HC Deb 27 April 1871 vol 205 cc1822-30

, in moving the appointment of a Scientific Committee on Naval Design, said, that the Navy Estimates having come on unexpectedly, it would be undesirable for the First Lord now to press the third Vote. The Report of the Duke of Somerset's Committee was not yet before the House; and it was therefore impossible to deal with a branch of the subject to which a recent melancholy occurrence had imparted so momentous an interest. In April, 1863, he moved an Address to the House for the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the best mode of constructing iron-clad ships. The proposition led to considerable discussion, it being opposed by Lord Clarence Paget, then Secretary to the Admiralty, who said that it would be very unadvisable to refer such a matter to a Commission, and that it would create an imperium in imperio. He added that the Government had the best means of information on the subject, and as they were responsible to the House and the country for the construction of Her Majesty's ships, it would be better that this responsibility should rest in their hands. Considering, however, that iron as a material for shipbuilding had only then been newly introduced, and that the first attempts in vessels such as the Research had been unsatisfactory, he still believed that a small Committee of scientific naval men would have been useful. He did not wish them to dictate to the Admiralty as to the description of ships to be built; but when everything had been clearly laid down, it would be the duty of the Committee to take the drawings into consideration, and pronounce whether, in regard to safety, stability, &c., they would accomplish the objects the Admiralty had in view. His Motion was rejected; but the War Office were more wise. They appointed an "Iron Committee," whose labours were attended with great advantage to the service. He believed that if such a Committee as he proposed in 1863 had been appointed the Captain would never have gone to sea, for she would never have been laid down. There had been the most reckless innovations at the Admiralty of late years; its constitution had been destroyed; its naval element had been depressed; and the whole machinery of the Department had been brought into such a state of confusion, that the most fearful results had followed. As regarded the Captain, which vessel it was impossible to exclude from a discussion of this nature, he held that she was laid down under a dereliction of public duty, and that authority was given to private parties who were not responsible for the result. When, again, it was found that she was drawing too much water, she ought to have been returned to the shipbuilders in order to be brought back to her proper draught. He must again say, he believed that if such a council as he had advocated in 1863, and oftentimes since, had been in existence, we should not have witnessed the catastrophe which had only a few months since caused such general grief, nor should we have had to deplore so many and such expensive mistakes as those which had been of late years committed. Economy in this country appeared to be a fitful disease; but it should be remembered that it was far easier to pull down and destroy than to build up. He would give as an instance of what he had advanced, Sir James Graham, who, when he was at the Admiralty, resorted to economy, the result of which was, that the country had to pay £2 for every one thus imaginarily dispensed with. It would, however, be only right to say, that, after the hot fit was over, that right hon. Baronet seemed to become conscious of his error. The millions of money which had been squandered in the education of the constructive department of the Navy would of themselves alone have sufficed to build us a Navy. But what had we now? Some most remarkable specimens of naval architecture, it was true; and if they were multiplied we should have the greatest Navy the world ever possessed. We were told that we had a Navy stronger than that of any other country. It was not surprising that first-class European Powers should have first-class fleets; but the smaller Powers were collecting formidable iron-clads, and might, by a combination of which we had some instances lately, direct an attack against this country. Our policy now, however, was to hold our hands in building large ships for some time to come, and whatever we could afford to spend should be spent to complete our inner line of defence, and arm our commercial ports with a force of gunboats sufficient to protect them from invasion. In this way we should avoid those periodical panics which were so expensive, and which caused so much suffering to the working classes. He agreed with the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Brassey) on many points; but he did not approve of his suggestions with regard to alterations in the dockyards. It would be found that very considerable additions were required in the dockyards. At Portsmouth, for instance, the master shipwright had to do duty as storekeeper and engineer; and it was absurd that one man could perform the work of those three offices. The hon. Member recommended that when a ship came into harbour the master shipwright should estimate its defects. Under the present system, when a ship arrived from foreign service, the officer sent in a sheet of defects, which was forwarded to London, and after elaborate calculations an order was sent down for repairs. But, perhaps, in the meantime, when the ship had been docked, more serious defects were discovered, and these were entered in a supplementary sheet, which was sent to the Admiral Superintendent. However, as economy had to be observed, the unfortunate officer had probably to be content with having only half the defects of his ship made good. No one could understand the mass of accounts which had been accumulated; and many accounts for work done under one Admiralty did not make their appearance until the whole of the Admiralty had evaporated. Not a single member of the recent Admiralty remained; for the First Lord had gone abroad, the Secretary to the Admiralty had been transferred to another and a better place, and the Controller had been superseded. When the accounts were made known next year, no doubt many hon. Gentlemen would come down to the House overflowing with wrath; but they would find no one to blame, because the Admiralty, under whose direction those expenses had been incurred, was gone. He admired the good sense of the present First Lord, and hoped he would improve this state of affairs. In order to do so, he would have to recur to the old arrangement, and have a Board largely composed of naval elements, and he must call in to his counsels scientific men, able to decide neglected questions. He would find wreck and ruin in every part of the naval service; and he could not do better than follow the example of another right hon. Gentleman, and make a clean breast of it and recant the whole thing. The wisdom of 300 years, which he would advise the right hon. Gentleman, if he might, to return to, could not be upset with impunity by any incompetent civilian. He desired especially to call the attention of the House to the scientific branch of the Navy. The shortcomings of the Admiralty had been most painfully brought under his notice in connection with his suggestion to the India Office for the opening of a canal between Ceylon and the mainland of India for the purpose of shortening the passage to Calcutta. The answer made to him was, that the localities had not been properly surveyed. He had, however, some reason to believe that those seas had been minutely surveyed, and after careful investigation, he found that in 1861 the Government of India, in a fit of economy, had given up surveys, and handed over to the Admiralty the responsibility of surveying the Indian Seas. The Admiralty accepted the responsibility, and forthwith paid off the officers and extinguished the service. And so great was the fever for economy at that time that they actually reduced to pulp 30 or 40 tons of records, bearing upon some of the most interesting operations which led to the acquirement of our Indian Possessions, and the material was sold for 12s. per cwt; £100 being carried to Her Majesty's Exchequer as the result. Amongst the documents destroyed was a whole set of charts of the Red Sea, so that it would be necessary for that sea to be re-surveyed, at considerable expense. He found some of the charts, with which he was more particularly concerned, stowed away at the Admiralty. No blame attached to the officers at the Admiralty in this matter, for the Surveying Department was confined in the most wretched dog-holes of rooms, and certainly required a little of the right hon. Gentleman's time and attention. There was no civil engineer in the City of London who would not be ashamed of carrying on the surveys necessary for his business in such rooms as they had at the Admiralty, for the accommodation of a Department which had the surveying of the world under its charge, and which had to execute works of the greatest importance. If the First Lord, when at the Admiralty, went upstairs to Admiral Richards's room, and those above it, he would find something which would astonish him, and he (Sir James Elphinstone) should, be deceived in the right hon. Gentleman if he did not soon make some most necessary and favourable changes. The hon. Baronet concluded by moving his Resolution.

