HC Deb 24 April 1890 vol 343 cc1376-82

Order read, for Further Consideration of Postponed Resolution,— That a sum, not exceeding £445,800, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the Expense of Works, Buildings, and Repairs, at Home and abroad, including the cost of Superintendence, Purchase of Sites, Grants in Aid, and other Charges connected therewith, which will come in course of payment during the year ending out the 31st day of March, 1891.

*(12.2.) MR. SHAW LEFEVRE (Bradford, Central)

I will not detain the House more than a few minutes in giving my reasons for asking the House to disagree with two items in the Vote—the item of £1,000 for increased water supply at Ascension Island, and that of £1,000 put down for a dry room for gunpowder. I am also told that the Government have sent some heavy guns, which can be ill spared from other places, for the fortification of Ascension. Two years ago the noble Lord, the First Lord of the Admiralty, announced to the Committee on Naval estimates that the Government had decided to give up Ascension Island; and I believe I am right in saying that in consequence of that decision it was resolved to spend a considerable sum of money in fortifying the Island of St. Helena. No one in his senses would think of fortifying and occupying both Ascension and St. Helena. Of the two islands, St. Helena is by far the more important and convenient, being about equidistant between Sierra Leone and the Cape, whereas Ascension Island is 800 miles further north. St. Helena is also the more salubrious and fertile; it has also a civil population which would assist in defending the island. The subject was carefully considered by a Royal Commission, presided over by Lord Carnarvon, in 1881–2, of which Lord Knutsford and Sir Alexander Milne were members, and that Commission came to a conclusion adverse to the fortification of both islands, and in favour of fortifying St. Helena. In the year 1888, the Imperial Defence Act was passed, and it became necessary for the Government to decide whether they would fortify St. Helena or maintain the establishment at Ascension. A Departmental Committee, called the Colonial Defences Committee, was formed, for the purpose of advising as to expenditure on Colonial Defences, and I ask the noble Lord whether it is not a fact that that Committee reported in favour of the adoption of the recommendation of the Royal Commission, or, in other words, that St. Helena should be fortified, and that the naval depot at Ascension should be given up? Of this I am confident, that the works which hare recently been constructed at St. Helena would not have been constructed if the Departmental Committee had not strongly recommended they should be erected, and if they had not advised that Ascension should be given up. A very considerable sum of money has been spent in the last two years in fortifying St. Helena. Something like £40,000 or £50,000 has been spent in erecting fortifications. I find that in the Estimates for this year there is an indication that Ascension is to be maintained as a naval depot, notwithstanding the decisions I have mentioned; indeed, money is now being asked for for the purpose of fortifying Ascension. Many years ago, in the days of sailing vessels, when we maintained a large force of brigs and other sailing vessels off the West Coast of Africa, Ascension was, no doubt, of value to the Naval Service. Ascension was then important as a sanatorium, but now, when we maintain only a small force of steamers on the Coast of Africa, it is of very little use. As a coaling station St, Helena is of far more value, and in the event of war it would really be an important place. One word as to the economic part of the question. It is somewhat difficult to ascertain what the real cost of Ascension Island is, but it was stated in the Committee on the Naval Estimates two years ago, that the charge appearing on Votes I. for this island was no less than £31,000. There are 180 officers and men on the island. I do not begrudge the officers their high salaries, for certainly residence at a place like Ascension cannot be very agreeable. But, so far as I can ascertain, these officers have practically nothing to do. The other day the First Lord of the Admiralty, in answer to a question I put to him, told me that the average annual number of sick men sent there from the West African Squadron was only 100, which means an average of only 10 men in hospital; and the stores kept there are valued at under £5,000. I have no doubt I shall be told by the noble Lord that his naval advisers recommend the retention of Ascension; but there are naval officers, and naval officers. I undertake to say that the great weight of naval authority is against the retention of Ascension as a naval station, and in favour of fortifying St. Helena. The two next experienced and able naval officers of the present generation are undoubtedly Sir Alexander Milne and Sir Geoffrey Hornby. They are both strongly in favour of giving up Ascension. I could also quote other naval authority of importance in the same direction, such as Sir George Willes, and the late Sir William Hewitt. I do not propose that we should abandon the sovereignty of the island, but only that it should cease to be used as a naval depot. No Power could hold Ascension for a month unless it had the command of the sea. St. Helena would be a much more convenient naval depot, us it could maintain itself in food without external supplies, having a civil population, which Ascension has not. I do not, at this time, ask the House to pronounce wholly against the retention of Ascension, but only to refrain from voting further sums for fortifying the island until the question of retaining the naval depot there has been further considered by a Committee of this House or by a Royal Commission. I beg to move to reduce the Vote by two sums of £1,000 for increasing the water supply and providing a drying-room for gunpowder on the island.

Amendment proposed, to leave out"£445,800,"in order to insert"£443,800,"—(Mr. Shaw Lefevre,)—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That '£445,800' stand part of the Resolution."


