area of Chatham alone when the extensions were completed. He was satisfied that the cost of maintaining these four yards was entirely out of proportion to the work done in them, and that they might be given up without the slightest injury to our naval resources. He had not been able to go through the accounts in detail, owing to the endless variety of heads under which the expenditure was embraced, but he would select a few of the principal items as illustrating the cost of these establishments. Taking salaries, police, repairs, rates, gas, and the 7 per cent added for latent superannuations, Deptford cost in the year 1867–8 for simple management £20,000; Woolwich, £40,000; Sheerness, £34,000; and Pembroke, £30,000; or in all £124,000. Then there was the expense of steam-tugs, lighters, barges, and every description of small craft, which in all the yards amounted, as stated last year by the noble Lord the Secretary to the Admiralty (Lord Henry Lennox), to £107,000 or £110,000, and of this sum at least £40,000 was probably applicable to the four yards to which he was referring. The removal of stores was another serious item. He would take Woolwich as an example, and he found that in the year 1866–7 about 7,000 tons of stores were sent from Woolwich to the various yards on the river and round the coast, at a cost of about 20s. per ton, though he had no doubt a private contractor would undertake the work at half the price; in fact, he had been informed that offers even below this line had been received by the Admiralty. Then, if we considered the coal establishments which formed a portion of the Dockyard system, we would find the same extravagance. At Sheerness the passing of about 9,000 tons of coal through the depâts cost £6,000 or £7,000, or about 14s. per ton, which, added to the original price, made the cost of the coals equal to what the Government paid for coals delivered at Malta. These examples showed the indirect expenditure at the yards. He had thought it right to visit the yards before bringing the subject forward, and he had been surprised at the excessive amount of stores of all kinds kept in stock—timber especially. Through the facilities afforded him by the noble Lord and the Accountant General he had been able to ascertain the issues of stores at the various yards, and to compare them with the quantities on hand, which appeared to him to be out of all proportion to the requirements. In the four yards alone there was at the end of the year 1866 stock to the amount of about £1,600,000, and the aggregate amount in all the yards was £4,690,000. The stores of timber were worth £1,563,000, the year's issues being £225,000; the anchors, £182,000, the issues being £7,500; the cables and chains of all sorts, £150,000, the issues being £24,747; the canvas, £61,000, the issues being £4,650; and the cordage £210,000, the issues being £79,000. The issues to factories, sawpits, mills, and shops for conversion, were not included, but these could not make any material alteration in the results. In round numbers the issues of the year amounted in value to £1,150,000, while the stocks in stores were, as he had stated, £4,690,000. He was unable to get the detailed issues to ships or yards on Foreign Stations; but the gross issue was £124,000, and this he dealt with by adding 10 per cent to each of the home issues, which amounted to £1,006,000, by a Return furnished him by the Accountant General. He thought these figures showed that the quantity of stores kept in the yards was excessive. Not only would the closing of three or four yards cause a saving in this respect; but it would involve a reduction in the staff of the Admiralty itself, which was now so overweighted that it could not give that close attention to the details of Dockyard expenditure which was essential to careful management. It was difficult to say what the saving in this respect would be; but, if faithfully carried out, he would venture to state it would be considerable. Turning to the new work done in the yards, it would also appear to be quite disproportioned to the cost of management. He found that at Deptford the amount of tonnage to be built in the coming year was 1,628; at Woolwich, 1,937; at Sheerness, 372; and at Pembroke, 2,911; making in all 6,848 tons. Now, he believed there were private establishments which, irrespective of ordinary shipping, built more ironclads in a year than these four yards put together. If the cost of building were less in national than in private establishments there might be a reason for keeping them up, but the very reverse was the fact. Upon this point he had a good opportunity of forming an opinion, from the contracts that were entered into for the building of gunboats this year, eight of which were built in private yards and eight in our Dockyards. He found that the price of those built by private contract averaged £25 per ton, while those built in our Dockyards averaged £33 per ton, without the establishment or indirect charges. These charges had been officially estimated at 51 per cent, but believing that estimate to be excessive, he would reduce it by one-half, which would give a cost of £41 per ton for the gunboats built in our Dockyards, as against £25 per ton for those built in the private yards. It had been said that the contracts taken by the owners of private yards had been completed at a loss, but a