HC Deb 01 August 1881 vol 264 cc397-404

, in rising to call attention to the administration of Greenwich Hospital with regard to Merchant Seamen's Pensions, and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the grant should include widows whose husbands contributed to the fund, and merchant seamen now in receipt of the Mercantile Marine Fund pensions; said, the merchant seamen contended that while the seamen of the Royal Navy and the Marines had received full and ample pensions from the contributions made by and for seamen generally from the Greenwich Hospital Fund, they had been debarred from receiving anything beyond the miserable pittance granted by the present Secratary of State for War in 1867. Since 1867 the aged seamen had been receiving £3 8s. a-year, while the widows had not received anything whatever from the fund to which enormous sums had been compulsorily contributed by seamen for a long course of years. If the seaman who might have contributed to the Greenwich Hospital Fund should elect to receive £3 8s. a-year, he was debarred thereby from obtaining another pension to which he was equitably entitled—namely, from the Mercantile Marine Fund. On the other hand, if he elected to receive a Mercantile Marine Fund pension, then, although he was entitled through the contribution which he might have compulsorily made to the Greenwich Hospital Fund to the pension which would accrue to him from the latter fund, he was debarred from obtaining it. It was desirable that the existing Act should be so amended as that men who were entitled to the Greenwich Hospital Fund should not be debarred from enjoying the benefits of that fund because they accepted a Mercantile Marine Fund pension—they being entitled to both. It would, perhaps, be said, in answer to the claim that he was setting up, that the Government had taken over and advanced a large sum of money in connection with another fund, the Mercantile Marine Fund. He granted that; but the House must understand that the Mercantile Marine Fund was a compulsory fund, created by the Government of the day, equally with the Greenwich Hospital contribution. Therefore, if the Government lost by the winding up of the Mercantile Marine Fund, that was no reason why the poor men who had compulsorily contributed towards the Greenwich Hospital Fund should be excluded from their rights in regard to the latter fund. He denied that the one fund was intended to be a substitute for the other. The Preamble of the Mercantile Marine Fund Act contained an admission of the right of merchant seamen to the benefits of the Greenwich Hospital Fund. The Act was, in fact, passed for the purpose of supplementing and assisting the Greenwich Hospital Fund. He asked anyone acquainted with the Charter of 1694 and the Act of 1696 whether it was consistent with common sense that Parliament intended that merchant seamen should be taxed more than any other class of the community in order that they might bear the cost of pensions to men who had served in the Royal Navy? For his part, he did not think that such a proposition could for a moment be maintained. He trusted that his hon. Friend (Sir Thomas Brassey) would urge upon the Government the claims of a deserving class who were now mulcted to the extent of about £12,000 a-year by enforced deductions from their earnings. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.


, in seconding the Amendment, assured the Government that the dissatisfaction with regard to the application of the fund since 1834 was not confined to the constituency of the hon. Member who had brought forward the Resolution. It was widespread among the seamen throughout Scotland, and more particularly in the seaports of the East of Scotland. He should not say a word as to the de-servings of that most patient and hardworking class of men. Waiving this, it was quite plain that some legal right was recognized on the part of merchant captains and seamen when the division of the Greenwich Hospital Fund was made by Parliament. It was also plain that the division with respect to merchant seamen was exceedingly parsimonious, and that the share allotted to them was not what they were entitled to. He hoped that the Lord of the Admiralty who had to represent this matter to his colleagues would see his way to recommend the claims of that deserving and ill-requited class. These claims were of very old standing, and he hoped the Government would look favourably upon them, even if it were necessary to introduce a Bill.

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 grant to the Greenwich Hospital Fund should include widows whose husbands contributed to the fund, and merchant seamen now in receipt of the Mercantile Marine Fund Pensions,"—(Mr. Gourley,) —instead thereof.

