HC Deb 28 February 1870 vol 199 cc887-95

said, he rose for the purpose of putting a Question to the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty relative to the sale and recovery of anchors in Her Majesty's Dockyards. Although the subject had been discussed in the public Press no reference had been made to it in the Navy Estimates. He should have been inclined to defer it until the Store Vote came before the Committee, in which various changes had been made, both with regard to the sales and new method of purchase, which were not satisfactory; but the statement giving rise to the discussion had appeared in a newspaper whose columns had contained other statements—one of which the right hon. Gentleman had thought it worth his while to contradict. The fact, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman had not denied the accuracy of the present statement had given rise to the belief that it was not altogether without foundation; and, under these circumstances, he had thought it only right to afford the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity, either in reply to his Question or in moving the Estimates, to give some explanation of the matter. The statement to which he referred, and which he trusted would be proved to be inaccurate, was to the effect that the Admiralty, being desirous of diminishing the amount of the Estimates, had thought it right to sell not only old and useless stores, but also a number of articles which were convenient for the public service, and which had always been kept in sufficient quantity for the supply of the fleet, and that they had been sold at a rate that was positively ruinous. It was stated that for some reason the Admiralty decided that a considerable number of good and service- able anchors should be sold. As far as he know, those anchors were 263 in number, and weighed 600 tons, their cost having been £30 or £40 per ton, and they were sold to a firm of brokers, Messrs. Shaw and Thomson, for £6 5s. per ton, a price that represented, of course, a considerable loss to the nation. At one dockyard the authorities refused to deliver eighty-seven of these anchors, which were consequently saved, but at another the anchors were delivered in spite of remonstrance; and sixty-three were delivered to the purchasers at Sheerness Dockyard. The very day they made the purchase Messrs. Shaw and Thomson re-sold the anchors to a firm at West Bromwich for £9 10s. per ton. Immediately after the transaction was effected the Admiralty became alarmed at what they had done, and were anxious to recover the anchors, and eventually forty-three of them were brought back at the public expense; twenty, however, were lost altogether, having been sold to a foreign Government; and the most singular part of the whole affair was that no notice of the transaction appeared in the Estimates. Had nothing further than a more blunder occurred he should scarcely have thought it necessary to bring the matter before the House, but the statement in question went on to assert that Messrs. Shaw and Thomson being £1,300 or £1,500 out of pocket by their not being able to deliver the anchors to their purchaser at West Bromwich, in addition to the loss of profit upon the transaction, had been permitted to purchase 17,000 tons of iron ballast, at £2 2s. per ton, by which, in effect, they received a present of £1 to £1 10s. per ton. He had endeavoured as far as he was able to ascertain the truth of this statement, and he was bound to say that he had not been able to trace anything like 17,000 tons of iron ballast from the dockyard to Messrs. Shaw and Thomson. He had, however, traced 500 tons of iron ballast from the dockyards into the possession of those brokers. That these gentlemen, who had made the Admiralty a handsome present by foregoing their bargain respecting the anchors, had been permitted to purchase the iron ballast at a cheap rate in consideration of their complaisance he thought highly improbable, but, as the statement to which he had referred had not been contradicted, he thought the Question he was about to put would afford the right hon. Gentleman an excellent opportunity for purging himself of the imputations contained in it. He had no official information on the subject, and it might be that he had been misled. He had heard the unpleasant construction he had hinted at placed upon the affair by a man in the street, but as nearly every other person one met in the street now-a-days was a discharged and distressed Admiralty official, perhaps not much attention should be paid to the interpretation they put upon the conduct of the naval authorities. If the iron ballast had been sold for £2 2s. per ton it had been thrown away, because, according to the evidence taken before the Committee appointed on the Motion of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Seely), £4 per ton was the minimum price for which the ballast should be sold, and oven £6 per ton might be expected to be obtained for it. He would remind the House that the right hon. Gentleman had charged the late Government with waste in selling the same kind of ballast at prices varying from £3 10s. to £4 per ton. The matter had received currency from what had appeared in print, and it had been very much commented on, and he had no, doubt the Admiralty would thank him for giving them the opportunity of explaining it. The Question he had to put to the right hon. Gentleman was, Whether the statement that had appeared in the newspapers with reference to the sale and recovery of Anchors by the Admiralty was or was not correct?


said, the story was quite true. He had received some information respecting this transaction from one of the parties to it, who stated that he had purchased from the Government 261 anchors, and that after he had so purchased them the Admiralty had discovered that they had made a mistake and had sold him new instead of old anchors, and that thereupon the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter) sent to him to ascertain if they could be redelivered to the store. It was found on inquiry that a part of the number had been delivered by the buyers to parties who purchased them, but Messrs. Shaw and Thompson succeeded in getting them back at a cost of between £ 1,500 and £1,600. All the House required to know was on what terms they had been re-delivered to the Admiralty—whether by a sacrifice on the part of the Government, or by some other equivalent. He found in the Navy Estimates a charge for pig-iron, for the use of the Admiralty yards, and he should like also to know why new pig-iron was purchased when they were selling old ballast at £2 2s. per ton?


