HC Deb 19 March 1877 vol 233 cc133-45

in rising pursuant to Notice, to call attention to the state and condition of the Navy, and to move— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire fully into the present Admiralty organization and its system of departmental and general administration of the affairs of the Navy, as well as into the actual condition of the naval and maritime resources of the country, to ascertain how far they meet the requirements of the Empire, and also into the administrative arrangements made by the First Lord of the Admiralty to insure the efficiency of the naval Service, upon which depends the welfare and and safety of the Kingdom, said, it was of the utmost importance that the House should know the exact state and condition of the Fleet, and what the nation had really to rely upon in the hour of need. He had had more than a quarter of a century's experience of the Navy, and naturally felt the greatest interest in its efficiency; but he regretted to say that never before had he known the Service in so inefficient a state and so unsatisfactory a condition as at the present moment; and knowing also, as he well did, that our exact force to a man, to a ton, to a gun, had been accurately ascertained by our warlike neighbours, Russia and Germany, he felt it his duty to point out, before it was too late, the danger we were in from possessing a Fleet only on paper. By a Return moved for by Sir Charles Wood, and laid on the Table of the House on the 16th February, 1859, he found that the steam fighting Navy of England amounted to 369 vessels—after deducting yachts, tenders, and all other non-combatant craft—and that there were 32 screw war ships building or converting. From the best information he could obtain he found that the total number of fighting vessels we now possessed was 204, of which at least 50 were fit only for harbour or coast defence; and that there were only 22 building, six of which were for harbour or coast defence. So that at that moment, when the maritime requirements of the nation were greater than ever, we actually did not possess, even in point of numbers, half the sea-going fighting ships we had 18 years ago. And when, in addition, we came to look at the quality of the ships we had now, the state of the Navy was perfectly appalling. But what he complained of most was the apparent deception practised by the Admiralty on the public on that all-important subject of the strength of the Navy. He held in his hand a Navy List of last year, and what did he find? A list purporting to give 546 ships when there were only 290. Even The Standard, which every one would admit was well informed on this subject, was taken in, for he found in that paper, under date 21st January, 1876, an article headed "Our Power by Sea," this sentence— As an introductory remark it may be stated that the total number of vessels of every class and description entitled to be termed 'Her Majesty's ships' amounts to no less than 560, with an armament of 3,600 guns, and of this number 240, mounting nearly 1,700 guns, are in commission, the remainder (that is 320) being in reserve or employed on harbour service? Now, what was the fact? He had carefully dissected the Navy List of that date, and he found that it officially purported to give a list of effective ships, the last of which was numbered 546; on examination, however, he found a number of blanks—neither numbers nor ships—which amounted to 256—leaving really only 290, instead of the official number 546 which appeared on the face of the Navy List published by authority. So that instead of 546 ships and 166 gun-beats—a gross total of 712 on paper—the force of fighting ships was reduced to 228; but of these 22 were building, leaving 206, out of which more than 50 were unseaworthy or not designed to keep the sea. So that the nation only possessed 150 vessels, more or less inefficient, out of which to maintain a Fleet in the Channel and Mediterranean, and to keep open its communication with all parts of the world. Why, in point of numbers alone it was ridiculous to suppose they could do the work; and were it not so serious a matter, the Admiralty would become a laughing-stock. Admiralty folly could scarcely go further. He would give the House an idea of our responsibilities. The last Imperial Census gave us the population of our Colonies. We had in the Dominion of Canada, 3,789,670 inhabitants, occupying an area of 3,376,925 square miles. The West India Islands, with an area of 13,109 square miles, had a population of little more than 1,000,000. In the African Continent and the adjacent islands we were masters of 236,860 square miles of territory, peopled by 1,813,450 inhabitants. In the Indian Seas, before reaching our Indian Empire, we had the Mauritius, with an area of 708 miles, and a population of 330,460 inhabitants. In our Australian Settlements we had West Australia, with 978,000 square miles, and 24,785 inhabitants. South Australia, with 760,000 square miles, had a population of 185,626 white, and 