HC Deb 31 May 1870 vol 201 cc1703-15

said, it would be in the recollection of the House that, on the first evening devoted to the Navy Estimates, the Secretary to the Admiralty made a statement, from which it was made to appear that certain stocks of victualling stores and Navy clothing were not only extravagantly, but absurdly in excess of the requirements of the service. The statement caused a great deal of merriment at the expense of former Boards of Admiralty, including all that had been in Office since 1854, and, therefore, various Liberal Boards. On hearing the statement he was satisfied that the hon. Member had found "a mare's nest," and although a Return was afterwards laid on the Table which afforded a literal confirmation of the hon. Gentleman's statement with regard to Deptford Victualling Yard, a single glance at it was sufficient to show that it was absolutely valueless as a confirmation of the impression which that statement was intended to convey. It was so for two reasons—first, because it specified the quantities in store in, and the issues from, one victualling yard only; and secondly, because it showed the issues during only one year, instead of on an average of years, by which alone a correct estimate could be formed of the requirements of the service. Of the three prin- cipal victualling yards—Deptford, Gosport, and Plymouth, Deptford was the least calculated to throw any light on the subject; because, while it was the principal depôt of stores for the supply of other yards, it was the yard from which the smallest direct issues were made to Her Majesty's ships, more especially since the abolition of Woolwich Dockyard. The issues of stores might be very large in a given year without there being any great demand on Deptford within that year. Suppose at the commencement of a year there were 5,000 bottles of wine in store at Gosport, and 4,000 were issued in the year to the ships in the Portsmouth harbour and at Spithead, that issue might occur without there being any demand on Deptford for the year; but, in the following year, there would be a demand on Deptford to replenish the stock at Gosport. Again, nothing was more uncertain than the quantity of clothing which would be required for seamen in the course of a year. Clothing was not supplied to sailors as it was to Marines, gratuitously; and you could not tell in respect of sailors, as you could of Marines, how many jackets and other articles would be required, for it was quite optional with the sailor, so long as he was dressed according to the regulation, whether he obtained what was necessary under the regulations respecting dress during the course of the year, and whether he obtained it at the slop-shop or from the Government stores. Moreover, the descriptions of clothing required depended in a great measure on accidental circumstances. The hon. Member complained that the stock of warm clothing was excessive in relation to the issues last year; but these would have been much larger if the Channel Squadron—one of the largest divisions of the fleet—had wintered, as usual, on the Home Station, instead of in a warm climate—between Lisbon and the Azores. As, for these reasons, it was obvious that the Return of the hon. Gentleman opposite was not worth the paper on which it was written, he thought it his duty to move for a more comprehensive Return, which he thought would show the real aspects of the case, and it was this Return to which he wished to call attention. The Return embraced the total quantities of stores in each of the three victualling yards of Deptford, Gosport, and Plymouth, the prices at which the purchases were made under the last contracts, the date of the last purchase or contract—a point which was material as bearing on the censure implied on former Boards—the quantities issued during each of the last three years, the average issues for periods of three, five, and seven years, and the length of time the quantities in stock would last on each average. In the first place, he would proceed to show what would have been the state of the ease if he had done as the hon. Gentleman had done, and if, in 1868, when preparing the Navy Estimates, he had called for Returns of the stock, not in one, but in the three yards, and had compared those Returns with the consumption for the preceding year. If he had done so they would have shown a very different state of things from that shown by the hon. Gentleman, and, in hardly any instance, would the stock have appeared excessive. He did not know what the stock was on the 1st of January, 1868; but he would assume it was the same as it was on the 1st of January, 1870. The hon. Gentleman had said that, on comparing the store of essence of beef at Deptford in 1870 with the issues in 1869, there was in hand a seven years' supply. The total quantity was 103,900 quarter pints; in 1867, 38,500 were issued for Abyssinia, and 61,200 for general service; so that the stock would have been equal to a supply for one year and eight months, instead of seven years. The hon. Gentleman further said that there was a stock of four years' pickles in hand. The total value of the stock in all the yards was £14; and the value of the stock in the Deptford Yard was £6 9s. 2d. It must be gratifying to the House to know that the hon. Member would effect a great saving under this head. The total quantity was 1,305 quarts, and the issues in 1867, after abating 427 quarts for Abyssinia, were 1,370 quarts, so that he (Mr. Corry) would