HC Deb 07 June 1880 vol 252 cc1373-83

in rising to call attention to the state of the British Navy, said, it was most painful and deplorable to witness the indifference which not only successive Governments, but successive Parliaments and the country at large, had exhibited with regard to this important subject, with which our very existence as a nation was so intimately connected. When any question of Privilege was discussed in that House 300 or 400 Members hurried in to hear it; but when the condition of the Navy was under consideration there was generally but a small attendance. Her ironclads formed the fighting portion of the British Navy; but when he compared them with the fleets of other European countries the disproportion was very remarkable. In what he might call the good old days they always had a reserve of line-of-battle ships ready to meet any emergency that might arise; but in the present day they had, practically, no reserve of ironclads. They had just ships enough to perform the duties of the Navy in time of peace, and no one would venture to assert that they had a sufficient Reserve for a time of war. Not only had they no reserve in point of numbers; but the ships they possessed were, with all their enormous powers, of the most fragile construction, and liable, in time of war, to casualties for which, in the way of a Reserve, no provision was made whatever, and which the old wooden line-of-battle ships would have survived. It was an absurd argument to talk of the number of ironclads which this country already had in commission, or could put into commission at short notice, as compared with other great Powers of Europe; for there was no affinity between the position of this country and that of any of those Powers. If any of them were by some accident to lose their whole Navy to-morrow, it would be a source rather of gain to them than of loss. They could do without, and would be better off without a Navy at all, not having to incur the expense of maintaining it. But the position of this country was the converse of that proposition. This country not only could not subsist without a Navy; but without a Navy in the most efficient condition it would soon be wiped out of the number of the great European Powers. Successive Governments had been misleading the country, by not having the courage to ask for the money that was necessary to place the Navy in an efficient condition for protecting our interests. There was a great want of proper ships on foreign stations, and he wished it to be clearly understood that the cumbrous and unmanageable machines we possessed now in the shape of ironclads were utterly unfit for distant foreign stations. That was the result of having too much of the civilian element at the Board of Admiralty. If we were to have science at the Board of Admiralty, it ought to be combined with a larger element of practical and nautical experience. He should be glad to hear from his hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff (Mr. E. J. Reed) whether it was not possible to construct an ironclad which should be capable of being handled under canvas, so as to reserve her coal for cases of great emergency, and thus enabling her to keep the sea. He did not blame the members of the Boards of Admiralty; but he blamed the system under which civilians and others were called upon to perform duties of the details of which they must be without any knowledge. What he wished to see was a Board so constituted that knowledge and responsibility should go together. From the fact that they had so much of the official element at the Admiralty he was not surprised at the state of mind they had been in for some years past on the subject of ironclads, or at the fact that they were not in a position to state the sort of iron-clad they were going to build. As to the Inflexible, of which they had heard so much, if all that science had been able to do was to produce a square box with two ends so vulnerable as to render the merits of the box itself of the most doubtful character, it had not yet done much to improve the condition of our Navy. There was another point to which he would refer, and which he had brought under the attention of the House over and over again. It was this—that we had no fast ships of the description which was required for the purpose of either harassing an enemy in time of war, or of protecting our own commerce and keeping a way open for the supply of food to this country. Last year his right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) stated that we had three or four such ships; but he (Mr. Bentinck) contended that they wanted 30 or 40. In the event of war breaking out we ought to have them in commission in every part of the world. A great maritime Power should be possessed of a fleet which would be able to destroy the commerce of an enemy, and—still more important—of ships which would secure the importation of food to this country, dependent, as it was from various causes on foreign supplies. Things had been brought to such a pass that we might be said to now live from hand to mouth. He had it on reliable authority that there was not now in the country above three or four weeks' consumption of wheat. Cargoes were, no doubt, being received from abroad every day, and the market was kept supplied; but what would be our condition for even a week if we lost the command of the sea? The country would be simply in a state of starvation, like a beleaguered and starved-out citadel. Yet that fact appeared to be a matter of indifference to all Governments and to successive Houses of Commons, and even the country itself did not appear to be sufficiently alive to the urgency of the case. He trusted the present Board of Admiralty would look the fact in the face, and provide against the disaster which must occur should an outbreak of war find us in our present condition.


