HC Deb 21 June 1895 vol 34 cc1713-21

On the Motion for the consideration of Amendments to this Bill,

* Mr. GIBSON BOWLES (Lynn Regis)

said, he had to propose to leave out of the schedule "£1,920,000," the amount put down for Dover Harbour. He said it was proposed to spend close upon £2,000,000 in building a very large harbour on the open sea at Dover. Two reasons were assigned for the making of the harbour First of all it was suggested it would be a good harbour of refuge for vessels going up and down the Channel. He denied that there was any need whatever to make a harbour of refuge, properly so-called, at Dover. The configuration of the land at or about Dover was such that there was ample refuge without the works proposed. He was far from saying it would not be well to have a harbour of refuge on the Channel, but not at Dover. If such a harbour must be constructed, it should be at Dungeness, or at or about Beachy Head, and at Dungeness for choice. He was very doubtful they could make a harbour at all as set forth in the plans at Dover. It had already been found that at Dover they could not keep the silt away; in fact, he was informed by the most competent authorities that the landing places there had already silted up eight and ten feet, and such a harbour at Dover as was proposed would necessitate an annual expenditure of probably £50,000 or £100,000 in dredging. In the second place, he did not believe the harbour as proposed could be made and permanently kept open. They might make a new point of land; he doubted a permanent deep harbour without inordinate dredging. At Alderney a similar undertaking had been begun 40 or 50 years ago, and was to cost £620,000. At the end of 20 years it was found to have cost £1,300,000, and they had to spend another £20,000 in getting rid of it. The Government estimated that the proposed Dover harbour would cost £2,000,000; but he said it would probably cost £4,000,000, and he estimated that the charge for dredging would be so enormous that if it were capitalised it would probably amount to another £4,000,000. But he now came to the most serious consideration. This proposed harbour was to be treated as a station for the British Fleet. Did that mean in time of peace or in time of war? In time of peace we did not require a refuge at Dover owing to the stations at Chatham, Portsmouth, and Plymouth, and other places. Dover, therefore, was to be made a station for the Fleet in time of war, and the reason given was that in time of war the Downs would be the place for the Fleet to lie. He entirely denied that we ought to have any Fleet at all either in the Downs or at or near Dover in time of war. In time of war the Fleet should be either at sea moving about, or else far away from all torpedo attack—up the river at Chatham, or in Hamoaze, or such sheltered spots. The present Board of Admiralty was not the first to consider what strategic position we should require in time of war, but no previous Board had proposed a harbour at Dover. He contended that at such time we had no business to have a Fleet at Dover, but he admitted, nay, he strongly asserted, that we should have, not only at Dover, but along our southern coast, torpedo boats and torpedo-boat catchers. But there was ample accommodation for such craft at Dover now without the expenditure of £2,000,000 or £2. He had consulted some distinguished Admirals and most distinguished Captains of ships—he would not give their names, because if he did they would be put on the black-list of the Admiralty—and they were all of the opinion that it would be nothing more than madness to put in time of war a Fleet in such a position as Dover on the open sea. There was a notion that in the event of a threatened invasion a naval force at Dover was necessary. It was never by means of such a force that invasion had been defeated. Since 1690 no less than nine concerted and arranged attempts had been made to invade this country. France had always been concerned in these attempts, and sometimes Holland and Spain as well. Four of them were abandoned in consequence of the arrangements made to resist them. The attempt of 1690 was defeated by watching Toulon and by the battle which ensued at Beachy Head. That was the nearest point at which a battle had been fought to prevent invasion; and it was rendered necessary because the fleet had not the power of keeping the sea which it now had. The modern view was to watch Brest and Toulon, and that was the view of Lord St. Vincent, one of the greatest and almost the last naval strategist which this country possessed. In 1759 a tremendous invasion was prevented by a battle off Cape St. Vincent; and in 1797 another battle off Cape St. Vincent had the same result. It was not at Dover that our naval defence lay. In the last and greatest attempt at invasion, made by Napoleon in 1803–1805, when he had 200,000 men massed on the French coast, the British fleet was not kept at Dover. The main body were watching Brest and Toulon, and was occupied in what always had been, and always must be, the principal task—the preventing of the junction of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic fleets of the enemy. If the enemy could be prevented from getting the command of the Channel, he could not land a single soldier on our shores. These considerations disposed of the idea of making this harbour at Dover. He was not against spending money on making stations for the Navy. If the Government had proposed to spend half-a-million on a station at the Scilly Isles—where a station would be most advantageous, and of immense strategic importance—he would have supported the proposal. Such a station, 100 miles from Brest on one side, and from Cape Clear on the other, would command the routes which commerce must take going up either channel. With respect to north Europe, the navy was provided with an adequate repairing station at Chatham; and Dover would never be a repairing station. At Plymouth again, there was excellent provision for a fleet. These strategic doctrines were not his own invention. He had learnt them from Lord Torrington—who, though defeated in battle, was strategically successful—and from Lord St. Vincent, one of the greatest of our naval captains. Lord St. Vincent took the greatest interest in the establishment of a station at the Scilly Isles; and he it was who recommended the breakwater at Plymouth. He would never allow his ships to go even as far as Portsmouth, much less Dover, but kept them at Torbay to mask the enemy's port, Brest. This project of a station at Dover must have arisen from some strange fancy of a Member of the present Admiralty Board. If it were necessary now, it was equally necessary 40 years ago, though this was the first time the proposal had ever been made, and the only authority cited in its favour was that of one admiral. Against that authority he placed that of the two admirals and the captains whom he had quoted. He did not believe that the harbour could be kept up, if it were made, on account of the silting-up caused by the cross-tides, and, at any rate, the work of maintenance would cost appalling sums. It would do immense injury to the fleet, because it would be encouraged to box itself up, where it would be exposed to bombardment without the chance of reply. At low water the fleet would have 20 feet of masonry between itself and the enemy. Until absolute command of the sea was obtained by the enemy, torpedo boats would be sufficient to repel any possible attacks, which would be those of torpedo boats. Of course he knew the difficulties of the Government, and they must have been subjected to considerable pressure to make them bring forward this proposal. He had made these criticisms in no Party spirit, but in the best interests of the Navy, because he believed that the Government were making a most serious mistake. This matter of the silting-up and the action of the cross-tides was a very special subject, and he did not think that the ordinary Engineer was competent to advise upon it. To build such a harbour at such a place was a serious mistake from a national point of view. He wished to see the Navy furnished with the means which it required, and not encouraged to put itself into a false position; and, therefore, he moved the reduction standing in his name.


