HC Deb 08 September 1886 vol 308 cc1631-43

said, before the Speaker left the Chair he wished to call attention to the very unsatisfactory manner in which the Naval Parliamentary Returns to the House were presented. He had detected the grossest inaccuracies in the se Returns—inaccuracies which had a very bad appearance, and which were calculated to have very mischievous effects, inasmuch as they favoured conclusions that were known to be foregone conclusions at the Admiralty, and generally made it appear that the Navy of this country was stronger than it was as compared with the Navies of other countries. In this respect he would first say a few words about a Return presented recently, on the Motion of the noble Lord the Member for East Marylebone (Lord Charles Beresford), now one of the Naval Lords of the Admiralty. It was a Return relating to the Fleets of England, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Russia, and Greece. Everyone who looked at that Return, and remembered the discussions in the last Parliament, would be aware that the noble Lord who moved the Return did so with the patriotic object of bringing before the country the true relative positions of those Navies, both existent and prospective. It would be of great importance if these Returns bore the name and were attested by some other person than the Clerical Secretary to the Admiralty, who could not be expected to guarantee their accuracy from any knowledge of his own. The consequence was that whatever the Departmental people put before the Clerical Secretary came to this House, and the Departmental gentlemen were wholly irresponsible for the Return. He would ask the noble Lord the First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord George Hamilton) to take into consideration the propriety of having the names of a technical officer coupled, if need were, with that of the Clerical Secretary in future Returns of this nature. The noble Lord did not seem disposed to take much notice of this appeal; but if he did not he warned the noble Lord that it would not save any time or enable him to escape from the urgency with which he would press the point. The time had arrived, in his (Sir Edward Reed's) opinion, when hon. Mem- bers of this House must refuse to be participators in the exchange of that light coin, "that tinsel clink of compliment" which was continually passing between the two Front Benches of this House, and must go behind and look into the facts for themselves. Now, in this Return there was a great deficiency in a most important particular—namely, that of the Russian Fleet. Either he was inaccurately informed by Russian officers who were well acquainted with the Dockyards and the Navy of Russia, or there were armoured ships of very great importance indeed now constructed by the Russian Government of which no proper note was taken in this Return. He believed that it was equally true of the un-armoured vessels that vessels of considerable importance built for the Russian Government were excluded from the Return. In consequence of such errors as these many hon. Members of the House—and the new Parliament might contain many Members anxious to inform themselves of the facts in relation to the Navy—would be completely misled as to the comparative strength of the Navy if they placed reliance on this Navy Return. That was a very notable fact at a time like the present when, if he was not mistaken, the country would have to consider very seriously the strength of the Russian Navy. Another question had reference to the French Navy, and he invited the particular attention of the House to the illusive system under which the Return was granted. For some reason unknown to himself, except that it might be a wish to defeat the natural desire of the House and the country to understand the real position of the Naval Service, the system of classification adopted was most illusory. He would guard himself on this point, because there was prefixed to the Return a Memorandum, in which hon. Members were told that vessels had been grouped in accordance with the official classification of each country, and that to compare the different Navies correctly the different classifications must be taken into account, adding vessels in some places and deducting them in others on the different lists. But the curious thing was that he found that, whether he took this prefatory Memorandum or the notes attached to the Return, he found that all bore in one direction, that was, to give an exaggerated view of the strength of our own Navy and a view of foreign Navies that did not realize the true position and character of the se Navies. Could anything be more serious than that in a Return made to Parliament; and was he not justified in interposing at this moment and commending the matter to the attention of the noble Lord? He found that in the classification of our ships, whenever boilers were protected by deck armour, although the vessel's side was not protected, she was taken out of the category of unarmoured and put into the armoured or protected class. There was a class of vessels now building for which he was entitled to claim considerable credit—he alluded to the belted cruisers. Part of the extended programme of Lord Northbrook was the adoption of five belted cruisers. These ships, which had belts, and were to that extent armoured, came at once into the category of armoured vessels; but in the Return no distinction was made between them and the fully armoured ships of the Navy. He confessed that these bolted cruisers were much better protected than many of the large iron-clads; but they had no protection at all to their guns, and he thought they should be classed as armoured belted cruisers. A question arose on the previous night in a debate about certain vessels armed with long modern guns, and there seemed to be an idea in some quarters of the House that there was not much difference between barbette and turret vessels; but the distinction was that the turret guns were protected, while the barbette guns were not. If no exception had been taken to this Return they should have had the noble Lord (Lord George Hamilton), or some other hon. Member of the House, totalling up the tonnage of the se ships as so much armoured tonnage, and never reflecting or considering that in such a method of procedure as that they might get figures to show anything. The noble Lord would do well to withdraw this Return and give it to the House in a complete form—a Return which, at any rate, would be correct as far as it wont. He had called attention to this as a specimen of the general system of presenting Returns that were quite misleading. He did not know how it could be dealt with—not by the noble Lord (Lord George Hamilton) pressed with the multifarious duties of his Office, nor by the Secretary. (Mr. Forwood); but he had thrown out the suggestion that the responsibility of inaccuracies should be fixed upon some one, and the independence of the House should be vindicated, not leaving hon. Members to the dangers of accepting misleading Returns of this nature.

