HC Deb 16 February 1872 vol 209 cc576-86

Sir, I rise, according to Notice, to call attention to the condition of the wooden iron-clads of the Navy. I trust that before I proceed some representative of the Admiralty Department may present himself, as I should be sorry to make the remarks which I shall feel it my duty to make in the absence of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty, and yet after the reply the right hon. Gentleman thought it his duty to make, in reply to my Question of yesterday, I cannot allow the present opportunity to pass without either affording him the opportunity of allaying the alarm which his reply tended to create, or of myself giving such information as I possess on the subject. Any information which I can give the House must, as being without official authority, be necessarily imperfect. I am glad, however, to see that the right hon. Gentleman has now arrived, and shall proceed with my statement. I took the liberty yesterday of asking the right hon. Gentleman, Whether one of these iron-clads, the Prince Consort, on her recent examination, had shown serious symptoms of decay; and whether there was any apprehension that the Ocean, Royal Oak, Caledonia, Royal Alfred, and Zealous might also be equally defective? To this Question the right hon. Gentleman vouchsafed me no reply, and this House not much information. He favoured us with an epithet and an enigma. With regard to the epithet I will make this remark—the right hon. Gentleman said the Question was characteristic of the Questioner. That may be taken in two different ways. He may have meant that it was characteristic of me as one of the few naval officers now in this House—only seven hon. Members now, I think—who have had any relation to the Navy. In that case, I can only tell him that I believe it to be the duty of each one of us, on all subjects connected with that profession, to make the closest inquiries as to the mode in which it is administered; and, for my part, I shall not be deterred from doing that which I believe is expected of us, not only by our constituents, but by this House. The right hon. Gentleman may, however, mean that the Question is an inconvenient one to answer. Well, to that I can only reply, that the only Question I remember to have asked of an inconvenient character was one concerning the Megæra, and I leave the House to judge whether on that occasion the right hon. Gentleman or I seemed the better informed. I now desire again to put the Question which I had the honour of addressing to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday, in order to give him an opportunity of replying to it more fully, and of setting at rest the anxieties that the right hon. Gentleman's speculative opinions might have evoked. I do not intend to make any inquiry with respect to the Lord Warden. She is a ship of a recent date, and I believe is a thoroughly good ship, but I am especially anxious to learn the right hon. Gentleman's opinion of the six ships to which I alluded in my Question of yesterday. These six ships were completed under Lord Palmerston's Government when the right hon. Gentleman at the head of Her Majesty's Government was Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were wooden line-of-battle ships, enlarged, altered, and iron-plated, and were not expected to be long-lived. They were confessedly stopgaps, though extremely useful for the purpose for which they were built. They have done their work well, but it is time they were replaced. My Question has reference to the way in which they are to be replaced. For it is notorious that Her Majesty's Government have stopped all useful shipbuilding, and have done nothing to replace these useful but decaying ships. I will shortly state my opinion of these ships which the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord failed to give yesterday, and leave him to correct my imperfect statement, if he can do so. These ships have been constantly in commission for 10 years, and at present four are in commission and two at home. Of the two in reserve at home the Royal Oak has, I believe, had a thorough repair, and may be considered fit for service, if required. The Prince Consort is also at home and under survey. I am credibly informed that her condition is most unsatisfactory. The bolts which fasten on her armour-plates were originally 2¼ inches thick; they pass through the armour-plates and the oak of which the ship is built. If iron bolts pass through teak, the iron bolt lasts for ever; but in these ships the plates are bolted through to oak, and the gallic acid has reduced them till they are quite untrustworthy. The timbers and planking I am also credibly informed are very rotten and decayed; and I am told that not less than £80,000 is required to make the Prince Consort fit for service. I shall object to any such expenditure. Ships should have been laid down long ago to replace ships of such a temporary character, and it will be monstrous to incur such an expenditure on a ship so imperfect as the Prince Consort. As to the Caledonia I know little of her. She has been and is close to Malta Dockyard, and has, I believe, received so extensive a repair as to leave no doubt that she is fit for her present service. I hope she will prove a useful ship as long as she lasts, though I fear that will not be long. Of the Royal Alfred I have no information. