HC Deb 31 August 1880 vol 256 cc827-37

in rising to call attention to the state of the ironclad ships of the Navy, said, that our Navy was not in a sufficient state of preparation, and not in the position in which the Navy of the first maritime Power in the world ought to be. He had in the last Parliament endeavoured to persuade the House and his right hon. Friend (Mr. W. H. Smith) that the present condition of the Navy was not in accordance with our position, and had his right hon. Friend remained in power he had hoped to have been able to convince him of the fact. The subject of a Naval Demonstration had been before the country, and the House ought to know the number and condition of our Ironclad Fleet. Had we a Fleet large enough for the protection of our trade and commerce? The question was opportune, as the Secretary to the Admiralty had recently been present at the great fete at Cherbourg, when he had made an excellent speech and had admirably represented this country. He hoped that the number of our ironclad ships would be increased, he would not say so as absolutely to secure our naval supremacy, but, at all events, to ensure our safety. He had hoped that there would have been greater progress made in building ships. It was said that we were not likely to go to war; and, therefore, might reduce our expenditure. But if we carried that argument out we should have no Fleet at all. If we were bound to afford any protection at all to our commerce we ought to do it efficiently. There were five great lines of communication which had to be protected, and which must be protected, not only against ironclads, but against privateers and smaller cruisers. One was to the East, through the Mediterranean, which carried £150,000,000 worth of goods in the year. The second was through the Atlantic, round the Cape of Good Hope, and into the Pacific, representing a commerce of £62,000,000 annually. A third was to the West Indies and Panama, with a commerce of £20,000,000; a fourth to Canada and North America generally, representing £110,000,000; and, lastly, to the Baltic and Northern Europe, withatradeof£80,000,000 a-year. Thus, there was a total of some £422,000,000 a-year of our commerce which had to be protected on these various lines of communication. The cost of our Navy represented an insurance to that commerce. He thought £10,000,000 a-year was not a heavy price for such an insurance, and he was going to ask the Government slightly to increase that insurance premium. Nominally, we had 62 ironclads, but of those only 30 were efficient, and we had only four in the Mediterranean. In 1870, according to the statement of the present Secretary of State for War, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, we had 40 ironclads actually ready, and eight nearly ready. That was a considerable number for those days. But now other Powers had considerable numbers of ironclads. The number of ironclads in the Navy List was 71; that was more than double the number of actually efficient ships. Russia had nine first and second class, and 20 third-class ships. Sweden had 14 ships; Denmark, six; Germany, seven first and second, and 10 third class; Holland had two first and second class, and 22 third class. Of the Mediterranean Powers, France had 22 first and second class and 37 third class; Spain five first and second class, and three third class; Italy, six first and second, and nine third class—Italy had four ironclads superior to almost any that we had; Austria had five first and second class, and seven third class; Turkey, six first and second class and 15 third class. Besides European Powers, China, Japan, and the South American States had ironclad fleets. He thought, in those circumstances, we ought to have more than 30 efficient ironclads. We had, besides, a number of wooden ships, which were rotten and not worth repairing. We had six home harbour defence ships; seven ships repairing and eight building. There were 41 ships in all to be deducted from the list of seagoing ships, so that there remained only 30 of these ships. In the Channel there wore four—the Achilles, the Agincourt, the Minotaur, and the Northumberland; in the Mediterranean there were six— the Monarch, the Rupert, the Temeraire, the Thunderer, the Alexandra, and the Invincible; in Chinese waters there were two —the Iron Duke and the Wivern; in the Pacific were the Shannon, and the Triumph; and in North American waters one—the Northampton. In the ironclad sea-going Reserve were the Audacious, the Belleisle, the Black Prince, the Devastation, the Dreadnought, the Glatton, the Hector, the Hercules, the Lord Warden, the Nelson, the Orion, the Penelope, the Superb, the Valiant, and the Warrior — 15 in all. The ironclads that were being repaired were the Bellerophon, the Defence, the Hotspur, the Swiftsure, the Repulse, and the Sultan. There were eight being built—the Agamemnon, the Ajax, the Collingwood, the Colossus, the Conqueror, the Majestic, the Polyphemus, and the Inflexible. The ironclads in reserve for harbour defence were the Cyclops, the Gorgon, the Hecate, the Hydra, the Prince Albert, and the Water-witch. Then there were the Scorpion, the Viper, and the Vixen at Bermuda; the Abyssinia and the Magdala at Bombay; and the Cerberus at Melbourne. He believed he had now stated the names of all the ships that could, by any conceivable arrangement, be got ready for use. The 14 ships to which he had already referred were quite useless. If it was granted that a Navy was necessary, we ought to have a sufficient number of ships to protect our commerce in case of war. At the present time, if a demonstration should turn into a war with a Power able to attack the lines of communication by which our trade was carried on, we did not possess sufficient ships to protect those lines. What he wished to urge upon the country was that, there being a necessity for 62 ironclads, 30 or 40 were insufficient. He believed that the Navy required an addition of, at least, 17 ironclads. This number of vessels could be built in two years, if the House should vote the necessary money, and the cost would not raise the Navy Estimates to the amount which was reached by the Army Estimates under normal conditions. The cost would amount to about £2,000,000 a-year for two years, and there would be no difficulty in building the ships, for at Liverpool, Newcastle, Belfast, and Hull there existed means which rendered it possible to built the whole of these 17 vessels at once. He trusted he had shown that 62 ships were necessary, and that, admitting that the repaired ships and the ships that were building were ready, 17 vessels would still be wanting to bring our Fleet up to the number recognized as absolutely necessary for the efficient service of the country.


