HC Deb 17 May 1870 vol 201 cc815-24

rose, according to Notice, to move— That, in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Government should invite the co-operation of the French Government for the purpose of improving the Channel Passage between the two Countries. He was sorry to say he found it very difficult to convince anyone of the importance of that subject, and he feared that neither the House nor the public would give to it the attention it deserved until some terrible catastrophe occurred, either from the great difficulty now experienced in entering the Channel ports, or from the insufficiency of the boats which the present Channel packets were enabled to convey, with a view to the safety of their passengers in the event of accidents. The physical consequences of the improvements he would advocate were that by means of larger vessels they would gain greater speed and more certainty, together with much additional safety in making the passage. He need not say that the moral effects of these improvements would also be very great. He was told, on the best authority, that the number of passengers who would cross the Channel, if they were not deterred by the insufficient size of the packets, would be very large indeed, and that the value of the traffic now passing that way from England into the port of Boulogne was £19,000,000, while the traffic entering all the ports generally on the English side amounted only to about £12,000,000. By improved arrangements that traffic in passengers and in goods might be very largely increased, the result of which would be that both countries would obtain a better knowledge of each other, would learn how they could become more useful to each other, and thus their relations of mutual friendship and goodwill would be placed even on a firmer basis than that on which they now stood. Last Session he brought forward a similar Motion to the present; but by a mishap the discussion upon it came to an untimely end. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Shaw-Lefevre) disclaimed having been the cause of that misfortune; and, although the evidence against him was strong enough to sink one of the iron-clads of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Childers) who sat next him, yet he placed perfect confidence in his disclaimer. After the failure of that Motion all that he could do was to ask a question or two on the subject, which, of course, could not be followed by discussion. Still, the public began to reflect with some uneasiness upon the smallness of the vessels in which they had to cross the Channel, and which, were to be exchanged for still smaller vessels in winter, the very season in which vessels of more power and greater size were most required. The public also began to feel some indignation at the persecution which, owing to the supineness of the Board of Trade and the South Eastern Railway Company, passengers had suffered for so many years on arriving at the port of Boulogne. He had asked the hon. Gentleman opposite whether he was aware that those Channel packets, which sometimes carried 200 or 300 passengers, did not carry more than sufficient boats to save 30 or 40 persons besides the crew in case of accident? The answer he received was "Yes." He also asked whether paddle boats could not be fitted on the paddle-wheels of steam packets? a question to which he got no answer at all. Now, he had been informed by a gallant and most skilful officer, who had for many years commanded a paddle-box man-of-war, that during the term of his command his vessel was fitted with large paddle-box boats, and that by means of "hinge davits" those boats could be safely launched in all seas without difficulty. That was a point which he thought the Board of Trade ought to consider, with a view to requiring the Channel packets to adopt some such expedient. Travellers generally were very ignorant of all matters concerning the passage across the Channel, and contented themselves in stormy weather with anathematizing the Board of Trade, the boats, and everything connected with them; and, therefore, it would be impossible for them to judge of the advantages that would be derived from bringing the Folkestone and Boulogne boats to Dover, without waiting for those more important im- provements which he trusted before long would be carried into effect. With the exception of a little occasional grumbling, the public did not do much in the way of stimulating the action necessary to be taken for the improvement of the ports on either side of the Channel. Before putting his Motion he would make one or two remarks relative to the four ports on the English and French coasts used as arrival and departure stations for the two different services. The packet service between Dover and Calais was partly French and partly English, and it was called, although, its name was somewhat of a delusion, a fixed packet service. The tidal service, as it was called, between Folkestone and Boulogne was a purely English service, and the time of the starting of it was regulated, as its name implied, by the state of the tide. Although Folkestone Harbour represented an area of 14 or 16 acres, a large portion of that consisted of mud banks, and the vessels employed in the service, being frequently unable to swing, were obliged, like Black Rod, after delivering a message to the Speaker, to back out, in a not very graceful manner, stern foremost. It was somewhat surprising that, although the