HC Deb 03 July 1902 vol 110 cc775-88

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £127,465 be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1903, for the salaries day expenses of the Office of the Committee of Privy Council for Trade and Subordinate Departments, including a Grant in Aid."

(11.5.) MR. HAIN (Cornwall, St. Ives)

called attention to the necessity for further harbour accommodation on the coast of North Cornwall and Devonshire, and more especially to the necessity for the construction of a harbour of refuge on that coast for the protection of the mercantile marine. The subject he had ventured to raise was not, by any means, new to the House. Royal Commissions had been appointed, and had token evidence and examined witnesses as to the necessity for the construction of this national harbour. Although a deplorable loss of life had taken place in years past, it was deplorable that after nearly a century of agitation, they were compelled once more to urge upon the Government the necessity for taking action upon this most important question. He had lived during the whole of his life on the north coast of Cornwall, and ho had always taken the deepest interest in this matter. He had also been able to assist the efforts of the local authorities, who had been compelled to make various improvements in the fishery harbours on the north coast of Cornwall. It was impossible to discuss the larger question of a national harbour, without having reference to the attempts which the local authorities had made with t their limited resources and scant encouragement from the Government, for the improvement of their coasting harbours. The history of this question went back for a. great many years, but the mere recital of the facts formed the strongest possible indictment which could be brought against successive Governments for their negligence in this matter. The earliest record which they possessed was the Report of the great engineer, Smeaton, upon St. Ives Bay, in 1776, in which he said the completing of this harbour was necessary for the safety of the ships. The most valuable document upon this question which they possessed was, undoubtedly the Report of Captain James Vetch, of the Royal Navy, which was presented to the Admiralty in 1847, in which he said there was a great want and necessity for a harbour of refuge for the Mercantile Navy on the north shore of the western extremity of Cornwall, and he gave the fullest details as to the cost of constructing such a harbour, together with information as to the number of vessels wrecked off that coast during the years between 1823 and 1846. The number of shipwrecks during that period, exclusive of fishing boats, was 131, many of them with valuable cargoes on board, and the estimated loss of life from those wrecks alone was placed at 200 men. It might be said that the conditions had entirely changed, and that small sailing vessels had given place to large steamships, and that, therefore, the necessity for such a harbour was not so great. His contention was that the necessity for such a harbour had increased tenfold. The mercantile marine of this country had increased and developed in a manner which was never contemplated in 1847. The shipping of Cornwall and Devonshire, which had greatly increased in recent years, was scarcely second to any part of the United Kingdom, owing to the great development of the Bristol Channel ports, notably Cardiff, with its enormous exports and imports and the ever increasing number of steamships which had no existence fifty years ago. This development of the Bristol Channel parts still continued. From the figures recently published he found that no less than £6,000,000 sterling was being spent or proposed to be spent upon dock construction at the Bristol Channel ports. The proposed expenditure of the five Bristol Channel ports was as follows:—Bristol (proposed extensions), £1.800,000; Cardiff (under construction), £1,500,000; Swansea (proposed extensions), £1,750.000; Newport (proposed extensions), £750,000, and Llanelly (under construction), £200,000. This vast expenditure was being made by the people of those districts because they believed in a greatly increased shipping trade in the future. Nearly the whole of that vast shipping trade must of necessity pass along the coasts of Cornwall and Devonshire, where there was not a single harbour to which in a storm vessels could run for safety in distress. The loss of a small sailing vessel might in 1847 have meant the loss of four or six men, whereas the loss of a large modern steamer might mean the loss of from twenty to fifty lives. In support of this contention he would instance what occurred during the great north-east gale of November, 1893, when four steamers were wrecked in St. Ives Bay, with the loss of nine men. During the next few days evidence accumulated, from bodies washed ashore and from wreckage which came to land, that two other large steamers had foundered at a short distance from the shore, with a loss of fifty lives, the whole of whom might have been saved had there been a harbour on the Cornwall coast to which the vessels could have run for shelter. In 1856–57 a Select Committee of this House took evidence, and in its Report it repeated the recommendations which were made ten years before. The concluding words of the Report of this Select Committee were worth repeating at the present time. They were— Your Committee feels that it may be laid down as an indisputable axiom, sustained by experience, especially of late years, that, while the extent of our coasts and the natural facilities they afford for navigation are limited, the trade of the country, and consequently its shipping, are capable of, and destined to, an indefinite expansion, and that the only way, therefore, by which the former can be rendered commensurate for the requirements of the latter is by supplementing the natural facilities which we possess by the construction of great national works upon our coast such as your Committee has ventured to recommend. The sum required for them, though considerable of itself, is, your Committee would submit, trifling when compared with the great objects which are to be attained by it; and if the recommendations of your Committee are adopted, even that amount may be prevented, at least in part, from being any permanent charge upon the finances of the State. But even were it otherwise, your Committee will venture to express an opinion that, considering what constitutes the chief source of the commercial greatness and the political security of this country, and considering the enormous loss, both of life and property, to which the nation is at present exposed from the dangerous and unprotected state of our coasts, and the consequent defective character of our navigation, there is no object for which public money could be more usefully or more profitably employed, having regard to the present and future welfare of the nation. These forcible words were as true today as they were in 1857. But again nothing was done on that Report. In 1859 a Royal Commission held an inquiry, with the result that previous recommendations were confirmed, and strong hopes were raised when the Commission advised the expenditure of £400,000 on a harbour at St. Ives Bay, and a smaller expenditure at Padstow. But these hopes were disappointed. Local efforts were made at St. Ives in 1862, but the works were destroyed by gales, and the deplorable state of affairs was shown in a Report from Sir G. Nares in 1881. In 1883 the present Lord Tweedmouth again moved for a Committee on harbour accommodation, and the necessity for a harbour of refuge on the North Cornwall coast was admitted. But again nothing was done. All these Committees and Commissions seemed to him to be no more than continued methods of shelving the whole business. While the Government refused to take any action, the present Secretary for the Colonies, then President of the Board of Trade, offered loans at moderate interest to localities, and the St. Ives authorities were encouraged to apply. But they were met by a demand for payment, with interest, of the long-standing debt caused by the collapse of works in previous years. By the generosity of Mr. Bolitho, the money was forthcoming and every penny of the old debt was paid to the Public Works Loans Board, together with the interest thereon. He wondered whether the Secretary for the Colonies was aware of the way in which the promise lie made on behalf of the Government in 1883 had been kept, and whether he knew that the public spirit and the generosity of private individuals had accomplished what the Government ought to have done. He did not advocate the construction of this national harbour of refuge at any particular spot. There was a long stretch of rock-bound coast from the end of Cornwall to Hartland Point. Hundreds of sailors and fishermen were being drowned for want of harbour accommodation that Parliament ought to provide. He asked for something more than a sympathetic reply. He hoped the President of the Board of Trade would give some assurance that this most important national question would shortly receive the earnest attention of the Government.

