HC Deb 30 April 1875 vol 223 cc1927-41

, in rising, pursuant to Notice— To call the attention of the House to the question of a central Arsenal, and to move for a Select Committee to inquire whether the cost of removal from "Woolwich would not be recovered by the altered condition of manufacture and the diminished cost of raw material, said, that after the numerous discussions which had taken place upon theoretical questions in connection with the Army he thought it might be satisfactory to hon. Members to have one of a practical character brought under notice. It was essentially one of defence; and he apprehended that, whatever might be the difference of opinion on matters of offence, on the subject of defence there would be complete unanimity. He attempted to bring it forward last Session, but was not fortunate in the day obtained for the purpose. He however asked the Secretary for War whether the Government would postpone their contemplated purchase of land for a tactical station in the North of England, until the question had been discussed, and though the answer was a negative one, he was happy to learn that no action had been taken by the Government up to the present time in the matter. He did not by his Motion ask the House to commit itself to any question of principle. The onus of proof lay on Mm, and he was prepared to show on primâ facie evidence that the cost of the change he suggested would be more than fully recouped by the improved conditions of manufacture. As to the desirability of a change, he thought that from a military point of view few critics would dissent from the principle that the capital of a country and its arsenal ought not to be in one and the same place. The first object of an invader on entering an enemy's country was to reach its capital and its arsenal. In reaching the capital he paralyzed the Government, interfered with the progress of commercial relations, and crippled the money-producing power of the nation; and in striking at the arsenal he struck a blow which deprived the Army of its force and the country of its strength. Consequently, it was of the utmost importance to an invader that he should be able to attack us in those two vital points by one operation, and it was, of course, most desirable for purposes of defence that he should be prevented from doing so. In his early wars Napoleon's objective point was Berlin. Again, the Prussians marched on Vienna, and in the late struggle between Prance and Germany the cry on the one side was "To Berlin," and on the other "To Paris." The only thing that would justify the capital and the arsenal of a country being in one situation was the fact that the capital was defended by fortifications, and that the arsenal, being within those fortifications, was in the strongest position in the country. In Prance the engineers had thought it desirable to spend very large sums of money in perfecting a system of fortifications round Paris which was far from imperfect before the war. He would not discuss whether or not a mode of expending that money could not be found which should give a greater amount of defence; but the circumstances which obtained in Paris were not those which obtained in this country; and he did not think the House of Commons should be called upon to vote money for fortifications round London. The line of works would be too extended to enable them to be properly manned, and their cost would be too great. The Government had, he believed, a plan on paper for the defence of London, and he thought it was all right and proper as long as they confined such a scheme to paper, and went no further. According to the Report of the Commission appointed in 1859 the cost of completing a satisfactory line of fortifica- tions round Woolwich would be between £2,000,000 and £3,000,000; whereas the establishment of defensive forts on the top of Shooter's Hill might be carried into effect for £700,000. There ought, he contended, to be no half-and-half measures, and if Woolwich was to be fortified the work ought to be done completely. He, for one, he might add, as a Northerner, entirely deprecated the idea that the country must give in to an enemy because the South found itself unable to keep him away. It would be, in his opinion, a most pernicious view to get abroad that because London happened to be taken England must therefore be considered as lost. The Commission of 1859 was composed of most able military and scientific authorities, and their recommendations had, on the whole, been carried out very well, although there was one point in their Report which had not, perhaps, been attended to—the establishment of a central Arsenal. In the first part of that Report they referred to Woolwich—the great depot of our munitions of war—as a place of the most vital importance. The Government in which Lord Herbert was Secretary of State for War deemed the matter to be of such moment that a second Instruction was given to the Commission, to report specially with reference to the question of a central Arsenal, and in the third paragraph of the Report they stated that it was impossible to render Woolwich safe against attack without such an outlay of money as they did not feel justified in recommending. The advantages of Woolwich were, first that it existed, and secondly that it was easy of access for the distribution of stores; but there was the disadvantage that if it was easy of access to us, it would also be so to an enemy. Taking all those circumstances into consideration, he must say he was rather surprised at the boldness of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Boord) in putting on the Paper an Amendment which challenged the Motion on the Report of that