HC Deb 10 March 1879 vol 244 cc544-9

, in rising to call attention to the present system of paying off men-of-war's men into receiving ships, and to suggest that barrack accommodation should be provided for men-of-war's men in lieu of receiving ships, said, it might appear a waste of time to bring forward the subject of building naval barracks when a sum of money was put down in the Naval Estimates towards the construction of "seaman's barracks;" but he believed the great importance of getting these barracks finished as soon as possible to be so under-estimated, that he should like to point out two most dangerously weak points in the efficiency of Her Majesty's Navy. The system at present used for disposable men at home who were held in readiness to man newly-commissioned ships, or to fill vacancies on foreign stations, was as follows:—On a man-of-war paying off the ship's company, the marines went off to their barracks, the blue-jackets, excepting a certain proportion who were composed of the smartest men with the best characters, who were allowed to volunteer for the gunnery ships, went to the receiving ships; A.B.'s, ordinaries, and what were known as "excused" and working idlers went to the Duke of Wellington, or to the Royal Adelaide, the stokers went to the Indus or Asia. The above-mentioned men might then remain in these home-receiving ships for different periods of time, varying from six weeks to two years. His object in bringing forward this subject was to show—firstly, that during this time, from a service point of view, these men deteriorated, and much valuable time was lost which might be utilized in making them efficient; secondly, that the very large increase of "non-combatants" in our first-class ships, who were totally untrained to arms, and, he might say, undisciplined, was most undesirable. The total number of men—seamen class—in the Navy, not including officers, marines, and boys, was 30,887; that included all classes—petty officers A.B.'s, ordinary seamen, idlers, "excused" idlers, and stokers. Of this number 8,581 were serving in the eight receiving ships, the two gunnery ships, one torpedo ship, and in the naval barracks at Sheerness, From the 8,581 he must deduct 1,954 men who were most usefully employed, with much benefit to the Service, in perfecting themselves as seamen gunners and as gunnery and torpedo instructors in the Excellent, Cambridge, and Vernon; that left 6,627 men who were doing nothing towards re-qualifying themselves or being got ready for commissioning slips. From the 6,627 he must take the number of "non-combatants," which amounted to 3,012; that left 3,615 pure blue-jackets in the home ports. Now, how were these 3,615 employed? Firstly, a large ship like our old liners—taking the Duke of Wellington as an example—required a large number of men to keep it clean and a large number to man the boats, who must do nothing else while so employed towards making themselves efficient in drills, ready for any ship newly commissioned; then two hours each day were wasted in pulling from the ship to the dockyard, as it took half-an-hour to do the distance. And when they did get on shore a large proportion of men were employed at work which was certainly not instructive in either seamanship or gunnery, and which was called by the men "Doin' a'orse," that was, hauling carts and timber about the yards. When they had barracks all that time would be saved. It would give the Admiralty a chance of making all pure blue-jackets seamen gunners, instead of, as was now the case, only the smartest and "best-charactered" men being allowed to volunteer for the gunnery ships on a ship paying off; the remainder, which comprised men not so intelligent, or young men who might have got into trouble, kicking over the traces a bit from exuberance of spirits, but still often very good men if wanted, went to the receiving ships. If the men were in barracks instead of on board these ships, they would be ready-drilled when called on to man a ship newly commissioned, instead of being, as is now the case, deteriorated, having forgotten what they were taught even in their last sea-going vessel. Under the present system, the smartest captain could not get his ship in order for fighting under three or four months—that was, as he would like to have her, and as she ought to be on going into action, every man thoroughly acquainted with the duties of his station, and with the ordinary drills and routines of a sea-going man-of-war. Another very weak point, notably in the Duke of Wellington, was the large number of prisoners awaiting court martial or completion of sentence, sometimes as many as 60 at a time. Knowing a ship was to know the bad effect so many prisoners must have on the ship's company, more particularly as he had mentioned that they were not our very best men; also, having of necessity to keep the 60 prisoners cooped up together was as bad as it could be, the only possible place to keep them being in the fore part of the or lop deck, which was railed off like a cage. There was also the point of expense. The Duke of Wellington last year cost £2,600 to repair her—that was merely to keep her rotten timbers efficient. If they allowed £1,000 for each of the remaining ships a-year, always excepting the gunnery ships, it would take £7,000 more, making a total of £9,600, or, say, £10,000 a-year to keep them floating in a liveable condition. That sum, of course, would be saved by having barracks. New let him turn to what he called the dangerously weak point at present existing in Her Majesty's Navy. Of the 30,887 seamen class—these did not include, as he said before, officers, marines, or boys—11,300 were "non-combatants"—namely, stokers, who numbered 4,985; artificers, who included carpenters' mates, carpenters, calkers, blacksmiths, armourers, plumbers, plumbers' mates, and armourers'crews, 2,310; petty officers, non-seamen class, which included schoolmaster, sick-berth steward, attendants, writers, bandmasters, and musicians, 994; and the domestics and bandsmen, which included stewards, cooks, and servants, 3,044. These men were totally untrained to arms, and were undisciplined. By undisciplined, he meant that they knew nothing about "squad" drill, and any orders other than those connected with their respective duties they did not know how to obey. In our present first-class fighting ships the proportion of "non-combatants" was enormous; it was quite unavoidable owing to the number of things that were now done by machinery that were formerly done by manual labour, but still it formed a dangerous element. In the Marlborough, 20 years ago, the non-combatants were in a proportion of about 9 or 10 per cent. The present proportion, taking three different classes, was as follows;—Minotaur, total com- plement, 700; non-combatants, 192. Thunderer, total complement, 359; non-combatants, 161. Hotspur, total complement, 210; non-combatants, 92;—rendering the last-named about 45 per cent. This large proportion existed in our best ships, the very ships that would do all the fighting if war were declared—blockading and duties in the performance of which they would be most liable to be attacked by torpedo boats. In that case our own boats would be away rowing guard, manned and armed, and who would then be left to defend the ship? If a ship were to be rammed, no doubt boarders ought to be called. With a small ship's company every man ought to be trained to arms—servants, stokers, idlers—all ought to be able to assist in defending the ship. Again, the commanding officer of a turret-ship ought to be able to man and arm boats, and to be quite happy with the "non-combatants" left to defend the ship; but it was not so. In a ship of the Thunderer class, if the boats were to be manned and armed, it would take every fighting blue-jacket out of the ship, and nearly all the marines, leaving the "non-combatants," about six petty officers, and 12 marines, to defend a ship worth over £500,000. When they had barracks, he most earnestly hoped that every man might be trained to arms, particularly in these days of small ship's companies and costly ships, and large percentages of non-combatants. He had no desire to make the work tedious to the men. They ought, however, to be taught how to fire a rifle and fix a sword-bayonet. With barracks this would be simple enough; much time would be gained; a routine would be made out to enable each man to have a fair spell at his drill, as also at his ordinary work. It was impossible, or almost impossible, to drill "non-combatants" on board a commissioned vessel, as their time was entirely taken up with the duties for which they were engaged by the Service, besides which there was very properly an Admiralty Order against employing stokers, particularly in duties other than their own. He had endeavoured to point out the very faulty system of "receiving ships;" they were nearly all worn out, and the country, of course, would not vote for building obsolete line-of-battle ships merely as receiving ships for paid-off men-of-war's men, and also the imperative necessity of having every man on board, whether he was combatant or non-combatant, trained, so that he might be able to help or defend the ship in those cases of emergency which were so certain to occur in our next naval war. We had our servants, now, Marines, and very well they answered. Being old soldiers, they were always available to fall into a company or work a gun. Why should we not require this to be done by all non-combatants when we get the barracks? He hoped the First Lord of the Admiralty would not think this was hostile criticism. He wanted to strengthen the hands of the right hon. Gentleman in so that the barracks might be built as soon as possible.


said, he thought that the noble Lord had done good service in calling attention to this matter. The speech of the noble Lord touched mainly on two heads—one was the building of barracks, and the other the training and employment of the non-combatants. The First Lord of the Admiralty would no doubt feel that nothing could have been in better taste, or better tone, than the observations which had been made by the noble Lord, and he hoped that many of his suggestions would be found practicable. With regard to the building of naval barracks, that subject occupied his (Mr. Goschen's) attention, and the attention of his Colleagues when he was at the Admiralty. Preliminary inquiries were made, and it was thought that, as a question of money, the system of receiving ships incurred a great deal of waste; that it was a costly system, and notwithstanding the first cost of barracks, it was considered that they would be cheaper in the end. But there was one weak point in the speech of the noble Lord, and that was that there was no reference made to the naval barracks at Sheerness. When he was at the Admiralty, it was not the opinion of naval officers generally that they had been a success. He had risen to call attention to the point, in order that the First Lord of the Admiralty might deal with it, if he replied to the observations of the noble Lord the Member for Waterford. However, he (Mr. Goschen) did not think that the non-success at Sheerness ought to be regarded as conclusive against the scheme. If he was not mistaken, the barracks at Sheerness were distinctly unpopular with the sailors, and more desertions took place from that port than from any other; but whether that was owing to the men being kept under stricter discipline there, or some other cause, he did not know; at any rate, he would have liked to have heard from the noble Lord whether the sailors who were turned out from the naval barracks and came on board ship formed better characters than those who were taken from the receiving ships at Portsmouth and Plymouth. If the noble Lord was right in saying that the men in barracks were kept in better discipline, then the ships' crews coming from Sheerness ought to be better than those from the receiving ships. Perhaps the system at the barracks was not carried to the perfection it might have been, and it might be worthy of consideration whether something could not be done to make them more popular and more efficient. Notwithstanding what had been said about Sheerness, he would not shrink from incurring the expense of erecting naval barracks elsewhere, if it could be shown that a better system could be introduced, and which would give greater satisfaction to the Navy.