The Duke of MONTROSE
rose to put a question to Her Majesty's Government with respect to the state in which it was alleged the Megœra steam frigate was sent to sea, having on board one of the regiments destined for the Cape of Good Hope. A letter had appeared in the Times of January 8, from a clergyman (a gentleman of high respectability, and he believed a near relative of the commanding officer of the regiment), which would state to their Lordships more forcibly than he could do the discomfort to which the troops were subjected in consequence of the amount of stores with which the vessel was loaded;—On the 2nd of January the Rifle Brigade, numerically 700 strong, embarked on board Her Majesty's steamship the Megœra, for the Cape. As night drew on the frigate bore up for the Downs, where she lay until the morning of Saturday, the 3rd, at daybreak, and proceeded down Channel with a living mass of 900 human beings on her decks. You will now ask, was not every provision made to meet the emergency and afford accommodation on board? You shall hear. The storeroom and stowage were filled with ordnance stores, and thus no place remained for the arrangement and proper disposition of the vast amount of sea-stock, baggage, and 'belongings' of this large body of men. Government, at the sacrifice of the men's and officers' just claim to regard and consideration, had made the ship to answer a purpose for which it was never intended—the transport of stores and the conveyance of the troops, the latter being evidently put aside to make room for the other. Well, the night of Saturday came on, and with it a gale of wind, and you may easily imagine the condition of a number 542 of raw soldiers, without proper conveniences or even necessaries, the stores and baggage lying wherever they could find a space unoccupied, the passage from one part to another of the ship being everywhere impeded, and in most places obstructed.The statements contained in that letter were borne out by private letters from various officers in the regiment. It might be said, that in the case of a regiment which had the misfortune to meet with bad weather within forty-eight hours after its embarkation, it was impossible to avoid inconvenience, and some confusion and discomfort; and that what had occurred in this case was nothing more than might be expected with an ordinary sea breeze, and would not have been felt by those who were accustomed to the inconvenience of a sea voyage. He must, however, doubt the correctness of that statement. These officers were net mere landsmen; their regiment had only lately returned from the Cape, and were therefore accustomed to a sea voyage. The regiment had been selected for this duty in consequence of the services it had performed, the high state of its discipline, and its peculiar fitness for the service to which it was destined, and he thought therefore that every statement made by the officers must be received with greater weight than if they had belonged to almost any other regiment. They stated that the amount of Ordnance stores on board was very great, and that they were stowed in such a way that there was no room to stow the baggage belonging to the troops. Now, whether this was caused by the amount of the stores, or arose from the neglect on the part of the officers charged with the stowage, he could not say, but blame must attach to some one. He had heard it stated that the Admiralty assert that there was no undue amount of such stores on board—indeed, he had heard it asserted that there were none. But whether the stores on board were Ordnance stores, or were tents intended to be used by these very troops at the Cape, still, if the vessel were crowded with them to such an amount that there was no means of stowing away the baggage of the troops, he must contend that it was very improper that this should be the case. He knew that in this case the sea stock and the stores of officers were placed in hampers on the deck in a manner which was disgraceful in a ship belonging to Her Majesty's service. There was another statement made, showing also 543 a very great neglect on the part of those who fitted out the vessel. The statement which he alluded to was, that there were no lockers for the purpose of putting away the baggage belonging to the troops. Now this might appear a trifling neglect; but upon these small circumstances depended the comfort of a large body of men going upon a long voyage. Then, again, there was another flagrant piece of neglect. It was said, that the racks on which the arms were piled had been arranged for the purpose of carrying muskets and not rifles, and consequently, when the troops got on board, there were no means of properly stowing away their arms. It was first stated that those racks were put up for muskets, and that no alterations had been made in them; but he (the Duke of Montrose) had been led to believe, from inquiries he had made, that an alteration was made; that the officers connected with the ship, having learned that there were riflemen going on board, made an alteration of the racks; but that in consequence of there being no pattern rifle sent, the racks were as perfectly useless after alteration as they were before. The