HC Deb 05 March 1888 vol 323 cc213-21

The examination which took place into the defences of our military ports led also to the consideration of the condition of the principal mercantile ports of the United Kingdom, some of which were wholly unprotected; while the remainder had to rely upon armaments rapidly becoming obsolete. The result of this inquiry, in which the Earl of Morley and Lord Wolseley took a prominent part, was the preparation of plans for the improvement of their defences. The Estimates for this purpose have not been worked out in the same detail as in the case of the military ports; but the figures laid before me in 1887 are as follows:—

For works 735,000
For armaments 1,022,000

To this must be added the cost of submarine mining defence—

Total Estimates 315,954
Expended up to 31st March 1887 134,443
Required to complete 181,511
Total 1,938,511

which may be considered as the expenditure then recommended for mercantile ports.

All these Estimates were based upon the prices current at the time they were made. They did not include any provision for guard boats, now recognized as an important factor in submarine mining defence, nor for the installation of the Brennan torpedo. Additions may probably have to be made for increase in barrack accommodation; though this is somewhat mixed up with the larger question of the reconstruction of some of our existing barracks, a work which cannot be very long postponed. Nor would it be right, in attempting a complete review of what lies before us, to omit mention of the fact that the maintenance of these works and armaments will necessarily involve an increased annual charge upon the Estimates of the year; although part of it, in the case of certain coaling stations, will no doubt be borne by the Colonial Governments.

The best mode of dealing with these very costly proposals was a difficult one to solve. In one case, that namely of the coaling stations, the examination already made by a Royal Commission has been so thorough, and the knowledge at my disposal so complete, that it has been possible to decide upon what should be undertaken without further inquiry. This cannot be said, however, with regard to the proposals for the defence either of the military or the mercantile ports. A scrutiny of these disclosed the fact that mixed up with demands of the most vital and urgent importance were proposed alterations, either comparatively unimportant in themselves, or to be introduced at places of minor consequence in the general scheme of the defences of this country. It, therefore, appeared desirable that such a comprehensive and business-like examination of these proposals should be made from every point of view, together with such a careful and independent consideration of the particular circumstances of each port to be defended, as would enable the Government to lay a scheme before Parliament, for which they could make themselves in every respect responsible.

The Government accordingly requested the following gentlemen to undertake, with the Secretary of State, the duty of making this examination:—

(representing the Treasury),

and (to represent naval and military opinion)

Lieut.-Gen. Sir E. B. Hamley, M.P., K.C.B.


Admiral Sir W. M. Dowell, K.C.B.

This Committee held a large number of sittings, and made a minute examination of the subject. Their Report, omitting all detail of a confidential character, and shortly summarizing their conclusions, is now presented to Parliament.

It will be seen from this Report that the Committee, having considered the relative importance of all the proposals laid before them, determined to indicate the improvements which the evidence had shown to be, in the case of the military and mercantile ports, most urgently required.

They believed, and in this opinion they are supported by my military advisers, that it is not desirable at the present time to make public the details of the improvements proposed in our defences; but, having carefully examined into them, they recommended, unanimously and very strongly, that the most urgent works, at an expenditure of not less than £1,500,000, should be undertaken with as little delay as possible.

As regards the mercantile ports, they expressed the opinion that the work of submarine mining defence—for which, I am happy to say, the necessary volunteers appear to be readily coming forward in the localities where they are required—should be completed as speedily as possible, and protected, as in all other cases, by the necessary light armament of quick-firing guns. But they were also unanimously of opinion that, in undertaking any other works of defence necessary at these ports, the Government is entitled to expect the co-operation of the localities which are to be so largely benefited by the protection of their trade.

Since this Report was presented, which in its original form took place in the autumn, Her Majesty's Government have considered the whole question of the defences of our ports and coaling stations from the point of view of what is necessary, and what it is possible to do without loss of time; and the conclusions to which they have come may be stated generally as follows:—

  1. (1.) That the works and armaments which are vitally necessary for the protection of our arsenals and our commerce should be at once undertaken, and prosecuted with the least possible delay.
  2. (2.) That any scheme for this purpose should be submitted to Parliament as a whole, in order that the consent of Parliament having been once obtained, the necessary works may proceed without any hindrance.
  3. (3.) That the whole of the expense of the lighter armaments, of ammunition, and other more perishable material, should be borne upon the Annual Estimates; while that of the works and buildings and of the heavier armaments is of a sufficiently permanent character to render it right to follow the general lines of the precedent of the Military Forces Localization Act, 1872, and, by placing the expenditure under statutory authority, keep it outside the ordinary Estimates.