private firm at Glasgow—the builder of one of these gunboats—wrote to him— Sir,—In reply to your inquiry regarding the Composition gunboat now building for the Navy, we beg to say that we would gladly undertake to build a dozen such boats at the same price. The price paid to this firm being £25 15s. per ton. Then, again, he noticed that there was a great disparity between the cost of the vessels built in one Dockyard, and the vessels built in another. An unarmoured vessel, for instance, the Niobe, of 1,061 tons built at Deptford, had cost £68,000, while the Daphne, a sister vessel built at Pembroke, cost £56,000. This might give rise to the impression that building was cheaper at Pembroke than at Deptford, and possibly it might be so, but the Amazon, another sister vessel, identical in all respects, built at Woolwich, appeared to have cost £82,000. Looking, then, at the question from all these points of view, and many more which he might urge, he had come to the conclusion that if we could succeed in closing these yards to which he had alluded, there would be a saving to the country of more than £250,000 a year, the cost of a first-class ironclad, and that saving, he also believed, could be effected without in the slightest degree impairing the naval resources of the country. The great transition which had of late years taken place in the construction of vessels, the increase in their size, and the change from wood to iron, had gone far towards placing the large private firms of the country on an equal footing with Government establishments, and in support of this he need only refer to the statement made the other evening by the First Lord of the Admiralty, on the authority of the Controller of the Navy, that ships could be built in private yards in all respects equal to those built in the public yards. [Mr. CORRY: Iron vessels.] He referred to iron vessels. Then the size of these vessels rendered our present small docks unsuitable. Out of our thirty-eight ironclads only ten could enter Woolwich. The want of water at Pembroke rendered that port inaccessible to our larger ships, and from the hardness of the rock at the entrance the Controller General considers it would be difficult to provide additional depth for the graving docks. Chatham, it was true, had received great extensions, was admirably protected, and easy of access to ships of any size under steam. The smaller vessels, in case of distress, would seek the nearest port incoming from the Baltic, the probable scene of their operations, and there was scarcely a port on the East Coast which would not afford every facility for the refitting of the smaller vessels. Chatham he regarded as the only port suited for our large vessels to return to in case of disaster in the North Sea; Portsmouth and Devonport would give sufficient accommodation in respect to St. George's Channel; while the graving dock now building in Cork harbour would afford admirable accommodation for ships coming from the westward disabled. He did not hazard these statements upon his own opinion, be- cause this was a professional question; but he was borne out by the opinions of some of our most distinguished naval officers. Our true policy appeared to him to be in favour of concentrating our work upon our larger arsenals, and, instead of spreading the completion of these yards over so long a time as we were doing, we should endeavour to build them with greater expedition, and prepare them for any emergency which might arise. It might be urged that the terms of his Motion were vague, but he had intentionally left them so, because he thought it right that the House should only affirm the policy which should regulate our action, and that the details should be left to the Admiralty. He did not even attempt to suggest the number of yards which, in his opinion should be closed, or the manner in which it should be done, because he believed that such questions were better left to the Department. He would, however, offer a word or two with regard to what might be done with these yards. If there was a good market they might be disposed of; if not it might be a question whether it would not be better simply to close them, and dispense with the services of a large portion of the staff, which seems to be annually increasing, while the work done each year in those yards is dwindling down to a low point. By the Returns which had been furnished to the House, he found that the value of the buildings, inclusive of the land, at Woolwich was £1,027,000; at Sheerness, £1,143,000; at Deptford, £412,000; and at Pembroke, £745,000, giving a total of something over £3,000,000. He would suggest the desirability of retaining Deptford as a victualling yard, and closing it as far as the building was concerned. It might be advisable, too, to retain the factory at Woolwich, for it possessed considerable facilities for repairs of small craft; but he would suggest that the whole system of management should be altered, that one of our most experienced Dockyard engineers should be placed at the head of it, and that the ordinary common-sense principles which govern private yards should regulate the management of the factory. With those alterations, he thought that the factory would become a most useful appendage to the navy. Sheerness, from its proximity to Chatham, was to his mind almost useless, and though Pembroke appeared to