The only two items to which the right hon. Gentleman objects can hardly be described as exten sive expenses on fortification. In opposition to the right hon. Gentleman's contention that Ascension is of no value as a naval station, I assert that no Naval Authority is in favour of the abandonment of that island. It is true that a temporary decision was arrived at to prefer St. Helena, but after more careful and thorough consideration the balance of argument was in favour of the retention of Ascension as a Naval and Coaling Station. It is also a fact that the Committee to which reference has been made preferred St. Helena, but they considered this question from rather a partial point of view. They regarded the value of St. Helena and Ascension from the point of view of the South African trade only, rather than of the increasing trade now coming round the Horn and from the south-east and eastern side of America. The trade with Chili, with the Argentine and the River Plate, as well as with Brazil, is a large increasing trade, and a comparison of the respective distances proves that it can be better defended from Ascension than from St. Helena. As to climatic and other advantages, it is true that St. Helena is a little more desirable and a little less exposed to rollers, but in both islands the climate is good, and in both islands there is sufficient food. The climate has been rendered more salubrious in Ascension by the planting of trees, and there is a considerable increase of food in that island. Besides, Ascension is not subject to the ravages of the white ant, which in St. Helena are so great that it is almost impossible to keep stores or even storehouses there. But it is from a strategic point of view that the advantages of Ascension are predominant. Ascension is more convenient, as I have shown, for protecting our trade from the south-east coast of America, and it is more accessible from the west coast of Africa. In the new plans for re-arranging the naval stations it is proposed to make a separate station of the west coast of Africa, which will not include St. Helena, but of which Ascension will be the head-quarters. As a sanatorium and point d'appui for our West Coast Squad- ron, Ascension is very superior. The right hon. Gentleman seems to attach considerable importance to the fact that St. Helena has a large civil population. The best authorities regard that as a disadvantage for a fortress. The less civil population a naval and coaling station has the better. If the proposal to establish telegraphic communication between Gibraltar and the South Bast coast of South America is carried out, Ascension will be a point for the landing of a cable, and that I consider a considerable argument in favour of the retention of Ascension. In point of health, defensibility, and accessibility, Ascension is not inferior to St. Helena. As a strategic position, both for coaling purposes and for the defence of British commerce, it is very superior.

*(12.25.) SIR E. REED (Cardiff)

I must say that from a Parliamentary and economical point of view the reply just given by the hon. Gentleman is of a most extraordinary character; it is a reply which leaves out of sight the fundamental considerations which ought to be borne in mind in the case. On the ground that St. Helena would be a much better place for all the purposes or for most of the purposes to which reference has been made, a large sum of money has been expended there on fortifications. The alleged ground given by the Representative of the Government was the preferential character, position, and situation of St. Helena. I remember that the First Lord of the Admiralty himself in the Committee upon Navy Estimates, which sat a year or two ago, asked one of his officers, "Is it not intended to abandon Ascension as a station?" The reply was, "So I understand." It was the noble Lord, therefore, who made us presume that we should not be called upon to vote further money to be expended on Ascension; but now my right hon. Friend is met by a statement which, if it means anything at all, means that the large sum of money which has been expended at St. Helena has been wastefully expended. St. Helena was selected as a superior place for a fortified station by comparison with Ascension; but the hon. Gentleman has just now endeavoured to show that Ascension is the preferable place. No Administration would think of fortifying both places. But it appears now we are to be saddled with the double expenditure. The speech of the Civil Lord entirely ignores the fact that this is an entirely new expenditure, and that £40,000 has already been spent at St. Helena for the same purpose. I think it is trifling with the House to act in this way, and I am quite at a loss to understand how right hon. Gentlemen responsible for the Naval Service can explain their change of view. I should just like to add this, that I am advised that there are other reasons for this expenditure, and that the expenditure on St. Helena has not been a very successful experiment. I have been told that fortifications have been built. I should like to know whether they have been manned yet; whether, in fact, they are, or are likely to be, of any use whatever to the country?

*(12.30.) SIR. JOHN COLOMB (Tower Hamlets, Bow, &c)

There is only one observation I wish to make on this question, and that is, that I think considerable error has been made by mixing up two entirely distinct and separate questions. The strategic value of St. Helena in a general war would be superior to that of Ascension; that is undoubted. I will not detain the House by giving the reasons for that just now. The real point in relation to the question is in connection with Ascension, and is not a strategical point at all. The fact has been referred to that Ascension is nearer to West African ports, where our fleets in peace time are stationed. These ports are unhealthy, therefore our ships have to return at intervals to a more temperate climate. To reduce the Vote by £2,000 would simply have the effect of compelling the skips to steam a longer distance to St. Helena for that healthy climate as a relief from the climate of the West Coast of Africa. It follows that there would be an increase instead of a saving of expenditure. That is to say, ships would have to come from the West Coast of Africa to Saint Helena instead of going to Ascension. Adding the cost of steaming, the cost for coals for an extra thousand miles going and returning, the simple result, then, if hon. Members carry the Division, or inducing the House to adopt their views, would not be economy, but an increase of expenditure.

(12.35). DR. TANNER (Cork Co., Mid)

I have listened to the remark of the hon. and gallant Member who has just spoken, and they simply amount to this: that St. Helena is a healthy situation, and that Ascension is not quite so much so, so that the unfortunate men belonging to the Royal Marines—of which I believe the hon. Member has been a distinguished and gallant officer—and the naval men would have to go further and fare no better. But when we take into account the remarks offered on the other side in connection with this Vote to what practical result does it lead us? Here we have a right hon. Gentleman occupying a responsible position, expressing his views on the Vote, and he is met with turmoil and noise from hon. Members opposite—noise of such a character that at the risk of being un-Parliamentary I shall not attempt to describe it. We listened to the remarks of the Civil Lord of the Admiralty, delivered in his Napoleonic manner, suggested, I suppose, by St. Helena associations——

(12.38.) Mr. LAMBERT

rose in his place and claimed to move, "That the question be now put."

Question, "That the Question be now put," put, and agreed to.

Question, "That '£445,800' stand part of the Resolution," put accordingly, and agreed to.

Resolution agreed to.