have found a stock less than was necessary for one year's supply, instead of for four years. These two articles—essence of beef and pickles—were the only articles of which the Return showed any extra issues on account of Abyssinia. Next, the hon. Member said there was 6½ years' supply of white wine. The total quantity was 22,700 bottles; the issues in 1867 were 17,800 bottles; so that there would have been a sup- ply for about 15 months instead of 6½ years. If the hon. Gentleman thought this was an extravagantly large stock he himself must share the responsibility, for the last purchase, as stated in the Return, was made under a contract dated 1869, five months after the service had the advantage of his superintendence of the purchase department. The hon. Gentleman next said there was a supply of saloon candles for 10¾ years. The total quantity was 45,500 lb., and the issues in 1867 were 18,000 lb., so that there would have been a supply for two years and six months instead of 10¾ years. He admitted that the quantity was larger than was necessary; but this, he was informed, was owing to a mistake of a clerk in demanding candles instead of pounds. He now came to the famous foot-pieces for stockings. The hon. Member in his speech had said— There was an article called foot-pieces for stockings for men. This must have been a nice little job in times past. He had found no less than 50 years' supply of these articles. The job must have been a very little one, because the entire value of the whole stock was only £285. The entire stock was stated to be 9,700, against an issue in 1867 of 6,500; so that, if he had called for a Return to guide him for the Estimates for 1868, he should have found the supply equal to about a year and a-half's consumption instead of 50 years. The history of these foot-pieces was this—In 1866 some benevolent individual suggested to the Duke of Somerset's Board that, as the feet of the men's stockings wore out before the legs, and Jack was very handy with his needle, it would be well that new foot-pieces should be supplied in order that they might be joined onto the sound legs, and accordingly a number of the foot-pieces were purchased with that view. At first these foot-pieces were very popular in the Navy, and in 1867 no less than 6,500 were demanded. For some reason, however, their popularity soon declined, and the consumption fell to 2,506 in 1868, and to 480 in 1869. Perhaps none were being used in 1870, and the hon. Member might then say that there were enough of them in stock to last till the Millennium instead of for 50 years. Then, as to the blue cloth No. 2, with respect to which the hon. Member was more facetious than upon any other article. The hon. Membersaid— The right hon. Gentleman talked of starving the Navy, and said they had no cloth—no clothing for the Marines! Good gracious! Of blue cloth No. 2 they had 7¾ years' supply. Now the quantity of blue cloth No. 2 actually in stock, on the 1st of last January, was 35,600 yards, being about half-a-yard per man, while the issue in 1867 was 17,700 yards. Thus the stock would only have met the consumption of two years, instead of 7¾ years. But the best part of the joke was that the hon. Member himself was responsible for any excess in the store of this cloth, because the last purchase of blue cloth was made by himself, under a contract of the 29th of May, 1869. The hon. Member stated that the number of Flushing jackets in stock was equal to 13 years' consumption, whereas the number in stock was 8,900, while the issue in 1867 was 2,800. Thus, the amount of these articles in stock could barely have exceeded three, instead of 13, years' consumption. He had been told that this description of clothing had become unpopular in the Navy; and, as he had already shown, the demand for articles of warm clothing depended, in a great measure, on accidental circumstances. The hon. Member had stated that there was 3½ years' consumption of comforters in stock, whereas there was only one year and four months' consumption in stock, calculated on the demands in 1867. Again, of striped shirting, the hon. Member stated that there was five years' consumption in stock, whereas, at the rate of the demands in 1867, there was really only a sufficient supply in hand for one year and two months. In respect of these two last articles the hon. Member was, again, himself responsible, because he had purchased large quantities of them under a contract of May, 1869. The hon. Member had stated that there was seven years' supply of towelling in hand, whereas there was really only two years' supply in stock, at the rate of the issues in 1867. The total quantities in stock on the 1st of January, 1870,in relation to the total issues of 1867 in no case exceeded three years' supply, and in only four out of the ten instances given did it exceed two years' supply. Had he, therefore, adopted the course taken by the hon. Member, and called for Returns of quantities in store, assuming them to be the same as in January last, and the issues for the year 1867 in preparing the Estimates of 1868, he should have found nothing very excessive in respect of the articles enumerated. The figures he had quoted showed the total quantities in the three yards on the first of January, 1870, and the time they would last at the rate of issues in 1867, the year preceding that of his Estimates for 1868–69. He would now take the entire quantities of these articles in stock on the 1st of January, 1870, and