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

said, he wished to call the attention of the noble Lord the First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord George Hamilton) to the fact that in the Egyptian and Soudan Campaigns there were similar defects in the Transport Service and arrangements of the Navy as the se in the Army to which he had called attention on the previous evening. For instance, for the purpose of landing heavy stores in Egypt a very large pair of shears was constructed in England—so large that its component parts had to be taken out in two vessels, the result being that one leg was landed at its destination, where it lay utterly useless, and the other left at home, where, he believed, it was still to be seen. In addition to this, a composite pier was constructed for the landing of stores in Egypt, and a number of men were drilled in the work of putting the pier together; but the pieces being sent out in slow-steaming vessels did not arrive until after all the stores had been landed at another place than that at which the pier was to have been erected. Again, with regard to medicines that were sent out in largo consignments, they could not be found when wanted; but in one ship the medicine chests were discovered crushed beneath some tons of flour, which, however, was not damaged thereby, inasmuch as it was reported to be unfit for use before it left England. Beyond this, quantities of sugar, tea, and other necessaries were put into a heavy vessel under heavy gun carriages, and could not be got at until it was too late for their use on board. On another vessel the sugar and tea intended for the troops was so carefully stowed away that no amount of search was able to discover their whereabouts until after the campaign was over. He was desirous of obtaining from the Government some assurance that the extraordinary occurrences and failures which had happened during the se campaigns should not again take place, and that every endeavour would be made to prevent the possibility of any recurrence of such things.

MR. GOURLEY (Sunderland)

said, he had to complain of the way in which business was conducted at the Admiralty, and of the system under which ships were designed and built, and thought that more information should be laid before the House, so that Parliament should be able to exercise more control. He suggested that a Royal Commission or a Committee of the House should be appointed to consider the designs upon which the ships of the Navy were being built, and also as to the general condition of the Service. He had also to complain of the Mediterranean Squadron being taken on what appeared to be yachting excursions to Alexandria and other places, instead of the ships being utilized for the education of the men on board in torpedo and gunnery exercise, and the Service generally. He alleged that instruction in drill was not efficient, and that when vessels were sent round the stations it was looked upon as a huge holiday.


