HC Deb 02 June 1960 vol 624 cc1773-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

10.27 p.m.

Mr. David James (Brighton, Kemptown)

This debate appeared in the Whip in the name of Mr. Davey Jones, and, while that may have been much more appropriate, I did not think it fair to the seven hon. Members called Jones that they should be saddled with the views of one hon. Member named Jones, and I for a change.

The debate arises from the dissatisfaction which I and a number of other hon. Members feel in the Admiralty's decision to take over from the Boy Scouts' Association Captain Scott's old ship, "Discovery", which it should certainly take over as one of the oldest, most historic and interesting naval ships in the land; to spend a great deal of money, as the Admiralty is spending, on refitting her; to return her to her place in the heart of London; and yet almost literally to spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar by declining to spend the very small sum necessary to cross her masts with yards so that once again we have a square-rigged ship in the heart of London. They would rather have her, apparently, rigged as a bastard schooner.

I hasten to add that I hope that I am not guilty of an unparliamentary phrase in calling her a bastard schooner, because that is the term hallowed by many generations of seamen. Looking it up, I am inclined to believe that probably Webster is right in applying the second description to the word bastard, meaning mongrel, low-bred or hybrid. That is exactly what a ship looks like which is neither fish, fowl nor good red herring.

I should briefly declare my interest in the matter. I am a trustee of the National Maritime Museum, which holds the original plans of the ship, and very naturally we are keen to see her restored to all her former glory. I am one of the few people in the land, the sunny side of 41, who spent a year before the mast in a square-rigged ship, and naturally, like the hearts of many other people, my heart beats faster at the sight of square yards. For two years I was Polar adviser to Ealing Studios during the making of the film "Scott of the Antarctic", and I am concerned that the glorious memory of Captain Scott should be kept green and before the minds of future generations of children. I recollect with a certain feeling almost of bitterness that Ealing Studios were prepared to spend rather more on a tank model of the ship than apparently the Admiralty is prepared to spend on the original in this respect.

This may seem a small point on which to keep you and other hon. Members out of bed, Mr. Speaker, but is it so small —the rigging of a ship? I assume that she is kept to act as a stimulus to recruiting, with the view that boys will see her and say that they will join the Navy. Otherwise why not strip her altogether and put a greenhouse or a drill shed on the upper deck so that she looks rather like H.M.S. "President" further down the river, and not a ship? This country is littered with small societies of ship-lovers whose proceedings are published and every local seaside paper carries accounts of interesting ships visiting. Sea Breezes, which is the magazine dealing with the working craft of a more interesting nature, has a circulation of well over 20,000 copies. I am engaged in publishing and often publish books on historic craft, and I can vouch for the fact that they meet a ready sale.

Finally, we can look to the advertising boys for some advice in this matter. One can open hardly any illustrated magazine without seeing a sailing ship being employed to advertise some branded product. I need only mention Cutty Sark Whisky, Senior Service cigarettes, Benson and Hedges and Broomwade air compressors, to give examples of hardheaded manufacturers who like to keep their products before the eye of the consumer by using a square-rigged ship in an illustration. I believe that the Admiralty could take a leaf out of their book.

It is interesting to see what other countries do in this connection. If one goes to Mariehamn in the Gulf of Bothnia one finds that Finland maintains an old British four-masted barque in perfect order as a memorial, and scores of people visit her every year. At Stockholm there is another British full rigged ship in the heart of the city, also perfectly maintained. The Norwegian Government maintain Nansen's old ship in a special house. Everything she means to Polar exploration in the North with Nansen's drift across the Polar basin is exactly the same as H.M.S. "Discovery" means to the history of Antarctic exploration. Coming down to Gothenburg one finds my old ship, the four-masted barque "Viking", which is kept as a memorial of the great days of sail. In San Francisco there is a British barque "Baraclutha" which is kept as a museum to the days of the square-rigged sailing ships. The director of the "Baraclutha" museum was so moved by the story of Scott and the associations of "Discovery" that he asked me to approach the Admiralty to see whether they could have a belaying pin from "Discovery" round which to build a tableau. The Admiralty were graciously prepared to accede to the request and thousands of San Franciscans and visitors can see the pictures of Scott's ship in all its glory; but when they come to London all they see is a bastard schooner. So this is something which really does matter.