said, that not having been in this country when his right hon. Friend the late First Lord of the Admiralty laid his Navy Estimates on the Table, he was anxious, on the present occasion, to say a few words on the general subject. He was not going to attack any Board of Admiralty, and certainly not the present, which he would admit was fully competent to look after the interests of the Navy. For a wonder, of the civilian Members two had been already in the Admiralty, and had had some experience, which was most remarkable. The present First Lord he had followed as Secretary, and he found nothing left behind which showed any sinister designs against the welfare of the Service. Then there was Admiral Cooper Key, who had the confidence of the Navy. There was Lord John Hay, who had already given proof of administrative zeal as one of the best officers of the Service; and though the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. T. Brassey) had not been at the Admiralty before, he had been recognized, from his speeches and writings, as an authority on naval subjects. He hoped the hon. Member would do that which Gentlemen sometimes omitted to do when they got into Office, and would carry out the pledges and views he had laid before the country. In a recent letter to The Times he laid down the soundest doctrine—namely, that economy and efficiency were alike incompatible with great fluctuations in the amount of dockyard labour. That sound doctrine had been disregarded during the last few years, for reasons which never ought to have existed. All Boards alike were in the habit of making large promises which they knew they could not perform with the Staff placed at their disposal. This was no new theory of his; and during the four or five years that he was intrusted, by Lord Beaconsfield with the duty of replying to the Naval Statement, he always urged on the First Lord to give them a programme he could carry out, and not to mislead the public by sketching a gigantic programme which it was impossible to fulfil. If any set of men could carry out a gigantic programme it would be the artificers and shipwrights of the Dockyards. It had been proved, over and over again, that they could do, if not more than, at least as much as any other men, and the quality of their work was far superior to any they could get anywhere else. It was now seven years ago since the right hon. Gentleman now at Constantinople (Mr. Goschen) came forward with a splendid programme of reduced Estimates and increased work; and, speaking across the Table to the right hon. Gentleman, he (Lord Henry Lennox) said—"If you can do the work proposed with the reduced Staff you are a conjuror." The following year the right hon. Gentleman frankly admitted that he was not a conjuror. He trusted no Board would again come forward with grand promises which could not be carried out with an insufficient Staff. It was an incalculable evil that it should be done. It lulled the public mind into a false state of security when they read of the number of ships, of the heavy guns, of the vast tonnage they were to get. Then there came a war cloud—and in these days such clouds arose more quickly than ever before—then followed panic, and the hurried voting of millions, and expenditure without due thought. After that, they went on in the old hum-drum way of great programmes without the probability of carrying them out. Sometimes they were startled, as in the case of the Inflexible, by a Vote for a big ship, which was to be of wonderful construction, and unlike anything they possessed. The hon. Member for Cardiff (Mr. E. J. Reed) had drawn attention to the great changes in the designs for the Inflexible. He (Lord Henry Lennox) had himself told the late Government that she was full of the most complex problems, which were not by any means satisfactorily worked out by the Constructors of the Department, and he ventured to say that she would be many years on the stocks before she could be added to the Fleet. The right hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) courteously contradicted him, said that he was quite wrong, that the work was going on very fast, and that the Inflexible would soon be added to the strength of the Navy. The Inflexible had been seven years in building, and he believed that 19 months of the time had been spent in making experiments, and that the work on the hull had been stopped while these experiments were made. The right hon. Gentleman said that he did not approve of building ships too quickly; and if there were no such things as war and foreign countries he (Lord Henry Lennox) would be inclined to go with his right hon. Friend. But the longer a ship was in building the more costly it became to the country.


begged pardon, but he had not said that. He said that we did wisely not to begin too large a shipbuilding programme, so as to preclude the utilization of the experience gained from time to time; but he never expressed any opinion adverse to the quick building of a particular ship when once the design had been accepted.


