HC Deb 05 August 1914 vol 65 cc2042-50



Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 17th July, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


At Question Time this afternoon I drew the attention of the Government to a matter which is of an extremely urgent character, namely, the provision that is being made for the Britishers who are anxious to return to their own country at the present time. It is notorious to hon. Members, who no doubt have had representations made to them on the subject, that there is an enormous amount of overcrowding on the boats passing from the different ports on the Continent and our own ports. This refers to Boulogne and Ostend particularly. I believe the Calais route is now stopped, and that the Hook of Holland route has been also materially affected. I do not think I am going too far when I say that some of the scenes witnessed there have been of a most horrifying character. A friend of mine, who came back yesterday, and who had been through the South African War, said he never, throughout the whole of the war, witnessed such scenes as he witnessed on returning from Ostend yesterday. Another friend of mine, a distinguished Member of the other House, who has had considerable experience of sailing, told me that unless the sea had been absolutely calm, so loaded was the boat, that it must inevitably have toppled over, and that thousands were left behind. It is easy to imagine the sort of struggles that are taking place to get on board the boats that are crossing, more especially as at the time the boat sails people think it is the last boat that is going to cross, and, of course, thousands have been unable to get across on the particular boat.

I am not making any complaint with regard to railway companies and the way they are managing their trains, which is, I think, one of the finest exhibitions of railway management I have ever seen. I have just returned from Charing Cross, and there were seven trains from the Continent in the course of a very short time, and there are many more on the way up from Folkestone now. I am, however, asking the Government in this matter to use every effort they can to see that there are not only enough boats at the different ports, but even more than are required. People are coming from all parts of the Continent, and everyone wants to get home with the least possible delay. Added to that thousands of foreigners are leaving their own country and coming here. I am not particular about the foreigners. I am concerned about our own people, and I ask the House to note that many of these tourists and others have been in the trains for four or five days, instead of one or one and a half days. They are passing from Switzerland through the area that is affected, and they are subject entirely to the consideration of the German officers, and also going through the other territories the same trouble is awaiting them. I ask the Government, therefore, in the first place to see without delay that there are more than sufficient boats to bring any Britishers back to land at any of the ports affected. I am not sure whether it will be possible at all to come from the Hook of Holland. I doubt it. At Calais the passenger traffic is being diverted to Boulogne and that is making extreme pressure on that account, and, therefore, Boulogne and Ostend should be immediately looked after. As I am told some have had no food for three or four days and no money to buy any with, the state of things is very serious indeed. I am sure I shall have the sympathy of the Government in that matter. It is a great pity that this was not anticipated. The moment war was possible it was inevitable that there would be the rush there has been. I will also suggest that any boats that go over should take plenty of nourishing food with them. That is absolutely essential.

The Government have to be very much alive to what they are doing in regard to Britishers who are abroad. They ought to communicate with the Vice-Consuls—I do not imagine that they have done so—and inform them in all the different countries that they ought to give every facility to Britishers who may ask their advice, and if necessary, and there are proper credentials, they ought to be authorised to supply money to them in order to buy food and come home. This is not the time to stand on technicalities. The House will support the Government in anything they do in a matter of that kind. The United States have set the splendid example of sending over for their own people and providing money to give them what they require until they get home. I am only asking that we shall send across the Channel and do for our people what America is doing so far as Americans in this country are concerned. I think it is important, more especially in Paris and the other capitals, that Britishers should know that the Home Government are thinking of them at present. At Boulogne there are 16,000 Britishers, practically in a pen, gathered from different parts of Germany, waiting until the opportunity is favourable for them to come home. That is a very serious matter. It is not only the inconvenience to our countrymen and women who are there with thousands of children, but it is the distress it is causing to their people at home. The Government would not go far wrong if they set up a special department to deal with the matter. They might obtain material assistance in association with one of the great passenger traffic companies. In the last half hour I have heard from Paris that the French Government is very generously informing all her station masters to give every assistance possible to British tourists. That will mean a very great deal, because they will have every facility for returning home. That is obviously not so so far as Germany is concerned or even Switzerland at present; and I should hope the hon. Gentleman would be able to assure us that these particular matters are receiving his earnest attention, and that everything will be done and publicity will be given to the fact that all the assistance the Government can give at this juncture will be given freely, and I am sure the House will support the Government in any such action.


I am able to inform the House that as soon as the question was raised by my right hon. Friend to-day, communication was opened through the Foreign Office Consular Department with the Consuls at Boulogne, Ostend, Calais, and Havre, with a view to ascertaining the number of British refugees there who had to be provided for. As regards Antwerp, I understand the Foreign Office had already given instructions to the Consul to provide a ship and bring over those who were stranded there. The matter is being energetically gone into. As soon as we have an account of the numbers at the different ports requiring to be provided for, shipping accommodation will be arranged for through the Committee that is acting in control of the railways. I trust that the situation will be completely dealt with in a very short time. My hon. Friend's suggestions will be carefully dealt with. With regard to the question of over-crowding, we have given permission to exceed the usual passenger limit. At such a time and in such an emergency it seemed necessary to do so, but I need not assure him that the discretion of the masters of the ships will, of course, be consulted as regards the weather risks for the time being. Risks which might be taken in calm weather will not, of course, be taken in bad weather. The whole matter is receiving the anxious and energetic attention of the Department.


I understand that instructions have been given to the Consuls to advance money where necessary to people who, for the moment, are short of money. It might, perhaps, be in the interests of those who are feeling great anxiety if it was known that it was being done. Of course, at present there is a certain number of people who cannot communicate with their friends and relations in various parts of Europe, and if they knew the Government had this in hand it would allay a great deal of anxiety.