said, he desired to remove a very erroneous impression that seemed to have got possession of the hon. Member for Sutherland (Mr. Grourley). He could assure that hon. Gentleman that on all occasions gunnery, torpedo, and ordinary exercises were most carefully carried out in the Mediterranean Squadron. Journals of these matters were carefully kept by the commanders of the vessels and submitted to the Admiral, and these were afterwards forwarded to the Admiralty; and if anything wrong appeared there, any neglect of ordinary or extraordinary exercises, the responsible officer was pretty sure to be reminded of it. But there was an old adage too often forgotten in our censure of other people's duties, that "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy;" and depend upon it, if our seamen, marines, and boys were carefully educated—he might almost say over-educated—according to the requirements of the Service; if, from the Commander-in-Chief downwards, the work was done as the Admiralty, no doubt, had reason to believe it was done, then a certain amount of liberty was the necessary accompaniment. The hon. Member should bear in mind that ships were sent to foreign stations with more objects than one, and one object was to keep up the entente cordiale which ought to exist between pepole on shore and officers and men afloat. It would be a very hard case if, when the Squadron was off the coast of Syria, a little leave and license should not be allowed men who desired to make a visit to the Holy Land. From time immemorial such leave had been granted in the Service, and there was really no reason to depart from the precedents. There was no officer in the Navy who, with those attributes of command that required any man under him to do his work, was more willing to allow opportunities for relaxation than H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh. In reference to the Impérieuse, he quite agreed that she was among the most complete failures of modern ships. Badly designed, and badly carried out; such vessels were absolutely dangerous. As an ocean cruiser, what was the use of a ship designed to carry 400 tons of coal, a quantity that at full speed would only last her a day and a-half, and, the supply being exhausted, she had nothing to rely upon—absolutely nothing? Every able constructor, every Controller of the Navy knows, as every sailor knows, that a vessel with double screws is unmanageable under sail. You may increase the speed by a knot or two by supplementing steam with sail; but under sail only such a vessel would be useless and unsafe. In reference to the two ships, the Impérieuse and the Warspite, he last year asked that a Committee of naval and constructive experts should consider and report what in their judgment was the best thing to be done with the ships. His own idea—and he knew it was shared by a large number of naval officers of experience and knowledge that made their opinion valuable—was that the masts and yards should be taken out of them, the upper deck should be removed, and they should be turned into coast defence vessels, for which purpose they would be fairly useful. It was impossible to combine the two things—sailing, with the double screws. He would say nothing against the advantage of double screws as such; but if a spar or hawser, or any of the sailing gear happened to go over the side and fouled the screws, then the latter would become entirely useless. He trusted the First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord George Hamilton) would boldly face the question, and have the position of the double-screw vessels carefully considered, and also with regard to those not yet fully rigged. The result, he was strongly of opinion, would be a recommendation that the masts and yards should be removed, and the ships converted into fighting turrets for coast defence under steam. He was not quite certain that a Royal Commission was the best means of arriving at a decision. Commissions usually collected a great amount of evidence, and presented a long-winded Report, and that was all. But some means should be adopted for arriving at the best thing to be done for our fighting ships and cruisers, for at present the Navy was in a most unsatisfactory state—we were, in fact, living in a fool's paradise. Vessels that on the measured mile had been certified to do 12 knots could not really do more than 10. The measured mile trial, in fact, was quite fallacious. Under the most favourable circumstances of first-class picked coal, engineers and stokers specially trained, they got the best possible results out of the trial and produced a good result; but, as was known from particular instances, this was done sometimes by the trick of bottling up the steam until the last moment. The speed test was a fallacy, and never in ordinary service was the measured mile rate realized. In the case of the Northampton the speed put down was 13½ knots, and an expenditure of 250 tons; but all he could say was that in a three years' commission, and with the greatest possible care, he could never get out of her more than 11½ knots. The Impérieuse would burn the same amount of coal, for the ugh she was more modern, longer, and with engines compounded in a different manner, he did not hesitate to say that, though on the measured mile test she was put down at 17 knots, she would in commission drift into a 15 knot vessel.