We above all other countries know how to do these things. We spend £1,050 a year on flood-lighting Big Ben, and I do not believe that anyone would cavil at that expenditure. We—thank heaven—dress the Brigade of Guards properly and spend a lot of money on tattoos, Beating the Retreat, Trooping the Colour and so on. I believe this decision of the Admiralty to be a niggardly one totally out of keeping with our normal custom.

London is the heart of a great Commonwealth built up on its sea communications and its sailing ships. Therefore, I seriously urge and request—indeed, I implore—the Civil Lord to reconsider this decision which I believe has been made a long way down the line. I could well understand the Admiralty saying they could not afford to keep up a memorial to the ship in any shape or form and save the money by towing her away and breaking her up for firewood. But if we are to do the job at all, with all the associations with Captain Scott's heroic performance and a whole century of naval tradition in the Polar region extending back to "Erebus" and "Terror', I am sure that everyone would agree that we should not "spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar."

10.34 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

I am sure the House would express gratitude that my hon. Friend the Civil Lord to the Admiralty has been so courteous as to come and listen to this debate, and we are looking forward to a helpful reply. Hon. Members were impressed not only by the eloquent plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. James) but with 'the great authority with which he spoke. I rise to support him. I do so first because I am one of those—there are many hundreds and thousands of us in this country—who are particularly susceptible to the magic of ships and the sea. Sard Harker in Masefield's book said that he never saw the sheer of a fine ship without finding that its beauty made him catch his breath. There are very few of us who do not understand what he meant.

The beauty of a ship consists partly in her hull, but equally in her masts and spars. The "Discovery" belongs to the age in which ships attained their greatest beauty. It is, therefore, a very great shame that she, of all ships and of all types of ships, should be subjected to the indignity of having her yards stripped from her.

Secondly, I support my hon. Friend's plea as a Londoner. London is not a city which is particularly blessed architecturally. We have none of the magnificent architectural sweep of Paris, for example. We have never had a Roi Soleil, and the rather haphazard charm and beauty of London is perhaps the price we pay for the sturdy individualism of the Englishman. Therefore, we should all the more zealously cultivate and nurse such incidental beauties as we have.

The "Discovery" is particularly well placed on the Embankment in the heart of London to give delight to hundreds and thousands of our countrymen every day. Every time I drive out to my constituency I go down the Embankment, and I have some of the experience of Sard Harker, but it is tinged with regret and frustration when I see that a fine ship has been so very unworthily presented. If she is to be a recruiting ship in a sense, nothing could be more disastrous than an improperly dressed recruiting sergeant. It is not in accordance wil h the traditions of the Navy that it should present a ship in this guise.

I ask my hon. Friend the Civil Lord to take most seriously the plea which we make to him tonight. The Civil Lord is very highly regarded in the House. When he sat here on the back benches with us, he was always alert, enterprising and ready with constructive criticism in exactly such matters as this. He is now answerable to the House for a great and glorious Department of State and for what I think is the finest Service of all. I hope that we are not misplacing our confidence in him when we say that he must be sensitive to the merits of this case, and we ask him not to disappoint us but to give us a sympathetic reply.

10.33 p.m.

Captain John Litchfield (Chelsea)

I add only two further points to the case so ably presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. David James). The "Discovery" is one of the notable, and also one of the few visible, links the River has with the open sea. She serves as a reminder to all of us who pass along the Embankment that this River is the gateway to the open seas, that we live in the greatest seaport in this country, and that the River which laps these walls and the Embankment in my own constituency of Chelsea has the most direct and famous associations with the seas.

The other day I received a suggestion which was not very serious, although it was sent to me very seriously. It was that my old ship the "Vanguard" should be brought up the Thames and permanently berthed alongside the House. I hope that my hon. Friend, and perhaps the Minister of Transport also, will be grateful to me for not having pressed the suggestion upon him. Among other things, it would have involved dredging the River, knocking down all the bridges, and then reconstructing them.

I hope that my hon. Friend will look kindly on this proposal. It is fitting and right that we should have in the River a symbol of our association with the sea. The "Discovery" fulfils this rôle worthily, but I agree with my hon. Friends that she should be properly dressed.

That brings me to my second point. We in this House are approving large expenditure on the maintenance and improvement of historic buildings and houses. I think I am right in saying that in the current year, 1960–61, we are spending £550,000 on the repair and maintenance of old buildings. If we include ancient monuments, the figure amounts to no less than £1,224,000 in one year, or about £4,000 a day. That is almost precisely the figure which we are asking my hon. Friend the Civil Lord to agree should be spent, not necessarily on a completely once-for-all basis, but certainly it would not be a frequently recurring item.

