HC Deb 27 May 1880 vol 252 cc542-55

in rising to move the following Resolution:— That, in the opinion of this House, the proposed inquiry into the loss of the 'Atalanta' will not he satisfactory if the Committee does not partake less of a departmental character than that proposed by the Government, said, that a full and proper inquiry into this terrible disaster to the Navy, which involved a serious charge against the late Admiralty, could not be satisfactorily conducted if the Board of Inquiry was composed, for the most part, of naval officers, and presided over by an Admiral, however distinguished. He was quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Westminster (Mr. W. H. Smith) wished the inquiry to be searching and independent. Therefore, he hoped the right hon. Gentleman would not allow a want of precedent to stand in the way of his supporting this Motion. The Committee would have to deal with two or three very serious questions. First, the country would desire to know the circumstances under which the Admiralty were induced to fit out the Atalanta as a training ship after the terrible disaster to the Eurydice two years ago. The Atalanta was a ship of the same class as the Eurydice, with some slight distinction; but they were both old ships, built of wood, and of an obsolete type. In his opinion, neither of these ships was fitted to be used as a training vessel; nor were they seaworthy in the sense in which Her Majesty's ships were seaworthy. There were various degrees of seaworthiness. Two years ago he had called the attention of the House to the loss of the Eurydice, and there were circumstances connected with that event which he had thought it his duty to bring before the House. At that time he had strongly advocated the use of ships having steam power as training ships. Steam power was at times an element to safety. But the Secretary to the Admiralty said that sailing ships ought to be used because boys could not be trained in steamers so satisfactorily as in sailing ships. But that was no reason against the use of steamers. It would not be necessary to use steam always. The steamers might ordinarily dispense with their steam power, and only use it on emergency. And why did not the Government build one or two training ships, instead of repairing old ships? He believed the cost would be less. He did not know what was the cost of the repairs of the Atalanta; but she was 30 to 40 years old, and he was sure it would cost more to put her in good condition than it would to build a new ship. The House would soon learn whether he was right. There was another reason why an independent inquiry should be instituted. An extraordinary statement made by a seaman belonging to the Atalanta had appeared in one of the newspapers. That seaman gave a narrative which, as a seaman, he could understand. The seaman, however, was interviewed by a naval officer, and he withdrew a great part of his statement. If that was so, and if influence had been brought to bear—and there was a general impression that that was the case—there was an additional reason why they should have an independent inquiry. He intended no imputation against naval officers; but his remarks were directed against the Constructive Department of the Admiralty. There was no reason why the Government should refuse to put on the inquiry some eminent shipbuilders, one or two merchant captains of known position and judgment, or some of the Elder Brethren of Trinity House. They would give an element of confidence to the inquiry in the eyes of the country which it did not now possess. The hon. Member concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


in seconding the Motion, said, Her Majesty's Government would, no doubt, cause inquiry to be made as to the state of the ship, as to her capabilities, of the hands on board her, and items of a different character. These things would be inquired into by naval officers, and he had nothing to say against the capacity of officers of the British Navy for holding such an inquiry. He had no doubt the men selected would be men of high character and of great experience, men who would give their very best attention to the inquiry, and would make their Report as to the circumstances of the case. But yet it would hardly be satisfactory that the Committee of Inquiry should be composed so entirely of naval men. They knew that the class of experience obtained by naval men was very different to the experience of those who were continually working in sailing vessels. The Mercantile Marine received hundreds of lessons in difficult situations to one received by a Queen's ship; and if this inquiry were to be one which would be satisfactory to the whole country, it would have to contain an element of the Mercantile Marine. It was not part of his duty to go into the question of training in mass, or as to the best mode of training. In conclusion, he would like to be told whether the inquiry was to be carried on by naval men almost alone, or whether the shipbuilding, sailing, and merchant seamen interests were to be included in it? By the latter course alone he was sure would the Government satisfy the great majority of the people.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the proposed inquiry into the loss of the 'Atalanta' will not be satisfactory if the Committee does not partake less of a departmental character than that proposed by the Government,"—(Mr. Jenkins,) —instead thereof.