said, that as he was more particularly responsible formatters of purchase and sale, perhaps the House would permit him to answer the Questions put to his right hon. Friend, who, however, he believed, had intended explaining the point raised by the hon. and gallant Member opposite (Sir John Hay) in the course of his statement in Committee. The First Lord frit rather aggrieved that the subject had been introduced in this form; at the same time, he was personally obliged at being afforded that public opportunity of telling the anchor story—in the first place, because it was very instructive in itself; secondly, with one unimportant exception, it was the only mistake which had been made in the very laborious and difficult task of gathering into one focus all the purchases and sales of the Admiralty, formerly carried on by the various departments in the most odd manner; and, lastly, because it would afford the House a remarkable example of that vis inertiœ constantly interposed in order to avert the efforts of administrative reformers, but which his right hon. Friend at the head of the Admiralty and his Colleagues were determined to overcome. The plain facts of the case were that, in the month of July last, his excellent Friend Sir Spencer Robinson, than whom there was no more real and earnest naval reformer, and to whom the country was greatly indebted, inquired of him one day whether it would not be better to sell some of those old and useless anchors that lay about in the yards, and were worth to the Navy little more than old iron. The question had been suggested by the fact that a firm of great respectability in the City, having an order on hand for some great international work in which these anchors could be used, could give for them a better price than the Admiralty would otherwise be able to command. His answer to Sir Spencer was—"By all means; we have acres of ground covered by anchors at the various yards which ought to have been sold long ago." Nor was this a figure of speech; for at this moment there were 1,100 anchors, covering several acres of ground, all of which, after careful survey by officers of the Admiralty, had been pronounced totally unfit for Her Majesty's ships. The price of old iron was well known to Members of the House of Commons, and hon. Gentlemen would be able to appreciate the handsome price of £6 15s. a ton for old and useless anchors. Very well satisfied with the bargain, he ordered the anchors to be delivered, and neither he nor his Colleagues heard anything more of the transaction until October, when rumours reached them through the newspapers to the effect that Messrs Shaw and Thomson, to whom the 261 anchors had been sold, had got possession of a very different article from that which they believed they had bought. On inquiry, he found that this report was only too true; and he would explain how it happened. Anchors were classed in the Government yards under three heads; firstly, there were old obsolete anchors, worth only their price as old iron; secondly, there were unappropriated anchors, some fit for service and some unfit; and thirdly, there were the appropriated, which, as their name implied, were designed for particular ships. Sir Spencer Robinson, in writing out the order for the delivery of these anchors, by a mere slip of the pen, and not from any error of judgment, used the word "unappropriated," instead of "obsolete," no doubt having in his mind at the moment the hope of making an equally good bargain with respect to some of the unappropriated anchors. Now came the point of the case. The accident was noticed in the Store Department, and the price and the terms on which the anchors were sold were at at once communicated in a letter of advice to the superintendents of the various yards, who, no doubt, also communicated the particulars to the storekeepers, who had charge of the anchors. The terms of sale were quite sufficient to show to all those gentlemen at Whitehall and at the various yards that a clerical error had been committed, but he was sorry to say no one from July to October considered it his duty to point out to any of the Lords of the Admiralty that there was a mistake. As soon, however, as the Lords of the Admiralty did become aware of the error he (Mr. Baxter) at once communicated with Messrs. Shaw and Thomson; and on Mr. Shaw calling at Whitehall he told him in the frankest manner the whole story, and asked him to do what many hon. Members had in transacting their private affairs asked of men of business—and that was not to take advantage of the mistake they had made. Mr. Shaw answered, "You have been very frank with me; I will be the same with you. We bought the anchors believing them to be worth simply the price of old iron, and I hadn't the slightest conception of the mistake which had been made. But I have a story almost as curious as yours. In consequence of a delay of two or three days in mentioning that we were ready to deliver the anchors the order upon which we were acting was countermanded, and we found ourselves in possession of 261 old anchors which we did not know how in the world to sell; in fact, we found we had bought a white elephant, and we were just on the point of coming back to the Admiralty to ask whether the anchors could not be returned at a reduction in price, when a gentleman came into our office and offered us a price for them which would give us a considerable profit, and which I was only only too happy to accept. However," added Mr. Shaw, "I shall do all I can to get that party to cancel the contract." He then talked with Mr. Shaw of the discreditable state of the yards, especially Portsmouth, as far as the accumulation of old stores was concerned, and asked him whether he could assist him in the sale of boilers and engines, mixed metal and iron of all kinds, lying about the yards and deteriorating every day. Mr. Shaw promised to do his best, and said that he and his partner would go down to the various yards and select articles that could be sold. The Lords of the Admiralty had experienced the greatest possible difficulty in obtaining the requisite information from the officers of the yards with respect to articles which ought no longer to be kept. He might add that of the 261 anchors only 120 had been delivered, and of this 120 only 31 happened to be serviceable to the Navy. Mr. Shaw, in the course of a subsequent interview, had told him he had failed to get the third party to cancel the contract altogether, except on the payment of £600; but as that sum would, no doubt, be more than compensated by the commission they would receive for the duties they were undertaking for the Admiralty, he would not ask the Government to repay him. Mr. Shaw had since sold for Government some of Seely's pigs, but the two transactions had no connection with each other, and therefore it would be wrong in him to enter then on that subject. [Sir JOHN HAY: At what price?] At £2 5s. per ton. Messrs. Shaw and Thomson had sold for the Government during the last few weeks no less than £50,000 worth of old iron and other articles at very excellent prices. The Government had been informed by naval officers that the prices were far higher than they could have expected to obtain. The country had not lost a single shilling by the transaction, and he hoped the House would draw a moral from the tale.


