HC Deb 10 March 1879 vol 244 cc533-43

, in rising to call attention to the state of the lists of Officers on the Active List of the Royal Navy, and to move— That the present and progressively increasing stagnation of promotion in the Royal Navy is injurious to the public service, and that the present system of retirement has failed to secure a sufficient amount of promotion, and ought to be extended, said, he referred to the subject with some diffidence, as he had not had the honour of serving in the Navy; but he found that the present system created a serious evil which was increasing year by year. Its effect was to discourage all, but especially the younger officers, who, finding promotion getting gradually slower, and seeing a forced retirement at a fixed age before them, despaired of rising to the higher ranks of their Profession. Hence their zeal was being quenched, and they were asking themselves why they should work and slave in a Profession in which they had no reasonable hope of rising, within anything like reasonable time, to the higher grades? In many cases, men whom it was desirable to retain in the Service were leaving it to seek other positions. Of course, all officers could not rise to be Admirals any more than all barristers to be Judges, or all clergymen to be Bishops; but there ought to be no rule in the Service to prevent them entertaining the hope of being Admirals. Yet, in the Royal Navy, the rule made it almost impossible for an officer to escape superannuation, unless he had been specially lucky, and had been selected for promotion above a great many of his fellows. To prove this, he would take the case of a lieutenant of any recent year—say 1870—he being then of the average age of 23. Of the lieutenants promoted in 1875 and 1876, the service was nearly 11 years; in 1877–8, it was 13 years; and in 1885 it would be at least 15 years; and the lieutenant of 1870 would have a prospect of his step when he was 38. The average number of years commanders served before they were made post-captains was, in 1875, 7 years and 4 months; in 1876, 7 years and 10 months; in 1877, 9 years and 5 months; in 1878, something more; so that it might be expected that a man promoted to commander's rank in 1885 would serve at least 10 years in that rank, and would then be 48 years of age. But commanders were compulsorily retired at 50, and captains at 55; and it took more than 15 years for a captain to become a rear-admiral. It seemed evident that, as matters now stood, unless the younger officers were specially placed over the heads of others, they must, at the average rate of promotion, be necessarily superannuated. The evil was, no doubt, tempered by selection, against which he had nothing to say further than that the selections that were made ought to be such as would convince those over whose heads the advances had taken place that they were fairly earned; but the system of selection, although it was attended with satisfactory results in the case of men of exceptional merit, afforded no appreciable relief to the general body of officers. He did not object to compulsory retirement at a stated age, for it was of importance that the officers of the Royal Navy should be active men of full strength and vigour of mind and body, and he thought the age fixed for commanders and lieutenants—namely, 50 and 45, was too high. But it was by retirements in the higher ranks that promotion would be made to flow through the whole Service. By the scheme of 1870 very liberal terms were offered in money, and accepted to the extent anticipated by lieutenants and commanders; but owing to a refusal to allow all captains, who had not completed their sea time, to take the rank of rear-admiral when they reached the top of the list, only a small proportion of those expected to retire did do so, and thus a great part of the relief that scheme was intended to give was not given. The point then refused had since been conceded. In 1870 the active list was largely reduced; but, while death vacancies were filled up, only one in four of those caused by retirement were filled up. In 1872 it was found necessary to promote 10 commanders and 10 lieutenants, and to rule that one in two retirement vacancies should be filled up; and in 1875 and 1876 there were further modifications of the stringency of the rules. The Committee of the House of Commons, which sat in 1863, recommended an active list of 1,800 officers, exclusive of sub-lieutenants. The Admiralty in 1870 fixed the number at 1,000, but afterwards added 68. Till the excess had been absorbed, promotion must be retarded, and the hands of the Admiralty were still tied to such an extent that men, no matter how deserving or promising they might be, were of necessity kept waiting in the junior rant, while they might, if they had a better opportunity of displaying their abilities, really be rendering excellent service to their country. In connection with the Naval College, there was an injustice which was well deserving the attention of the First Lord. It was this—that there ought to be more rewards than at present for those who after some service passed with distinction, for while a sub-lieutenant who obtained three first-class certificates gained three years in rank, a lieutenant who was equally meritorious obtained no practical advantage at all. A letter was placed opposite his name in The Navy List; but the circumstance of his obtaining three first-class certificates did not insure his promotion in any way. He trusted that some scheme of retirement would be adopted which would be willingly accepted by the higher ranks of the Navy, and which would thus facilitate promotion throughout the entire Service. He begged, in conclusion, to move the Amendment of which he had given Notice.