said, he was much obliged to the hon. and gallant Member for Southampton (Sir John Commerell) for the practical suggestions he had made. With regard to the Impérieuse, he was quite aware that a grave miscalculation had been made. It had for some time past been the practice of the Constructors' Department to estimate the speed of a new vessel with what was called only her "legend" weights aboard. These legend weights only include a certain proportion of the coal the ship could carry; and the trials of speed were, therefore, carried out without all the weights being aboard, which the vessel, when ready for service, would carry. This practice led to deceptive statements being made concerning the speed and coal endurance of new ships. The Impérieuse was publicly stated to be able to either steam 17 knots for so many hundred miles, or, at a lower rate of speed, to have a coal endurance of so many thousand miles. If the vessel, however, had all her weights aboard, she would not be able to steam 17 knots; if she was not loaded up to her full coal-carrying capacity she would not have the coal endurance claimed for her. The belt and portholes of the Impérieuse were, when she was fully loaded, nearly two feet deeper immersed than was anticipated. They had, however, taken steps by which in future all trials of speed would be made with all weights aboard, and the trial was to be of a more the rough and lengthened character than before. By these steps they would prevent the difference between the designed draught and the actual draught which had occurred in the past; and the speed obtained at the trials would not be a fancy speed, but that which the vessel, when commissioned, can accomplish. The Impérieuse, though deeper in her draught by two feet than designed, would be a powerful and effective man-of-war. She was now on an experimental cruise under Captain Fane; and he had little doubt that the result of that cruise would be that her heavy spars and bolts would be removed, and a considerable gain in weight achieved. In reply to the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh), he might say that the subjects the hon. Member referred to, as to recent experiences in Egypt, were matters of Parliamentary investigation; and it would be the duty of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War (Mr. W. H. Smith) and himself (Lord George Hamilton) to see whether they could not institute a better system of organization, by which stores intended for the benefit and comfort of troops should be made more readibly accessible; and he agreed that where expensive plant was taken out to assist any expedition in which Her Majesty's Forces were engaged abroad it was essential that when not required it should be returned home or placed in some appropriate position. The hon. Member for Cardiff (Sir Edward Reed) alluded to one of the Returns presented to the House in regard to foreign Navies as being misleading; but the hon. Member did not give them any facts in support of his assertion, but seemed to base it upon the assumption that certain Russian vessels were not included in the Returns. He quite agreed with the hon. Member that all the Returns should, as far as possible, be accurate; but in this instance it should be remembered it was a Return made at the request of the House of Commons, and, therefore, was not a classification by the Admiralty; consequently, if there was any error, it was entirely due to those who obtained it for the House of Commons. He denied that there was any misstatement in the description or classification; and the hon. Gentleman (Sir Edward Reed), who had special means of information, and had been informed by Russian officers that this Return was misleading, should have had it rectified or withdrawn. The Return in question was given by the late Government, being moved for on the 23rd March, and granted on the 17th May, 1886; and the hon. Gentleman was a Member of the Government, and specially attached to the Admiralty in order that they might have the benefit of his knowledge.


said, that he never saw the Return until a short time ago; and at the time referred to he had no more to do with the Admiralty than the noble Lord. It did not lie with him, as a Lord of the Treasury, to revise such Returns.


said, that, at all events, the hon. Member was in Office when the Return was laid on the Table of the House, and from his special knowledge he had the opportunity of informing his Colleagues that the Return was misleading, and therefore ought to be withdrawn. He was quite aware there was a tendency in certain quarters to assume that whoever was at the Admiralty was inclined to over-estimate the fighting power of our Navy, and under-estimate that of foreign countries. What the Admiralty had to do was to place as fairly and as accurately as they could before the House all the information in their possession, and draw as fair a comparison as they could between the relative strength of the Navies of the world. In discussing these Estimates they were anxious to have the advantage of any practical question raised by any hon. Members; but, as far as the discussion had now gone, he thought it was of a nature that would be more advantageously disposed of when the House had gone into Committee.

MR. R. W. DUFF (Banffshire)

said, that as the late Board of Admiralty were answerable for the Return commented upon by his hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff (Sir Edward Reed) he wished to make a few observations. The question was raised as to foreign vessels by the noble Lord the Member for East Marylebone (Lord Charles Beresford); and the reply of the late Government was that they were unable to give absolutely full information respecting foreign Navies, but that they would furnish the best at their command. The Lords of the Admiralty went for information to the Heads of the Departments, and on the occasion referred to the person who supplied the information was Captain Kane, Naval Attaché to Foreign Countries; and, on the whole, he believed that the information so obtained was accurate, and he must protest against the assumption by his hon. Friend (Sir Edward Reed) that the Returns were cooked by the Admiralty.


said, it had not been his intention to make any such suggestion. He did not think the blame lay with the Board of Admiralty, but with the people who were behind them.