Commission; but, at the same time, he must say that he was eager to hear the arguments that would be brought forward by the hon. Member, as he thought they would be somewhat curious in their bearing upon the matter. The question, he might add, as to the distribution of stores was nothing as compared with the enormous importance of the whole subject in a strategic point of view. He did not propose that all the stores should be removed from Woolwich; on the contrary, he was of opinion that stores from other quarters might with advantage be shifted there. For instance, the Clothing department at Pimlico, and the India Store department might be conveniently transferred to Woolwich, and in that way two valuable sites in London would be set free to be turned to other uses. He would now pass to the question of site, regarding which he would merely say that he did not commit himself to any particular locality. The Report of the Commission, however, had dealt pretty conclusively with the subject, and there were two sites prominently mentioned as being suitable for the purpose. The first was Cannock Chase, which, from its position in connection with railways and canals, was perfectly suitable for the purpose. The recent discovery of minerals, however, under that estate, and certain other circumstances which had come to light since the report was presented, led the Government not to look so favourably on that site as they had done before. But there was another which appeared to him more than any other to meet the general requirements of the case, and that was the site which had been also under the consideration of the Government—namely, Ilkley, not far from Leeds. There a tract of land of some 7,000 acres in extent could be purchased for a moderate sum. But there were several other sites which would be suitable. In fact there were in this respect an embarras de richesses. The Government, also, had it under consideration to render more perfect the gun-wharves or small arsenals at Plymouth and Portsmouth. He had no objection to offer to that, for it was a very good thing to do; but, supposing it done, it would not meet the requirements of the case. He came now to the question of cost. Engineers had a rough-and-ready rule of thumb for estimating the cost of a building at so much per cubic foot. A fair estimate for such iron buildings as there were at Woolwich would be 3d. a cubic foot, and for the brick buildings 5d. There were in the Arsenal approximately 40,000,000 cubic feet of building, 15,000,000 of iron, and 25,000,000 of brick; and if these figures were multiplied respectively by three and five we should get a rough estimate of the cost of erecting the buildings that would be required. From that he had estimated the total cost of removal at £1,000,000. He was here dealing only with the Carriage and Laboratory departments; but, as a set off against that, they would have the value of the land relieved by the change. Some of that land set free by the dismantling of the Dockyard had been sold for £4,000 an acre, and although he did not estimate they would be able to realize such a price for the Arsenal property, still, whatever they might obtain for it would be a very handsome set off against the amount he had mentioned. He was not, however, anxious to insist on this question of the value of land; but what he insisted on was the economy which would be effected on the materials used and the work done. Woolwich used something like 80,000 tons of coal a-year, 7,000 tons of coke, and the number of workmen employed was about 7,000. The amount of work turned out by the gun-factories and the laboratories amounted to about £500,000. He asked the House to consider the different value of these figures when the work was done at some point contiguous to a manufacturing centre, instead of near London. On coals there would be a saving of 10s. a-ton, or £40,000; on labour there would be a saving of 5 per cent; on coke there would be a saving of £7,000; and altogether he found there would be a difference of £70,000 every year for the value of the war material turned out of an arsenal situated in the centre of England as against Woolwich, if the Arsenal was established contiguous to a great manufacturing centre. The establishments at Woolwich were, no doubt, conducted in a most admirable manner; but the Arsenal had been built piecemeal, and everyone knew how important it was, in reference to economical production, that there should be a regular sequence carried through the different branches of the establishment. That, however, did not exist, and as an evidence of the want of organization, he might state that the wood was brought in at one side, then taken to the other, and again removed before being used. The same remarks applied to the cartridges. There would also be considerable saving in grouping all the boilers together, whilst at Woolwich they were distributed in different parts of the place. Then, again, each department of the Arsenal had a store of its own, instead of there being only one purchasing and one issuing department. He believed that the re-organization to which he had alluded would lead to a saving of 4 per cent upon the value of the stores, or £20,000, which, added to the £70,000, would make a total saving of £90,000 a-year. The necessary sum, £1,290,000, could be raised at 3¾ per cent by Terminable Annuities, which would cause a payment of £56,000 for 30 years; and this could be paid out of the £90,000. He would now proceed to move for the Select Committee of which he had given Notice, and which he hoped would be granted. Ten or twelve meetings would suffice to go fully into the inquiry, and to elicit what he knew would prove valuable information.