Folkestone boats started for Boulogne from that harbour, the passage from Dover to Boulogne was considerably shorter, besides being better and safer, in consequence of the dangerous shoals which lay directly between Folkestone and Boulogne, the edge of which was almost scraped by the vessels running between those ports in their passage across the Channel. Vessels starting from Folkestone for Boulogne lost from an hour and a-half to two hours of the tide, a disadvantage that would not be encountered if the port of Dover were substituted for that of Folkestone. The next point to which he would refer was one which concerned the shareholders in the Folkestone Company rather than that House. It was most unnecessary that the South Eastern Company should keep up at Folkestone a very large staff and building at an enormous expense almost within sight of a similar establishment at Dover. It would be unjust were he to leave the question of this port without fully admitting that the company had carried out their tidal service with the greatest excellence, speed, and safety, while their captains had always shown themselves anxiously zealous in the discharge of their duties, which in heavy weather were exceedingly arduous and responsible. He might also testify to the excellence of their boats, which were far superior to those which ran between Dover and Calais. He did not believe, considering the shallow entrance of the ports they started from, that human skill could produce vessels either of greater speed or possessing finer sea-going qualities. Still, the motto of the company should be "Excelsior," which he would translate as meaning—"Let the Folkestone Company, for the advantage of the public, move bag and baggage to Dover as soon as they possibly can." It was unnecessary for him to give the House any lengthened description of Dover. The pier at that port was a great national work, and he might say that it was one of the few great national works of which they, as Englishmen, might well feel proud. The Dover Pier had fully answered the purposes for which it had been built; it extended some 2,200 feet into the Channel; and he did not believe there had been one single day during the last 18 months when the packets were not able to start, or when they could not disembark their passengers conveniently. The same praise, however, could not be awarded to the service between that port and Boulogne. He must protest against the assumption that the Dover Company carried out their professions. Since he had undertaken to bring this matter forward he had seen endless letters from passengers who had been deluded into going down to the pier at Dover in the belief that the boats would start at a fixed hour. After considerable delay the boats proceeded across the Channel at half-speed, so as not to arrive too early outside the port of Calais. He had known the boats of this service, in the months of March and April, frequently remain under the shelter of the pier at Dover for hours, in berths which, they occupied with a fixity of tenure that would have almost satisfied an Irish tenant. He knew very well what was the cause of this delay—it was occasioned by the prevalence of a strong easterly wind, and, doubtless, if the packet boat had sense and feeling it would prefer to remain under shelter rather than to venture out in an easterly gale, and to cross the Channel at half-speed in order to knock about outside of Calais Harbour. It would tend greatly to the convenience and to the comfort of passengers, and to the speed and security of the mails, if the Post Office would authorize the mail boats to go to Boulogne at the times when the easterly wind was so strong as to render it necessary for the boats to remain at Dover Pier. He had himself seen pleasure boats disporting themselves outside Boulogne Harbour at a time when the easterly winds were so strong as to prevent the packet boats leaving Dover, in consequence of the sea off Calais being more than they could deal with. He had brought this proposal before the Post Office authorities last year without result, although at that time they were about entering into fresh contracts for the conveyance of the mails. The officials of the Post Office had received the proposal with every courtesy; but they had entirely contradicted what he had seen occur at Dover with his own eyes. He had heard it stated that we had almost completed a work at Dover which would fulfil all that was required for an improved service on the English side of the Channel—that, therefore, we could not be justly called upon to do more, and that the French must perform their part of the obligation by executing similar works at Calais. He wished, however, to point out to the House the difference between the importance of the Channel communication to France and to this country. From the French point of view the passage across the Channel was simply the road to one of the out-of-the way islands of Europe; to a foggy land which Frenchmen told us but few of their countrymen visited except from matters of duty or of business; to a country still deserving the description given of it by a French Ambassador in the time of Louis XV., that it was a land with 100 religions and only one sauce, and that was melted butter. The passage across the Channel, from an English point of view, was an entirely different matter. It was our sole road to France, to Europe, to Africa, and the Mediterranean, and to our Indian do minions, and, therefore, it