HC Deb 26 March 1872 vol 210 cc691-700

, in rising to move— That it is expedient that whatever coast defences are required for the security of the Port of Leith and the Metropolis of Scotland, and of the great commercial harbours of the United Kingdom, should be immediately proceeded with, said, he again had the honour of bringing this subject before the House. Having introduced it last Session, he hoped a few minutes would suffice for completing his remarks. He would begin by quoting part of the answer of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Surveyor General of Ordnance (Sir Henry Storks), who, last year, in reply to a Question from him, said— He was glad to be able to inform the hon. Member that the question of the defence of the Firth of Forth had occupied the serious attention of the Government, in common with the other coasts of the kingdom. The Defence Committee, of which he was a Member, had examined the subject carefully, and had submitted a plan of defence which, if carried out, would render the Firth of Forth completely secure.…. The estimated cost of carrying it into execution, he might however observe, was £135,000.…. Looking at the vast amount of the expenditure for the purposes of military defence this year, they had not deemed it desirable—indeed, it would be scarcely possible—to ask the House to vote a sum of money for the special defence of our commercial harbours. A matter so important would not, however, be passed over, and he felt sure his right hon. Friends near him, when the proper time arrived, would not hesitate to propose such an outlay as would put those places in a proper state of defence."—[3 Hansard, ccv. 1526.] At the beginning of the present Session he exercised the liberty conceded to Members of the House by asking his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War, when the defence works would be commenced, and the answer he received was— With regard to the time when they will be commenced, that will be whenever Parliament shall see fit to appropriate the money. The House, it would be seen, shared the responsibility with the Government of postponing the placing of the Firth of Forth in an efficient state of defence. The country was told that Government was waiting until the money was voted by Parliament. In the meantime, the Firth would not have the protection which, in the opinion of all competent judges, ought to be afforded it and, as he said in his Motion, without any delay whatever. Perhaps the House would like to have some information respecting the commercial characteristics of the particular estuary he had named. He had had the honour of presenting a Petition to Parliament from the Town Council of Leith on behalf of the defence of the town, and a similar Petition from the Chamber of Commerce. The Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce wrote him thus— The defence of the Firth of Forth is further of importance, owing to the Firth being, if not the only, certainly the best and safest harbour of refuge on the east coast of Britain. There is safe anchorage ground the whole way up the Firth, it may be said, from North Berwick to Limekilns, and in a storm from the east, northeast, or south-east, vessels can safely ride immediately on getting to the lee of Inchkeith; or if the storm be of very great severity, on reaching St. Margaret's Hope, above Inverkeithing. In fact, this firth is the harbour of refuge made for by all vessels in such gales, to whatever port on the east coast of Britain they are bound, and whole fleets are frequently windbound and anchored to the lee of the Inch and St. Margaret's, which would fall an easy prey to an enemy in the absence of defences. The Government had assigned as a reason for the delay, not that there was no necessity for the defences, but that the present state of the demands upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not justify them in making the outlay; but after hearing the right hon. Gentleman's explanation of the satisfactory condition of the Revenue of the country last night, he thought the House would have no doubt whatever that if there was a time at all for executing defences, it was the present, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer was overflowing with the blessings he felt himself entitled to bestow. The question might occur to anyone considering this matter whether the defences were of such urgency that their completion would not admit of delay. He would remind the House that Leith was a great place of steam shipping and manufactures; that it was a very considerable depôt for foreign and British goods; and that it was the means of access to the metropolis of Scotland. The people felt that, Leith being a port to which merchants of the colonies and many foreign nations largely consigned goods, it was not fair for the Government to expose them to one of two alternatives, either to refuse business or to keep property intrusted to them with undue risk through the negligence of the Government. Leith had some experience of what might happen. It narrowly escaped in the American War. He should show what Admiral Paul Jones said with reference to the Firth of Forth. The gallant Admiral, if so he should be called, wrote— I formed an expedition against Leith, which I proposed to lay under contribution, or otherwise reduce it to ashes. Had I been alone, the wind being favourable, I would have proceeded directly up the Firth, and must have succeeded. I hoped to raise a contribution of £200,000 sterling on Leith. Afterwards, a document was found addressed "to the Worshipful the Provost of Leith," which was as follows:— Leith and its port now lies at our mercy, and did not our humanity stay the hand of just retribution, I should, without advertisement, lay it in ashes. Before I proceed to that stern duty as an officer, my duty as a man induces me to propose to you, by the means of a reasonable ransom, to prevent such a scene of horror and distress. For this reason I have authorized a lieutenant-colonel to conclude and agree with you on the terms of ransom, allowing exactly half-an-hour's reflection before you finally accept or reject the terms which he shall propose—£200,000. And he endorsed this postscript— The sudden and violent storm which arose in the moment when the squadron was abreast of Keith Island rendered impracticable the execution of the foregoing proposal. A contemporary letter from Amsterdam said— He assured me that his intention was to seize the shipping in the harbour, and to set fire to such as he could not carry off. Having spoken of Leith, he ought to say that he was speaking of the immediate vicinity of the metropolis of Scotland. All the public buildings of Edinburgh were within four miles of deep water. There would thus be no difficulty whatever in shelling the metropolis of