possess some value as a building-yard, the expense of maintaining that establishment was entirely inadequate to the results obtained. It might be said that we could not suppress any of these yards until Chatham was completed, but he could not see that there was any connection between them, looking at the insignificant amount of work done in these yards. If we look at the Estimates for the present year we will find that the number of artisans in the river yards had been brought down to a minimum, and he asked the Admiralty to go a step further and get rid of this enormous amount of expenditure, for which so little was obtained. He was aware it was not a popular subject. There were old traditions connected with these Dockyards. Their names were intimately associated with some of our brightest memories, and he could understand that any suggestion for wiping them out would be received with some disfavour. The House of Commons must not shrink from taking their part in reducing this expenditure, and until they did it the Admiralty would be unable to get out of the system into which it had got. He believed the First Lord and his Colleagues were most anxious to change the system; but they were powerless unless this House came to their help and raised the Department out of the groove which it has settled down into. He hoped the House would affirm his Motion, and show that they were determined to co-operate with the Admiralty in bringing about a better system, and a large reduction in the expenditure of the Dockyards.

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, the number of Dockyards ought to be diminished,"—(Mr. Graves,) —instead thereof.

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


said, the subject was one that was well worthy the consideration of the House, and he could assure them it had not escaped the attention of the Admiralty. If his hon. Friend had been a member of the Dockyard Committee, from whose Report he had quoted, he would have known that he (Mr. Corry) was one of the first to suggest that, on the completion of the Chatham extension, some of the small river Dockyards might be dispensed with. His hon. Friend had stated that there was no connection between the completion of Chatham Dockyard and the object he had in view; but the Committee contemplated the completion of the Chat- ham Dockyard before any other should be done away with. It was true that in the Committee he had voted against the Motion for the suppression of the river Dockyards; but he did so because it included Pembroke, and, in his opinion, it would be most unwise to give up that Dockyard as a building yard. The hon. Member had spoken of Pembroke as if it had been a fitting-out yard; but ships were never fitted out there, and it was the only thoroughly trustworthy yard for shipbuilding, except Deptford, perhaps, because in all other yards the regular work was liable to be put on one side, in order that ships returning from long voyages might be refitted, and sometimes, as in the case of the Indian troop ships, it was imperative that they should be put into good condition, with the least practicable delay. The importance of having one Dockyard such as Pembroke at command, exclusively for shipbuilding, was therefore obvious. Besides that, it was the cheapest yard for building ships, and he should for these reasons be sorry to see it suppressed. Had the Motion made in the Committee been confined to Woolwich and Deptford he would have supported it. The hon. Member had suggested the abandonment of Sheerness; but such a proposal was rather premature, considering we as yet knew little of the capabilities of Chatham. Perhaps five years hence, when the Chatham extension was completed, the Admiralty would be able to form a sound opinion on the subject; but at present he thought it would be unwise to abandon Sheerness as a repairing and fitting-out yard for ships employed in time of war in the North Sea. He had consulted the Controller of the Navy on the subject of Deptford, and discusssed the question as to whether it might not be given up, except as a victualling yard; but they came to the conclusion that this could not be done at once, because, in addition to the fact that several ships were now on the stocks in that Dockyard, there was a large quantity of timber and other materials in store, which it would be more economical to work up than to remove at a great expense to other yards. Regarding Woolwich, his own opinion was that with three basins at Chatham, and extensive means for the repair of steam machinery, Woolwich might be dispensed with as soon as Chatham was completed. His hon. Friend had adverted to the great expense of the conveyance of stores by Dockyard craft, thinking such work could have been done more cheaply by contract. That subject had been under the consideration of a Committee, appointed by the Admiralty, of which Sir Thomas Symonds was President. The recommendations of that Committee had been referred to the Dockyard officers, and as soon as their remarks were received the Report would be laid upon the table of the House. No doubt, if the recommendations of the Committee were carried out in extenso, a great saving would be the result, but the subject required careful consideration. The question of the cost of coal hulks was adverted to in the Report of Sir Thomas Symonds' Committee, and was now under