3,369 aboriginal inhabitants. Victoria, with an area of 88,000 square miles, had 731,528 inhabitants (including 17,935 Chinese). New South Wales had on its 320,437 square miles 503,981 inhabitants. Queensland and Tasmania had a population of 219,432; Norfolk Island, 401; and New Zealand, "the England of the southern hemisphere," and one of the youngest born of the Colonies, had a white population in 1871 of 256,393; whilst the aborigines were estimated at 37,500. Then we had India with her countless millions; Ceylon, with a population of 2,405,287; Singapore, 197,000; Penang, 67,000; Province Wellesley, 71,000; Malacca, 77,000; Hong Kong and the Peninsula of Kowloon, 120,000. This world-wide and enormous popula- tion all owed allegiance to England—without which she would cease to be a paramount Power. We exported in 1873 to our British Possessions goods to the value of £66,000,000, whilst our imports from those Possessions exceeded £79,000,000. These were our responsibitities. He would now call the attention of the House to the ocean roads and stations we must keep open and defend: 1. The line to Canada, with its main station, Halifax. 2. To the West Indies, with Bermuda, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Antigua to defend. 3. To India, the East, and Australia, by the Mediterranean, with Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Bombay, Galle, and King George's Sound on the main line, and Trincomalee, Singapore, and Hong Kong on its northern branch. 4th line. To India and the East, and Australia, round the Cape, with Sierra Leone, Ascension, St. Helena, Simon's Bay, the Mauritius, and King George's Sound. 5th line. From Australia and Vancouver's Island, round Cape Horn. Here we had Sierra Leone, Ascension, the Falkland Islands, Sydney, Fiji and Vancouver. Our Royal Navy had to protect all this traffic, and, besides, had to defend our coaling stations. This latter was a most important duty, as owing to our constructors not knowing their business, a large proportion of our ships could not keep the sea without steam power; a fact rendered painfully obvious by the disaster of the Thetis, whose steam power broke down near a port, which could not, however, be gained until after 17 days of drifting helplessly short of provisions. To take only the last line, he challenged his right hon. Friend to deny the fact that the English men-of-war in the Pacific were not a match for speed and guns for even the six Russian war vessels lying in the harbour of San Francisco at this moment, while at the same time Vancouver, with all our stores and coals, was absolutely without defence. One gunboat could destroy all our stores there. It was fearful to contemplate the the fatal results that might arise from maladministration at the Admiralty. Let the House reflect what one Alabama did, and then imagine the mischief the six Russian war vessels now lying at San Francisco might do. From the time the Alabama first began her career until her defeat she captured no less than 66 ships, representing a tonnage of 46,100; while—what was of still greater importance—she concentrated upon herself alone the whole attention of no less than 17 steam war vessels; so that she not only inflicted immense damage upon the enemy's merchant fleet, but also shielded her own people's trade by distracting the available force of the enemy. Captain Semmes never for a moment attributed his success to his own personal merit, but entirely to the ignorance and stupidity which characterized the plans of his opponents. He (Captain Pim) did not wish to say anything un-Parliamentary, but he could not resist mentioning what his gallant friend, Captain Semmes, told him himself—namely, that he owed much of his success to "the ignorant folly of that darned old fool, Mr. Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy." Captain Colomb, R.M.A., one of the ablest officers in the Service, but now unfortunately retired in the prime of life, said— It is impossible that any one carefully studying the cruise of the Sumter and Alabama, can avoid the conclusion that we have had to pay many millions sterling, not so much for letting the Alabama escape, but as compensation to the United States for damage directly resulting from the vague notion the head of their naval Department had respecting the 'command of the sea,' and his utter incapacity as a sea strategist. All the naval force of the United States was powerless to arrest a single ship in her progress, simply because it was applied without reference to general principles which guide the distribution of force for the protection of communications. But he did not complain only of the want of "sea strategy" at the Admiralty; he complained that even the 150 fighting ships of which he had shown the Navy to consist were not fit for their work; they were mere boxes of guns and machinery, and nothing else. Nearly two years ago, on 11th May, 1875, he had placed on the Paper the following Notice of Motion, which he could not bring on because the hon. Member for