in the three yards, and would compare them with the issues during the last three years, instead of in one year, and from one yard only, as had been done by the hon. Gentleman. Essence of beef was sufficient for two years and one month, instead of for seven years, as stated by the hon. Member; pickles, for one year and six months, instead of for four years; white wine, for two years and two months, instead of for six years and six months; saloon candles, for three years, instead of for ten years and nine months; foot-pieces for stockings, for three years, instead of for 50 years; blue cloth, No. 2, for two years and. seven months, instead of for seven years and nine months; Flushing jackets, No. 1, for five years, instead of 13 years; comforters, for one year and nine months, instead of for three years and six months; striped shirting, for one year and ten months, instead of for five years; towellings, for two years and seven months, instead of for seven years. Therefore, taking the entire quantity in stock, it only in one instance exceeded three years' expenditure on the average of three years. The hon. Member, by taking only one yard and one year, had given an entirely false impression of the actual state of things. On the average of five years the stock in no case exceeded 3½ years' consumption, and on the average of seven years in no case exceeded the consumption of 3 1–6. The entire value of the various articles enumerated in the three yards was £45,203. The value of the stocks of which the last purchases were made before the present Board came into Office was £18,579, while the value of the articles of which the last purchases were made by the present Board was £26,625. The hon. Member's statement referred to Deptford Yard only, where the entire value of the stock amounted to no more than £38,000, but he informed us that in consequence of his discoveries in that yard he had advised the reduction of the Victualling Vote by £47,000. It would be interesting to know on what principle he had given this advice, as it might throw some light upon the manner in which the large reductions effected by the present Board of Admiralty had been made under the various heads of expenditure.


said, the right hon. I Gentleman had characterized the Returns which he had laid upon the Table of the House as worthless; but he submitted that the figures of the right hon. Gentleman were both false and misleading. The right hon. Gentleman had taken no account whatever of the stocks in the depôts abroad, or of the recent reduction in the number of men, which had been reduced from 72,000 in 1864 to 61,000 in 1870. The statements he had made on a former occasion had been founded on the result of inquiries instituted by the Captain Superintendent of Deptford Dockyard, whose zeal and ability he trusted the Admiralty would not suffer to pass unnoticed. The officers who had conducted the inquiry had expressly informed him that the year 1867, which had been taken by the right hon. Gentleman as the basis of his calculations, was so exceptional that it must be altogether excluded from the inquiry on account of the Abyssinian War.


stated that he had expressly excluded the items applicable to the Abyssinian War from his figures.


observed that those items were so mixed up with the other matters that it was impossible to separate them. The right hon. Gentleman had complained that he omitted in his statement to refer to certain dockyards, and had confined himself to Deptford; but the right hon. Gentleman knew the stock in these yards was exceedingly small; and the right hon. Gentleman had also remarked that if he had gone some years further back, he would have found much larger quantities of surplus stores. In reply, he said he could only speak as to what he found when he came into Office; and what he did find was great excess in the public Departments. The right hon. Gentleman had also remarked that he (Mr. Baxter) must bear his share of the responsibility, as he was at the head of the Department when some of this surplus was accumulated. He was willing to share the responsibility attaching to him; but the House would remember that he had many other things to do at the time, and that was the reason he had been foolish enough last year to order a quantity of articles, of which there was already five or six years' supply in the yards. The right hon. Gentleman had spoken of white wine returned during the Abyssinian War. The excessive supply in this case arose from an error by a clerk in the victualling department, who wrote gallons instead of bottles, and caused the delivery of six times the quantity wanted. Very much the same thing occurred with respect to candles. The history of the stockings, as it had been told him by an hon. Member whom he had no reason to doubt, was simply this. A gentleman in the Midland Counties, with "a bee in his bonnet," conceived the notion that one pair of stocking legs would wear out three pair of stocking feet; and he thought it exceedingly probable that the sailors of the fleet, having little to do, could spend their time in knitting the feet to the stockings. Nobody, however, would buy his wares, until, by some mysterious influence at the Admiralty that never could be explained, he got them to take the greater part of his stock. The other day, what was left of it, was sold for mere waste by his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield. As regards blue cloth, the right hon. Gentleman had stated that