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


thanked the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Gourley) for bringing forward this subject, because, rightly or wrongly, these old people thought that they had a grievance. They had been obliged to contribute to two funds from their hard earnings, and now if they received a return from one fund they were precluded from the benefit of the other. He never liked to break faith with those who relied upon the law. There were only some 3,000 or 4,000 of them alive, and they should not be denied when they demanded their rights. Seamen were, as a rule, a helpless class, and therefore he hoped that the Government would show some consideration for these applicants. This was one of those cases where a small wrong became very irritating.


said, that the hon. Member for Sunderland (Mr. Gourley) had made a persuasive appeal on behalf of the aged seamen. In much that he had said he concurred. Some years ago he had brought forward a proposal in that House for a seamen's benefit fund, to be managed by the officials of the shipping offices. He still cherished the hope that the merchant seamen might receive some assistance in their efforts to combine for their mutual support in advancing years. It was not an essential feature of the plan for a merchant seamen's fund that the State should make a contribution of money. Whatever might be the decision on this point, it was his duty to resist any proposal to take money from Greenwich funds. Before submitting a short statement of the leading facts, there was one obvious remark which he might offer. His hon. Friend would acknowledge that the injustice of which he complained was not due to any action which had been taken by the present Admiralty. Similar demands had been steadily resisted by successive Boards, who were under strong temptation to become popular at the public expense by lavish charities to the merchant seamen. The unanimity of their decisions was, in his judgment, conclusive. The present Government, however, in their anxious desire to be just, had once more consulted the experienced officers of the Board of Trade and the Admiralty, under whom the pensions to seamen and the funds of Greenwich Hospital were administered. The Papers containing the correspondence with the Board of Trade would be distributed in a few days. The constituents of his hon. Friend would doubtless be supplied with copies of the Papers, and when they had read them they would be convinced that they had no claim whatever to further assistance from Greenwich. Without entering too minutely into details, he might observe that the relief of seamen who had served in the Royal Navy was the exclusive object of the noble foundation of William and Mary. That object was steadily kept in view both in the Act of 1696, under which the seamen of the Merchant Service were required to pay 6d. a-month to Greenwich, and again in the Act of 1834, under which they were relieved from the obligation. The protection afforded by the Navy to the commerce of the country was held to be a sufficient justification for imposing a tax on the Merchant Service. Passing from the original object for which the hospital was founded to the subsequent efforts of the State to administer to the wants of the Merchant Service, he might refer to the onerous obligation undertaken in connection with the Merchant Seamen's Fund. The management was unsatisfactory, and in 1851 the fund was wound up by Act of Parliament. Pen- sions were granted at the average rates of the preceding five years, and the Exchequer was made responsible for any deficiency which might arise. The net result had been a loss of no less than £920,000. Notwithstanding the losses sustained in connection with their fund, a generous gift was made to the merchant seamen on the occasion of the closing of Greenwich Hospital as an asylum for the Royal Navy. By the Greenwich Hospital Act of 1869, power was taken to expend £4,000 a-year in providing pensions at the rate of £3 8s. to seamen who had contributed 6d. a-month to Greenwich Hospital for five years prior to 1835, and who were not in receipt of a pension from the Merchant Seamen's Fund. In making this concession the Admiralty were doing an act of grace, and they distinctly declined to acknowledge any legal liability. In 1872 a further concession was made. The annual expenditure from Greenwich funds was no longer limited to £4,000 a-year, and an Act was passed authorizing the purchase of annuities by the Board of Trade out of funds provided by Greenwich Hospital for all seamen who could prove a claim to pension under the regulations laid down in 1869. The charge which had come on Greenwich Hospital in providing pensions and annuities under the Acts of 1869 and 1872 had already amounted to £158,000, and it was contemplated that a further sum of from £40,000 to £50,000 would be required. The regulations under which the pensions were granted had been made the subject of complaint. It had been argued that seamen who were in receipt of pensions from the Mercantile Marine Fund ought not to be debarred from the enjoyment of pensions from Greenwich Hospital. In November last the Admiralty addressed a letter to the Board of Trade asking them, as the official protectors of the merchant seamen, how