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will give us some opinion, not speculative. If the right hon. Gentleman says she is a good and safe ship, I will take his word for it, but we want facts and not speculative opinions. If not a good ship she should at once be replaced by another. The next ship that I shall ask about is the Zealous. I was informed by a friend of mine that she had been in dock at San Francisco, and that her repair has been so thorough as to leave no doubt that she is available for any service that may be required; but it would have been more satisfactory if the right hon. Gentleman had assured the House of her soundness, rather than have left them to find it out from the information of a private Member. The one ship whose condition I have good reason to doubt is the Ocean. The Ocean has been six years in commission, and grave doubts have been reported to the Admiralty of her condition. She is of too great draught to come through the Suez Canal, and is at present, I believe, on her way home round the Cape of Good Hope. Her timbers have shown symptoms of unsoundness, and the condition of her contemporary, the Prince Consort, leaves grave doubts whether she will ever again be a useful ship; but I do not anticipate in the summer cruise she is now making any danger to those on board her. She has been surveyed by accomplished officers in the East, and they would not have imperilled the lives of her crew had any suspicion been en- tertained of her unseaworthiness. I therefore make no charge against the right hon. Gentleman, excepting as regards the fact that he has made no provision to replace these wooden iron-clads; but this I will say, that the right hon. Gentleman's reply—if it can be called a reply—to me yesterday was unworthy of a Minister of the Crown. Does he remember that 2,400 persons are embarked in these four ships, and that instead of at once assuring the House of the seaworthiness of these ships, which had been so gravely doubted in consequence of the survey of the Prince Consort, he contents himself with declining to express any "speculative opinion" as to their safety, and leads this House to believe that he is ignorant of their condition? I trust that when the Navy Estimates are laid on the Table, we shall find they are to be replaced by other ships of a better and more enduring character.


said, he did not see why the hon. and gallant Baronet the Member for Stamford (Sir John Hay) should complain of a Question of his being called characteristic. The hon. and gallant Baronet seemed to think that some personal attack was intended, but nothing of the kind was meant. He (Mr. Goschen), however, saw a tendency on the part of the hon. and gallant Baronet, such as he had often observed before, to make general and painful inquiries, detrimental to the character of ships whose reputation was dear to the Admiralty. The ships to which the hon. and gallant Baronet referred were not built under the present Administration, who were not, therefore, specially responsible for them; but they were built when the Admiralty was presided over by a noble Duke, who spent more millions of money in building ships than any other First Lord, and now said that the ships were not capable of swimming. He felt that there was no party attack whatsoever in the Question which had been put by the hon. and gallant Baronet; but when sweeping Questions were asked, calculated to create alarm in the mind of the public, not only the character of the ships themselves, but the apprehension which might be caused to those who had relatives on board them, must not be lost sight of. He could assure the hon. and gallant Baronet that there was nothing Eke temper in the answer which he had given him. The reputation of our ships was almost as delicate as that of a woman, and the mode in which the Question was put might, it appeared, create unnecessary alarm, which, in his opinion, it was not wise to create. The hon. and gallant Baronet had alluded to the Megæra, and considering that he had sent that vessel to Ascension, after the report which he had received with respect to the thinness of her water-plates, he did not think the hon. and gallant Baronet was precisely the person who would have raised any Question with reference to her in that House. The hon. and gallant Baronet must, no doubt, have felt, as he (Mr. Goschen) felt, with regard to the Megæra, and he should not have alluded to her had not the question about her been raised. The hon. and gallant Baronet took a great interest in the Navy, and the time might possibly come when he might be more responsible for that service than he was at present. When that time arrived, he should endeavour to assist the hon. and gallant Baronet in supporting the reputation of our ships, and, instead of making sweeping assertions with respect to them, would go to him privately and ask him whether he had heard that anything was wrong with any one of them, instead of making speculative inquiries, calculated to excite alarm in numerous families throughout the country. He would now proceed to answer in detail some of the points to which the hon. and gallant Baronet had called his attention. The Question which had been put to him seemed to lead to the impression that all the ships which he had mentioned were labouring under one and the same kind of defect. These ships were the Ocean, the Prince Consort, the Royal Oak, the Royal Alfred, the Zealous, and the Caledonia. Now, the Ocean was at present on her way home. There were certain defects in her, it was true; but they had nothing to do, so far as he was aware, with the decay of her timbers. The defect in her was, that the metal sheathing at the bottom had given way in a great many places, and it was considered that, as she drew too much water to be docked in China, and as it was necessary that she should be docked, in order to replace the sheathing, it was desirable she should come home for repairs. The defect, however, was in no way connected with her tim- bers, or her structural strength. A further defect had also been detected since, and that was that the caulking of the ship seemed to be defective in several respects. The ship, however, had been surveyed by the officers at the direction of the Admiral Commanding-in-Chief at the station, and it was their opinion that she might, with all safety, return home. He trusted, therefore, that the Question which had been put to him, as well as the answer, would cause no anxiety, because, as the hon. and gallant Baronet had said, the character of the officers of the ship was such that they would not say she could safely come back unless she was in a condition to do so. It would, at the same time, be to give merely a speculative opinion to pronounce what her actual condition was until she was docked. As to the Royal Alfred, he knew nothing to lead him to consider her as being anything but an effective ship. The time had come when she was to be replaced in the course of the next financial year, and when she arrived in dock an