consideration. He thought his hon. Friend had rather over-estimated the cost of salaries, rates, gas, &c., at Deptford, Woolwich, and Sheerness, and also at Pembroke. The whole cost of salaries, &c., did not amount to £65,000; and since the Report of 1864 had been made suggesting the suppression of those yards not a single farthing had been spent by the Admiralty on any new works at any one of them. This showed that the Government had been holding its hand until a sound conclusion could be arrived at as to what should be done with the several yards. His hon. Friend had spoken of the large quantity of stores in the Dockyards; the most important item, however, was that of timber, and it was an ascertained fact that it was sound economy to use well-seasoned timber; it was that, indeed, which made Dockyard ships, built of wood, cheaper, as he maintained they were, because much more durable than contract ships. He believed he had shown on a previous occasion that this opinion was verified by facts. Of other articles which did not need seasoning the stock in the yards was very limited, and in no respect in excess of the wants of the service. His hon. Friend had referred to the small quantity of building done in the Dockyards. But Pembroke, as he had stated before, was the only yard exclusively devoted to building; and in the other yards the greater part of the establishments was of necessity employed in fitting and repairs. The statement that the price paid for gunboats contracted for last year was in excess of the lowest tenders had been explained by him in the course of the last Session of Parliament. It had become a practice with some builders to seek to undertake Government contracts at a loss in order to obtain notoriety and attract the attention of foreign Governments; and knowing that some of the tenders for the gunboats referred to were below the price at which it would be possible to build them in accordance with the specification. The Admiralty wrote to the firms which had sent in such tenders, calling their attention to the terms of the specification, and asking them whether they were still disposed to adhere to their offer? The answer was that they wished to abide by their tenders; but the Admiralty considered it very un-advisable to contract for the building of the whole of these gunboats at prices which would not be remunerative, and for that reason the lowest tenders had not been universally accepted. It frequently happened that contractors sent in claims for payments to a large amount in excess of their tenders, and he believed that in every instance they had been out of pocket to the extent of these claims. The amount of the tenders, therefore, was no fair criterion of the difference between the cost of building ships in the Royal Dockyards and by contract. He was afraid his hon. Friend's estimates in respect of some of the matters to which he had referred were not very accurate; but he had no doubt that economy might be effected in many points in connection with the Dockyards, and he could assure him that the whole question was being carefully considered by the Admiralty.


said, that was the first time he had heard a complaint made of the want of water at Pembroke Dockyard. He had seen the Great Eastern lying exactly opposite the Dockyard at low water and remain there for some days, and it was well known that some of the largest ships of the Navy had been built and launched there without difficulty. It was easy, when there was competition between the Dockyards and private yards, to obtain low prices; but the House ought to keep in mind what would happen when the Dockyards were diminished, and they were left entirely in the hands of private contractors. The expense of ships could not be entirely estimated by contracts; the cost of repairs which they would afterwards have to undergo should also be taken into account.


said, that though so much was talked about reducing the expenses of the Dockyards, he feared that the expenses were always increasing. He therefore thanked his hon. Friend for having brought forward this Motion, because as a rule before any reforms were made, they required "line upon line, and precept upon precept." He thought his hon. Friend had made out a good case. If the Government would turn tradesmen and build their own ships, they ought to act on the principles of tradesmen, and no tradesman, he was sure, would establish a number of little yards, some of which were not well managed, all of which were differently, and some indifferently managed. Their energies should be concentrated upon two or three good yards, and in that way they would diminish the expense of salaries of officers, police, and the many charges incidental to a variety of establishments. He had seen large stocks of timber rotting in the yards. It was said that the timber was kept there for seasoning; but was it necessary to keep a stock of anchors for seasoning also? As far as he understood these things, it would be much better to have canvas and cordage fresh. If the yards were in a working condition a great many things now lying uselessly there would be turned to account. When the right hon. Gentleman told the House they could not have building and repairing carried on in the same yard, he begged to differ from him. Both could be done in the same yard perfectly well, and they saw both done by private firms every day.