seconded the Amendment, observing that the want of promotion was of serious importance to the Service, inasmuch as it did not offer wealth but rank to those who entered it. Dignity and rank were the chief part of the remuneration. Under the existing system a check had been given to retirement in the upper ranks, and the result was that a young man entering the Service did not obtain his lieutenancy probably until he was 28 years of age, with the prospect that he would have to retire with that rank, instead of that of commander. The matter was one which should be taken into the serious consideration of the Department, and he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would see his way to removing the existing obstacles to promotion.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "the present and progressively increasing stagnation of promotion in the Royal Navy is injurious to the public service, and that the present system of retirement has failed to secure a sufficient amount of promotion, and ought to be extended,"—(Mr. Vans Agnew,) —instead thereof.

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


, who was nearly inaudible in the Gallery, was understood to say that in September, 1875, the pay and position of the warrant officers was improved to the extent of £6,500. Subsequently the distinction as to pay between sea-going and harbour ships was abolished in regard to these officers, and this change involved an additional expenditure of £800 a-year. It was, he thought, a question if the responsibilities of ships carpenters' had increased. He thought the engineers had very much relieved them; but the difficulty in dealing with this matter was to avoid invidious distinction. The Government, having so recently increased the pay of these officers, could not entertain the suggestion of the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Samuda).


agreed with the hon. Member for Wigtonshire (Mr. Vans Agnew) that some change was imperatively needed in the system of promotion. At present the stagnation in promotion was so great as to render it impossible for many officers to take that interest in their Profession which was most desirable. In his opinion, the matter should be taken into the hands of the House again. It was too late now to introduce the subject in a substantial form into the House this Session; but if he had the honour of being in the House next Session, be should certainly bring forward a Motion on the subject. It was now 16 years since a Committee sat on the subject of promotion and retirement in the Navy. Had the recommendations of that Committee been carried into effect, a reasonable amount of promotion would have been the result; but as it was, the changes that had been made, having been in opposition to those recommendations, had failed to give the relief desired. As matters stood, it was impossible that any considerable number of the officers in the Navy could hope to attain the higher ranks in their Profession. At the present time the hands of the First Lord of the Admiralty were tied with respect to promotion, even in cases where he ought to have the power to advance an officer for exceptional services. Taking the case of Commander H. Fletcher Campbell, who was leading the Naval Brigade in the Zulu War—that gentleman merely held the rank of commander, equivalent to that of a major in the Army, though he had under his orders a force in discipline, and efficiency, and numbers superior to that commanded there by colonels in the Army; and, though gazetted for gallant service and recommended by his superiors, it was absolutely out of the power of the First Lord of the Admiralty to promote him for his distinguished services until a vacancy occurred. Then there was a noble Lord, a Member of the House, to whom, even in his presence, he (Sir John Hay) would venture to allude (Lord Charles Beresford), whose services and acknowledged ability qualified him for promotion; but who could not, under the present system, hope to be a flag officer until long after he was 50 years of age. When they had cases of that sort before them, he thought it showed that the hands of the Admiralty were tied by a system of red tapeism in a way which could not be advantageous to the Public Service.