seconded the Amendment.


said, that the Amendment was directed against one of the most popular proposals in the Bill. The hon. Member had quoted the opinion of Naval Officers whose names he had not given. The Admiralty had acted on the unanimous opinion of their naval and expert advisers. They were of opinion that one of the most important and useful provisions in this Bill was the proposal to make a harbour at Dover, at which the fleet could lie. He would not follow the hon. Gentleman into the questions of strategy with which he had interested the House. One point on which he cordially agreed with the hon. Member, as, indeed, every naval authority would, was that it was the business of the British fleet to fight off the coasts of the enemy. There was no idea now, any more than there was before, that we should treat the Navy as a purely defensive force, and it was not in the least with any idea of that kind that it was proposed by the Admiralty to construct a great harbour at Dover. Three great features of this Bill were the closing of the harbour of Gibraltar, the closing of the harbour of Portland, and the formation of this harbour at Dover. What was the reason why it was more necessary now than it had been in the past to close these harbours? As the hon. Gentleman well knew, it was the opinion of great naval authorities that fleets could no longer resort to open anchorages. Although they were carrying on war on an enemy's coast, it was necessary that ships should from time to time come to the coast of England. In times past they anchored in the Downs and in Torbay, but these anchorages were no longer available when they were exposed to torpedo attack; and on that ground the Admiralty were advised that it was necessary to have closed harbours. The hon. Member seemed to have overlooked the fact that there were powerful land defences at Dover, and that was one of the great advantages Dover offered to ships temporarily lying within the harbour over other points where such defences did not exist. The question of harbours of refuge had been thoroughly investigated by a Committee in 1884, which fully examined the advantages offered by Dungeness, and reported strongly in favour of Dover. As to the silting up, the Admiralty would not rest content with the evidence which was given before that Committee, but they would have the matter investigated independently, and consider any plans by which the danger of silting up can be guarded against with the knowledge that is now available. It had often been suggested that we should utilise the Scilly Islands; but the advice on which the Admiralty was bound to act was not in favour of placing a harbour there, and it was in favour of having one at Dover. The hon. Member asked what good end it would serve with Chatham and the Medway on the one side and Portsmouth on the other. The Admiralty was advised that, as there was no possibility now of anchoring with safety in the Downs in time of war, it was necessary that there should be some point between the Thames and Portsmouth to which ships could resort. He asked the Committee not to be led away into attempting to investigate for itself this exceedingly difficult question as to the best point at which to place the harbour demanded by the modern wants of the British Navy, but to accept the opinion by which the Admiralty was guided, which was that of the best naval experts, to approve a proposal which was popular throughout the Navy, and support the Government in placing a much-needed harbour at Dover.