The scheme which we now, therefore, submit to Parliament is based upon a programme which, we have every reason to hope, can be completed within three years. The time necessary for building and for the construction of heavy guns makes it improbable that any less period will suffice; but, on the other hand, we trust that the time named will not be exceeded, and every effort will be used to finish them as speedily as possible.

First, we propose to complete, as quickly as possible, the works and armaments at the coaling stations within the accepted programme; and, in addition, to provide the armament for King George's Sound and Thursday Island, which was asked for by the Colonial representatives at the recent Colonial Conference. In addition, the submarine mining defences will be perfected, and the absolutely necessary barrack accommodation provided.

We propose to undertake the most urgent requirements of our great military ports, in accordance with the general lines laid down by my Committee, and to complete the submarine mining defences.

And, lastly, we propose to finish the submarine mining defences of our principal mercantile ports, and to supply the light armament necessary to protect them.

The details of this scheme have been submitted to me by my military advisers. If it is to be completed within three years, it is absolutely necessary to commence operations as soon as possible. Indeed, in the case of one, and that the most important defect of all, we have not felt justified in delaying the attempt at a remedy, and the necessary works for this purpose are already in a very forward state.

The subjoined table shows the general character of the works which it is proposed to carry out.

Estimated cost of works and buildings. Estimated cost at present prices, heavy guns. Estimated cost at present prices of machine and quick-firing guns, torpedoes, and ammunition. Total.
Defence works and buildings. Barracks.
1. Military Ports— £ £ £ £ £
Portsmouth 78,410 106,370 167,965 352,745
Plymouth 103,590 78,940 51,500 234,030
The Thames 119,276 60,380 44,910 224,566
The Medway
Harwich 21,630 23,440 22,440 67,510
Malta 46,340 76,730 93,720 216,790
Gibraltar 26,300 51,635 29,935 107,870
Bermuda 16,193 6,120 22,313
Halifax 70,600 17,290 12,450 100,340
Minor Ports 33,701 17,390 30,050 81,141
Strengthening magazines. 95,000 95,000
Position - finding stations. 50,000 15,000 65,000
Minor services at various stations. 85,000 57,000 142,000
Total 746,040 432,175 531,090 1,709,305
2. Coaling stations 139,005† 350,000 220,265 126,455 835,725*
3. Mercantile Ports 92,405 141,885 234,290
4. For incidental works and armaments. 220,110 220,110
Grand total 1,197,560 350,000 652,440 799,430 2,999,430
* The difference between this amount and the sum of £909,916 shown in table on page 10 is caused by the fact that certain reserves of ammunition estimated for in the latter table are not included above.
† This includes submarine mining buildings.

The total sum to be provided will be seen to be £2,999,430, of which £799,430 is required for ammunition, submarine mining stores, and lighter armaments. This latter sum must be provided in the Estimates of the next two or three years. In the year 1888–9, £305,000 is included for this purpose; but the precise amount to be taken in each year depends upon the progress made with the manufacture of the necessary guns, which must be sent out with all necessary equipments. Proposals as to the means of providing the remaining sum of £2,200,000 will shortly be laid before Parliament.

It will be fully understood that the scheme now submitted does not pretend to be an exhaustive one, or to complete all the defences which the military authorities think necessary, and desire to see carried out. What it does aim at is to carry out, in the next three years, or, in other words, as quickly as possible, all the most urgent of these defences; while the very rapid progress of military science from the defensive as well as the offensive point of view, makes it, in our opinion, eminently desirable that Parliament should have the opportunity, before the end of that period, of judging of the results achieved, and of forming an opinion as to the further steps which may be necessary to give that security to our arsenals and our commerce which is essential to our national existence.

It only remains for me to explain what we hope to accomplish, during the coming year.

We hope that all the guns required for the defence of the coaling stations, with the exception of two where the work is only just undertaken, will be ready to be sent out. The works, whose progress depends upon the Imperial Government, will be pushed forward with every endeavour, that they may all be ready for the guns when received. The programme for the coaling stations ought, therefore, to be very nearly completed. The remaining expenditure of the year will be mainly devoted to improving the defences of Portsmouth and the Thames.

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