, interposing, said, he wished to point out that it was not competent for the hon. Member to do more than call attention to the subject, the House having already decided that the words, "That the Speaker do leave the Chair," should stand part of the question.


said, he must confess that he felt some diffidence in placing on the Paper the Notice of opposition that stood in his name; but he was re-assured by the statement the hon. and gallant Gentleman opposite (Major Beaumont) had made at the commencement of his remarks, to the effect that he would explain his case in such a manner as to bring it within the comprehension even of civilians, and he therefore trusted he might venture to claim the indulgence of hon. Members whilst he briefly drew attention to certain considerations which, it appeared to him, had either been altogether overlooked, or to which due prominence had not been given. The speech in which the hon. and gallant Gentleman had explained the action he was desirous that Her Majesty's Government should take, was, unquestionably, an interesting one, and in every respect such as might have been anticipated from an officer holding the position he did in the scientific branch of his profession. He had expressed surprise that exception should be taken to his proposal to follow out the recommendations of the Royal Commission of 1859, instead of to the calculations by which he proposed to prove Ms case; but he (Mr. Boord) desired to go behind that array of figures in order to attack the foundation of the hon. and gallant Gentleman's argument, which was contained within the four corners of the Report of the Royal Commissioners. Now, the appointment of that Commission was chiefly due to the disease called "Gallophobia," under which the country was labouring at the time. He did not deny that the result of its deliberations, so far as they had been referred to, had been correctly stated; but he did assert that the tone of the Report was in great measure due to the then prevalent panic. And what better evidence could they have of that than was revealed in that portion of the Report which related to the fortification of Woolwich? The Commissioners considered three alternative schemes; one, an elaborate line of fortification, its right resting on the Thames at Greenwich Marshes, passing round by Shooters' Hill, and so to the River again at Erith, to cost about £4,000,000—another, less extensive, £2,000,000—and the third, which was recommended, a strong fortification on Shooters' Hill only, at a cost of £700,000. It appeared, then, that the amount of vacillation in their policy might be represented by the difference between the highest and lowest of these amounts—no less than £3,300,000—and the very fact that they should have entertained such widely divergent schemes, pointed to the operation of some disturbing influence on their deliberations; but when it was considered that 15 years had elapsed without one penny being expended in pursuance of this portion of their advice, it became clear that their counsels were influenced by the same feeling that gave so sudden an impulse to the Volunteer movement throughout the country about that time. It did not appear, therefore, having regard to the peculiar circumstances in which that Royal Commission was issued, that they were bound to do any more than had already been done towards carrying out the recommendations of its Report. What were the hon. and gallant Gentleman's arguments in favour of his plan? They might be briefly stated under two heads. One was founded on the advantage, from a strategical point of view, of having a central rallying point on which we might fall back in case of need, and the other was based on the alleged insecurity and inconvenience of the present Arsenal. The former of these might be well left to other hands, for if he could succeed in refuting the charges that had been levelled against the Royal Arsenal, sufficient reason would have been given for declining to enter that boundless field of abstract speculation in which the hon. and gallant Gentleman had been luxuriating. The hon. and gallant Gentleman had said that the Royal Arsenal was insecure; that it was inconveniently situated; and that there would be a saving of the cost of labour and materials effected by the change he advised. Regarding the security or otherwise of the Arsenal, we might suppose its liability to attack by land and by water. But what did the supposition of a land attack imply? It implied simply this—that a hostile force had been able to gain a footing on our shores, and that the national Army had been unable either to dislodge them, or effectually to impede their progress—in other words, that our forces by sea and by land were utterly inadequate to the performance of the duties assigned to them. He felt sure that the right hon. Gentlemen at the head of the Military and Naval establishments would not be prepared to give their assent to such a proposition as that, and he could only imagine that the neglect with which this portion of the subject had been hitherto treated was mainly due to a general and not unfounded confidence in the pluck of the British soldier