said that, having made his protest, he was bound, after the explanation of the Secretary to the Admiralty, to ask leave to withdraw his Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


said, he had an Amendment with regard to Gibraltar, which was to substitute "docks" for "dock," so as to make it clear that more than one dock was contemplated. He understood the Government was inclined to meet him half way, and, therefore, need not urge the importance of foreseeing the necessity of erecting more than one dock at Gibraltar, which we had fixed upon as our great place in the Mediterranean. He moved to insert after "dock" the words "or docks."


in seconding the Amendment, said he was glad the hon. Member had moderated his requirements, and equally pleased that the Government saw their way to accept the Amendment. On the part of the commercial community there was a general opinion that, not only for strategic, but also for mercantile and refitting purposes, additional docks should be provided. He congratulated the hon. Member on his success in getting the Government to agree with him.


said, the Amendment would increase the power of the Government to plan the first dock in such a way that others could be added, and he, therefore, accepted the Amendment.


said, he was opposed to this expenditure of money on Gibraltar. Ireland was a large island, but there did not happen to be a single penny of this money to be spent in Ireland. It was only natural, therefore, that he should look with distaste on this Bill, which seemed to him to shut Ireland out from its connection with the greatness of the Empire. He had not found a single private Member who had measured the distances on a large map as he had done. [Mr. ROBERTSON said he had done so.] Of course, the Secretary to the Admiralty had done so. The value of Gibraltar as a defensive port had much changed. The strategic position of Gibraltar was not, in the slightest degree, improved by modern invention; in fact, the increase in the range of modern artillery had been to make it a most insecure place. When we put docks anywhere else, as at Chatham or Portsmouth, we put them if we could, five or six miles behind our guns, but at Gibraltar we could not put them anywhere else. Other nations preferred to have their dockyards ten miles behind their guns. Therefore, he did not think Gibraltar was a good place for building a series of docks at. Everyone had hitherto assumed Gibraltar to be impregnable, and it was, in an ordinary way; but modern artillery would throw a shell of a thousand pounds weight on to the deck of a man-of-war in a dock at Gibraltar, and he did not think that even the Inflexible would stand a shell of that character on her decks every second of time. He was afraid the proposed extension of docks at Gibraltar would excite the jealousy of Spain. Anyone who knew Gibraltar would admit that it could be pounded by land batteries on the Spanish coast.

SIR RICHARD TEMPLE (Surrey, Kingston)

protested against the attempt of his hon. and gallant Friend to minimise the value of Gibraltar to the British Empire. Next to the Cape of Good Hope it was our most important strategical position. In time of naval warfare, our ironclads would be unable to reach repairing places at home and Gibraltar was necessary as a repairing station. That was the grand and fundamental reason for more docks. The hon. Member for Galway thought there would be a difficulty in protecting the docks when made. But did anyone doubt that the military and naval authorities would be able to place an ample number of guns to protect it? If they atttempted to pound Gibraltar, England could pound Spain. He hoped the Government would persevere in what they proposed, for they were thoroughly in the right. They were taking power to have several docks instead of one, and he hoped they would exercise that power for the safety and security of our naval position throughout the world.

MR. CONYBEARE (Cornwall, Camborne)

did not think that if Spain were to annoy us at Gibraltar, we could pound the whole of Spain. He did not wish to minimise the importance of Gibraltar as a British naval station, but he did not think it was exactly the most advantageous station we could have. There were better points on the opposite coast of Morocco which might be available. It was possible that at some future time Spain might re-occupy Gibraltar, and by a businesslike arrangement with the Spaniards we might, in that event, recover what we were now expending in dock construction. It was quite true, as the hon Member for Galway said, that feeling might be aroused in Spain by the sight of extensive additional fortifications or works to be constructed at Gibraltar, and in view of possible international complications he, himself, would rather have the Spaniards as friends than, foes. Spain might not be powerful from a military point of view, but a feeble opponent in our rear might become an important factor in an international struggle. On the question of general policy, if we could secure the lasting friendship of Spain, then obtain a better position for naval docks, and by a businesslike arrangement recover the sums we were expending at Gibraltar, in the event of the Spaniards re-occupying it, that would be a good day's work.

Schedule as amended agreed to, and added to the Bill