said, that, although the House always listened with respect and interest to any observations of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman on the subject of the Navy, it would probably be of opinion that he had not chosen a good opportunity for the speech which he had just delivered. The proper occasion for such a statement, calling attention to the alleged deficiencies of our Fleet, and to the necessity of largely-increased expenditure was when the Naval Estimates were before the House, and before the programme of shipbuilding was agreed to. It was hardly necessary for him to remind the House that those Votes had been passed with the general approval of the House some weeks ago, and it would be impossible now for the Government to propose any change in them. He was perfectly aware that the right hon. and gallant Gentleman was not a Member of this Parliament when the Navy Estimates were under discussion; and, consequently, they were unable to have the benefit of his advice in the discussions that took place; but he was in the previous Parliament, when the Estimates were brought in and explained by the late First Lord of the Admiralty, and then had the opportunity of explaining his views to the House. If he remembered rightly, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman seconded the Motion of Captain Bedford Pim, and then stated in full his views on the question, and called upon the House to put on record his views that the state of the Navy was unsatisfactory. The House, however, were so little impressed with the arguments of Captain Pim and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, that Captain Pim was unwilling to divide the House, and the result was that the Motion on that occasion was withdrawn. On that occasion, the late First Lord of the Admiralty was able to show, conclusively, that the policy then recommended by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman, of building a large number of ironclads was not a wise one. If he recollected rightly, on that occasion, the right hon. and gallant Gentleman recommended not the building of 17, but 30 ironclads, at a cost of no less than £15,000,000. In the interval that had elapsed he had become more moderate, and he now recommended the building of 17 ironclads. [Sir JOHN HAY: At once.] At any rate, they could not be built under three years. If the right hon. and gallant Member had waited until next Session his demands would probably have become even more reasonable than they now were. The right hon. Gentleman the late First Lord had no difficulty in showing, on the occasion referred to, the impolicy of any such ambitious programme of shipbuilding as that recommended by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman. He observed that, in the continued advance of the science of shipbuilding, nothing could be more unwise than to rush headlong into the building of a large number; that if 20 years ago we had pursued this policy we should now be encumbered with a number of vessels which would already be obsolete, and that the same might be the case in the future. With what the late First Lord of the Admiralty then stated, he (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) entirely concurred. He would venture to point out to the right hon. and gallant Member, that it was less than 20 years since the first ironclad in the British Navy was completed—the Warrior was built in the year 1861; and he well recollected that there were many eminent authorities who thought we had then arrived at what was the most perfect type of war vessel, which, in no circumstances, could be improved upon. They recommended, in fact, that we should build 40 Warriors. He need hardly remind the House that the Warrior and her sister vessel the Black Prince had long ago been considered as obsolete and unfit to take their place in line-of-battle ships, though probably useful for other purposes; and if we had committed the folly of building 40 such vessels 20 years ago, we should for the same reasons have twice, during the interval, replaced them by an. equal number of more modern vessels. There was no greater reason for supposing that we had arrived at the perfection of an ironclad now in our latest types. On the contrary, he ventured to say that there never was greater uncertainty than at the present moment as to the future of shipbuilding, or greater difficulty as to what ships to lay down. The race between guns and armour had continued, and two further competing elements had been added—namely, torpedoes and speed; and it was by no means certain that we might not soon have to discard armour-plates of extreme thickness in favour of greater speed and torpedoes. He said, then, that nothing could be more unwise than to adopt the course recommended by the right hon. and gallant Member, and to rush at this moment into a great scheme of shipbuilding. The right hon. and gallant Member had stated that of 71 ironclads on the list only 32 were efficient. He entirely disputed his figures. There were at this moment 26 ironclads actually in commission, and in the First Reserve there were a larger number of vessels than at any former period that he could recollect. "We had, at this moment, in the First Reserve, seven vessels of the best class actually ready. We had four other vessels which were repairing; three of which—the Repulse, the Sultan, and the Swiftsure —would be complete next month; whilst the fourth —the Inflexible- —was expected to be finished by the end of the year. We had altogether 12 such ships to he added to the 26 in commission, making a total of 38. There were, besides, three vessels of the Cerberus type, and six small ironclads at Bermuda, which, were of some value, and six building in the Dockyards, two of which — the Ajax, the Agamemnon, would be complete by the end of next year. The same great advance in the science of shipbuilding made it more difficult than ever to measure the comparative strength of different Navies. We had to take into account not merely the numbers of vessels, but the strength and force of individual members. The right hon. and gallant Member, by adding up the ironclads of all kinds of different countries, had made a formidable list as compared with our own; but the force of this would be greatly diminished by considering the types of vessels. Again, we were not to suppose that, under any conceivable circumstances, the Fleets of all other countries would be found ranged against us, or that Russia was to combine with Turkey, and France with Germany, or the United States with all Europe. The true question was, whether the Navy of England, taken as a whole, was equal to meet such a combination as might reasonably be expected against it. He believed that, looked at in this way, there could be no doubt that our Navy maintained the same degree of superiority as it had in modern times. He might mention that there was very little activity in the building of ironclads at the present time in any other country in Europe than one—namely, France. In Germany there was little doing; in Russia still less. The right hon. and gallant Member had made minute comparison with the French Navy. He himself frequently deprecated the discussion in that House in detail of the comparative strength of the English and French Navies. He believed such discussions did not tend to improve the relations of the two countries, and rather tended to promote that rivalry in shipbuilding which it would be better to allay. The right hon. and gallant Member had stated that the French Government had been more active in shipbuilding during the last 10 years than we had. That was certainly not true of the first five years of the decade. In the years immediately following upon the German War there was very little done in the French Dockyards; money was stinted in every way, and there were constant complaints in the Assembly by the Minister that the Navy was perishing away. It was only within the last four years that there had been greater activity in the French Dockyards. At all events, the last Government must have been fully aware of this when they proposed the Estimates for the present year, which provided for the building of a smaller tonnage of ironclads than in any of the last 10 years—namely, 7,200 tons. He had himself expressed the opinion that that did not represent what should be the normal average amount of iron shipbuilding sufficient to maintain our ironclads; and he had also expressed his opinion that the delay in completing the ironclads actually in hand was not wise. In the changes they proposed in the Estimates of their Predecessors they had this in view; and they had promised to hasten on the completion of two of the most important vessels now building, and to advance their completion by more than a year. Their policy then was not to rush into any ill-advised scheme of re-construction, such as proposed by the right hon. and gallant Member; but to build steadily and regularly such an amount of tonnage as, on the average of years, appeared to be necessary to maintain the strength of the Navy; and, above all, having laid down a vessel, to complete it within a reasonable time, so as to test and realize its value, and not to run the risk of its becoming obsolete before it was completed. That was the policy developed in the Navy Estimates of the present year; and if the present Board of Admiralty were allowed to present the Estimates for next year, he hoped the House would then see that the same policy had been pursued.