and sailor, if not always in the administration of the Services. And no better proof of indifference could be given than that furnished by the House of Commons itself, when the late General Sir de Lacy Evans, to whom the appointment of the Commission was, in the first instance, due, was advocating the carrying out of that part of its recommendations relating to the fortification of Shooters' Hill—he was actually counted out almost before he had commenced his argument—and that occurred only six months after the date of the Report. The defence of Woolwich on the land side was no new idea; it had been suggested by the Duke of York so far back as the year 1810, and again 50 years later by the Commission in question, but each time without result; primâ facie, therefore, there appeared to be no good ground for its adoption, and the Arsenal might be held to be sufficiently secure without any further precaution; but if it were otherwise, London itself seemed to be in still greater need of protection, for supposing a sufficient force to have landed and that they met with no effectual resistance, surely their destination would be the metropolis; having gained that and cut off railway communication, the capture of Woolwich would appear but a secondary consideration. But if the Arsenal were taken or communication with it interrupted, we should then not be destitute of resources—we had already auxiliary Arsenals at Portsmouth and Plymouth, which were capable of expansion at short notice, not to mention those gigantic private manufactories in the North—complete Arsenals in themselves—which now supplied Foreign Governments with the very articles we should require; in time of such an emergency as that contemplated this trade would necessarily cease, and, failing a foreign market, interest and patriotism would surely combine in placing every' facility at the disposition of the Government of the day. Regarding the safety of Woolwich by water, it must be remembered that all had been done that was recommended by the Royal Commission, the batteries commanding the waterway of the Thames had been strengthened, and in addition to those precautions, we were now in possession of a far more powerful engine than was ever contemplated at the time the Report was issued—the submarine torpedo would alone be found capable of protecting the entrance to the Thames. It could scarcely be forgotten that during the Franco-Prussian War the entire French fleet was kept outside Kiel harbour simply by extinguishing the lights and laying down torpedoes—and since that date the construction of those weapons had undergone many improvements. If Woolwich was not safe from attack by water, what was to be said about Chatham and Sheerness? They were unquestionably in a more exposed situation. At the time of the Royal Commission, and for some 10 years after, there was a dockyard in operation at Woolwich, which was closed in pursuance of what, he ventured to think, was a mistaken policy on the part of the late Government. Well, what had become of the work that was executed there? It had in great part been transferred to Chatham—20 miles nearer the sea, and, therefore, by so much the more dangerous. He certainly must dissent from the opinion expressed by the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the situation of the Royal Arsenal was inconvenient. What did the Royal Commissioners say in regard to the position of such an establishment? The great products of our Arsenals, guns, gun-carriages, shot, &c, are intended almost entirely for the Navy, coast defences, or for our Colonies; and it is conceived that an Arsenal should he situated, if not actually, on the sea, yet so near as to have easy and rapid communication with it. If a situation could be specially prepared for the purpose, it could not better fulfil those conditions than that now occupied by the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, and by its direct communication, through the South Eastern, with the entire railway system of the country, it possessed one advantage in addition to those enumerated in the quotation he had just read. It would undoubtedly reduce the cost of the raw material if our manufactories were nearer the sources of iron and coal; but that saving would be almost, if not quite, counterbalanced by the cost of carriage of the manufactured article, for he imagined the railway companies would hardly consent to carry such a monster, for example, as the new 80-ton gun, at anything like the same rate, ton for ton, as the material of which it was constructed. [Major BEAUMONT: I do not propose to remove the manufacture of heavy ordnance from Woolwich.] He (Mr. Boord) was very glad to hear it, and would, therefore, not pursue that argument any further. In one of the letters that passed between the Royal Commissioners and the War Office, there occurred a passage of ominous import. It was this— Circumstances may occur which may render it expedient, in addition to this central depot, to have also an Arsenal on the western seaboard, capable of furnishing a portion of the supplies which are now manufactured exclusively at Woolwich. Prom that it would appear that