said, that he regretted if he had misrepresented his right hon. Friend; but, on the occasion he was referring to, the right hon. Gentleman had stated that one of the reasons why he did not wish many new ships to be constructed was that in 15 or 20 years they would become obsolete. If the present Board of Admiralty could show them anything that would keep its place for 15 or 20 years they would certainly work wonders. He wished to put in a word for the shipwrights in the Dockyards. He was told that they had made great progress in their ability as artificers, and that work which used to be done by the trade could now be done by the shipwrights in the yard. Although they had undertaken these new and difficult duties, they were still receiving the rate of pay they had as shipwrights; and if there was any class of men who deserved increase of pay it was the shipwrights of our Dockyards. The programme of the year included building and the repairing and re-fitting of the various fleets and squadrons as they came in. Nothing could be more shifting, more difficult to make estimates for, than the repairing and re-fitting of the fleets and squadrons as they came in. There was a class of vessels which had to be repaired by Dockyard men, and of which nothing was said in the Official Statement, though the class was a necessary and important one, and that was the Reserves. The vessels in the First Class Reserve were supposed to be all ready to go to sea at once, the Second Class with a little longer notice, and so on; but the regulations were changed so often that he had not been able to learn how the matter stood now. If the Board of Admiralty would address themselves to the case of the Reserves they would do a work of national good. They would find the men so employed upon the building programme of the year, and in repairing the fleets and squadrons that in most cases the Reserve ships were left to deteriorate. Take the case of one of the large frigates—the Inconstant—as to which he would ask the Secretary to the Admiralty to inquire into the condition of that vessel. For some five years she was in the Reserve; but she had had a short commission since October last, and was now in the Reserve again. If she were called to go to sea at once, as she might be, it would be found that every scrap of timber about her was rotten. He thought our iron-clad Navy at the present time was ridiculously disproportionate to those of other nations, for we must remember that we had Colonies to guard, which they had not. We ought to have a great deal stronger Fleet than the French had. Then, as to cruisers, his right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster had admitted that we were deficient in cruisers, and he promised to lay down two or three. He (Lord Henry Lennox) did not know that, except in time of war, iron-clads were of any particular use, and probably in time of peace cruisers were more useful. His right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster told them he was averse to expending money in the repair of obsolete ships, and seemed to entertain the idea of transforming obsolete iron-clads such as the Black Prince, the Minotaur, and the Aqincourt into cruisers with increased carriage power. While he (Lord Henry Lennox) was glad to observe that, he was, on the other hand, sorry to see that a considerable sum of money was being expended at Devonport in altering the rig of the Northumberland, one of those obsolete ships which had, during the last six years, cost upwards of £120,000. He had abstained from entering on the abstruse problems of ship- building; but he hoped to hear to-night from the Secretary to the Admiralty that he was impressed with the necessity of pushing forward some of our first iron-clads, and that he also understood the necessity of doing what he could to have our cruisers renovated. He hoped also that the hon. Gentleman would be determined, whenever it came to his turn, to give them a programme that he would be able to carry out; and that when Lord North brook and himself had made up their minds to it they would go boldly to the head of the Treasury and demand the money that was required as a necessary insurance.