was of the first importance to us that the ports on both sides of the Channel should be rendered as convenient as possible. He did not mean by his Motion that the Government should say to the French Government that if they would make a port we would pay for it; but he thought that our Government should be prepared to give a guarantee to any private company which should be inclined to accomplish the work. The matter should be looked at as though the ports on both sides of the Channel were the joint property of the two countries, and either country should be at liberty to express its opinions respecting the capabilities and the deficiencies of its neighbour's ports without fear of giving offence. As to Calais, he regretted to say that it was really a very bad port, and was almost beyond improvement. Not only was there a shoal two or three miles off the land, but there was also a sand quite close to the mouth of the port which rose until it was not more than 2½ feet under the surface of the sea, and an easterly wind made it shift many feet to the east or west. He spoke against the port of Calais with very much regret, because everything was done that Calais itself could, do for the speed and convenience of the passage and for the protection of the passengers from hardship. Now this formed a strong contrast to Boulogne, where, from greediness on the part of the town and supineness on the part of the South Eastern Company at their head-quarters in London, great inconvenience was suffered by passengers. He would now touch upon the improvements which it was presumed were about to be made in the French ports, and he had no doubt that the House would receive full information upon this point that night from Her Majesty's Government. The only projected improvement of which he had heard was, that the water in Calais Harbour was to be impounded and that the piers were to be lengthened. The only effect of using the water would be to drive silt out of the harbour; and as to the landing piers, it would be of no use to do the work unless they were prepared to carry them so far that they would extend beyond the harbour tide and into the true Channel tide. It would even then be doubtful whether the piers could be so constructed as to give efficient protection to boats when passengers were going on board or leaving. His only object in bringing forward this Motion was to obtain an affirmation of his opinion that at present the packet service was in a most unsatisfactory state. He believed unless there were such an affirmation of opinion that this time next year this important question would not be at all advanced towards completion. This being so, he appealed to the hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade to do all in his power to inquire into the whole of this question of international communication between the two countries, which, he repeated, was in a most dangerous and unsatisfactory condition. The hon. Baronet concluded by moving his Resolution.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, Her Majesty's Government should invite the co-operation of the French Government for the purpose of improving the Channel Passage between the two Countries."—(Sir William Gallwey.)


said, that he would not detain the House at any length; but he would say that he was quite prepared to admit the main facts upon which the hon. Baronet had relied to show the extreme imperfection of the means of communication between this country and Franco, and the great inconvenience that consequently arose to this country. He should, however, be able to show that the Government had, during the past year, done everything in its power to remedy these defects, and had hopes of ultimate success, at least in respect of the chief bar to improvement, the want of sufficient harbour accommodation on the other side of the Channel. This time last year, as the House would probably recollect, the Board of Trade instructed one of its Inspectors, Captain Tyler, to report upon the subject; and the result of his inspection had been laid on the Table. It fully confirmed the hon. Baronet's statement, and showed that at least half of the passengers across the Channel suffered extreme discomfort from the want of accommodation. Captain Tyler showed the difficulty of the case by the statement that only 90 days in the year could, on the average, be regarded as fine, 29 were stormy, and 102 he described as characterized by good round seas and breezes. Much of the inconvenience resulted from the smallness of the vessels; they were not more than 230 feet long, and drew only about six feet of water; but the want of harbour accommodation necessitated the use of small vessels, and it was impossible to use a better class of vessels until the harbour accommodation was improved. He could not, however, admit that these vessels were unsafe, for they had for many years performed the duty, not only with admirable certainty, but with such great safety that the peril to life was almost inappreciable. Captain Tyler had reported minutely as to the accommodation on both sides of the Channel. On our side, the pier at Dover was very nearly completed, and its completion would remedy, to a great extent, all defects on this side; for then, vessels of 400 feet long, and drawing 10 or 12 feet of water, might very well use Dover. But neither Calais nor Boulogne was at all suited for vessels of this kind; for there were sands that restricted us to vessels of the size of those