there was only two and a-half years' supply; but he had been assured by the officials that there was not less than eight and a-half years' stock; and, notwithstanding this, he was this year asked to buy 2,000 yards mare. The result of these discoveries was, that the Government were able to take off at the last moment, £43,000. The savings in the Victualling Vote alone amounted to no less than £150,000 on the current year. He was not surprised the right hon. Gentleman should have been mislead by the information given him by the victualling department from time to time; for, the more he looked into it, the more he was astonished, that a great country should have been conducting its business concerns in so extraordinary a manner. He would give an example or two. Take the article of tea. When that article was wanted, the department, instead of giving an order for it, issued advertisements which contained conditions and fines of all sorts, which vexatious things scared the large dealers away. Then the agents came in—men without capital or an ounce of tea they could call their own—and the same men who took the contract for peas and for wheat generally got the contract for tea. A part of the process was to require a surety from two persons that the contract would be fulfilled; but, strange to say, this was more often than not filled up after the contract had been completed. The document contained 20 clauses; eight to provide against the natural wickedness of all contractors, three essential to the carrying out of the contract, and the rest were lawyers' verbiage. He found a pile of these contracts, six feet high; and he at once sent them to be made into pulp, and many others had shared the same fate. He held in his hand a letter sent from a first-class firm of linen manufacturers to a very able assistant of his, and they said that they regretted to state that it was out of their power to tender for the required articles, as they could not possibly agree to the conditions of the contract stated in the schedule. They said that they could not engage to wash and prepare the article, and they respectfully declined to give sureties for the performance of the contract. He inquired as to the bills of lading used by the Department, and he held in his hand one of these documents. It was contained in 19 pages, and four copies were written out. One was retained in the Department, one was sent abroad, one was for the Commander-in-chief, and another for the captain of the ship. This document contained the cost price of every article, so that the prices all became known to the captain of the merchant ship who carried them abroad. The hon. and gallant Member (Sir James Elphinstone) last night referred to the article of oil, and he seemed to think that, without any consideration, the Admiralty had changed the character of the oil that was used in the Navy. Now, in respect to the article of sperm oil, his attention was particularly directed to the large expenditure made upon it. The last price paid for the supply of that oil to the Navy was £134 a ton. It appeared that in accepting that tender no reference whatever was made to the price current of the day, and it turned out that though the Admiralty had agreed to pay £134 a ton for the ar- ticle, the price of the same oil quoted in the same week did not exceed £126 a ton. Well, he also thought it his duty to inquire of the best authorities what was the best kind of oil to use in lighting ships. Samples of colza oil were sent to all the ships in the service, and with the exception of one they reported in favour of that description of oil. Consequently, all the vessels in the Navy were now supplied with colza oil, which cost £38 15s. a ton, whereas sperm oil cost £134 a ton. On this article alone there would be a saving of between £6,000 and £7,000. Again, an inferior kind of oil was brought from all parts of the South of Europe into London, where it was put into casks, and it was afterwards received by the Navy as Gallipoli oil. Instead of that inferior article—the last price paid for which was £74 per ton—the service was now supplied with different and better kinds of oil, which cost between £40 and £45 a ton. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tyrone said last night that under the former system of contracts at the Admiralty it was quite impossible for abuses to arise. He said that Gambier represented he had influence at the Admiralty, whereas, in fact, he had none. This only showed, how green the right hon. Gentleman was. He was sorry to say it was perfectly well known in the City that the system of "tipping" prevailed extensively both in London and at the dockyards in connection with these contracts. Indeed, Mr. Gambier had confessed since being sent to prison that a series of items, found entered in his book and embracing columns, represented bribes which he had received in connection with contracts. These, too, were not bribes of £10 or £20, but very much larger sums; and the right hon. Gentleman could not for a moment suppose that commercial houses would go on expending such large sums year after year if they did not gain some proportionate benefit. The way in which the system was worked had been told to the Admiralty by other parties. It appeared that certain tenders made to the Admiralty had been opened, with all solemnity, at Somerset House in the presence of the superintending authorities; but the right hon. Gentleman and the House would probably feel surprised at