letter he had quoted closed with a paragraph to the effect, that on the morning of the 5th January the vessel put into Plymouth much disabled, and with a large depth of water in her. This was also the report stated currently, and by another version of it the ship was said to have been so shaken on the passage from Dover to Plymouth that all her seams had opened, and it was impossible for her to go to sea. That he believed was an exaggeration; but as to the fact of her having shipped an unusual amount of water, there could be no doubt. The cabins of the officers were entirely filled; and though such a thing might arise from accidental reasons, he believed the fact was that there was some defect in her with respect to the fitting of the port-holes, or some of the upper works of the vessel, so as to allow the water to pour into her in a very unusual manner. All these matters caused great uneasiness to the friends of those on board, and they must have been greatly relieved by the accounts in the papers of the vessel having arrived at Madeira. By a letter from one of her officers after her arrival at Madeira, he learned that this very defect of shipping water had existed all through the voyage; that they had been subjected to a great degree of discomfort in consequence of the cabins dur- 544 ing the whole time of the voyage being filled with water, and also from the crowding of the vessel. Such discomforts were almost always certain to occur in transports hired by Government; but he did think that, when Government were altering the hired transport system, and sending out troops in vessels belonging to Her Majesty for the purpose of ensuring the comfort of the troops placed on board, it was much to be regretted that defects of this description were found to exist. If any explanation could be given of all these circumstances of which he had stated the purport, he should heartily rejoice; the question he wished to ask was, what amount of Ordnance stores were on board—whether they was any extreme quantity, or any neglect on the part of the officers entrusted with the storing of them, which caused all the inconvenience to which he had alluded? As to the state of the vessel, he asked no questions with respect to her being seaworthy; but if the noble Lord could say that she had been unusually subject to the water coming in, he should be glad to know that it arose from no neglect on the part of any of the functionaries entrusted with preparing the ship for sea, or of the officers whose duty it was to take her safely to her destination.
The EARL of MINTO
, who was nearly inaudible said, he was sure the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Admiralty would feel extremely indebted to the noble Duke for having afforded him an opportunity of making some explanation. He was instructed to say that the Megœra had been selected for this particular service on which she was employed—namely, the conveyance of troops to the Cape—because in that vessel an amount of accommodation not to be found in most other troopships had been provided. Every possible attention had been bestowed on her equipment, and she was fitted out in such a manner as to provide every comfort for the accommodation of the persons taken out in her. She was a ship of 1,400 tons—a very large screw steamer. Amongst other arrangements for the convenience of the troops he might mention that separate accommodation was provided in the poop and forecastle for her officers and crew, so that the sailors might be entirely separated from the military, who had possession of all the decks below. The vessel carried a distilling apparatus, which was capable of supplying 300 gallons of water every day; she was furnished with 545 the best articles of every description; glass, crockery, plate, linen, and so forth, were provided for the officers' mess at the public cost, and a steward appointed to assist in preparing their table. He now came briefly to notice the points to which the noble Duke had adverted. And, first, that the ship was overcrowded. When it was proposed to take this ship for the purpose, the number to be embarked was not quite accurately known. The number stated by the Horse Guards was 677 officers and men, with the usual proportion of women and children. The Admiral at Sheerness was directed to state what number she could conveniently accommodate; and the answer was 702. At the same time a requisition was made to the Admiralty for the conveyance of further detachments of troops, and the Birkenhead was appointed to carry them. The Admiralty suggested that 100 of the Rifles might be transferred to the Birkenhead, which was declined, the commanding' officer of the Rifles preferring that they should all remain together in the Megœra, which afforded due accommodation to the entire number. With respect to the Ordnance stores which were supposed to have encumbered the vessel so much, it was quite true that a requisition had been made to the Admiralty for the embarkation of certain tents and rifle ammunition, which no doubt were embarked; nor could it be supposed the troops were to be sent on service unprovided with what was necessary to enable them to take the field. With regard to the discomfort and