Scotland. Any man who wished to gain distinction and glory would only have to go up the Firth of Forth and endeavour to make Edinburgh pay a ransom under the threat of being shelled. Let them remember what this implied. The ancient castle would be levelled to the ground, with its armouries and the regalia it contained. Holyrood Palace, the great resort of strangers, and the boast of the city, would fall a prey to the general destruction, as also the three precious libraries of Edinburgh The Register House, with all the records of land tenure in Scotland—an institution differing from any in the metropolis of England—might be destroyed, and thus the landed property of Scotland might fall into irretrievable confusion. Having given instances of the evil effects which might be produced, he would show how easily this might be accomplished. Captain Colomb, in a paper on the subject, said— Our arsenals, our coal depots, and the great mercantile ports—those pulses of the Empire—are still totally unprovided with means of local defence. Admiral Sir William Hall, of the Nemesis, a native of Leith, in a pamphlet commencing "Wake, England, wake!" remarks— Look, for instance, at the Firth of Forth, and the many good anchorages and suitable places for the disembarkation of troops it possesses. With the exception of the single port at Leith, there is no fortification or natural obstacle whatever to prevent an enemy's squadron advancing within shelling distance of the city of Edinburgh, and there are abundant facilities for landing troops within an easy march of the city, while Glasgow, and extensive, wealthy, important mining and manufacturing districts lie almost within reach.…. As regards Edinburgh and Leith the present open defenceless condition could be changed into one of perfect security by the simple expedient of throwing up a good earthwork on the island of Inchkeith, and mounting on it a few heavy guns of modern construction.…. Even the most obvious and simplest means of defence, however, have hitherto been neglected, not in the Firth alone, but almost everywhere else. Again, he might adduce the authority of another officer of great ability, Captain Moncrieff, who, in a report to the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Lord High Admiral of the Firth of Forth, made in 1871, said— The Firth of Forth is at present without defence; its protection in time of war is required for the following reasons:—1st, it is remote from the centre of naval and military action, and therefore far from supports; 2nd, its position and natural conditions, if held by an enemy, are favourable for a grand base of operations against the South of Britain, and it should, therefore, not be left in such a state as to be easily occupied by a hostile fleet; 3rd, it is a great anchorage; 4th, it is the seat of considerable trade, shipping, and prosperity; and 5th, it is the direct military road for an expedition delivered from the ports of the North of Europe against the largest iron shipbuilding station—the Clyde—and two of the most important towns in the Empire—namely, Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was, therefore, impossible to conceal the want which existed. If Scotland had still her own Parliament, or if we had a Scotch Secretary, whose business it should be to look after the interests of the country, the matter would not have been in so deplorable a condition. In the face of the large Revenue which was annually yielded by the North part of the country, such a state of affairs ought not to exist. He had spoken hitherto of the Firth of Forth. He now wished to quote an authority in a very few words, in order to show that the same applied to all our commercial harbours. Mr. Reed said— The defences of the great commercial ports are in a very unsatisfactory state and condition wholly unworthy of us. It would be criminal, in view of these facts, to place all our reliance on our sea-going Navy alone, and to leave any longer our great commercial emporiums without local defence. Now that, in point of fact, is their present condition. Our present condition is more than dangerous, and should a war overtake us, our great maritime towns, though teeming with men and materials available for their defence, lie open to insult and robbery. Dundee and Aberdeen on the east, and Greenock and other ports on the west, Hull, Sunderland, Cardiff, Swansea, Liverpool, Belfast, were equally unprotected. From a passage he had quoted from the head of the Ordnance Department they were led to believe that the defences would be provided in all these places when the proper time arrived. He maintained that the time had arrived already. Was it a proper time when danger arose, or when war was declared, to commence work which would take time to accomplish, for which years were required? On the Government there was already the conviction that the Firth of Forth ought to be defended. He had had the satisfaction of seeing the plans for the defence. He had no doubt that, if the feelings of the House were properly interpreted, something would be at once done. The best protection they could have was to be prepared for every emergency; but what was the use of securing some of the doors if the others were left open? That, however, was the condition of the country. There were plenty of defences in the Southern part; but in the North there was no harbour to which shipping could betake itself, or Her Majesty's Navy be refitted. He would make an appeal to Her Majesty's Government to give their earnest consideration to this subject, with the view of immediately granting the request he had urged on behalf of the community in general, and not of Scotland only—because what was a loss to Scotland was a loss to the kingdom, and because such a loss would tarnish or subvert the glory of the Empire.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that this was not the first time the subject had been brought to the notice of the Government. He had himself, as Lord Lieutenant of the county of Fife, thought it his duty to draw the attention of his right hon. Friend the Secretary for War to the defenceless condition of those parts of the county which abutted on the Firth of Forth. He thanked his hon. Friend the Member for Leith for the vigorous picture he had drawn of the dangers that might arise from the present condition of things; and, as Papers were in the War Office showing how complete security in that estuary might be provided, he trusted that the subject would receive immediate consideration from the Government.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient that whatever coast defences are required for the security of the Port of Leith and the Metropolis of Scotland, and of the great commercial harbours of the United Kingdom, should be immediately proceeded with."—(Mr. Macfie.)