opinion could be passed upon her. But now that she was in North American waters it would be merely a speculative opinion to say how she stood until she was stripped and examined. All he could say was that he had heard nothing which induced him to fear with respect to the Royal Alfred. She was a newer ship than the Prince Consort, or the Caledonia. He came, in the next place to the Zealous. In her case there was an indication of rot in some of the timbers in 1869. The officers of the ship, however, reported that it was only to a slight extent, and that they would keep an eye on its progress. Since then nothing further had been heard with regard to the increase of the decay. The Zealous would remain at her station till the end of the year, and he had no doubt, if her services were required, that she would be perfectly available for any demand which might be made upon her in the course of the year. She was at present on the Pacific station, and a ship would soon be sent out to relieve her, and when towards the end of the year she was relieved, she would be ordered home. The Prince Consort, as he had informed the hon. and gallant Baronet on the previous evening, was still under survey, and no report as to her exact condition had been received. Mr. Barnaby had seen her himself, and had told him some facts connected with her. There was no doubt that the inside planking of the ship, and the timbers to a certain extent, were in a state of decay, and that to repair her would be a most expensive process. But as to the question of her bolts, to which the hon. and gallant Baronet had alluded, he was evidently in the same position in which he had been on several former occasions—that was to say, he had received the reports of the local officers before they had reached the Admiralty. He, at all events, had received no such reports as those which had been referred to with regard to her bolts. There was also another remarkable circumstance connected with the repairs of the Prince Consort. He had consulted Mr. Barnaby that very day as to the amount which would be necessary for her repairs, and had heard it stated that it would be £80,000. He asked him how he had come to that conclusion, inasmuch as the ship had not yet been surveyed. The hon. and gallant Baronet, too, gave that precise sum, and he should like to know how he got the figure. It did not come from the Devonport officers. They had made no suggestion on the subject, or, if they had, they had not communicated it to the Admiralty. Mr. Barnaby, having been asked how he arrived at the sum of £80,000, said that in framing the estimate for the next year they had been pressed as to how much was likely to be spent on each of those ships, and that they thought £80,000 was about the right sum. He (Mr. Goschen) would repeat that he should very much like to know how the hon. and gallant Baronet came by that information. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Tyrone (Mr. Corry) who sat next to him could inform the House. [Mr. CORRY: I do not know.] It was strange that the hon. and gallant Baronet should have hit upon the precise figure that had with difficulty been extracted from Mr. Barnaby; but it was quite clear, at all events, from the fact that the hon. and gallant Baronet knew the figure, that he was likely to have from him a very searching criticism, and that he was very well up in his facts. The hon. and gallant Baronet was anxious to receive information from him, while he himself was evidently running over with infor- mation, and, no doubt, officers in the exercise of their duty had been furnishing him with information. But, be that as it might, the hon. and gallant Baronet was right in supposing that it would cost a very large sum to repair the Prince Consort, and it was a question which must, under the circumstances, be carefully considered whether she was worth repairing or not. Upon that point he must be allowed not to express any opinion until the vessel had been accurately surveyed, and to be allowed not to say what should be done before he had proper information on the subject. All he would say was, that if it was necessary to utilize those ships, he hoped that the Prince Consort was not in such a state as not to be able to do excellent service if required. Notwithstanding the doubt which had been thrown upon so many of our ships, still, as compared with the ships of other nations, they were in such a condition that they could be made very available. He spoke not to make a mere party answer, but because he was conscientiously jealous lest anything said should tend to weaken the idea of the public in the power of the British Navy. It should be borne in mind that wooden ships cased in iron were not so long-lived as the iron-clads, and the advantage the country derived from that circumstance was enormous, because with us the exception was to have wooden ships cased with iron, whereas with Continental nations they were the rule. In the French Navy, for instance, as regarded iron-clads, there were only five real iron ships, the whole of the rest being wooden ships cased in iron. Thus far, therefore, we were in an infinitely better position than our neighbours. The last of the vessels to which the hon. and gallant Baronet alluded was, he believed, the Caledonia. She was at present in the Mediterranean, performing an interesting service connected with some antiquities for the British Museum. She had just been engaged in bringing marbles from Smyrna. Of all our wooden ships she was the one about which, after the Prince Consort, there was the most anxiety. The timbers of the Caledonia were not in a satisfactory condition. She was seaworthy, and able to do service at the present time, if required; but unless large sums were spent in their repair, the Caledonia and the Prince Consort were not likely to render much service for the future. The hon. and gallant Baronet might twit him about the Megæra, and knew he was likely to feel it; but though he did not want to suppress the facts, and when asked point blank what the defects of Her Majesty's ships were, he would state the facts, he did not approve of exposing to the public gaze every defect in the condition of Her Majesty's ships.


