HC Deb 09 August 1884 vol 292 cc401-5

said, he had to apologize to Mr. Speaker and to the House for not having appeared in his place in time to submit the Amendment to the second reading of the Appropriation Bill which stood in his name. This was the result of an accident. The folowing were the terms of his Notice:— That the provision contained in the Bill for securing the general objects for which Her Majesty's Navy is maintained is insufficient. He considered that it was a duty on his part to bring this subject under the attention of the House, since he (Mr. Newdegate) was the survivor of a Party in that House led by his lamented friend the late Lord George Bentinck, who, during the years 1848 and 1849, strongly contested the relaxation of the Naviga- tion Laws then proposed, and afterwards carried. Of this any hon. Member might satisfy himself by a reference to Hansard. That great question was pending in the House when the late Lord George Bentinck died. A greater loss neither the House nor the country could scarcely have sustained. The form of the question before the House at the time to which he referred was not in detail the same as the form in which he desired now to submit it for its attention. Armour-plated vessels of war had not been introduced in 1848–9; but this rendered the preservation of the Mercantile Marine to the largest extent of great national importance, both as regards ships and men. The nationality of the Mercantile Marine was then an obvious object for the purposes of national defence, since this country, from this source and through these means, had obtained the command of the seas during the long War which ended in 1815. He (Mr. Newdegate) not only acted as Whipper-in to that Party at that time, but studied the subject. This was his reply to hon. Members who had observed in private—"What can the Member for the centre of England know about maritime affairs?" He (Mr. Newdegate) had never lost sight of the subject, and was perfectly aware that the subsequent practice of armouring, and of building iron and steel vessels of war, had produced a revolution in the system of maritime warfare, which had rendered the distinction between vessels of war and those of the Mercantile Marine infinitely more absolute than they were at the period to which he had referred. He (Mr. Newdegate) found that an impression was rife among hon. Members of that House that the Mercantile Marine could still be brought to a large degree as effectively in aid of Her Majesty's Navy now as it had been before the system of armour-plated war vessels had been introduced. This he believed that he could show upon good authority to be totally erroneous, and therefore a dangerous impression, for this false impression might be used by way of apology for insufficient Navy Estimates. He had it on high authority that an armour-plated war vessel of any considerable size could not be built in less than four years, at least. This was enough to indicate the danger which might arise from this mistake; he thought it, there- fore, his duty to lay before the House a document which, supported as it was by other evidence, had produced a deep impression on his mind. The author of this letter, Admiral Symonds, was an officer of high rank; and he (Mr. Newdegate) understood, from everyone of whom he had inquired, that Admiral Symonds not only had been an efficient officer, but was a trustworthy man. The letter he was about to quote was sent to him (Mr. Newdegate) by the editor of a newspaper, entitled The Naval Engineer. He would not trouble the House with the commencement of the letter, which was filled with statistics to prove that the author, Admiral Symonds, had spared no pains to satisfy himself whether any portion, and, if any, what portion, of the Mercantile Marine could be quickly rendered, under existing circumstances, available for the actual purposes of maritime war. He would merely lay the statement and argument of the Admiral before the House. The statement ran thus—

"The sailing vessels are very numerous, and more than half the commercial tonnage—useless during war, for if not kept safe in port, an enterprizing enemy would make bonfires of them from one end of the sea to the other. Remember the Alabama; in such a case the vessels composing the steam mercantile fleet would be far too few for its carrying duties, and could spare nothing to the fighting Navy (without being robbed), even if fit for such service, which I do not think they are, being easily sunk, set on fire, with engines, steering gear, &c., exposed to shot and shell. In fact, I have no hope of assistance to the fighting Navy; on the contrary, these vessels would add immensely to its duties. With the loss of more than half its tonnage by the necessary withdrawal of the sailing vessels, an additional steam fleet would have to be constructed, or the nation starve. This would give full occupation to the private yards. So I deem it a delusion expecting assistance from the Mercantile Marine and its private dockyards during war with a strong, active, naval Power. I rise from the study of its component parts with the greatest possible disappointment, on account of its excessive weakness, through the vast sailing fleet, &c., for the carrying duties it has to do, Britain being only provisioned for a few months of the year. The power of the engines is also generally too small to escape capture. Imagine this flock of sheep chased by wolves in war. The replacing the captured ones, accidents, &c., producing vessels of greater speed and coal-carrying power, &c., would give the private yards as much as they could manage; and at what expense could we hire? Under the above circumstances, it behoves us to keep our Navy in the best of good order, with 20 of the most modern and powerful iron-clads in reserve as our fortifications, of which iron-clads we have not one afloat, with their accessories, such as torpedo vessels—not boats—attendants like the best Transatlantic steamers, of which I would have 25 ready in case of war, which would be both useful and economical in peace, as transports, troopers, store-ships, colliers, &c., and a good school for officers and men when at sea.—I am, sir, your humble servant,

"Admiral of the Fleet,


"Torquay, June 20th, 1884."

Admiral Symonds had subsequently published another letter; but since the matter of it was nothing like the importance of that which he (Mr. Newdegate) had thus ventured to lay before the House, he would not now advert to it. He (Mr. Newdegate) considered it his duty to bring this subject at once under the attention of the House. He hoped on Tuesday next to be permitted to venture some further observations upon this subject, which it was not possible to deny to be one of deep national importance.


I do not wish to say a single word which would have the appearance of depreciating the gravity of the subject which the hon. Member has brought before the House, or of depreciating the importance of the opinion he has quoted; but I do not think the hon. Member quite understands the position of the matter. Admiral Symonds is in the habit of writing letters; he writes many letters, and one of these, either by reason of its appearing in one of the public prints or in some other way, has fallen into the hands of the hon. Member, who seems to have been greatly struck by it. I may remind the hon. Member that Admiral Symonds does not occupy any special position as Admiral of the Fleet; he is one of several distinguished officers holding that rank; and I can assure the hon. Member that anything that officer says on this subject comes to the knowledge of the Admiralty and is fully weighed by them, and it is only after a full consideration of his views that the Government have made their proposals to the House. The question has been fully discussed on many occasions in Committee of Supply—I am not sure that I have had the pleasure of seeing my hon. Friend during those nights—and I do not think the House will expect me now to commence again any defence of the proposals of the Government, or to enter upon a disquisition on this subject. So far as the Ad- miralty is concerned, they are fully aware of the necessities of the case, and I trust that the proposals we have made will be found to be sufficient.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for To-morrow.