said, he hoped he should be able to satisfy his hon. Friend's anxiety on the subject, though he could not encourage him to expect that one of the first expenditures would be the particular expenditure the hon. Member had recommended. He certainly would not say anything against the importance of fortifying the coasts of Scotland, or against fortifications in the abstract; but he must say he was surprised to hear the hon. Member compare the great city of Edinburgh with a back door. He (Mr. Cardwell) thought he had a much higher opinion of his city. His hon. Friend, however, must do the Government the justice of remembering that they were at the present moment expending large sums on various fortifications, and they had felt it their duty to give the preference, in the first instance, to the great military and naval arsenals of the country. After that they felt it would be their duty to take into consideration the great harbour of Liverpool, which was undoubtedly the first of our commercial harbours, and then to pass on to Glasgow and other harbours in Great Britain and Ireland which might be thought to have claims for preference over Edinburgh. He did not think that Edinburgh was particularly exposed to danger—in the same way as Liverpool, for instance. The hon. Member had referred to the statements that in the time of Paul Jones there was considerable danger of Edinburgh being attacked, and that it had ever since been a matter of anxiety. Now, he begged to remind his hon. Friend that if Paul Jones ever projected an attack on Edinburgh, it was never made; that Paul Jones lived a long time ago; and that since his time an attack upon Edinburgh had never been contemplated, or if suggested had never seriously been entertained. Therefore, he did not think that the proposal of the hon. Member was one of very great urgency. His hon. Friend had quoted high civilian and naval authorities to show that a great deal might be done by means of earthworks, and similar defences. Now, he would remind his hon. Friend that, should need arise, earthworks could be thrown up quite as quickly as a naval expedition could be prepared by an enemy against Edinburgh. He (Mr. Cardwell) was not afraid that, whenever danger should arise, the country would not be found ready to meet it, by means of naval defences and torpedoes, as well as by defences on the side of the land. He trusted the hon. Member would excuse him from entering into the subject at greater length, because the question was not whether it was desirable to make proper defences for commercial harbours, but whether, in addition to the expense being incurred for defensive purposes, it was desirable to incur a still further expense at the present moment. His hon. Friend had said that if they had a Scotch Parliament or a Scotch Secretary of State, whose business should be to look after the interests of Scotland, this work would not have been so long neglected. Now, he (Mr. Cardwell) could not say what might happen under circumstances different from those that actually existed; but it did not seem to him likely that a Scotch Parliament would be less economical than an English one, or that a Scotch Secretary of State would be guided by political considerations different from his English Colleagues, and would not deem it their first duty to see to the security of our great commercial ports and naval arsenals. He hoped the hon. Member would be satisfied, with this explanation, and would not press his Motion to a division.