far the sum of £3 8s. per annum, whether paid in the shape of a Greenwich pension or a Merchant Seamen's Fund pension, was a sufficient equivalent for the enforced contribution of 1s. a-month? In reply, they were told that the sum now paid was in excess of the value of the enforced contribution with interest. The hon. Member for Sunderland was not content to urge the claims of the seamen themselves, and he asked that pensions should be extended to widows. The de- mand could not be presented to Parliament as a matter of right and justice. If, on the other hand, the cause of the widows were pleaded as a case for the charitable consideration of the Government, he had already shown that there were other resources directly arising from the Mercantile Marine from which, if they thought it right to make a concession, an appropriation might be made. The pensions from the Mercantile Marine Fund and the grants from the Greenwich Funds, so far from being an inadequate return for the contributions, had already involved a loss to the State of more than £1,100,000. Having dealt thus far with the case of the seamen as founded on their individual contributions, he passed on to the claims put forward on their behalf as heirs to former generations of contributors. It had been maintained in several Petitions that not less than £2,000,000 of the accumulated funds of the Hospital had been derived from the enforced contributions of merchant seamen. The statement was incorrect. The personal property of Greenwich Hospital was mainly derived from other sources—from unclaimed prize-money, assigned to the Institution in the reign of Queen Anne, and from the prize-money of deserters, made over to the Hospital in the reign of George II. It included a percentage of 5 per cent on all prizes taken during the Great War. The sale of portions of the Derwentwater Estates, which were appropriated to the Hospital in the reign of George II., had been another source whence the personal property had been accumulated. But of all these sources of wealth, the most important was the transfer, in 1814, of the funds of the Chatham Chest, amounting to £1,355,000. The Chatham Chest was originally established in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the revenues were derived from Parliamentary grants, charitable bequests, prize-money, and a tax of 6d. per month levied on seamen serving in the Navy. Having shown that the merchant seamen have no claim, whether in law or in equity, to further contributions from Greenwich Hospital, it might not seem necessary to carry forward this discussion. It might, however, be satisfactory to the House to know the numerous and benevolent uses to which the funds of the Hospital were devoted. Its whole revenues were bestowed in ministering to the necessities of men who had done long service to the coun- try. Out of a total income of £161,000, no less than £120,000 were expended in pensions and gratuities. In addition to this, they were educating 1,000 boys, the sons of seamen and marines. They were doing this at a cost below the average in similar institutions. It had been objected that too large a sum was expended in salaries. To this he had to answer that the school was completely re-organized in 1870 by a committee of which the present Secretary to the Admiralty was the chairman. But although the Establishment was thus recently revised, they had thought it right to appoint a committee, which was on the point of reporting the result of its inquiries. He had reason to know that the work undertaken by Admiral Hickley and his colleagues, the Member for Falmouth, and Sir Digby Murray, had been thoroughly done, and that it would result in valuable improvements in the dietary of the school, and in the training of the boys for the sea service. Where an increase of expenditure was required, they would be able to meet the cost by economy in other directions. In conclusion, he had to express the hope that his hon. Friend would be satisfied with the explanations he had received. He had done his duty to those whose cause he had advocated by stating their case in Parliament. It had been his (Sir Thomas Brassey's) duty, on behalf of the Navy, to show that the cost of the benevolent plan of his hon. Friend could not in justice be made a charge upon Greenwich funds. Hon. Members would believe that it was not an agreeable duty to resist an appeal on behalf of aged and, perhaps, necessitous persons belonging to a class with which he had a warm sympathy. In following his hazardous calling the merchant seaman did a duty to society and to the State, and he had a strong claim to our benevolence; but the seamen of the Navy might be called upon at any moment for yet greater sacrifices. Even in peace, grave disasters might occur, bringing misery to many homes. The present Board of Admiralty were anxious to make more ample provision for these distressing calamities, and if they permitted an unjustifiable encroachment on the limited resources of Greenwich Hospital, they would deprive themselves of the means of giving relief to seamen who had grown old in the service of their country and to the widows and orphans of their comrades who had fallen at the post of duty.

Question put, and agreed, to.

Main Question proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."