said, he was glad to find the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Admiralty was able to renew the assurance which he gave the House not very long ago, to the effect that the present Reserve of ironclads was superior to anything which had existed within, his knowledge for a great many years. He thought that ought to be a satisfactory statement for the House and the country, and one which would re-assure his right hon. and gallant Friend (Sir John Hay). The difficulty which he had felt for some years was the difficulty referred to by the Secretary to the Admiralty—namely, what description of ship should be built which would be the most powerful, and, on the whole, the most useful for the Service. It was necessary to come to a decision; and that decision was come to according to their knowledge at the time. Asfar as ironclads were concerned, they had, practically, no knowledge whatever. They were dealing purely with theoretical knowledge. They had no experience at all that would enable them to design a ship which they knew would be the best in all circumstances. He, therefore, for his own part, could not urge the Board of Admiralty to pursue any different course from that stated by the hon. Gentleman. He agreed entirely in the policy of finishing ships as quickly as possible after the design had been finished. There was, no doubt, nothing more dangerous than keeping a ship on the stocks for a long time; because its armament, and possibly its armour, might change in the course of the three or four or five years during which it was building. Another important consideration was to have a Navy, which, for the time being, was capable of discharging the duties which devolved upon this country, of protecting its trade and commerce in different parts of the world. His right hon. and gallant Friend had spoken of the necessity of having 62 ironclads; but, for the purposes just mentioned, as many as 300 or 400 vessels were necessary, including fast cruisers and small vessels. For his part, he attached very great importance to the provision of a sufficient supply of fast cruisers. Fortunately or unfortunately, they were called upon to protect the lives and liberties of others than their own countrymen on the West Coast of Africa, on the East Coast of Africa, in the South Sea, and in other parts of the world, and it was necessary for them to have ships to enable them to discharge the duties which fell upon them. They had to consider what were the duties which the Navy of this country required, and what was the strength of that Navy. It was our plain duty to provide what strength it required. No doubt, they were falling a little behind, as compared with other countries; but, looking at the fact that they had now a larger Reserve of ironclads than they had ever had before, the position was one with which the country could not be altogether dissatisfied. At the same time, he strongly deprecated comparisons between the Navies of France, Russia, and Germany with our own country; and on that point, therefore, he cordially concurred with the views of the Secretary to the Admiralty.