I should like that to be drawn to the attention of the Foreign Office.


I should like to ask whether there is any information in regard to the position of British subjects in Berlin. I received a letter this morning with regard to two ladies who are there and whose friends had been quite unable to find out anything about them, and there is extreme anxiety as to the position of these people, not at the ports, but in Berlin and other places. I should like to know whether any negotiations are going on between the Government and the German Government as to the position of these people who happen to be there just now which would relieve some of the anxiety. I think some general statement ought to be made because at present they can get no information whatever.


The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Robertson) only mentioned certain ports in Holland, Belgium and France with which the Government were communicating. Might I suggest to him, from my own knowledge, that there is a certain number of Britishers abroad who are endeavouring to escape by way of Switzerland and Italy, and he might address some communications to those who represent us in Italy, and there, I think, he will find that very likely many of our countrymen are stranded there for want of money, having to make a very long journey home, possibly by sea from Naples. I should be very much obliged if he would communicate also with the representatives of some syndicate in Italy with regard to making arrangements.


I will undertake to have inquiries made through the Foreign Office Consular Department of the Consuls at these ports also.


May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should send some food over to Boulogne. The situation there is much more acute than people realise. I got a most touching letter from a lady who lives close to Boulogne. She and her grandson, both French, were without money and without food and begged me to send some biscuits and canned meats over to them, which I was able to do. When French people are in that state of destitution, it is easy to imagine how much greater must be the destitution of many thousands of our countrymen and women who are shut up in Boulogne. I therefore put it as a matter of necessity that the Board should send food as well as boats. I understand also that the service from Ostend has been considerably-diminished. I would suggest that representations should be made that either this Government or the Government of Belgium should restore a number of the boats which have been temporarily taken off to take these people to Boulogne or some other port.


I wish to make a brief comment on the question which I asked this afternoon with regard to the position of fishermen. I was informed by the Admiralty that they are not able to make any immediate arrangements for the special protection of the fishing fleet, and I presume a very large number of fishermen will soon find themselves in a most serious position, and I hope the whole situation will engage the earnest consideration of the Government.


The House is under a great debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend (Sir H. Dalziel) for bringing this matter forward. I live near the coast and I had a telephone message this morning to say that the amount of destitution is something appalling. I am not satisfied with what the Board of Trade are doing. The Secretary of State is going to refer this to a Committee. A boat ought to be sent to-night. It would be easy to send a boat out from Folkestone across to Boulogne to-night. It is not necessary to make inquiries. From information that I have and that my hon. Friend has, it is an absolute fact that these people are leaving there in a destitute condition. I hope he will not put this through the usual channels of a Government Department which must be slow, this being an emergency and a great number of our countrymen undergoing great hardships.


I wish to refer to the appalling state of affairs with regard to the fishermen at Grimsby. The whole of the fishing fleet is held up on account of the war, 10,000 fishermen are without employment, and their wives and families are likely to suffer very great privations in the near future. And what I wanted to bring before the Government was this: Will the offer which the Chancellor of the Exchequer made this afternoon apply to the fishery fleet? The people of Grimsby would like to know whether the Government would be prepared to insure the fishing fleet, the value of which amounts to from £2,500,000 to £3,000,000. It is well known that the prosperity of Grimsby is wrapped up in the fishing trade. The whole of the trade from the port is practically dependent on the fishing trade, and they are in a very serious position. At present the insurance is mutual insurance, and what they would like to know is whether any assistance can be given to the fishing trade so that they would be able to go to sea and follow their vocation, particularly as it is a very important item in the food of this country.


With regard to the question of fishermen, it has already been under consideration, The great difficulty is in regard to fishing off the Dogger Bank. That is regarded as so dangerous as to be practically a non-insurable risk. If the fishermen could see their way to fish inshore and go round to the West Coast, I trust it will be possible to make insurance arrangements for them. I think the House will remember that in the insurance scheme which was put before the House the Admiralty reserve the right to veto certain voyages for the ships they insure, and under that scheme they would feel bound to veto the inclusion in the scheme of any such dangerous waters as the Dogger Bank, though I have no doubt that the courage and the hardihood of the fishermen would take them there. Subject to the limitations as to excessively dangerous waters, I trust it will be found possible to insure the hulls of the fishing vessels. As the House knows, the fishermen have already been recommended to conduct their operations in inshore waters.


Is the hon. Gentleman aware that inshore fishing is not confined to territorial waters?


I believe not, but the recommendation is simply that they should fish in the less excessively dangerous waters. I am unable to go beyond that, and I cannot express to the House that they will be brought within the insurance system. The hon. Baronet (Sir A. Markham) misunderstood what I said about the Committee. I think I mentioned that the Committee was the Committee now in command of the railways. That Committee has the power of taking immediate action. I did not refer to a Departmental Committee. The Committee which is now in control of the railways is precisely the authority to take immediate action in the matter.


Is the Committee sitting at the present time?


It is sitting at this moment.


Have any steps been taken to bring the matter before my right hon. Friend?


I cannot say what measures were taken before, but I know that the Committee is in continuous session, and that it has under consideration the subject referred to by the hon. Member for the Scotland Division of Liverpool (Mr. T. P. O'Connor), namely, the sending of food to Boulogne. I will, of course, draw attention to the matter.


May I ask whether the statement which has been made in regard to fishing vessels would apply to the Atlantic—to Faröe and the islands? These are all fishing grounds.


That will be a question for the Admiralty to decide. The Admiralty will reserve the right to pronounce as to what are dangerous voyages. I cannot say whether they would decide so in the case referred to.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven minutes before Eight of the clock.