the plan advocated by the hon. and gallant Gentleman might be, and probably was, only part of a still more extensive design on the pocket of the British taxpayer. He had no doubt, as the Commissioners said in a subsequent paragraph of the same letter, that— Besides the duplication of our resources of production, another advantage which it is assumed would he gained by the establishment of an Arsenal on the Mersey would he the facility of ingress and egress to our colonies abroad; but it might also be desirable, from a purely military point of view, and for similar reasons, to have such establishments on various other parts of the coast. Would the nation be content to pay for these whims at the rate oven of £1,000,000 a-piece, which was the modest sum at which the hon. and gallant Gentleman apparently valued them? When he sat on that side of the House, the hon. and gallant Gentleman was, no doubt, in common with the majority of his Party, a strict economist; his change of position appeared to have made some difference in his opinions in that respect, or else he would probably have endeavoured to persuade his Friends to consider this question when they held the reins of power. If the changes he advocated were necessary now, they were still more so when he first came into the House. Then there were wars, and rumours of wars—now nothing could be more encouraging than the foreign relations of the country, and, under the able guidance of the noble Lord at the head of the Foreign Office, we had every guarantee that they would continue so. For his own part, he must confess that he saw nothing in the plan but increased expenditure, without any corresponding advantage to recommend it. The first outlay would be enormous, the cost of maintenance very largo, and the accumulation of obsolete stores still greater than at present; besides which, he could not help thinking that the publication of evidence like that which must be collected by a Committee, such as the hon. and gallant Gentleman asked for, would be, to say the least, undesirable. He hoped he had succeeded in showing some reason why Her Majesty's Government should once for all decline to listen to the proposal of the hon. and gallant Gentleman.


said, that while he had listened with interest to the figures and mass of detail which the hon. and gallant Gentleman had laid before the House in relation to his proposal, he could not help thinking that, although his soft and persuasive words in refer- ence to an unnamed site in the North were spoken in the House of Commons, the hon. and gallant Gentleman's heart was somewhere in South Durham. He (Lord Eustace Cecil) could not, however, at that late hour go into those details. The Commission which considered the whole of this subject, and which made certain recommendations in 1860, if it were able to meet again, would, he was informed by its Secretary, Sir William Jervois, no doubt report in a very different way, because the state of things now was very different from what it was in 1860. By water, at least, the Arsenal at Woolwich was almost impregnable. Suppose that impossible event, the Battle of Dorking, were to be fought, he did not think the enemy would make for Woolwich, but would at once make for the metropolis. As regarded the defence of Woolwich by water, the hon. and gallant Gentleman knew the number of fortifications on the Thames. All those fortresses were more or less armed with heavy guns. Most of those guns were in position; if not actually so, they would be shortly. He would not now go into the question of torpedoes, but the hon. and gallant Gentleman knew that a wise use of torpedoes in themselves would make the river practically impregnable. The hon. and gallant Gentleman, moreover, did not appear to have given a good reason why we should remove the departments he proposed to remove from Woolwich. The wish of the War Department at present was to have the clothing and all the outlying departments more immediately under the Central Government, so that if they perceived anything wrong going on in those departments, they could have the officers at the head of those departments more immediately under their command. As to Indian stores, he (Lord Eustace Cecil) was not competent to speak; that was a question for the Indian Government. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman had known the difficulty which the War Department had to induce the Indian Government to adopt its views, he would not so readily have made his proposals as to these stores. As to the cost of the plan proposed by the hon. and gallant Gentleman, it was impossible then to go into detail. The cost of the removal of the Arsenal from Woolwich he estimated at something like £1,000,000; but he (Lord Eustace Cecil) was told upon competent authority that it would be much nearer £2,000,000. The hon. and gallant Gentleman spoke of the large sums which the sale of land at Woolwich would produce; but he could tell him that, so far as land was concerned, the Government had to buy in the dearest market and sell in the cheapest. The 280 acres would hardly produce the sum he calculated on. No doubt, if they took away the manufactories