said, he could not refrain from addressing a few remarks to the House in reference to this subject. It appeared to him that the statement just made by the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Baxter) was so thoroughly unsatisfactory that it ought not to be allowed to pass unchallenged even before the right hon. Gentleman rose to move the Estimates. He wished in the first place to defend his hon. and gallant Friend (Sir John Hay) from the charge of having unduly brought this question under the notice of the House. The hon. Baronet had made a very concise statement, which was accompanied by a courteous offer to leave it to the First Lord of the Admiralty to say when and how he should answer the Question he was about to put. Considering, however, that the Admiralty had trumpeted forth its great administrative ability, the country surely had a right to have such rumours as had been lately circulated in the columns of the newspapers contradicted on the authority of the First Lord of the Admiralty himself. The hon. Gentleman the Secretary of the Admiralty had talked about the acres and acres of unserviceable anchors in our dockyards. Now, during the three years he (Lord Henry Lennox) had the honour of holding the Office now filled by the hon. Gentleman, there were certainly not in our dockyards acres of unserviceable anchors. A great many were among the very finest and most valuable anchors made in England, and Mr. Trotman had pronounced our anchors to be the very best in the world. There were besides a certain number of anchors, which, though not of that superior quality, were nevertheless thoroughly efficient and available for harbour service. He was unable to resist the temptation to perpetrate a bad joke. The hon. Gentleman had attributed the mistake to a lapsus pennœ on the part of the Controller General, but he would remark that it might have resulted in a lapsus poundi to the nation. The hon. Gentleman had also found fault with the clerks for allowing months to elapse without giving information concerning the mistake, but, in his opinion, that circumstance was simply a proof of the bad effect of the abolition of the Store Department. Had not the various departments of the Admiralty been denuded of clerks by the dozen, the Storekeeper General, had there been a Storekeeper General, would have had sufficient leisure to inform himself of the mistake, which, considering the generosity displayed by Messrs. Shaw and Thomson, might have been easily remedied in the course of forty-eight hours. He had no desire to interpose himself between the House and the interesting statement which the right hon. Gentleman was about to make, but before sat down he hoped he should be permitted to say a few words respecting the "pigs" which had been sold; for £2 5s. a ton. Now, unless he had been misinformed, these "pigs" were not only sold at £2 5s. a ton, but the Government paid the cost of removing them from the yard, which could not be less than 7s. per ton, so that in reality the "pigs" fetched only £1 15s. per ton. [Laughter.] He begged pardon, he should of course have said £1 18s. per ton; but he was very glad to find that hon. Members paid such close attention to his statement that they were able to trip him up in his arithmetic. During the time he was in Office there was a great deal of inquiry respecting the value of these "pigs," and the subject was considered not only in that House, but by the Admiralty Accounts Committee. It was then stated by the Director of Works under the Admiralty that, in his opinion, after being taken up and replaced by available materials, they would represent a value of between £5 and £6 per ton. Where was the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Seely)? Two years ago, when the Admiralty sold a portion of this ballast iron at £2 10s. a ton, that hon. Gentleman rose in virtuous indignation to denounce the Government for having parted with it at so paltry a price. Why, then, he would ask, was not the hon. Gentleman in his place to-night to raise his voice in behalf of the public interest? The hon. Gentleman was highly indignant when the iron was sold at £2 10s. a ton, but he had nothing to say now about its being sold for £1 18s.