Forfarshire, who was before him, was counted out:— Captain Pim,—Navy (Construction of Vessels)—Select Committee to inquire into the particulars of the design, construction, cost, seaworthy, and other qualities, as well as the present state and condition of the following ships and vessels designed by the late Chief Constructor of the Navy, Mr. E. J. Reed, C.B., M.P.:"— and there was appended a list of 32 un- armoured vessels, 31 armoured vessels, and 5 transports. In respect to these vessels, not one was worthy to be called a real man-of-war—one and all were a disgrace to the intelligence of the age. He would not go through the list of these 63 ships—but the first of them—the Amazon, foundered by collision with an Irish pig boat—and the last, the Vanguard, was so weak below the water line that she was certain to go down with the first blow—and down she did go. Public attention had been at last aroused to the true nature and value of our rubbishing iron-dads; the fact was that our so-called men-of-war were not ships—they were simply boxes of machinery and guns, quite unable to do justice to the requirements of the nation. What did some of our ablest and best officers say. It was enough, in condemnation of our iron-dads, to refer to the recorded statement of a late senior Sea Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Sidney Dacres, who also had command of the Channel Fleet—"that he did not think they (the iron-clads) could cruise in company with safety." Also that of Admiral Sir Thomas Symonds, one of our most distinguished and experienced officers, lately in command of an ironclad Fleet, "that they (the iron-dads) are unable to save themselves under the commonest circumstances." And that of Admiral of the Fleet Sir George Sartorius— That our iron-clad ships of war are equally unfit for the exigencies of coast or distant warfare, and for the blockading of an enemy's ports impracticable. In fact, these large iron-dads were not safe when near the land or one another, or in bad weather without steam power. Our ships of war could not be in a worse case. The iron-dads, of which we possessed 49, could hardly be dignified by the name of ships. Our most distinguished officers united in saying that to blockade an enemy's port—the very object for which they were most wanted—they were useless; and then as to their startling variety, even the Gentleman who was responsible for most of them had quite come round to the opinions he had just cited, for on 19th January the hon. Gentleman wrote in The TimesYet another source of aggravated expenditure, and of something very much worse besides, is to be found in the endless variety of our ships of war, growing directly out of defective Admiralty administration … and in the event of war it would probably transform a well-planned engagement into a miserable melée, and might inflict a terrible defeat and disaster upon us. As to our unarmoured ships, they were not only unseaworthy, but of such bad design and construction, that he defied the best sailor in the world to make them efficient men-of-war. [The hon. and gallant Member then described seriatim the construction and defects of the Shah, the Volage, Supply, Turquoise, Wild Swan, and Boxer, and proceeded.] With regard to the gunboats, he need only mention the Goshawk, to give the House an idea of their inutility as vessels of war. The Goshawk was a composite gunboat of' 295 tons, and 60-horse-power, and nearly met the fate of the unfortunate Captain. The papers gave this account of the vessel— EXTRAORDINARY HOAX.—About a month ago a telegram, purporting to come from the Admiralty, London, was received at the Admiralty Office, Queenstown, ordering the Goshawk gunboat to proceed immediately to Gibraltar. It was directed that the full crew should proceed, and that as much coal and stores as could be stowed should be taken. There was a little delay in departure owing to the absence of some of the crew, who were on leave; but they were all mustered with despatch, and in less than 24 hours after the receipt of orders the Goshawk was on its way to Gibraltar, with 63 souls on board. The weather at the time was very bad, and, as these gunboats are not designed for seagoing there was much misgiving as to her safety. Very soon after she sailed another telegram was received from the same source, asking to be advised if the Goshawk had proceeded to Galway. A reply was at once sent back from the Admiral's Office, Queenstown, stating that, in accordance with the first telegram, she had gone to Gibraltar. It was then ascertained for the first time that the telegrams were a hoax, and that the lives of the 63 persons on board were placed in jeopardy by the heartless conduct of some practical jokers. Yet this vessel was of 295 tons. In 1857, just 20 years ago, he took out to China the gunboat Banterer, 237 tons, and 60-horse power, a smaller vessel than the Goshawk, and with half the number of men; but, as the log would show, although they met with all sorts of weather, there was no difficulty in keeping