said, he was disappointed at the prospects held out for the protection of the harbours of Scotland by the Secretary for War; for it seemed that when the other fortifications were completed, then some temporary defences might be made for them. He had nothing to say against the fortification of the naval arsenals of Portsmouth and Plymouth, or the protection of such vast commercial centres as Liverpool; but Scotland also had great commercial rivers and ports. And what was there at the present moment, for instance, to prevent a single iron-clad passing up the Clyde and destroying an incalculable amount of property? The subject having now been brought under the notice of the Government, if any mischief should arise, the responsibility would rest entirely upon them.


said, he quite agreed with the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Macfie), and he was very grateful to him for calling the attention of the Government to this subject. But, at the same time, he thought the House and the country could not expect that until the great works of defence at Portsmouth and Plymouth were carried out to completion, the defence of such a town as Leith could be attended to. He thought his right hon. Friend the Secretary for War had clearly vindicated himself from any charge on this subject. They could not expect that mere commercial ports should be protected by the Government; and his object in rising was to see whether he could not propose a reasonable solution of this question. It was, no doubt, very desirable that such places as Edinburgh, Leith, and Liverpool, and similar places should be fortified; but, surely, the inhabitants of those places might be asked to do something for themselves in this direction, and he could not help thinking that something like a rate-in-aid would not be a disadvantageous system for towns so flourishing as Glasgow, Liverpool, and others, to adopt. The forts might be constructed according to designs furnished by the Government, who should arm them with guns, and then the inhabitants might furnish the men.


said, he thought it a novel proposition that a town should be called upon to pay a rate-in-aid for the defences of the country. It seemed to be overlooked that, besides Edinburgh and Leith, the Firth of Forth was a large national harbour for a great extent of the eastern coast of Scotland. It therefore seemed to him that the Government were bound to fortify the Firth of Forth for the sake of the country, and not merely for the sake of Edinburgh and Leith. If the island of Inchkeith were fortified, it would give shelter to a fleet of gunboats, which would probably be a sufficient protection until other defences could be provided.


desired to remind the House that in 1549 the island of Inchkeith was occupied by the French. The island had been seized by an English regiment for the purpose of reducing the town of Leith. They were there attacked by a French Fleet, who at that time were in Scotland for the purpose of supporting the Dowager Mary of Guise, who, after considerable fighting, drove the English out, and took possession of the place. At the present moment there was nothing to prevent an iron-clad squadron taking possession of the island of Inchkeith, and once alongside there, they would be perfectly protected from the fire of any works which might be thrown up for the defence of Edinburgh; they might then land their artillery, and shell the town, and he did not see how the city of Edinburgh could be very well protected from that side. He believed it to be perfectly competent to an active enemy to take possession of Inchkeith, and by its means to hold the City of Edinburgh at their disposal.


observed that the constituency he had the honour to represent on the west coast of Ireland (Galway) took very great interest in this question of coast fortifications Near the town of Galway, there was an island that might be fortified. In connection with the depôts it was proposed to create, he might mention that some time since land had been purchased by the Government to build barracks of considerable dimensions in Galway, and it was still available for the purpose. It was his intention to call the attention of the Secretary of State for War to the importance of forming a depôt at Galway, with a view to defence in case of invasion.


said, in reply, that the Government promised to assist in the defence of the Forth so far back as 1859, one condition only been attached—a condition which his constituents and the citizens of Edinburgh would be proud to fulfil—namely, that they should man the vessels and the forts. He thought, therefore, that a wrong was inflicted upon them by the non-fulfilment of a promise by the Government. He would divide the House on his Motion.

Question put, and negatived.