(11.28.) MR. SOARES (Devonshire, Barnstaple)

supported the demand of the hon. Member for St. Ives. There was no necessity for further inquiry as to the desirability of such a harbour; that had been definitely settled by the Report of the Committee of 1884. That Report contained the following— Your Committee will not attempt to determine between the relative advantages of these several sites (i.e., the sites between Land's End and the Welsh coast, including the whole of the Bristol Channel), but the general tenour of the evidence is of a character to show that at one of these places a harbour should be constructed without further delay. The paint for consideration now was, where the harbour ought to be constructed. Anybody who knew anything at all of the West Country knew the enormous amount of interest that was taken in this question, both in Devonshire and Cornwall. He had personally presented four petitions this session asking that a harbour of refuge should be constructed. These petitions were from—Appledore, Bideford, Braunton, Clovelly, and Bucks, and were signed by the ship-owners and mariners of those districts. He could assure the President of the Board of Trade that any number more petitions could have been presented had it been desirable to do so. His personal acquaintance with the coast of North Devon enabled him to state that, though wildly beautiful, it was one of the most cruel and deadly to mariners in England. The prevailing winds in the Bristol Channel were south - westerly, veering to northerly, and they blew vessels dead on those dangerous rocks. Consequently, if there was a harbour of refuge, they could always make it, with the benefit of fair wind. He had a list here of vessels which had foundered in the neighbourhood of Bideford Bay during the last ten years, but he would not weary the House by reading it. He would say that almost every year there were disasters involving loss of life and loss of property. In the last three years no less than four wrecks between Down End and Hart-land had occurred, two involving loss of life under most distressing circumstances. He maintained that these lives need not have been lost, and the property need not have been destroyed, if a harbour of refuge had been available. This was not a question of Party politics. Liberal Governments and Tory Governments were equally to blame for not having dealt with the question—a question which Effected everybody, not only those who followed the sea-faring profession, but everyone who used the productions of nature which were carried by sea was interested in it. He asked the Committee to remember that the proposed harbour of refuge would be not only available for seamen resident in the West Country, but for mariners from all parts of the United Kingdom; in fact, it would be open to the commerce of the world. It was, therefore, a national question of first-class importance. In the first place, he would appeal to the President of the Board of Trade on humanitarian lines—on the broad fact of the importance of human life. When it could be saved by the expenditure of money, it ought to be spent. He knew he was not speaking to unsympathetic ears. Last year he called attention to the fact that the coastguard service was insufficient, and the right hon. Gentleman met him generously. But the object then was to save life after a wreck, while now it was to prevent wrecks. Prevention was better than cure, and if there was a harbour of refuge, an enormous number of disasters would be prevented. Furthermore, it was the duty of the President of the Board of Trade to encourage trade and enable it to be carried on economically and expeditiously. There was no doubt that the present position of insecurity in the Bristol Channel paralyse trade to a certain extent. If a harbour of refuge were constructed, great benefit to the coal and iron trade would result, fishing and coasting industries would increase, because vessels would not be compelled to put back to port whenever dirty weather was probable. On the grounds of national economy this work should be undertaken. Every year ships were wrecked and sailors were drowned. Mr. Leyland, giving evidence before the Steamship Subsidies Committee, said that a sailor in the prime of life and in full possession of his faculties was worth £1,000 to the State. But for the purposes of argument, put the figure at £600, and suppose that a storm like that of October, 1886, took place, and that fifty seagoing vessels and 300 lives were lost. If 200 of these men were able-bodied seamen that would mean a loss of £200,000, and for vessels, £300,000, making together, £500,000, lost in one storm. If they got a harbour of refuge none of this destructive waste of the country's wealth would occur, and from the point of view of national economy, the case was a strong one. Many of the sailors who lost their lives, belonged to the Naval Reserve, and that body was not as strong as it ought to be at the present time. It was absurd to say localities should bear the cost. A locality suitable might have little or no connection with seafaring interests. They were often agricultural. However altruistically disposed, the asking of them to bear the cost would be to place the burden on the wrong shoulders. He thought Clovelly Roads the most suitable place for the harbour. It had deep water, and blue clay for anchorage. He was willing to leave to the experts of the Board of Trade the selection of the best site. But he did ask for something to be done to prevent the appalling loss of life of which he had spoken, and the wasting of the national resources.