her above water; and he ventured to think, no sailor would deny that the late gunboat Banterer would have been more than a match in action for any of the Goshawk class; and yet the Banterer cost £9,567, while the Goshawk cost £13,884, to say nothing of the constant repairs that she would need. The question was, whether the money proposed to be expended on coast defenders of the Devastation class, or unwieldy iron-dads such as the Alexandra with her 35 engines, which a single torpedo could send to the bottom of the sea, would not be better spent in building numerous gun vessels such as those lately ordered by China—namely, the Alpha and Beta, both at the present moment in Chinese waters, and the Gamma and Delta now on their way; but with this difference—that they should be real sea-going vessels like the Algerine class? He had himself seen the Algerine in the Indian Ocean, not steam, but sail round an Indiaman, and afterwards he had known her go through a typhoon in the China Seas literally without the smallest damage, although other ships foundered, were dismasted, or came to grief in some way or other. This vessel cost £12,500. He repeated that what the nation really wanted was a number of gun vessels of some 500 tons, carrying a heavy gun with the longest range, capable of keeping the sea in all weather under sail, either in blockading an enemy's ports, chasing an enemy, or protecting a convoy, with a powerful engine on beard; but to be used only on an emergency. Now he asked the noble Lord who had just sat down (Lord Charles Beresford) whether, with a couple of such gunboats as he had described, he would hesitate one moment to attack coast defenders, or even the Alexandra? He firmly believed that two such gunboats would make the unwieldy iron-clad very uncomfortable, hanging on her quarter, and either disable or sink her. Why, then, should this House be asked to vote vast sums of money to build such costly rubbish, when, for less than the sum wanted this year, some 40 or 50 first-class gun-vessels could be built, and all comers defied; besides having ships capable of doing good service abroad? He thought he had shown clearly enough that the materiél of the Navy was in a most unsatisfactory, not to say dangerous, condition; and he deeply regretted to say that the personnel was no better—but he would not go into that part of the subject now. This was entirely the result of maladministration and ignorance at the Admiralty, where the most astounding blunders, if not something worse, were almost of daily occurrence. Subsequently to 1868, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter) stated in this House— That the country was paying for stores and material at rates 20, 30, 60 per cent above the market value, and that a system of bribery by contractors had been established within the walls of the Admiralty. He was aware it had been alleged that by the reforms introduced by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Childers) and the right hon. Member for Montrose, such a state of things could no longer take place. But as a matter of fact, one of the grossest pieces of jobbery ever perpetrated took place under the Administration of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Pontefract, and the right hon. Member for Montrose—he meant the sale of Deptford Dockyard, the value of which, as it stood in the books of the Department, was about £400,000, but which was privately sold to a friend of a high Admiralty official for about £75,000, but for which no money was paid until the purchaser had managed during the course of some 12 months to induce the Corporation of London to buy it of him for about £105,000—thus clearing by this transaction some £30,000. He was quite aware how distasteful any debate on Naval matters was to that House, and he was quite sure that ex-Ministers would join with those in power to prevent the inquiry he asked. He could assure the House that the task had not been a pleasant one, but he should have been a coward if he had shrunk from its performance, believing, as he did, that the Nation had arrived at such a crisis in her history as she had never known before. He had had more than 30 years' experience of naval affairs, and he could safely say that never before had the Service been so miserably mismanaged, the ships so ignorantly constructed, the officers so desponding, and the men so discontented, as during the last 10 years. In conclusion, he begged to move the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee be appointed to inquire fully into the present Admiralty organization and its system of departmental and general administration of the affairs of the Navy, as well as into the actual condition of the Naval and Maritime resources of the Country, to ascertain how far they meet the requirements of the Empire; and also into the administrative arrangements made by the First Lord of the Admiralty to insure the efficiency of the Naval Service, upon which depends the welfare and safety of the Kingdom,"—(Captain Pim,)