at Woolwich the houses in which the artizans now lived would be untenanted and the value of the land would fall, and he should be very much astonished if they got more than £100 an acre for the land. He could not agree in the accuracy of the hon. and gallant Gentleman's calculations as to the quantities of material used at Woolwich, or the saving that would be effected if his plans were carried out. Instead of 80,000 tons of coal, for instance, only 52,000 tons had been used in 1874. Indeed, all such calculations, unless formed upon a very accurate basis, must be wholly fallacious. As to the iron used at Woolwich, he might say that of the 13,000 tons used yearly 10,000 tons consisted of old material—shot, shell, and condemned guns. That was an enormous saving, which would go on for some years to come. The hon. and gallant Gentleman asked him to consent to a Committee. Well, he should be very glad to oblige him if it would do any good. But the object of a Committee was information, and he thought they had already all the information they wanted on this subject. Besides if a Committee reported in the sense of the hon. and gallant Gentleman he was not at all sure that the House or the country would consent to their recommendation, and their labour would be entirely thrown away, and he did not like to assent to a Committee unless its inquiries could lead to a useful result. The manner in which the question had been brought forward afforded proof of great industry, and he wished he could believe that the labour had been well spent. He was sorry he could not give the hon. and gallant Gentleman a more favourable answer; but until he brought forward a more practicable scheme, he did not think it would be possible for the Government or any other Government to consent to his Motion. The hon. and gallant Gentleman had imparted a great deal of valuable information to the House, and, having done himself great credit, he hoped he would be content at present with the attention he had called to the subject.


said, he concurred in the observation that his hon. and gallant Friend had collected an great amount of information on a question which was interesting and vitally important; but where so large an expenditure was involved, it was natural that the Government and Parliament should be cautious. He was bound to say that if the noble Lord's Predecessors had been on the Treasury Bench, they would probably have been as slow as he to take any step in this matter at a time when so much was being spent on fortifications and localization. It was rather hard for the noble Lord to taunt his hon. and gallant Friend with having an eye to the interests of his constituents in a matter to the consideration of which he brought a high degree of technical knowledge, and in which he naturally took special interest from a professional point of view; but if he was to be exposed to such a remark, what must be said of the speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Boord)? He was sorry that more attention could not be given to the subject by the House; and it would have been a satisfaction to have had his hon. and gallant Friend's case brought before a Committee, even if it were disproved, as he was inclined to think it might be. The Motion on the Paper was not directed against the Government at all; it was an important subject and his hon. and gallant Friend would doubtless have deemed it his duty to bring the matter forward whatever Government had been in power.


said, he would not enter into a discussion of the question further than to say, as a naval officer, let them make their defences safe. With regard to the removal of their arsenal to a central situation, it would be attended with enormous cost, and, in his opinion, they could never get a more important site than the present. He believed that the Thames might be so fortified that no attacks from ships of war need be apprehended. He did not like these discussions on the weak points of our position—these battles of Dorking. A central depot such as had been spoken of might be useful, in certain emergen- cies; but at Woolwich there was abundant depth of water for vessels to come alongside, and altogether we should never get so good and convenient an arsenal.


said, he would he glad enough could the Government have seen their way to allow a Committee to have been appointed, as it would dispel by the information it would have collected, many illusions about the weakness of our military positions, in case of having to assemble our Forces in centrical and important positions; but, as it was, the Government had decided wisely to resist the Motion, so far as regarded the removal of any of their great manufacturing establishments from Woolwich.


said, that very great evils would result, if the Government were to separate the gun department from the carriage department. If they removed their arsenal to a distance from the metropolis, they would land themselves in a great difficulty. All their war departments ought to be placed around the metropolis. Such was the arrangement in Russia, and it was of great importance.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.