As we are spending so much money on famous old buildings—and I applaud this—we might look at some of our old ships. We do not spend much money in this direction. The country—although not, I think, this House—has spent a lot on the "Victory" and it has been a great thing for the country and the Royal Navy. I hope that in spite of the Admiralty's desire to economise and to see that the money which it gets is spent on naval purposes, my hon. Friend the Civil Lord will get this matter in proper perspective. The proposal is an imaginative one and would be widely approved and I hope that my hon. Friend will jump at this opportunity and welcome it, even though it may not be a strictly essential item of naval expenditure.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)

I wish to reinforce the plea of my hon. Friends. To those who feel that money spent on restoring the yards of H.M.S. "Discovery" would be wasted, I suggest that they should look at "Cutty Sark" at Greenwich and compare the difference of her full glory today with a picture of the same vessel four or five years ago, when she was a tender to H.M.S. "Worcester" at Greenhithe, and they will see the difference that yards can make to ships.

The Admiralty has responsibilities, as it owns this ship which is berthed in the heart of London, but I have another aspect to put to my hon. Friend the Civil Lord. It is not only a question of the tradition of exploration and adventure behind the ship, but also the wonderful work she has performed in training the youth of this City. She was owned by the Boy Scouts' Association from 1937 to 1955. During that time, a large number of youngsters were trained on board. When the ship was taken over by the Admiralty, because the Boy Scouts' Association could not afford to maintain her, agreement was reached in which the Admiralty allowed sea scouts to come aboard at week-ends for training, and certain facilities were provided, including the use of the upper deck, lecture accommodation, the use of the galley and sleeping accommodation for upwards of thirty youngsters and two officers. I ask my hon. Friend the Civil Lord whether he can promise that these facilities will be maintained after the ship's refit and that the accommodation on board—the galleys, and so on—will still be there when she emerges from Chatham dockyard.

The Thames is extremely difficult of access; we have a high river with walls on either side and it is extremely dim-cult to get access to the river. Therefore, H.M.S. "Discovery", in the position she occupies in the centre of London, is extremely valuable for the training of the youth of London on London's river.

I speak from personal experience as commissioner of London sea scouts and as one who has run courses in "Discovery" on and off for five or six years. We have always received great assistance from the Royal Naval Reserve and I hope that my hon. Friend will assure us that we will receive equal assistance when the vessel is handed over to the Director of Naval Recruiting.

10.44 p.m.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing)

I welcome this debate. It gives me an opportunity of showing what the Navy has done in the past in connection with the "Discovery" and also what plans we have for the future. No one in my office could help but be moved by the eloquent terms and the reasonable and moving arguments which four of my hon. Friends have put before me this evening. I want to show exactly what we have done, what we are doing to preserve "Discovery", and how we regard this ship in the context of naval recruiting, for which, as my hon. Friend has said, she is going to be used in the future. I think I can omit some of the history, but I should like to underline that "Discovery" was not a White Ensign ship when Captain Scott used her, and, in fact, she was not owned by the Admiralty, as has been recognised in the debate tonight, until 1955. She was presented to the Boy Scouts' Association by the Falkland Islands Government in 1937, and in 1953, after the war, the Boy Scouts, quite understandably, found the cost of running and maintaining "Discovery" was far too much for voluntary funds.

The Discovery Trust was formed and it was thought at one time that this would solve the difficulty. It was decided not to pursue plans to try to raise the money and take over "Discovery" and the Admiralty finally agreed to take her over in 1955.

The immediate cost to the Admiralty Vote for repair, refit and associated work in that year was £64,000. I should like to underline the fact that there were no yards in this ship when we took her over. It seems that rather exceptional enterprise was shown, because in the war the yards were dismantled for safety reasons and were floated alongside the ship. It will be recalled that there was a considerable shortage of wood at the time. Although 60 ft. long they did a disappearing act, which, I think, shows commendable enterprise by some person who must have been grossly short of wood. Anyhow, the yards disappeared.

When we took over the ship we could not give an undertaking that we would restore the ship to her original condition. Incidentally, there was no request that we should do so by the Discovery Trust, in which Peter Scott, the son of the famous explorer, played a very prominent part. We were not, as it were, under an obligation to restore her, but we still had to pay £64,000 to put her back in condition. The present refit and alteration will cost us another £34,000. As a recruiting headquarters we should naturally like her to look worthy of the task, and worthy of the Royal Navy, and worthy of her great historical background, but frankly I think it is not the most economical way of providing a recruiting headquarters in London.