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, a small Committee, composed of scientific and naval men, be appointed permanently, to investigate the designs of all ironclad and other vessels proposed to be built for the service of the Royal Navy, and to report to the Board of Admiralty as to their stability, and fitness in other respects, to fulfil the purposes for which they are intended,"—(Sir James Elphinstone,) —instead thereof.

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


said, the effect of the Motion of the hon. Baronet the Member for Portsmouth (Sir James Elphinstone) would be to appoint a permanent Committee which would direct the Admiralty in all its proceedings, and he could scarcely imagine a more unfortunate arrangement. He could understand the hon. Member's dissatisfaction with the vessels produced by successive Admiralties; but his proposal would not remedy the evil of which he complained. The Motion of the hon. Baronet would erect into permanence a Court that would have control over the Admiralty, and take on itself the responsibility of the stability of vessels and their fitness in other respects. The object of the Motion of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Mr. Seeley) in 1868, which he supported, was to obtain a scientific inquiry, to take into consideration the leading characteristics that should be adopted in the future construction of vessels for the Navy. Now, the general characteristics were those which were the groundwork for the policy of shipbuilding throughout the country—and a large deliberative assembly of scientific men might prove useful in laying the groundwork of a sound policy of shipbuilding; and these were matters which might fairly come under the consideration of the House. But any interference with minute details would take from the Admiralty that responsibility which ought to rest upon them. He thought a more disastrous course could not be adopted, and therefore felt it his duty to oppose the Motion.


said, he would ask the hon. Baronet not to press his Motion in its present form, especially as he believed a Committee already existed whose business it was to advise the Admiralty upon the subject of designs, as well as another Committee to investigate the nature of the designs of certain ships which were referred to them, and respecting which they had already afforded some information to the House. To those Committees it seemed superfluous to add a third, which could only perform the same functions. If, however, the office of Constructor of the Navy were re-constituted at a time when neither of those Committees was sitting, there would be some reason for the proposal to refer designs to some scientific persons, besides which the plans should be submitted to some naval gentlemen. As some re-construction of the Board of Admiralty must be made, some body like the old Navy Board might be appointed, by which means much work would be distributed to those who would have time to attend to it, and would be removed from one overworked man, who could not now be held responsible on account of the amount of work he had to do.