said, the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Gourley), in raising the questions with regard to the explosion on board the Thunderer, had a great advantage over him (Mr. Smith) in having read the evidence given before the Committee. He had not yet had time to do so. He therefore felt bound to exercise some reticence with regard to the Report which had been placed in his hands, until he had most carefully considered it, together with the diagrams which had led the Committee to the conclusion at which they had arrived. He attached very great value to that Report, and he thought it must be admitted to be the work of gentlemen admirably adapted for the discharge of the duty. The Committee did not simply consist of naval and artillery officers, but it was assisted by an eminent civil engineer, who was well qualified to give an opinion on the subject. He thought they owed a debt of gratitude to the Committee for the manner in which they conducted the investigation, and for the care they displayed in arriving at a conclusion which, whatever might be the ultimate result, would, he was sure, carry great weight with those who had special knowledge on the subject, or who investigated explosive forces. He hoped his hon. Friend would forgive him if he failed to follow him through all the statements he made in support of his views. It would hardly be proper to do so in present circumstances. With regard to the bringing home of the gun for the purpose of making a further investigation, he could only say that it would be their duty to give the subject their most careful consideration. He was in communication with his right hon. and gallant Friend the Secretary of State for War with a view to having the whole question of ships' armaments most thoroughly and carefully investigated. The hon. Gentleman might be assured that his right hon. and gallant Friend was not less anxious than he (Mr. Smith) was to secure the most perfect and safe armament that could possibly be put on Her Majesty's ships. They were far from saying that their present guns were not good guns. But if it was possible to get a better gun, without depreciating unduly that which they at present possessed, they would undoubtedly do so. The uninjured gun was coming home. They had determined to bring it home at once, to repair the Thunderer at Malta, and to send out two 12½inch guns to place in the turret without delay. They would decide what should be done with the gun that was coming home when they had conferred together and studied the evidence. He was also asked whether the men were exercised at the guns? He regretted if he failed to convey a proper impression last year in the answer he gave to the hon. Gentleman. What he meant to say was this—they had confidence in the Admiral commanding in the Mediterranean that he would see that all the proper exercises of officers and men were carried out. Gun drill was undoubtedly one of the most important duties which could be required of a ship's company. He could not at the present moment state how frequently they were drilled. He could only say, from his own observation, that he had seen them at drill constantly, and he believed it was carried out with very great regularity and care. He deplored as much as any man could do this most unfortunate accident. It was a very sad occurrence in every respect. The men were dead, and if there had been any carelessness surely they had suffered most severely by the circumstances of the accident itself. He would be extremely loth to cast the slightest suspicion upon any of those men. He believed they were exercising the guns rapidly, and no doubt they believed that what they were doing was perfectly safe. Sailors were accustomed to the handling of extremely dangerous explosive missiles with a confidence which sometimes became the cause of accident. He trusted it was not so in this case. They had every reason to believe that the care and judgment and knowledge of the officers and men in charge of these guns were all that could be desired. He deeply deplored the accident, and he trusted no aspersion of any kind would be allowed to rest on the names of the men who had fallen. The Question bearing on the position of ships' carpenters had received an answer from his hon. Friend the Member for South Devon (Sir Massey Lopes). He would, however, state the following facts:—In 1874 the minimum pay was 4s. The minimum harbour pay was 5s., and the maximum 6s., while the maximum sea pay was 7s. In 1877 the minimum pay in harbour was raised to 5s. 6d., and the maximum to 7s. 3d., while the sea pay was raised to 8s. 3d. There had, therefore, been a considerable amelioration of their condition. He admitted the importance of securing the best psssible mechanics for the duties this class of men had to discharge; but, as the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) had reminded them, a large question was involved in raising any single rating in the Service. It was part of a very large question which affected all other warrant officers. This made it necessary for him to be exceedingly careful how he held out hopes to one class by itself; and he must therefore be excused for saying that he could not at the present moment hold out any expectation as to greatly improving the condition of ships' carpenters. He was most desirous to secure really capable men for this position, and he thought they had them at the present time. They had very little difficulty in obtaining them, and he believed they were contented. A much larger question had been raised by the hon. Member for Wigtonshire (Mr. Vans Agnew). He was sure every First Lord of the Admiralty must have wished it were in his power to promote officers much more rapidly than he was able to do; but there was much about the present system which was inevitable. So far as the Navy was concerned they had been passing through a time of peace, there had been no casualties, and there had been no opportunity for men to distinguish themselves on active service, and the consequence was that men who had grown old died almost at their posts. Their difficulty was that they required only a limited number of officers. In 1870, the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Childers) fixed the number at 600; and he (Mr. Smith) believed that there were now 641 lieutenants employed, while the number actually on the list was 827. He did not think the present list was greatly in excess of the number required. If the commissioning of a large number of ships were suddenly required, they would use a considerable number of the lieutenants who were now unemployed. As to the higher lists, he might say that at the present moment they did not require to have a larger number of commanders and captains than that at which the list was fixed. Therefore, if they promoted lieutenants to be commanders, they would have to place them on the half-pay list. They would remain at the bottom of the list for two or three years, instead of being placed at the top of the lieutenants' list and being employed. He found, on referring to the list, that there were now 141 lieutenants of over 10 years' seniority. Out of these 141 lieutenants, 103 were receiving extra pay in one shape or another, and if they were taken from, this and placed on commander's half-pay they would not like it. He could assure the House that he was quite as conscious as the hon. Member who had moved the Amendment of the necessity of securing a sufficient supply of competent officers, and he knew that it was most desirable to have young men in the position of commanders. There was no alternative but to exercise the liberty of selection somewhat widely. His own endeavour had always been to select officers for promotion simply and solely on account of good or distinguished service. His hon. Friend the Member for Wigtonshire had spoken of the fact that some lieutenants, when they distinguished themselves at the Naval College, were promoted within a year; but he (Mr. Smith) thought that was exceedingly useful. It was said, on the other hand, that lieutenants who had distinguished themselves had not that advantage; but they were open to many good things, and he hoped before long they would be able to offer them still stronger inducements to go to the Naval College after they had been promoted, for very often they did not spend their time at all so advantageously for the public as if they were in the College. The hon. and learned Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Serjeant Simon) had referred to the circumstances of the sub-lieutenants. The fact of the case was that the Order of 1872 had untied rather than tied the hands of the Admiralty. The Order in Council in 1870 with reference to sub-lieutenants was that until the list was reduced to 600 there should be only promotion in the case of death vacancies, and at the rate of one in four in the case of vacancies caused by promotion and retirement from the Service; but in 1872 it was provided that till the list was reduced to 250 the Admiralty should have the power to promote such officers as they thought deserving, notwithstanding the other regulations respecting the list. At the present moment the list had fallen below the specified number, so that the power the Admiralty possessed before had been taken from them by the very wording of the Order, and it was not now possible to promote except to death vacancies and to the proportion of other vacancies that he had mentioned. It was his opinion, however, that the requirements of the Service would oblige them to maintain a larger list of lieutenants and to make provision for their promotion. Probably 800 would not be an excessive number. He fully concurred with the hon. and learned Member for Dewsbury that it was not desirable to keep young men too long in the lowest rank, and he supposed that at 23 a subordinate officer would be fit for promotion, if his capacity was ever likely to qualify him for it. He must ask that the proposal of his hon. Friend (Mr. Vans Agnew) should be negatived, as it would, he feared, pledge the House to proposals of a too indefinite character; and, besides causing considerable trouble to the Department, might entail all the inconveniences of a much larger list of officers than they would know what to do with. At present, except in the case of lieutenants, the active service list was sufficient for all requirements, and he could not wish, in the interests of the Service, to see the commanders' or captains' list much increased. The only effect of an undue increase of the list would be that a large number of men would be unemployed and on half-pay. That result would be decidedly injurious to the Public Service, and it would have the only result of a system by which men would be allowed to get rusty. He altogether objected to increase the half-pay list of commanders and captains, many of whom would remain so long ashore that they need not necessarily even see the sea for whole years together. These were matters which did not escape the attention of the Admiralty, and there were many other points, no doubt, which called for consideration; but as regarded the Motion, he hoped the House would see that it was not one which at present it would be desirable to entertain.


