HC Deb 30 March 1900 vol 81 cc820-30


Mr. HAVELOCK WILSON (Middlesbrough)

rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance—namely, "the imminent despatch by the Government of the steamship 'Caspian' and the steamship 'Sapphire,' with Government stores for Her Majesty's troops in South Africa, though manned in large part by alien seamen"; but the pleasure of the House not having been signified, Mr. Speaker called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than forty Members having accordingly risen—


I venture to say, Sir, that this is a most important question. I have several times during the last three months called the attention of the Secretary to the Admiralty to the fact that a large number of the vessels employed in the carrying of Government stores to the troops in South Africa have been manned almost entirely by alien sailors and firemen. Now, I want to be very clear upon this point. I am making no complaint whatever with regard to the vessels that are carrying the troops, because the liners that have convoyed the bulk of the troops are the Union, the Castle, the Cunard, and the White Star line, which are always in ordinary times manned by British subjects. As a matter of fact on all the liners conveying troops there have been very few foreigners indeed. But the vessels I am complaining of are the steamers that have been employed in carrying guns, ammunition and stores for the troops, and if it is so important that the vessels carrying the troops should be manned by British subjects, then I venture to say it is also important that the vessels carrying ammunition and guns for those troops should also be manned by British seamen. Nor yet am I making any complaint of the employment of foreign seamen who have been long resident in this country, and who have earned their living in Great Britain for many years. That is not the kind of foreigner I am complaining of. The class of men I am complaining of are the crews that have been engaged at continental ports, because the wages at the continental ports are £1 or 30s. a month less than those paid at the ports in Great Britain. I was somewhat surprised at the answer which the hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Admiralty gave to the question with regard to the steamer "Caspian." If I understood him aright he said that this vessel was not chartered by the Government, but had been chartered through the Castle line.


She was not chartered by the Government at all. She was chartered by the owners to the Union Steamship Company, and was taken up by the Government from them.


I do not see any difference between a vessel being engaged in that way and one engaged direct by the Government. The Government will have to pay for it, and should, therefore, have control over it. Consequently the responsibility for manning it rests entirely with the Admiralty, and if the Admiralty had cared to give definite instructions to those who chartered the vessel that she should be manned by British subjects, I venture to say that the charterers would have seen that that was done. Now, how was this vessel manned? I find that she engaged her crew at Antwerp on the 9th March. There were twenty-six men signed on, and of these twenty-five were foreigners composed of nine different nationalities. There is a German carpenter, a Belgian steward, a Greek mess-room steward, a Greek cook, and a German boatswain. Among the able-bodied seamen are an Italian, a Greek, an American, an Austrian, and a Boer Dutchman. Among the ordinary seamen I find a Belgian, and men of four or five other nationalities, the list ending up with a Spanish cook. I say that the idea of a vessel carrying Government stores being manned by natives of countries which have shown marked hostility to this country during the war in South Africa, is a bad one. Apart from that I think it is a most dangerous practice, and one which the Admiralty ought to stop at once. How do we know that Dr. Leyds may not have one of his emissaries on board the ship? During the progress of the voyage out it would be quite possible for such a man when steering the vessel into one of the ports, to make a mistake and run her on to the rocks, with the consequent loss of valuable stores, which it would not be very easy to replace by the time they were required. With regard to the "Sapphire," I believe she was chartered direct to carry stores. I put a question with respect to her yesterday,* and postponed it by request, but by mistake it appears to have disappeared from the Orders of the Day altogether. With regard to this vessel, she was lying in the Tyne. There are a large number of seamen out of employment there at the present time—close upon one thousand British seamen. Yet the owners of this vessel in order to get cheaper labour took her round to Cardiff and got Spaniards and other foreigners to take the place of British seamen. These are not the only vessels I have complained of. I have sent several communications to the Admiralty.


Two others.


I think more than two, and the hon. Gentleman has on several occasions promised me that the matter should be inquired into. With regard to the "Anglo-Germanic"—— * See page 680 of this volume.


Order, order! The hon. Member must confine himself to the cases of the two vessels named in his motion.