said, the proposal of his right hon. and gallant Friend (Sir John Hay) that the Navy should be reinforced by several ironclads, had been met by the objection, from the Secretary to the Admiralty, and the late First Lord, that the Board had not decided upon the proper type of ironclad. That was a most dangerous argument; for its logical conclusion was that, as they had not yet arrived at the type of a line-of-battle ship, they ought to build none at all. They could never arrive at finality in a matter of this kind. Comparison between this and foreign countries had been deprecated; but, as a matter of fact, such a comparison would be made outside the House. He believed the Admiralty said to their Naval Advisers —"Now, look here; we can only give you so much money for shipbuilding, and you must do the best you can with it; and if hon. Members draw comparisons between our Navy and the Navies of other Powers, we will take care of that, and quash the matter at once." That was the secret of the deprecating remarks made by the Secretary to the Navy, and his right hon. Friend. Sir Spencer Robinson, however, when untrammelled by Office, had stated that the Navy of this country was not in a satisfactory condition as compared with the Navies of other Powers; and, although the Admiralty had repudiated his views, he believed their responsible Naval Advisers entertained the same opinion as that officer. Intimately connected with the efficiency of the Navy was the question of its armament. He wished to know from the Government, whether they would give an impartial consideration to the question of the best ordnance for our ships of war, and institute an independent inquiry into the whole subject? He had asked that question before, and he now asked it again. Our entire system in regard to ordnance rested in the hands of a body of inventors. Call them what they would, they were nothing more nor less than that. Those gentlemen were as good men as they could possibly put in their places; and, no doubt, they had done their duty to the country efficiently; but, for all that, they must necessarily be a prejudiced body; and what he wanted to know— now that the late and the present Governments acknowledged that the system of providing guns for the Navy was not altogether satisfactory — was, whether the Government intended to investigate the matter by a thoroughly independent and impartial Committee? If they were to have an inquiry into the subject, the naval element ought to be fairly and fully represented in the Committee. The Ordnance Committees generally were largely composed of military men; and although naval men knew more of the practical use of their guns, they were either unrepresented, or only represented to a small extent on the Committee.


in reference to what had fallen from the right hon. and gallant Gentleman about guns, said, that it might be of interest to the House to learn that the Government had ordered a number of 6-inch guns for the Navy.


asked whether the cost would be thrown on the Army or the Navy Department?


replied, that the guns would be paid for in the ordinary way.