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


said, he should have had no objection whatever if officers of the Merchant Service had originally been placed on the Committee; but the Com- mittee having been nominated, he thought it would be an invidious reflection on the Navy if it went forth to the world that naval officers could not be trusted in an inquiry of this kind to report in an independent and reliable manner. The hon. Member who introduced the Motion would seem to assume that there was a kind of freemasonry existing between the Admiralty and the officers of the Navy, whereas he could safely assure them that nothing of the kind existed. He could also say with truth that there was a feeling which ran decidedly in the opposite direction, and that the Board of Admiralty had no more hostile critics in the country than naval officers of the higher ranks. He was quite sure the hon. Member did not intend by his Motion to cast any reflection upon officers of the Navy. Yet if his recommendation were adopted, he was quite certain it would be regarded in this unfavourable light by the world in general, and it would certainly be felt as such by the officers themselves. He personally had every respect, the very highest respect, for the officers of the Merchant Service, and he would have had no objection whatever had they been originally placed on the Committee; but he was sure that, good seamen as they were, he could not regard them as being more capable or any better qualified to arrive at the truth on a question of this kind than officers of the Navy. He was certain that, great as was the anxiety which all classes in the country felt on account of the missing vessel, no class was so profoundly moved as the officers of the Royal Navy, and that was, he thought, one reason why officers of the Navy, of all others, should be placed on the Committee. Were the officers named to sit on the Committee in any way responsible for the fitting-out of the ill-fated ship, he could understand the Motion of his hon. Friend (Mr. Jenkins); but they were not. The hon. Member had referred to the opinion of an able seaman; but he would ask any competent person whether any value was to be placed on the opinion of an able seaman in the Royal Navy in regard to the qualities of a ship? He would not attach any value to it, and very few officers would, because the chances were that if the man were qualified to speak on such a subject he would have been promoted to the rank of leading seaman or petty officer and not have remained an A.B. Now, the cases of the Atalanta and the Eurydice were very different; but the point he wished to make was this, that he distinctly protested against the imputations implied in the hon. Member's speech. He believed that, if a comparison were made of the sentences of courts martial with those passed by the Board of Trade, it would be found that the standard of severity was far higher in the Navy than in the Merchant Service. It was his sincere hope that the Government would not give way so far as the naval officers were concerned, for no naval officer would act in an unworthy manner for the purpose of screening the Admiralty.


said, that, having filled the Office of Secretary to the Admiralty for a period of four years, naval matters had necessarily attracted much of his attention. He hoped, therefore, the House would allow him to explain why he should have preferred to see a civilian element predominating at the inquiry. He had noticed with pain the expression that had fallen from an hon. Member that the course now proposed involved a charge against the Constructive Department of the Navy. If that were so, he should not, of course, support such a procedure. It was because there was an unpleasant feeling in the country about the two catastrophes that had deprived many people of those nearest and dearest to them—a feeling of distrust among those people—that he should have preferred a predominance of the civil element in the inquiry. Views had been expressed in the papers of the day by a very distinguished officer (Admiral Sir William King Hall) from which he felt bound to dissociate himself. That officer said that the inquiry would be a slur on the officers connected with the ship and the officers of the Dockyard where she was fitted up. Were he of the same opinion, he should not hesitate to refuse his support to the proposed inquiry. It was because he knew well how perfect the administration in their Dockyards had become, and how impossible it was that an unseaworthy ship should be sent to sea, that he was in favour of the contemplated investigation. There was one remark made by Admiral Sir William King Hall which he was glad the noble Lord the Member for Liverpool (Lord Ramsay), had contra- dicted. Admiral Sir William King Hall said that the Navy had no voice in the House of Commons. He altogether disagreed with that statement, believing that there was no man in the House of Commons who would not stand up for the Navy whenever an occasion for so doing might arise. As he had already said, he regretted, in the interests of the Service, who desired nothing more than the fullest investigation into all the circumstances connected with this matter, that the civil element did not predominate on the Committee. With an eminent shipbuilder upon it such as the late hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Samuda) to meet Mr. Rothery and Mr. Waymouth, the inquiry would be of a nature to silence for ever the uneasy feeling that existed in reference to their Dockyards. Personally he did not wish for an inquiry into the loss of the Ata-lanta. In his belief the ship was sent to sea in a most perfect condition, and the result of any inquiry that might be held would, he felt sure, be satisfactory.