wished to corroborate what had been said by the First Lord of the Admiralty, and to express his satisfaction that his right hon. Friend so firmly adopted the principle of the Order in Council, by which it was sought to make the lists of officers commensurate with the work they had to do. Subject to the general principle that the number in each rank should be fixed with reference to the work to be done, and not with a view to give promotion which should be secured in another way, the numbers settled in 1870 were tentative, and fixed only with reference to the information the Admiralty had at the time, and they could be varied or maintained only as the results of periods of considerable experience. He thought it quite right that the First Lord should revise the number on the principle stated by the right hon. Gentleman. The abolition of the navigating list had made an addition to the lieutenants' list absolutely necessary; and he thought that the First Lord had adopted a very wise course in stating at once that 600 was not a sufficient number of lieutenants at the present time. But as to the other points which had been mentioned in the discussion, he was confident that there could be no more injurious policy than to return to the old system, under which officers were often left for five or six years on shore unemployed, and the enormous lists had to be spasmodically cleared by inefficient contrivances of retirement. When the Order of 1870 was issued, the lists of the Navy were nearly twice as large as they ought to have been, and there was the double difficulty of both reducing them to proper dimensions, and providing in the future for continuous promotion in both respects. They had succeeded far beyond his utmost expectations. But if they were to begin again to swell one list after another, so as to provide promotion from the rank below, they would be landed where they were before at an enormous cost, and with universal discontent.


said, he was afraid that some inconvenience would be caused by the unnecessary precaution of the First Lord with respect to the inquiry on board the Thunderer. He believed that the Report of the Committee was decisive; but it had been neither accepted nor rejected by the Government.


said, he should be sorry if it were supposed from his remarks that he reserved his opinion as to the Report. He accepted the Report, but did not feel prepared to discuss, without full knowledge of the evidence, the conclusions to which the Committee had come. He considered that such a course would be unwise.

Question put, and agreed to.