But we are prepared to pay extra to preserve this ship and her fine tradition. We have continued to preserve Captain Scott's cabin and other parts which have special associations. Captain Scott's relics are exhibited in her.

My hon. Friend asked whether we would continue to provide facilities for sea scouts. I can give him that assurance. He mentioned a figure of thirty-four. My information is that we always undertook to provide for two officers and twenty sea scouts at weekends and we shall certainly continue to do so, and free berths for eleven boats and facilities for mooring alongside. We recognise that this is important and we shall certainly honour our obligation fully.

Although about 35,000 people pay a visit each year to the ship, no charges are made, because she is one of Her Majesty's ships now and because we gave an undertaking in 1954. I am not saying we could make a change—when one undertakes a thing like this one cannot make a change in conditions—but I wonder whether my successors will not perhaps feel it unfortunate that there is not to be a charge as the unkeep of this ship rises over the next two or three decades, and it may be that we shall have to reconsider a decision taken in different circumstances.

The cost of replacing the yards is rather higher than my hon. Friend suggested. Estimates given to me are between £6,000 and £8,000. We have to decide whether we should be justified in spending this extra sum over and above what we have already spent. I give two figures. The sum of £98,000 is for the original reconditioning and the present refit, and, to be fair, that should carry us through the period of about ten years. That £98,000 over a period of ten years means a sum of £10,000 a year.

I am being asked in the most eloquent and moving terms whether we could spend another £6,000 or £8,000. I have to say, from a strictly naval point of view, that our chief interest is recruiting. We have to be careful at a time when we are most anxious to save money, and the philosophy of Gladstone is not absolutely dead in Government Departments. It is the small savings which in the aggregate make up something worth while. We must not expend £6,000 or £8,000 here, there and everywhere when our object is to get as many modern warships to sea and to uphold the interest of the nation throughout Her Majesty's Navy.

From a strictly naval point of view, I believe that there are perhaps other ways in which such a sum of money could be spent. My hon. Friends have referred to the way in which London sees the Navy. Of course it does. We had it only this evening. There was the moving ceremony of Beating Retreat by the Royal Marines. We have other opportunities, too, in the Royal Tournament and at the Radio Exhibition, where we already have a first-class display. Some 400,000 visit the exhibition. We should not forget that we also have Trafalgar Square and Nelson's Column to remind Londoners of what the Navy has achieved in the past.

We have to come back to the hard and fast question, is it right to spend this extra sum of money on this ship? I am not absolutely sure that my information is correct, but my hon. Friend referred to what other nations had done. I think that if he examines the facts he will find that in a great many cases these charges in other nations do not fall upon the public Votes but are contributed by voluntary organisations which have a great enthusiasm for these things. That is my information, but I shall be happy to look at what other nations do.

The "Cutty Sark" was given as an example. I would point out that H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh played an enormous part in launching the Cutty Sark Fund, and £220,000 was raised in order to rerig the ship and make her the fine example that she is today. So London already has a wonderful example of an original rig ship, not, of course, of the same character but something in this direction.

In another place the Admiralty carries out the general maintenance of the "Victory". Special items such as rigging are covered by subscriptions to the Trust Fund. Thus, we do general maintenance of the ship, but the cost of special items falls on the Save the Victory Fund.

I well recognise that "Discovery" played a great part in exploring the Antarctic in its early days. We have just shad the Geophysical Year, with enormous interest in the Antarctic. Captain Scott did much pioneer work in that sphere.

I hope that the very eloquent and convincing appeals which I have heard tonight may go wider than the House of Commons and arouse interest in the matter so that some funds may be raised from voluntary organisations and from those who love ships, as do my hon. Friends and myself. However, I do not honestly believe that the Admiralty can incur the very considerable extra expense of restoring the "Discovery" to her original condition of masts and yards, a condition which has not existed for over twenty years.

If those who wish to see the ship restored can succeed in getting, by public appeal or otherwise, the greater part of the funds required for the purpose, then the Admiralty would be willing to find a certain amount, and those concerned would find the Admiralty entirely sympathetic to the cause.

I am sorry that I cannot be more forthcoming but at this time when there is so much pressure on Admiralty funds I have to weigh each item of expenditure and, in spite of this eloquent appeal, say that I can only hope that as a result of publicity the thought-provoking speeches which we have heard this evening may go further afield than this House and spur voluntary efforts to raise the money.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o'clock.