I think I have explained sufficiently how the "Caspian" and the "Sapphire" were manned, and now, with the permission of the House, I would just like to say that this is a practice which ought to be stopped at once. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman may say in reply to me. Perhaps he may tell me that foreigners have been engaged because they are more sober and steady, and that consequently discipline can be better maintained among them. If he does say that, I am in a position to answer him. I have had a look at the log-book for the last voyage of the "Caspian." For that voyage she was chartered by the Government to carry mules to the Cape. I find that the crew then engaged also consisted of foreigners, as now. During the progress of that voyage six of the foreigners seemed to have been put in prison for being drunk and disorderly. There are numerous entries in the official log of members of the crew being drunk and refusing to do duty, and I observe one entry on the 14th of the first month of a foreigner being drunk and disorderly, of his using disgusting language to his officers, and of his having to be given over to the police. It is perfectly true that the crew of which I am complaining is not the crew on board the ship at the present time, but I am only using the composition of that crew and their conduct to illustrate that they do not give better service than British seamen. I say that the log of this vessel, while she has been in the service of the Government, goes to prove that they cannot get better service from foreigners than from British seamen, and it is only in that sense that I am using it. The right hon. Gentleman may look on this as a very light matter. I hope he will not; for I can see very clearly that if we were in conflict with a great European Power, and if the vessels conveying our war stores to distant parts of the world were manned in this way, it would be a very serious matter indeed. It would be quite possible for any of those Powers with which we were at war to put their emissaries on board the ships we have chartered and do considerable damage to them. One case has already occurred where one of the friends of the Boers was engaged as a deck hand, and the circumstances connected with that are very suspicious. A vessel chartered by the Government was leaving one of our ports, and one of the sailors who was born a German said he was a citizen of the Transvaal. Two or three days before he was engaged he was boasting amongst a large number of seamen how he would like to see the British defeated in the present war. Well, the vessel was sent to sea, and as she was passing out of port this very man was called to the wheel. He had not been one minute at the wheel when the vessel ran ashore and became a total wreck. I do not say that the man did it deliberately, because I cannot prove it. But there is a good deal of suspicion attached to the whole affair, considering that he should have been speaking so strongly against the British in the present conflict, and that he should have been the man to run the vessel on shore. The unfortunate pilot's certificate was suspended in consequence, and I venture to say that the pilot was not responsible for the loss of that vessel. If Dr. Leyds had been half as smart as he is considered to be he would have had a number of his emissaries on board all our ships carrying guns and stores to South Africa; and had anything happened there would have been consternation at once at the Admiralty, and there would have been general orders issued at once that these aliens were not to be engaged on our transports. We have a special claim to ask Her Majesty's Government to stop this practice of employing foreign seamen on board our ships carrying stores and war material. One of the items on their programme at the General Election was to prevent alien immigration into this country; and that is one of the planks of their platform still. Surely, then, they ought, of all Governments, to put their foot down and say that every vessel carrying Government property shall be manned by British subjects or by foreigners who have been long resident in this country. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will say that there is some difficulty in getting the men, but if he puts that forward as a defence, I want to tell him that we inserted an advertisement in the Cardiff, Newcastle, and several other papers, and inside twelve hours we had no fewer than 2,000 British seamen registered for employment in transport ships. They were ready and willing to take employment, but could not get it, because the owners thought they could get foreigners on the cheap. It is the duty of the Government to enforce the fair wage resolution of this House; and I do not think it is right to allow owners who charter ships for British service to engage men on the Continent on the cheap. I do not think I need labour the question more fully. I trust we shall have a straightforward answer from the Admiralty; but I want more. I want the appointment of a Committee to inquire into the whole subject, and as to whether it is possible, in the event of a conflict with a great European Power, that we should have all our ships manned with British seamen.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Havelock Wilson.)


The hon. Gentleman must not assume that the Admiralty look upon the manning of the ships of the mercantile marine in a light or casual manner. It is a matter, from every point of view, which has given the Admiralty considerable anxiety. No Department in the State could feel more the importance of the manning of the mercantile marine to a large extent by foreigners than the Department on behalf of which I am now replying. The hon. Gentleman, I am sure, did not intend to lead the House to suppose that in the communications which passed between him and myself anything I have said suggested that I personally have looked upon this as a matter which ought not to be remedied. Now, the gravamen of the hon. Gentleman's complaint is the employment of foreigners on our ships. That is a matter which has been felt, at least so far as the mercantile marine is concerned, for many years. Parliament has not laid it down that owners of ships in the mercantile marine should not, if they chose, employ foreigners, and the Admiralty have therefore dealt with the question as it exists. There is no question raised here of unseaworthiness or undermanning.


I might have raised that question.


Now, what is the duty which the Admiralty have to carry out at the present moment? It is the extremely important duty of conveying, with the utmost precision and despatch, stores of all sorts to the troops, and to the transports conveying these troops to South Africa, and to Her Majesty's ships in these distant waters. I think that the House will agree that the utmost despatch is the first duty which lies on the Admiralty, and that they should not from any other motive which may operate on their minds be diverted from that necessary and primary duty. Take the case of the "Caspian." She was taken up by the Admiralty on the 26th February, but she was not chartered by the Admiralty, and, therefore, the Admiralty have no direct relations to the owners. Her owners chartered her on a time charter to the Union Steamship Company, and under that charter the owners are responsible to the Union Steamship Company for the crew, and for the manning of the vessel. Our relations did not bring us into contact with the owners, and, therefore, we had no knowledge of what her crew was composed. It was a matter of imperative urgency with us to get the tonnage required at that moment. The "Caspian," as I have said, was taken up on agreement on 26th February. She arrived at Antwerp on the 1st or 2nd of March. She received orders to proceed to London for the Cape, and I understand, having received these orders, she engaged a fresh crew, the former crew having been discharged at Antwerp according to the articles of the ship. Under these circumstances, everything being legal, and there being no reason to suppose on the part of the Admiralty that the Union Steamship Company, which the hon. Gentleman says is a company of the highest repute, would have offered to us a ship for Government service which was not perfectly capable of carrying out the services required, I submit to the House that in asking the Admiralty at this moment to put into operation a system of administration in regard to the manning of ships of the mercantile marine which Parliament has not yet attempted to enforce in ordinary times, the hon. Gentleman is asking a thing which is utterly impracticable and impossible.