said, he happened to be at Pembroke, and saw the Great Eastern there, but she was not in Pembroke Docks, and therefore her presence at Pembroke proved nothing as to the depth of water in the docks. But what he rose for was to express his astonishment at the argument of the First Lord of the Admiralty for the maintenance of Deptford Dockyard on account of the stock of timber there. If he had no better test than that it would be better to sell the timber, and get quit of it and the Dockyard together. If the Admiralty had made up their minds to get quit of the Dockyard they had better do so at once; because no Admiralty would ever again propose to build timber ships for the purpose of getting quit of the stock.


said, there was one, inconvenience attending this debate, and that was that the House was not in possession of the whole policy of the Government, nor would it be until his right hon. Friend should make his statement on moving the Estimates. He did not think, however, that time had been entirely thrown away; because it would be next to im- possible to induce the Admiralty to bestir themselves in this matter without a smart debate in that House. He wished to state distinctly what his own views, and when he was at the Admiralty for some months, three years ago, what those of the late Government were, and to show that those views had been unfortunately departed from. He did not quite agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves) as to the value of Pembroke Dockyard. It was quite clear to him that it would at present be disadvantageous to give up Pembroke altogether as a building yard. There was a great public advantage in having one yard at which building only was carried on; while, on the other hand, it was useful to have building and repairing conducted in other yards. Until they saw a great deal more of the working of the Chatham and Portsmouth Dockyards he should deprecate interfering with Pembroke. He would say, however, as his own opinion, that Woolwich Dockyard ought to be given up at once, and that the steps which had been taken in that direction long ago ought not to have been reversed. The late Government had determined not to do anything which would prevent the ultimate giving up of Woolwich as a Dockyard. They bought no more machinery in 1865–6, they made no increase in the establishment, and they commenced the building of no more ships. But what was done in the course of last year? Why, instead of carrying out what their predecessors had proposed, the present Government put up more machinery and built more ships there; so that, though steps had been taken for gradually giving up Woolwich Dockyard, that policy was distinctly reversed by Her Majesty's Government. He hoped his right hon. Friend would fully explain how that had occurred when he should move the Estimates. As to Deptford, he doubted whether it was possible to build ships economically there, though it would be always useful to have a certain amount of store and basin accommodation in the place. He should like to have the opportunity of asking his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, whether he was not aware that there was part of Deptford Dockyard which might be of great use for military purposes; and whether it would not be more economical to turn this to account than to incur the enormous expenditure, which, he regretted to see, was contemplated by this year's Estimates in the purchase of land and erection of buildings in the vicinity. Sheerness, also was a most extravagant Dockyard, and when the works at Chatham were finished he sincerely hoped that expenditure in this quarter would come to an end. No one who knew the place could doubt that Blue Town was a most unfit place for a building yard. Additional labour was hard to procure, and the soil was wretchedly bad. There was no doubt but that it should be abolished as a building yard and only used for the purposes of refitting in connection with the Nore. The cost of Deptford, Sheerness, and Woolwich last year was £380,000 for direct expenses, and perhaps an additional £70,000 for indirect; and certainly a great part of this outlay might be saved at once in the case of Woolwich, and to some extent in the case of Deptford, and before long in the case of Sheerness. He hoped that the Board of Admiralty, acting under the strong pressure of opinion in that House, would take economical action in the directions he had indicated.


said, in explanation, that he had quoted from the official figures, of which he had no reason to doubt the accuracy.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.