observed, that before Parliament met he published his views on this subject in the public prints, which coincided with those expressed by previous speakers. His constituency took a great interest in the matter, Captain Stirling, the commander of the ship, having been stationed at the port of Hull, where he gained many friends and bore the reputation of being a most able and gallant officer. The prevailing feeling throughout the country was that this was a disaster of a most serious character, and following so soon after the loss of the Eurydice doubts had arisen in connection with the administration of the Navy which it was desirable should be removed. Under the Merchant Shipping Act inquiries were held of a perfectly independent character. They were conducted by a Government officer, assisted by assessors, one of whom was almost invariably an officer of the Royal Navy. These inquiries were of the greatest benefit to the Mercantile Marine, and their effect was to make owners and masters very careful in the performance of their duties. Why should not so salutary a system be adopted in the case of the Royal Navy also? If in future all casualties connected with the Royal Navy were inquired into by a thoroughly independent body, much good would ensue. He was glad that his suggestion that Mr. Rothery would be an excellent Chairman to the Committee had been adopted by the Admiralty. He had no desire that the Royal Navy should not be represented on the Committee. The best Committee, in his opinion, would be one on which two Naval officers should act as Mr. Rothery's asesssors, and on which there should be two other gentlemen, one of them being an eminent shipbuilder. He could assure the noble Lord the Member for Liverpool (Lord Ramsay) that there was no mistrust as to the character of naval officers felt personally among those supporting this Motion. The question was, however, from the peculiar circumstances and great loss of life attending it, one which the public felt should not be left to departmental scrutiny alone.


could assure those hon. Members who had spoken on the subject that Lord Northbrook and his Colleagues were fully determined that the proposed inquiry should be full, independent, and impartial. Everybody must sympathize with the sufferers in the great disaster which had occurred, and the Admiralty felt that the loss of a second vessel of the kind within so short a period of time must necessarily create great uneasiness in the public mind. The inquiry, therefore, they were of opinion should be of such a nature as to be in every way satisfactory. Into the merits of the case he would not enter, and he was sorry to have heard the opinion expressed that the Atalanta was unseaworthy. To him it appeared unwise, at the present moment, to express any opinion on the subject; but he could not refrain from expressing a hope that the result of the inquiry would go to show that the vessel was seaworthy, so that the confidence of the public might be fully restored. The proposed Committee, he might add, must not be regarded as being in any way a Departmental Committee; and he was disposed to agree with the noble Lord the Member for Liverpool (Lord Ramsay) in the view he took as to the tendency of officers on such an inquiry to act quite independently of the Admiralty. In those cases in which there happened to be survivors after such a loss as that of the Atalanta, a naval court martial was appointed, which inquired not only into the conduct of the commander of the vessel, but into the general question of her seaworthiness. There was such an inquiry in the case of the Eurydice, from the wreck of which two seamen had been saved. The same course had been taken after the loss of the Captain, in which a Court of naval officers expressed the opinion that the stability of the ship was not satisfactory—a fact which showed that they did not hesitate to act independently even where the Admiralty was concerned. The same observation applied to the case of the Megœra; and in a number of other cases, where it was impossible to put men upon their trial, Courts and Committees of Inquiry had been instituted by the Admiralty, the whole of whose members, or at all events the great majority, consisted of naval men. He might, for instance, mention the case of the Thunderer, where a Court of Inquiry was held to inquire into the cause of the explosion of her gun, and where the Court consisted of three officers, assisted by one assessor, a civil engineer of eminence; and he could show that in all these cases the naval men con-corned had exercised an independent judgment, and had not unfrequently expressed an opinion adverse to the action of the Admiralty. In the present instance, there being no survivors, no court martial would be held; and the Admiralty had deemed it right, after due consideration, to appoint a Committee consisting of five members, two of whom were civilians, which was going further in the direction of the civilian clement than any similar instance of which he could find a record. Of Mr. Rothory, one of the members, all he need say was that, in his opinion, he would be a tower of strength to the Committee in the prosecution of its labours. The two civilians placed upon the Committee would bring to it the legal knowledge required for the cross-examination of witnesses, and a technical knowledge as to the construction of ships which naval officers were not supposed to possess. So strengthened, the Committee, he believed, would inspire general confidence. Admiral Ryder, as a member of the Committee of Designs, had a peculiar knowledge of naval architecture and a great capacity for minute, laborious, and conscientious inquiry, and his two naval colleagues possessed to an unusual extent the con- fidence of their fellow-officers. The only objection that could be made to the Committee was that the civil element in it was not numerically in the majority. In no previous inquiry instituted by the Admiralty, however, had that element been so strong; and, now that the Committee had been constituted, to add to it as suggested would be casting a slur upon the naval officers who were already appointed. He had every confidence that those officers would bring to their task a thoroughly independent judgment and unhesitatingly attach blame to the Controller's Department of the Admiralty, which was the Department chiefly concerned, if, in their opinion, it deserved it. The members of the Committee had been most carefully selected by Lord Northbrook and his Colleagues, and their names had been submitted to, and approved by, the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. W. H. Smith), who, however, it was only fair to add, had no official responsibility in the matter. He (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) believed the Committee would give full, patient, and thoroughly satisfactory consideration to the matter, and was entitled to every confidence in the exercise of its judgment.