Might I ask if it is not the fact that the Admiralty are putting that principle in operation in regard to ships which are carrying troops?


No, sir. We have made certain stipulations with regard to the transports taken up for the conveyance of troops. These vessels are taken up on time charter, and there is all the difference in the world between the conditions of a time charter and the agreement which was made in regard to the "Caspian" and other ships on tonnage or freight. During the period that is run on a time charter the persons employed on the chartered ships are fully protected by the Government, and during that time the remuneration is that which comes from Government employment. But if we take up a freight or tonnage charter we may only take up two, fifty, a hundred, or a thousand tons—only a small part of the tonnage of the ship.


This vessel was fully loaded.


Quite true; but she was not taken up on time conditions. The "adventure" was not "terminated" at a port in South Africa, but the vessel might go on to any other part of the world. The hon. Gentleman asks whether this is a question to which our attention has been directed. It is; and we have been most anxious to make conditions which would carry into effect the views of the hon. Gentleman, views with which every Member of the House sympathises. But the hon. Gentleman knows that probably there never was a time when it was more difficult to get freight ships, not only for Admiralty purposes, but for the contractors also. Contractors have found the greatest difficulty in getting freights to carry materials to carry on their work, and I am informed by those who are acting for the Admiralty in taking up freight ships for stores and coals that it would be absolutely impossible to obtain them as speedily as is necessary if strict regulations were put in the agreements. We have to buy coal in reply to telegraphic instructions from the Cape, St. Vincent, and elsewhere, and we have to get freight for it at the earliest moment, and in relation to stores we have received urgent recommendations from the War Office. In these circumstances, however desirable it might be to introduce restrictions of the character advocated by the hon. Gentleman, I am bound to tell the House that it would be absolutely impossible to carry on with any efficiency the great national work the Admiralty now has on hand, if it were insisted on. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be content with the assurance I have given him that the Admiralty does not look on this matter in a light or negligent spirit. If they saw the opportunity they would be only too glad to encourage by their own action the larger employment of British sailors by the mercantile marine.

* SIR U. KAY-SHUTTLEWORTH (Lancashire, Clitheroe)

said it was not for the purpose of unduly prolonging the debate that he rose, but for the purpose of asking for a little further information. The hon. Gentleman opposite had informed the House that if the Admiralty were chartering a ship for the conveyance of troops certain conditions would be imposed, including some as to the constitution of the crews. But in this case, though the whole ship was needed for Government stores, no conditions of this kind were imposed. And the crew of the "Caspian," as explained by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, was composed of men of the most diverse nationalities, so that they would be unable to speak to each other.


The crews understand English.


I beg to differ with the hon. Gentleman; they do not.


said that unless the men did understand English they would be unable to communicate with each other and with those in authority. There might also be among them some who were hostile to this country, who might take a favourable opportunity to do an ill turn, by which the stores and ship might be lost. He did not think sufficient information had been given to the House as to the precautions that were taken, having regard to the fact that in the particular case to which the motion referred the cargo consisted wholly of stores of Her Majesty's Government. In a case of this kind where it was of vital importance that the troops should receive whatever was sent out in perfect safety, he thought the House would desire that some special precautions should be taken by the Transport Department. In saying this he wished to guard himself from the suspicion of casting any reflection on that department. He had already spoken this session of the remarkable regularity and despatch with which the Admiralty had performed transport work on an unprecedented scale; but, as this matter had been brought forward, he thought the House should be placed in possession of fuller information upon it.


I may frankly admit that I was startled when I saw the composition of the crews of these two ships, and I regret their composition as much as anybody can. My right hon. friend asked what precautions were taken. In these particular cases the Admiralty relied upon the high character of the persons with whom they were contracting, the Union Steamship Company, and did not ask what was the composition of the crews. In the case of transports, the ships are under the control of the Admiralty, but it is impossible, in the case of the despatch of stores in response to telegraphed requisitions, to inquire into the composition of the crews of the vessels in which they are sent. We are bound to weigh the rapidity of our transactions against any possible risks. We have been conducting this business now for nearly six months, and hundreds of ships have been chartered without any accident having occurred. The owners are responsible, and I hope there are no ship-owners in this country conducting business of this kind who are not careful to see that their ships are properly found. In this case all the officers were British, and we were given to understand that the majority of the crew were.


I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the officers were disgusted with the crew.


The Admiralty cannot in a moment of emergency enter into the composition of the crew of a vessel. I can only express my regret at the state of things that has been pointed out, and I hope that all owners with whom the Admiralty have to deal in the future will avoid the necessity of a case like this being brought before the House. I cannot go beyond that, but I hope I have convinced the House that the Admiralty by no means minimises the importance of the matter.

COMMANDER BETHELL (Yorkshire, E.R., Holderness)

expressed the hope that the Government would take into consideration generally the practice of employing foreign seamen on British ships.

Question put and negatived.