now running. Captain Tyler investigated the schemes that had been proposed to remedy the present state of things on the other side, such as the enlargement of the harbour, and the forming of a harbour at Andre-selles, to the westward of Point Grisnez. He thought that it would be better to lengthen the pier at Boulogne than build a new harbour, and he considered that for £500,000 the western pier of Boulogne might be extended into deep water, so that vessels of 400 feet in length, and 10 or 12 feet draught, might easily enter the harbour. What, in his opinion, was chiefly wanted was improvement on the other side of the Channel. This Report was communicated to the French Government by Lord Lyons, and he said that he had on all occasions met with sympathy from the French Government. He (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) could not do better than read two extracts from letters addressed by Lord Lyons to Lord Clarendon on the subject. On the 15th of February last Lord Lyons wrote— On the 25th of July last, in obedience to the instructions contained in your Lordship's despatch of the 24th of that month, marked 'Commercial, No. 73,' I communicated to the French Government Captain Tyler's Report of the 29th of June, 1869, and the improvement of the means of communication between England and France. I have since taken every opportunity to urge the importance of the subject upon the attention of the French authorities, and to solicit their earnest attention to the various plans for improving this communication which have been laid before them. I have always obtained a willing hearing, and in particular I have found both the late Minister of Public Works, M. Greasier, and the present Minister, the Marquis de Talhouet, fully alive to the advantage of facilitating and accelerating the communication. The difficulty of taking any practical measures on the subject appears to be greatly enhanced by the rival claims of Calais and Boulogne, and by the strenuous opposition of both to all plans for forming a new harbour. In a later communication, dated the 29th of March, 1870, Lord Lyons wrote— I have not failed to pursue the subject with the French Ministers, and to urge them to hasten the labours of the various Boards and Councils to which schemes of this kind are referred in Trance. Yesterday I had some conversation with Count Daru respecting this matter. He assured me that the Government of the Emperor was fully alive to the importance of improving the communication between the two countries, and most anxious to do all in its power to assist in effecting so desirable an object. It appears that the scheme which has been specially examined by the French authorities, is that put forward by Messrs. Waring, who asked permission to construct a port at Andreselles. This scheme was, it Seems, made the subject of a conference between different Departments of the French Government, which resulted in a discussion in favour of its being taken into consideration. This preliminary formality having been accomplished, the scheme Was, it appears, referred to a commission of inspectors. Here, however, the Minister of Marine intervened, and required that before going any further the Department of Public Works should consult a naval commission. The naval commission reported favourably, and the affair was sent back on the 22nd instant to the commission of inspectors. The Marquess de Talhouet promises to examine the scheme with all the interest it merits as soon as the report of this last commission shall have been presented to him. The two countries were, in fact, anxious to do all in their power to facilitate the achievement of so important an object, and the House would, therefore, see that there was some prospect of a great improvement taking place. He believed that, at that very moment, there was a scheme to improve Dover Harbour, and it was based upon the supposition that something would be done for the formation of a harbour on the other side. A small sum would do all that was necessary on this side, whilst on the other side very extensive works were necessary. There appeared to be no difficulty in the way as regards money, because there was no want of enterprizing English capitalists ready at any time to back all manner of schemes if the French Government was indisposed to undertake the work itself. The only difficulty seemed was for the French Government to choose between the many rival schemes presented for its acceptance. But whatever more extensive scheme was resolved on in the fu- ture, he hoped that before long the simple remedy for improving the harbours on the French coast would be adopted, and an end be thus put to the present pressing inconvenience of small boats and generally imperfect accommodation. He trusted that, under these circumstances, the hon. Baronet would rest satisfied with having called attention to the subject, and withdraw his Motion.


said, he could perfectly well understand that the opposition of the ports of Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk might throw difficulties in the way of the French Government in supporting the formation of a new harbour. He should, accordingly, withdraw his Motion; but he did not believe that the time spent in its discussion had been wasted, for much interesting information had been elicited, which he hoped, as time progressed, would be deemed more important by the House and the country.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.