remarked, that the loss of the Atalanta had weighed heavily upon all who were connected with the Admiralty, both on account of the valuable lives lost and the distrust in Admiralty management which it was calculated to awake in the country. Upon the probable causes of the calamity it would, of course, be improper for him to speculate in view of the inquiry about to be made; but he thought it right to state that the late Board of Admiralty had left behind them a record of their desire for an inquiry of the fullest and most impartial character. As that inquiry was to be conducted under their Successors, they had thought it right to leave to those gentlemen the responsibility of constituting the Court; and the task had been performed in a manner which had his thorough approbation. He believed the course taken by the present Board of Admiralty was one which would produce most satisfactory results. It was a great error to suppose that naval officers were in any way subservient to the Board of Admiralty. There was no more independent body of men in existence than naval officers; and from them more, perhaps, than from any other class of men, the Admiralty might look for a harsh verdict. Having, however, a special knowledge, they were competent to ask questions, and drive a naval inquiry home in a manner which would probably be beyond the power of persons outside the Service. He believed the Committee as at present constituted was perfectly fit for the task before it, and that it would go to the bottom of the whole affair. The members of it certainly had the knowledge, the power, and the ability to do so; and those questions which the naval officers might overlook, Mr. Rothery, whose capacity for conducting an inquiry was well known, might be trusted to put. For his own part, he believed the unfortunate vessel was in good order and condition, and fit for the work for which she was designed. He need hardly say that, so far as he was concerned, had she been in an unsound condition, she would not have been sent to sea. He trusted they would not add to the calamity by importing heat into it, or by questioning the perfect honour, fairness, and integrity of the gentlemen appointed to inquire into it. That inquiry, he was sure, however little light it might throw on the disaster itself, would be conducted in a manner perfectly satisfactory to the public.


supported the Motion of the hon. Member for Falmouth (Mr. Jenkins). Let them consider the circumstances with which they had to deal. They had been told by the Secretary to the Admiralty that there was a feeling of uneasiness among the public, and it was not surprising that there should be such a feeling. Not long ago the Eurydice went down, and now they had the loss of the Atalanta, a vessel of similar construction. It was extremely desirable, therefore, that the inquiry should be full, open, and satisfactory. He did not doubt the honour and integrity of the naval officers named in the Commission; but gentlemen connected with the Department responsible for having sent the ship to sea should not be the men chiefly appointed to inquire into the disaster. The civil element should be more prominent. They were told that there was no precedent for an equal number of civilians being put on a Committee of this kind. If that were so he was sorry to hear it, and he thought the sooner they had a change in this respect the better. For the sake of the Admiralty itself, he hoped that the inquiry would not be conducted simply by three or four gentlemen connected with the Department. Unless the constitution of the Committee was altered, it would not inspire that perfect confidence which it ought to do. It was only human nature to suppose that men connected with the Admiralty should be biassed—perhaps unconsciously—in favour of the Admiralty. He should have preferred that naval officers should only have been appointed as assessors; but since three had been appointed members of the Committee, he would suggest that the Committee should be strengthened by the addition of, at least, two more civilians, and he hoped that this arrangement would form a precedent for the future.


thought it would have been much better to have the Committee composed entirely of naval officers. He thought that those officers were quite as independent as they had been described, and could well be trusted to give an impartial judgment on the matter. In the ease of the collision between Her Majesty's ship Amazon and a merchant ship called the Osprey a court martial was held; and in consequence of the decision of that tribunal, which was, of course, exclusively composed of naval officers, the State had to pay a large sum of money, because the court held that the fault was on the side of Her Majesty's vessel. As in the present instance it had been thought proper by the Admiralty to place on the Committee certain gentlemen who were not connected with Her Majesty's Service, he did not see why their number should be so limited. Still, as the Admiralty had decided on these names, he trusted they would not be disposed to alter them.