MR. SPEAR (Devonshire, Tavistock)

said that, having lived the greater part of Ins life on that part of the coast, he would urge on the President of the Board of Trade to provide a harbour of refuge there. Very frequently there were serious wrecks on that coast, which resulted in great loss of life and property, all which might have been saved had there been a harbour of refuge. That opinion had been expressed many times by experts: and he hoped the matter would soon receive consideration at the hands of the Government.


said he had endeavoured to obtain some clear idea of what it exactly was that his hon. friend wanted. His hon. friend had quoted the Report of the Committee of 1847, and of the still later Committee of 1884, as having been in favour of what ho called a national harbour, somewhere between Land's End and Wales. No doubt, the Committee did report in favour of the establishment of a national harbour somewhere between St. Ives and Swansea. But anyone relying on that Report ought to bear in mind the distinction drawn between a harbour of refuge and a national harbour. The Committee said that it was not expedient to make grants of public money for harbour construction generally, but they made two exceptions. First, they said that great national harbours ought to be constructed and maintained at the public expense; and they also said that harbours of refuge ought to receive limited assistance from public funds. The north coast of Cornwall was mentioned by them as a place where a harbour of refuse might be constructed, of what kind should it be? Was it to be a large harbour like that at Holyhead, which could receive ships of the largest tonnage, or was it to be only a harbour to which fishing smacks could run for shelter? His expert advisers did not think it would be expedient to establish upon this coast a large harbour of refuge, because it would become a source of danger, inasmuch as it would encourage vessels to approach a lee-shore when they ought to keep in the offing. He was informed that ships running for shelter found it sufficiently in that neighbourhood.


Only in certain winds.


said that, putting aside for a moment the question of a large harbour of refuge, for which, as far as he was able to judge, a case had not been made out, was it desirable to establish small harbours of refuge for trawlers on this stormy coast? He was informed that at least two such harbours would be required if any were constructed. Since 1889 a definite policy with respect to these small harbours was laid down by the Treasury. They formulated certain. conditions under which they were prepared to advance a portion of the funds for the construction of such harbour. The first was that the local authorities should be in a position to undertake the I permanent maintenance of the harbour for which the grant in aid was asked; secondly, at least two-thirds of the cost of construction of the works should be provided from local or outside sources; and thirdly, the grant should be limited to the ease of harbours serving, or likely to serve, a large fishing district. That being the case, he had proposed to the hon. Member for Camborne that he should move the local people to make application for assistance in the construction of one or two such harbours, but no such application had been made. He would ask his hon. friend to arrange with the people of the locality to make up their minds what were the spots most suitable for the construction of harbours of refuge, am also how much they would be prepared to contribute to the expense. Let them then make an application to the Board o Trade, and he would undertake on behalf of the Government that such an application would be considered.

MR. WEIR (Ross and Cromarty)

said that a Committee was appointed to consider the question of harbours of refuge in the north-west of Scotland, and the people had been led to believe that works of this kind would be constructed, but nothing had been done, although many applications had been made to the Board of Trade for assistance. He was glad to hear that if renewed applications were made by the local authorities they would be considered by the Department. The Walpole Commission of 1891 reported in favour of the construction of a harbour of refuge at Portnaguran, in the Island of Lewis, but no assistance had been obtainable. What was the good of Royal or other Commissions if the Government did not act upon their Reports? He would urge the right hon. Gentleman to take some action. One stormy night in February, 1899, one half of the fishing fleet in Avoch harbour, Rosa shire, was destroyed owing to the harbour being out of repair. The poor fishermen had no funds for the building or maintenance of harbours. In many of the fishing villages the population was diminishing because of the want of harbours, and if that was allowed to go on, where would the Admiralty get their Naval Reserves in the future? In the Ness district Butt of Lewis there were more widows and orphans in proportion to the population than in any other part of the United Kingdom, and this was mainly attributable to the want of suitable harbour accommodation.

It being Midnight, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

The Committee report progress; to sit again upon Monday next.