inconvenience justly complained of on the passage to Plymouth, this was solely attributable to the misconduct of the master who had charge of the vessel, and who for certain reasons of his own was determined to touch at that port; which, though unknown to the Admiralty, was so well known in some quarters, that letters were waiting for the ship at Plymouth, where the Admiralty had no notion she would go. The troops were embarked on the 2nd January, the vessel having arrived at Dover on the 1st. On the 2nd, after the embarkation, she immediately sailed for the Downs. It was quite true, as the noble Duke had stated, that some inconvenience arose from the circumstance of the arm-racks being fitted for muskets, and not for rifles; which, however, might have been rectified by the artificer on board. The steamer sailed in very bad weather; she left the Downs on the morning of the 3rd, and arrived at Plymouth, after a severe passage, in which she was forced 546 against a heavy head sea in a westerly gale. In the state in which they had sailed, all on board must necessarily and inevitably, under such circumstances, have been exposed to much suffering and discomfort, which the master might have spared them by taking shelter under Dungeness or St. Helens. On her passage to Plymouth the steamer consumed near 100 tons of coals, which certainly made it then necessary to put in there to replenish her stock of fuel. But the ship had behaved exceedingly well in very trying weather, and the circumstance of her reaching Plymouth in so good a state as to require little from the dockyard entirely disproved the supposition that she was un seaworthy.
§ LORD COLCHESTER
said, he had taken some pains to inquire into this subject, and certainly had learned in well-informed quarters that the Megœra was well adapted for the purpose of a troop ship. It was true, as the noble Lord had stated, that no ship could sail in bad weather, especially with soldiers unaccustomed to the sea, without some discomfort being caused; but, then, this might have been foreseen, and he had never heard it explained why Dover should have been chosen for the place of embarkation; he supposed it was for the purpose of saving the Government a trifling expense in moving the regiment by rail to a harbour where it could have been embarked in smooth water. The noble Earl had not answered two points. First, as to the amount of baggage and ordnance stores which had been conveyed. This was material; for, although the Admiralty might have been right in their estimate as to the number of men the vessel would carry when nothing else was on board, it made all the difference if a large quantity of Ordnance stores were on board, taking up the space required for the accommodation of the troops. Again, as to the want of due accommodation. Some years ago he (Lord Colchester) was a lieutenant on board a frigate, in which a battalion of these very troops, the Rifles, had embarked for Scotland; and he well remembered that the only thing the troops seemed to care about when they got on board was their rifles. So soon as they had placed their weapons in a proper manner they appeared quite satisfied, and comparatively careless about their own personal accommodation; and he had no doubt that in the present instance the discontent of the troops on account of their 547 own personal discomfort had been very much increased by the inconvenience they had found in respect to their rifles. It was true that the racks had been altered; but as the Admiralty had forgotten to send a pattern of the rifle, though altered they were not amended. The answer of the noble Earl had not been so satisfactory as he could have desired. He (Lord Colchester) would call their attention to another point—as to the class of officers to whom the command of vessels employed as troop ships was now committed. Formerly those vessels were given to officers who held the rank of Commander in the Navy—equal in rank with the field officers of a regiment. This secured him that proper degree of authority and respect which it was necessary he should have in such cases, and which he could not have when he was only a master, inferior in rank to the commanding officers of the regiment embarked. It was not likely that under such circumstances he should have that authority and weight which it was desirable he should have on board the vessel. And he believed that on this account, in many cases, considerable difficulty had followed. He thought that the old practice should be resorted to of having troop ships commanded by officers of the rank of Commander.
The EARL of MINTO
said, as to the Ordnance stores they were only the tents and ammunition attached to the regiment. He agreed with the noble Lord that it was better these transport vessels should be commanded by officers of higher rank than that of master. It had been usual to give these vessels to Commanders, and the change had arisen only from the desire to find more accommodation for the troops embarked; as a Commander carried with him lieutenants and other officers, who all took up room. He believed, however, that the Admiralty were now satisfied that the experiment had failed, and that in future Commanders would be employed.