—instead thereof.


hoped the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty would inform the House what were the relations of the future of the commercial harbours in connection with the torpedo system. For himself, he would like to see the responsibility for the torpedo arrangements for their defence transferred from the Engineers to the men of the second class of the Naval Reserve.


trusted the hon. and gallant Member for Gravesend (Captain Pim) would not divide the House, as he thought little good would be derived from proposing abstract Resolutions. He regretted to hear that the condition of the iron-clad fleet was not so satisfactory as it ought to be. He could not understand why, in a time of peace, so many ships were kept in commission as was the custom of the Admiralty, and thought that the turret-ships and the broadside iron-clads should be treated as mere floating batteries, to be laid up in time of peace, and only put into commission for coast defence in time of war.


also hoped the hon. and gallant Member for Gravesend (Captain Pim) would not press his Motion to a division, but would allow the House to go at once into Committee. The most convenient time to discuss the question of the construction of our ships would be when Vote 10 came under the consideration of the Committee. Last year that Vote was postponed to such a late period of the Session that there was not sufficient time left them for the discussion of the subject. He hoped, however, that this Session Government would contrive so as to have the Vote brought on at a time when every hon. Gentleman would have the opportunity of stating what might be his opinions in respect to it.


said, it was not usual to revive personal questions which had once been considered and settled by the House, especially when the person affected was no longer living. A charge had been made against a former Member of that House, which amounted, in fact, to a charge of fraud and peculation. That charge was brought under the consideration of the House six years ago, and was completely disproved. The person against whom the imputation was made was Mr. Bristow, the then Solicitor to the Admiralty, and it was not decent six years after for an hon. Member to throw at his memory a charge which had been completely disproved. The accusation was that his brother-in-law through his influence had purchased Deptford Dockyard and afterwards sold it again at a profit before even paying for it. It was proved that the person referred to was not Mr. Bristow's brother-in-law, that Mr. Bristow had nothing to do with the purchase, and that the delays in receiving the purchase-money arose from differences between the Department of Woods and Forests and the Admiralty. The House declined to proceed with the matter further, and he regretted that it had been revived on the present occasion. He trusted the House would show the hon. and gallant Member opposite (Captain Pim) that this method of reviving without Notice an exploded accusation against a dead man was not to the taste of Parliament.

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


said, that before the Speaker left the Chair he desired to say a few words on the interesting matter brought before the House by his noble and gallant Friend behind him (Lord Charles Beresford). When introducing the Navy Estimates a few nights back he (Mr. Hunt) stated what had been done in reference to the use of torpedoes. He informed the House on that occasion that he had instituted a separate school for torpedo instruction for officers, and he was now happy to state that his noble and gallant Friend had been one of his first pupils, and he hoped that the House would be of opinion that he had profited by his instructions, and that many of his Profession would take the same warm interest in the subject which he had done. He was certain that he should have the support of his noble and gallant Friend for the Votes he would have to move for the development of the torpedo system, such as the Vote to purchase a large number of torpedoes from Mr. Whitehead, and also the large Vote for the purchase of steamers required to moor the torpoes for the defence of the commercial harbours of the country. His noble and gallant Friend was right in saying that the introduction of torpedoes had revolutionized the system of naval warfare. That was a question which was constantly and anxiously considered by the Admiralty, and they had not only to consider what was the best kind of torpedo, but what would be the best means to defend ships against these new weapons, and he could only say that he should be always ready to consider suggestions that might be made for improvements of any kind in connection with the torpedo system, whether those improvements arose out of the offensive or defensive powers of the weapons in question. His noble and gallant Friend seemed to think that, in the first place, a single blow from a torpedo would sink a ship like the Inflexible. He (Mr. Hunt) did not go so far as that. He ventured to think that she would survive more than one blow, because she was divided into many water-tight compartments, and that was to a certain extent a defence. With regard to the defence of ships, he admitted that torpedoes would go through any nets that had yet been provided, but he would not go so far as to say that no kind of net would be any protection. He was also quite aware that great doubts were entertained whether nets could be supplied as a means of defence when ships were in motion; that could only be determined by experiments, and these were going to be made. He admitted that the defence of ships from torpedoes was a most serious question, and any inventor who would devise means of protection would find him (Mr. Hunt) ready to listen to his claims. The inventions of mankind for the purpose of destruction were yet ahead of these inventions for protection; and he hoped that inventors would turn their powers to a more profitable and philanthropic use than that of constructing machines for killing mankind. As the War Department was charged with the organization of the land defence of the coun- try, it was thought proper to place the torpedoes under the control of the Royal Engineers, the Admiralty undertaking to find the Votes for supplying the gunboats and mooring vessels required in laying them down.


said, he understood the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hunt) to say that he had formed the torpedo school, whereas it was his impression that the torpedo school was formed when he (Mr. Goschen) was a Member of the Administration. The other day the right hon. Gentleman made use of a similar expression.


explained that the other day he said that the torpedo school was dependent upon the Excellent, but the importance of the question had so considerably increased that it was found necessary to found a separate school in connection with the Vernon, of which, as he had said, his noble and gallant Friend was one of the first pupils. He had no desire to deprive his right hon. Friend of any credit which was fairly his due.


pointed out that the right hon. Gentleman did not use the word "separate."

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.