largely concurred in much that had fallen from the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck), and also from the noble Lord who had just sat down (Lord Henry Lennox). In the matter of iron-clad construction, our position, so far as France was concerned, had been peculiarly fortunate. We had at first to compete with a Power which was unaccountably pertinaciously devoted to the construction of wooden-built iron-clad ships. In other words, France was then engaged in building a Navy that would speedily decay; while we, on the other hand, were applying ourselves to the construction of iron-clads. But France was now not only building in iron, hut largely in steel. Ship for ship, France was now building durable ships like ourselves. In regard to Germany, also, we were in a position that should be fairly looked in the face. Germany, not secretly, but in a most open and avowed manner, had applied herself for several years past to the building of a considerable naval force. She designed her own vessels, and built them in her own establishments. She was now becoming a naval Power, and she had applied to her naval construction what she had introduced into her military operations—great foresight and great skill. There was, therefore, a very altered condition of things as regarded the French Navy, and also as regarded our relations with Germany. In his opinion, the hon. Member for West Norfolk, and the noble Lord who followed him, were right in the opinion they had expressed as to the failure of our efforts to add largely to the iron-built Navy. There seemed to be an indisposition in the House to look the simplest elementary facts in the face. He regretted that the attendance on that important occasion was so sparse—not a score of men out of 650 Members to discuss the most important matters. They paid every year an enormous amount of money for Non-Effective Services. Why, the Estimates for the year showed that, for Non-Effective Services, in the shape of Half-Pay, Re-serve Pay, Pensions, and Allowances, the country paid annually something like £2,000,000; while the total Vote, including the whole of the wages to Seamen, Marines, and so forth, only amounted to £2,750.000—in other words, £2,000,000 for Non-Effective, and £750,000 for Effective Services. How was that appropriated? He could not give the exact figures; but he might say that the Vote for the engines of the armoured vessels exceeded £100,000. Then the Vote for Stores for new purposes came to £500,000, and the wages of the men employed on the new ironclads amounted to £240,000; so that the total of these items was £840,000, as against the much larger sum of £1,940,000, for Non-Effective Services. In other words, before any wages could be paid, or ships built, £2,000,000 had to be provided for men who did nothing. He only wished, by comparing these two aggregates, to impress upon the House the serious character of the present state of things. All hon. Members would probably be of opinion that it would be very desirable, if possible, to reduce that enormous charge of nearly £2,000,000. He would do the right hon. Gentleman opposite the justice to say that his statement on the subject, comprising his resolution to keep down the number of Naval Cadets, and thus beginning at the root of the evil, had been highly satisfactory; and he hoped that the present Government would, in this matter, carry out the policy of their Predecessors. The late Government had also acted very wisely in undertaking a survey of our Mercantile Marine, with special reference to the possibility of adapting our merchant vessels, in time of emergency, to war purposes. Our position in the present day was very peculiar. Formerly there was nothing in the Mercantile Marine that could materially contribute to our naval strength in time of war; but now many of the fastest ships afloat were in our Merchant Ser- vice, and of these a fair proportion were capable of receiving a sufficient armament. In one respect, indeed, they were greatly defective—namely, in not being divided into watertight compartments; but under the advice of the late Government many of the great mail steamers have done much to remedy that shortcoming. It was to be borne in mind that the subdivision of a vessel into watertight compartments was the greatest possible security against the consequences of accidents. While the policy of the late Government had been satisfactory with regard to the Mercantile Marine, he was bound to say that the owners of vessels had done much to respond to the desire of the Government, and to render their vessels fit for the public service in case of emergency. Reference had been made in the course of the discussion to the Inflexible, and he should like to say a word or two on that subject, and which he thought it was useless to say until a change of Government had taken place. When the Inflexible was designed, it was at least true that, in that vessel, and her sister vessels, the Ajax and the Agamemnon, there had been the adoption of this great change, in naval construction—namely, that armour had, to a great extent, been done away with as an element of protection, and there was substituted for it, to a dangerous degree, the device of building thin iron chambers and stuffing them with cork. Now he wished to know, considering how often Committees had investigated the whole subject of armour, how it had happened that, whereas before armour was introduced for the protection of ships, all kinds of experiments were made as to the best kind of armour and the best mode of applying it, yet the system of iron chambers filled with cork was substituted for that method without any experiments at all being made with regard to it? He should be sorry if anyone going into Office in connection with such an important branch of our Services as that of the Navy should do so with any other than serious thoughts as to the power of Her Majesty's ships to stand upright in the water, after coming into contact with the enemy. The Navy, he did not doubt, was most honourably conducted; but he believed there was no other cause at the bottom of that absence of experiment than the fear that the new construction would prove, under experiment, not only worthless, but ridiculously so. If it had been attempted to be carried out under himself, he should never have had a moment's peace. Hitherto we had been accustomed to build ships that could not be destroyed without a reasonable amount of fighting; but the demerit of the Ajax and the Agamemnon—and of the Inflexible, too, unless she had been much modified—was that the enemy need never do more than demolish the thin cork structure. He wished to know whether the Government intended to institute any experiment; or whether they were to go on in the dark in regard to the value of a system of construction which was being so largely substituted for armour-plating? He regarded it as unsatisfactory that during the last seven years England should have added only two second-class iron-clads—the Nelson and the Northampton—to her Fleet. Seeing from that that the present rate of shipbuilding was extremely slow, it was most important that the ships built should be thoroughly well designed. To that point, and to the necessity of increasing the amount available for the Effective Services of the Navy, he hoped that the Government would turn their attention. As to the payment in the Dockyards, he thought that the question of better payment of skilled artificers was one which required consideration.


appealed to the House to allow the Speaker to leave the Chair, as he though the could deal with the questions raised in the course of the debate when the Chairman of Committees was in the Chair.

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