objected to the proposal of the hon. Baronet, because the appointment of a permanent Committee would relieve the Admiralty of express responsibility, and trusted he would not insist upon a Division. The precedents on which the hon. Baronet relied did not relate to a permanent Committee, but rather referred to such a Committee as had recently been appointed to consider certain specific questions. It had frequently been said that the naval element at the Board of Admiralty had been suppressed; but the hon. Baronet, in repeating the statement, had forgotten to mention that besides the First Sea Lord and the Junior Lord, the Board had the assistance of Captain Hall, the Third Lord, who had succeeded to Admiral Robinson, Admiral Richards, the hydrographer, of Admiral Mends, Captain Hood, Captain Willes, and he was not sure that there were not other naval men connected with the Admiralty. The statement that the Navy had no opportunity of making its voice heard at the Admiralty ought not to remain uncontradicted, because the First Lord had every means of deriving great assistance from the naval profession. With regard to the Motion of the hon. Baronet, the House would recognize the inconvenience of having a separate Committee of naval and scientific men sitting permanently. As long as he held the position of First Lord it would be his desire to avail himself, to the greatest possible extent, of the aid of such scientific and naval men as were willing to afford assistance, and his predecessor had done so before the appointment of the existing Committee. That Committee had rendered eminent service in clearing up the questions which were referred to it; but, from an administrative point of view, considerable difficulty was likely to arise from the appointment of such Committees, owing to their interference with the current business of the office. The country would derive much advantage from the investigation as to the stability of ships and other controverted questions, but the responsibility of the Admiralty ought not to be diminished. The object of the Admiralty in appointing the present Committee was that the country might be assured as to a matter of great interest, on account of which it was worth while to incur some inconvenience; but if an irresponsible Committee were co-existent with the Admiralty for any lengthened period, in what position would the latter be placed? If the Admiralty overruled the decision of the Committee as to the design of a ship, a controversy would immediately arise in this House, while if the Admiralty followed the decision there would simply be a transfer of responsibility. He felt sure the House would not sanction the appointment of such a Committee, however great might be the services it would render at particular periods.


said, he had had the good fortune to serve at the Admiralty with three Controllers of the Navy, or Surveyors, as they were formerly called, of very great ability, for whom he had the highest respect, yet he never felt quite satisfied on the subject of designs, nor quite sure that the ship ordered would be the ne plus ultrâ of perfection in shipbuilding. Every vessel was the result of a series of compromises, and what produced a good effect in one direction often tended to an evil effect in another; and the difficulty was how to combine the various objects aimed at with the best general results. The department of the Controller of the Navy was divided into two distinct branches—one the shipbuilding, and the other the engineering branch, and in each of these a totally different principle prevailed. As a rule, all designs for ships were prepared in the Controller's Department; but although the Engineer-in-Chief had been as competent in his branch as the Chief Constructor, the designs for engines were never prepared at the Admiralty, but invariably obtained from the first engineering firms in the country. He had a strong opinion as to the advisability of obtaining advice from private shipbuilders also, as he had shown by calling for competitive designs when he held the office of First Lord; but the experiment which he made did not have a satisfactory result, for although he obtained an excellent design for a turret-ship from Mr. Laird, yet that was mainly a copy of the Captain, and he was not disposed to build a second ship on that plan until the first had been tried, and he thought he had reason to congratulate himself and the country for having resolved on that policy. A permanent Committee would, he thought, be apt to get into a groove, like the permanent officers at the Admiralty; and he was therefore inclined to think that a permanent Committee would be a mistake. At the same time, considering the enormous cost of our ships at the present day, more money being frequently spent on a great ship than was spent on a palace, he suggested that before a design, especially for a new armour-clad ship, was approved, it should be referred to some of the ablest scientific men whose advice could be obtained, including the naval officers best acquainted with the subject of naval armaments. He had hardly over talked over a new armour-clad ship with naval officers without receiving suggestions of great value, though unfortunately these could not be adopted without incurring great expense, the vessel being already built. In his opinion, the armament of our ships was not in a satisfactory state There was no reason why vessels of the Minotaur class should not be armed with 25-ton guns, for bow and stern chase, and he knew it to be the opinion of a distinguished gunnery officer that even 35-ton guns could be worked on board them. In the event of a war the armament of our ships would be of the greatest possible importance, for on the weight and power of the guns the issue of a naval engagement might depend. He hoped, therefore, that the First Lord would see that every design was thoroughly considered and discussed, and would get the best advice to be obtained from outside, so that in respect of construction, rigging, and armament these costly ships might be turned out in the best possible way.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.