said, he had not understood the epithet that had been applied to the Question of his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Stamford (Sir John Hay) in a complimentary sense, such as he was willing to accept, for he must say that he took it to be what was called a "snub," and to be hardly consistent with the courtesy which they had the right to expect from Ministers of the Crown. He would not say a word as to the condition of any of the ships which had been mentioned except the Ocean; but he must say that for the sake of economy, the present Board of Admiralty had adopted a practice which he did not consider consistent with prudence. Instead of re-calling ships to England to be properly surveyed, after being paid off, and prepared for a new commission on the expiration of their term of service, the Admiralty sent out a new complement, new sails, and other perishable stores, and re-commissioned the vessels on foreign stations. The Ocean, on the China station, was treated in this way, and a line-of-battle ship fitted out for the conveyance of her new ship's company; but shortly afterwards it became necessary to order her home for repairs, so that instead of economy there was a great loss. The Ocean was commissioned in June, 1866. He was not then at the Admiralty, but soon after his appointment, in 1867, there occurred a difficulty with Spain, which had a powerful armour-clad vessel in China, and he took the responsibility of sending the Ocean from the Mediterranean to reinforce the China Squadron. She made a successful voyage out, in spite of bad weather; but if he had remained at the Admiralty he should have thought 1870, or at the outside the beginning of 1871, the longest period the Ocean should have been allowed to remain without what was called before the Megæra Commission an exhaustive survey. The life of a boiler was hardly long enough to last out two commissions; and another objection to the new system was that, whereas in the case of war, after a ship had been three or four years upon a station she could still render service upon an emergency, now after seven or eight years' service a war would find her with her boilers ready to burst, and almost on her last legs for want of repairs. There was also an objection to the new system on moral grounds, for by ordering home the ship's company and leaving their ship behind them, you weakened the esprit de corps of the Navy. Officers and crews took pride in their ships, and liked to bring them home in the best possible order, to be inspected by the admiral, and reported to headquarters as being in a satisfactory condition; but now a captain was apt to think, "What is the use of getting my ship into first-rate order, when another captain will come out and take the credit of it?" The new system was supported by the late Controller, but he had good reason for believing that Sir Spencer Robinson had since changed his mind upon this subject. The right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty, after being what he called twitted with respect to the Megæra, retorted by saying that his hon. and gallant Friend had himself sent her on a voyage. Now, there was a great difference between sending such a ship to Ascension and sending her round the Cape to Australia; and the right hon. Gentleman forgot this material fact—that when his hon. and gallant Friend ordered the Megæra to Ascension, she had not run for the two years during which Mr. Reed had reported she was fit for sea. [Mr. GOSCHEN: The hon. and gallant Gentleman was not then cognizant of Mr. Reed's Report.] He believed the right hon. Gentleman was mistaken on this point; but, even assuming that he had no knowledge of the Report, there was a great and an obvious difference—as the right hon. Gentleman would know when he had been longer at the Admiralty—between sending a ship to Ascension in 1868 and sending her to Australia three years afterwards, the ship, in the meantime, not having undergone any extensive repairs.


thought the public should understand that these iron-cased wooden vessels, which were adapted in 1860, when the necessities of the country were great, and its power of production was small, had really done good service, and had lasted quite as long as was expected. It was originally said that if they lasted for only six or seven years that was as much as could be expected, and, therefore, the country had obtained full value for its money, while, if they were considered as experiments, no one could deny that they had not been successful in a very great degree. Considering, therefore, that they had long outlasted the period originally contemplated, it could be no great matter of surprise if a large sum of money were required to be spent upon them, to perpetuate, as it were, their existence.

Original Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.