§ The EARL of ELLENBOROUGH
would recommend the noble Duke (the Duke of Montrose) to move for the production of the doctor's report, which would afford the true test of the conduct of the Admiralty, and of all the officers concerned; for it would then be seen whether the troops maintained their health and efficiency, not merely up to the time of their arrival, but for three or four weeks afterwards. It was often not until after the arrival of troops at their destination that sickness— 548 the germs of which had been laid during the period of their passage—fully manifested itself. If it appeared that the troops maintained their health after their arrival at the Cape, then the Admiralty and other authorities might be absolved from blame; but if it should be found that the regiment landed in a state of inefficiency, or that within a very short time after landing it became inefficient, then, without any regard to the subject of baggage, or rifles, or anything else, he would not hesitate to say that the authorities were in error as to the state in which they sent the regiment afloat. It was of infinitely more importance that 400 men should be landed in a state of efficiency than that 600 should be landed with the germs of disease in them, and in a state of inefficiency. The importance of this subject had been brought under his notice in connexion with the expedition to China. The 98th Regiment was placed on board ship for transport to China, together with a number of recruits for other regiments; and, although the health of the troops was maintained during the passage, the regiment fell to pieces as soon as it was landed, and was for many months unable to take the field. His conviction was, that, with a view to the transport of troops efficiently, ample room should he afforded them. He thought also, that out of consideration for the comfort of the troops, they ought not to be sent to sea so soon after embarkation, but that a lapse of, say 48 hours, should be allowed between embarkation and sailing.
The EARL of MINTO
said, the troops on board the Megœra were not unduly crowded; for if they were so, the officers were given the option of removing 100 of their number to another ship, and had declined to do so.
§ The EARL of ELLENBOROUGH
thought the ship must have been overcrowded. The Megœra was stated to be a vessel of 1,300 tons. [The Earl of MINTO: 1,400 tons.] They must, then, deduct from that the tonnage appropriated to machinery. There were on board upwards of 700 troops, and a crew of 200—altogether about 900 persons; so that the ship must have been greatly overcrowded. He certainly would not venture to send troops to the Cape without allowing at least one ton and a half, if not more nearly two tons, to every man on board.
The EARL of MINTO
said, that, in answer to inquiries as to how many men the 549 Megœra would accommodate conveniently, the report of the naval authorities at Sheerness was about 702. The Admiralty, as he had said, offered to transfer 100 men from the Megœra to the Birkenhead.
§ The EARL of ELLENBOROUGH
would beg, then, at once to move for a return of the number of men, women, and children embarked on board Her Majesty's steamer Megœra, and also for a return of the tonnage of that ship, deducting' the tonnage of the machinery.
§ EARL GREY
said, there could be no objection to the return. He agreed with the noble Earl that the real test on this subject would be the state in which the regiment arrived; and he was glad to inform the noble Earl that hitherto every regiment sent out had arrived at the Cape in such a state of efficiency that the troops had been enabled to march straight from the transports to take part in the operations in progress.
The DUKE of NORTHUMBERLAND
said, that the commanders of transports, in addition to their pay as masters in the Navy, had a percentage upon the provisions consumed. Therefore, although it was the duty of an officer to make his voyage in the shortest possible time, it was to the advantage of the master of a transport to make his passage long. The master, he believed, also derived a pecuniary advantage from going to the cheapest market for provisions. Now, if anything happened to a ship in the Downs, the master would, most naturally, put into Portsmouth; but if there was an advantage in seeking a cheaper market at Plymouth, an officer might be tempted to go there. He thought it was not right to place officers in such a situation as this, when their duties and their interests were at variance.
§ The Motion agreed to: Returns ordered.