said, they gave the best information in their power, and in regard to the question of under-rating the interest of the Admiralty was rather to over-rate the strength of Foreign Powers, but not of our own. Any Return presented to Parliament was presented on the responsibility of the Admiralty; and he was sure that no First Lord, or other Member of the Board, would wish to throw the responsibility upon any of their subordinates. In a large Return like that dealing with foreign Navies there might be inaccuracies, and that was pointed out to the noble Lord (Lord Charles Beresford) when the Return was presented; but, on the whole, he believed it was correct. With regard to the remark that fell from the noble Lord (Lord George Hamilton), respecting the Impérieuse, he thought that the policy of the present Admiralty was a very wise one; that the policy of sending her on a cruise for the purpose of testing her was au exceedingly good one; and when she returned again to Portsmouth he believed they would have to take from her the enormous masts, and that she would then prove a satisfactory vessel. One other subject he would like to refer to was the Report which was of considerable interest to the Naval Service—he meant the Report of the Committee that had considered for a period of 18 months the question of the education of naval officers.


said, that the question the hon. Member was now about to enter upon did not refer to any of the Estimates about to be taken.


said, he was merely going to ask the noble Lord if he had any objection to present the Report; but he would not press the subject further; and he would only say that, so far as the policy indicated by the noble Lord was sketched out, he thought it bore out the policy of the noble Lord's Predecessors, and, so far as he knew, was an entirely satisfactory one, and would have the support of the late Board.


said, the House was naturally concerned to know who was responsible for the inaccuracies in the Return. He considered that his noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty (Lord George Hamilton) was somewhat hard on the hon. Member for Cardiff (Sir Edward Reed), because if he was correct the Return in question was not circulated before the Dissolution of Parliament. It was ordered to be printed before the Dissolution; but he did not think that hon. Members got possession of it until after the Dissolution. Therefore the hon. Member for Cardiff could not have had it till recently. The late Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. R. W. Duff) had stated that one of the reasons for the inaccuracies in the Return might possibly have been owing to the fact that the Admiralty were not in a position to give accurate information as to the ships possessed by Foreign Powers. A fact of that kind probably lay at the root of the whole question; and when the Vote came on he should point out to the Committee how necessary it was that the Government should obtain this particular kind of information—with reference to the existence and building of war ships in foreign countries—by appointing a stronger staff of officers in the Intelligence Department.

Mr. PEARCE (Lanark, Govan)

said, he did not know whether he was in Order; but he wished to call attention to the Returns moved for by the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Admiralty (Mr. Forwood), as to the number of merchant vessels engaged by the Admiralty for the purpose of being converted into cruisers last year. The amount paid last year for these vessels was £535,000; and he wished to know whether any provision had been made in the present Estimates, or whether such provision was contemplated in any future Estimates, in order to meet the employment of this class of ship in the future? To him it was very clear that it was necessary for this country to have fast cruisers in the Merchant Service. At the present time they had vessels crossing the Atlantic at 19 knots an hour, and it would be the aim of Foreign Powers to get these vessels for the purpose of improving their own Fleets, which would naturally be to the disadvantage of the Fleet of this country. He thought it would be of considerable importance to the Navy if they could always rely upon having from 10 to 20 fast steamers of the Merchant Service in the hands of the Admiralty; and this could be done by subsidizing them. He would, therefore, propose to the noble Lord (Lord George Hamilton) that a Committee should be appointed to take into consideration the requirements of fast cruisers, their rate of speed, and how they could be best adapted for, and made use of, in time of war.


said, the hon. Member for the Govan Division of Lanarkshire (Mr. Pearce) had raised a question of very considerable interest, and one that was engaging the attention of the Admiralty at the present moment. The large sum of money paid last year for the retention of a number of merchant cruisers had drawn the attention of the Admiralty to the importance of considering how far preparation could be made in advance for the employment of that class of vessels, instead of being obliged to take them up—he would not say in an indiscriminate manner, but in a hasty manner, such as was the case last year. Communications had been made to the Board by the owners of large vessels of exceptional speed as to their building vessels of exceptional speed suitable for cruisers, and the Board of Admiralty are now considering the whole question. He might say, on behalf of his noble Friend the First Lord (Lord George Hamilton), that any suggestions from the owners of steamers at present in existence of exceptional speed, and suitable for cruisers, or from those who contemplated building such vessels, would be gladly accepted by the Admiralty for consideration.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," agreed to.