hearing that other tenders had been opened under different circum- stances, and that certain messengers at Somerset House had had keys to open the boxes in which such tenders were kept. Now, that was the mode by which a great deal of those improper practices was carried on. It also, too, often occurred that when the schedule of articles required for the Navy was made up, two or three of the most important articles were purposely omitted. A hint was then given to the contracting party to offer a very low figure for the articles in the schedule, and then, when they obtained the contract, to supply the most important articles omitted, upon the understanding conveyed in a note which was to be found at the foot of each contract—namely, "All other articles required to be supplied at prices fair and reasonable." Now, the meaning of "fair and reasonable prices" in the minds of the contractors was very different from that which other persons would put upon them when applied to the sums set down for the articles in question. The prices charged were, at all events, amply sufficient to repay the contractors for any deficiency they had suffered from the low contract prices of the scheduled articles. He found in some cases that three-fourths of the whole contract were for the supply of the three largest articles which had been thus, as it were, accidentally omitted from the schedule; and as an illustration of the enormous amounts charged by contractors, he might say that for one particular article the Admiralty had been paying 9s. 9d. whereas one of the largest houses in the metropolis had agreed to furnish the same for 3s. 3d. When the Estimates were before the House last year the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tyrone, amongst other charges against the Admiralty, stated that they had been supplying inferior hemp to the Navy, and that if an unfortunate vessel happened to be driven upon a lee shore the unhappy sailors would have no reason to bless the Government for the strength of the ropes they had furnished them with, and upon which their lives mainly depended. Now, he (Mr. Baxter) had never heard of that circumstance until it was then mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman opposite. On the following day he had made it his business to inquire into the matter, and he found that there was not the slightest foundation for the statement. He felt, therefore, he had reason to complain of the course taken by the right hon. Gentleman, and other ex-Lords of the Admiralty, in going down to the dockyards and putting themselves in communication with discontented admirals and other grumblers, not for the purpose of assisting to put the Navy in an efficient state, but to enable them to repeat in that House some wretched tittle-tattle for which there was not the shadow of a foundation. The present Board of Admiralty had endeavoured, to the best of their ability, to reduce the expenditure, and at the same time to procure the very best articles for the use of the Navy. If, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman could really point out any articles which were of inferior quality, they would be greatly obliged to him. He was convinced, however, from personal visits paid to the dockyards and from the information he had received, that at the present moment the Navy was being supplied with cheaper and better stores than it had ever got before.


said, that as the Government were endeavouring to carry out a system of economy which was strongly recommended by a Committee of that House, it was only fair that hon. Gentlemen on both sides should suspend their judgment until the new system had been fully and fairly tried. If it were then found necessary to institute a Committee of Inquiry, he was sure that the House would willingly assent to it. It was clear that, in reference to the new purchase system, competent persons were differing in their opinions as to the working of it. It seemed to him that all would go on smoothly and well, provided they had a thoroughly competent man, such as the present hon. Secretary, in the position of Financial Secretary of the Admiralty, he being in fact the head of the purchase department. On the contrary, if that duty devolved upon an incompetent person, and the business unfortunately fell into the hands of subordinates, it was almost certain that a large amount of jobbery would take place; but the same observation applied to every other Department of the State. He did not hesitate to say that the whole system of purchase and sale of stores had been in former times most unsatisfactory, and he was happy to find that there was a reduction to the extent of one-third in mere clerical labour, whilst he had no reason to doubt that a large amount of efficiency was also secured.


said, he had the honour some years ago of serving on the Contracts Committee, when the existence of many abuses and incongruities was proved. He thanked the Government for what they had done on behalf of the taxpayers of the country. In the new management of the Admiralty it appeared to him that the Board had made a change which was working well both for the service and the country. He, for one, felt thankful to the hon. Gentleman the present Secretary of the Admiralty (Mr. Baxter) for the zeal and ability he had shown in the administration of his Department. There were many people in the country watching with great interest what was taking place.

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