wished that those who were in favour of an independent investigation would dispense with tinsel compliments, and that they would speak a little more plainly than some of his hon. Friends had done. The question agitating the country was not that which had been discussed this evening from the front Benches. It was not whether naval officers were honourable men who could be trusted to conduct an inquiry; but whether it was a seemly thing to appoint naval officers, however trustworthy, to conduct an inquiry of this character, in which the public were so largely interested. No one could suppose that a Committee which was forced upon all independent Members of the House and upon the public could be satisfactory even if the men who composed it were the souls of honour. It might be in accordance with "immemorial usage" to appoint naval officers to hold such an inquiry; but he was not of opinion that the immemorial usages of the Navy were suited to modern life. The Secretary to the Admiralty said it was a mistake to suppose that naval officers were in any way subordinate to the Board of Admiralty. That statement he heard with extreme surprise. The Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth, who was to be Chairman of the Committee, himself received orders every day from the Admiralty; and it was in the power of the Admiralty to render the greatest possible services to naval officers generally. It was, therefore, a mistake to suppose that naval officers were not subordinate to the Admiralty. He had not a suspicion in his own mind directed to the Atalanta, or against any person who had had anything to do with her. He knew the Atalanta. She was a beautiful, handsome, perfect vessel when he was a youngster, and he admired her immensely. Indeed, he believed she was the best built and the best finished man-of-war of that period that he was ever permitted to see or have anything to do with. Therefore, he had no prejudice against her. It was, however, highly desirable that an inquiry should be instituted which would be satisfactory to the country. If such a Committee as that under discussion had been nominated before the General Election, the Liberals would have been justified in denouncing the Committee, and saying to the electors, "Change the Government, and you will find it will be better." He simply pleaded on the Government's own behalf that the inquiry, when made, should be a satisfactory one. What had been asked? The hon. Member for Paisley (Mr. W. Holms) said he would be perfectly content with the addition of two gentlemen eminently acquainted with the subject to the Committee. The hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Norwood), he thought, said the addition of one gentleman would be satisfactory. He (Mr. E. J. Reed) told the Secretary to the Admiralty the other day that he would be perfectly satisfied if they would add one more civil member to the Committee, and make Mr. Rothery Chairman. An arrangement had been made which he highly approved—namely, a Member of the House of Lords was First Lord of the Admiralty. It had some disadvantages; but in connection with the patronage of the Navy it had very great advantages. He was delighted also with the selection of the Admiralty in the House of Commons, because the Secretary to the Admiralty was eminently qualified for the post he occupied; and if the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Brassey) could be persuaded to devote his time to the Office which he held, the country should be very grateful to him for having accepted the offer of that Office. He thought the Admiralty was perfectly well constituted; but in this case Members were at a disadvantage—the First Lord was in the House of Peers, and they had not the means of getting at him to-night. He hoped he had said enough to explain the nature of their desire. Their desire was simply that the Committee might be so slightly modified as to give general satisfaction.


observed, that at the commencement of the debate it was said no civilian was on the Committee. Later on it oozed out that there were civilians on the Committee. The hon. Member who had just spoken said he required a perfectly independent Committee.


I distinctly stated that my hon. Friend and myself would be satisfied with the Committee as it is, with the addition of one civilian.


The hon. Member not only once, but twice or thrice, claimed to have a perfectly independent Committee. He said that naval officers were so dependent upon the Admiralty that they could not act independently; therefore, by "independent," the hon. Member must have meant that the Committee should not be composed of civilian Members. There was no other way of construing the word. He (Mr. Magniac) should like to know upon whom the responsibility would lie if a catastrophe occurred to any Department? If every disaster that happened to the Army or Navy was to be inquired into by an outside Committee of civilians, the country, he thought, would be landed in a position of departmental irresponsibility which would be found excessively inconvenient. He did not wish to minimize this disaster; but they had to consider not merely the satisfaction of the public; they had to consider the officers of a great Department, in whom they had such confidence that they looked to them to defend their families and the country in time of war. For the first time, as he believed, in the history of the Navy, a civilian had been joined with officers of the Navy in inquiring into a disaster which had occurred. As to the first gentleman, Mr. Rothery, he supposed that, if the world were searched, one more independent or more competent to fill the place he had been put in could not be found. He would refer to another member of the Committee. They all knew of Lloyd's Register, in which every ship was so accurately classified that its merits could be accurately known from its position in the register. That register was supervised by Mr. Waymouth, who had thus acquired an amount of knowledge absolutely unequalled. He did not think that with such men as Mr. Rothery and Mr. Waymouth upon it the Committee could be otherwise than satisfactory to the public.


begged to be allowed to withdraw his Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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