HL Deb 21 December 1854 vol 136 cc733-6

I have given notice, my Lords, that I intend to put two questions to Her Majesty's Government to-night, and I assure the House I will be as brief as I can; but you will allow me to say that I do so, not so much for the purpose of getting an answer for myself as to bring before your Lordships' notice a case which bears on the subject of the war in which we are engaged. The first question which I wish to put to the Government has reference to an exchange which is stated to be about to be made between this country and Prussia, which seems to be considered a small matter by the answer which has been elicited from the First Lord of the Admiralty. The other day I was at Chatham, and I saw in one of the docks Her Majesty's ship Thetis, and on noticing that vessel, I was told by the officer who had charge of the yard that she was about to be exchanged for two gunboats belonging to the King of Prussia. I must confess I was extremely surprised at such an exchange, more particularly as the ship itself happened to be well known to me. I had been on an experimental cruise in that identical vessel, and I was very much struck with the circumstance of the contemplated exchange, knowing as I did that the Thetis was constructed by a superior class of British shipwrights as one of the trial ships of that day which was to exemplify the best possible form of a floating body. I knew her to be one of the best of her class, and, in fact, to be a model of perfection. I should not have referred to the matter after the answer of the First Lord of the Admiralty, if I had not seen and been informed that he, in another place, in a conversation on the subject of the exchange, stated that the agreement had been first for two corvettes and afterwards for an old frigate, and that the matter was, in short, of no sort of importance—of very little consequence. Now, there is no man living on the face of the earth who knows the force of language more than the First Lord of the Admiralty; and when he says in his place in Parliament, that the exchange was to be for "an old ship," I will ask anybody in this House, or out of doors, whether connected with the service or not, would not that convey to the mind, that it was a ship past ordinary service and of not much value? But, my Lords, this ship was built in 1846, and I took great interest in her, because she was built by a body of men in whom I felt interested; she turned out to be an extremely fine ship, and, indeed, one of the best ever constructed both in form and strength. She was nearly 1,600 tons burden, and could not have cost this country less than 40,000l. or 50,000l., and when I saw her the other day she had been completely refitted with new rigging. Now, my Lords, even as a matter of trade, as a mercantile transaction, this matter is one of very great importance. What may have been in the breast of the Government at the time they made that exchange I cannot say; but when I consider that the cost of this vessel was what I have stated, and that the cost of the gunboats for which she was to be exchanged could not exceed 6,000l. apiece, such a transaction will be well worthy the attention of the House of Commons when the Estimates are brought before them; and if ever there was a case in which the First Lord of the Admiralty ought to be made to pay the difference, this appears to me to have been one of all others in which it would have been right to visit that great functionary with such a penalty. I can make no comment on this; it is a matter of fact; it is a matter of bargain and sale. He has certainly not gone to the cheapest market, but he appears to me, contrary to his own principles, to have paid the largest amount of money for these gunboats. One great peculiarity with regard to these boats is, that they were built by a gentleman of this country, Mr. Scott Russell, who, I understand, possesses models of them; and yet he was sent to Prussia to see whether they were fit to exchange and to be used in Her Majesty's service. He comes back and says they are peculiarly fit for the Baltic. Now, my Lords, I very strongly suspect that they are not fit for the Baltic; for I do not think that the Prussian Government would have been very anxious to exchange these very fine gunboats, as such vessels, particularly to a maritime nation, are of the greatest value. I have, therefore, taken the liberty of bringing this subject before your Lordships, in order that you and the public may know the value of this exchange, which I consider to be very detrimental to this country. I also think that the answer which I hope to get from the Government will be directly opposite from that which has been given in another place by the First Lord of the Admiralty, because he stated that the bargain was not completed. Why, my Lords, these vessels have just arrived; the bargain is completed, and this country has given one of its finest ships, valued at 40,000l., for two vessels not worth 10,000l. or 12,000l. It only remains for me now to inquire of Her Majesty's Government what were the circumstances under which the exchange was effected?


I hope if the First Lord of the Admiralty is to pay the difference of a bad bargain out of his own pocket, he is to be allowed to pocket the advantages of a good one. The transaction to which my noble Friend alludes having passed through the Foreign Office, I suppose that I am the person who is expected to answer the noble Earl's question. I propose in that answer to give him all the information I can; but not being exactly aware of what my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty did say, I am not sure I shall give the same answer. All I can undertake to do is to state the facts, and I have not the least doubt that they will turn out to be precisely what were stated in the other House. The proposal in question came from the Prussian Government, who stated that they wished to increase their marine force, and would be very glad, as they understood Her Majesty's Government were about to construct gunboats, to exchange the two gunboats in question for what they termed "donkey frigates." That was their proposition; but the answer of Her Majesty's Government was that they had no "donkeys" to dispose of, but that there were two corvettes which might be given in exchange, if, on a survey, the gunboats in question appeared to be valuable. This survey of the gunboats was made. I am not sure that it was made by Mr. Scott Russell, but I believe he made a report as to how they were constructed, and what they were peculiarly adapted for. I am sure they must have cost considerably more than my noble Friend says—5,000l. or 6,000l.—for I believe they were built to carry two or three mortars, and it was considered that they would be very desirable boats—in fact, just such as Her Majesty's Government wished to obtain in the middle of June. A noble Friend near me says that, with their armaments, they are now worth 40,000l. Some delay, however, took place on the part of the Prussian Government, and the negotiations were only renewed in the month of September, when my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty said it was no longer an object with Her Majesty's Government to obtain such gunboats, and objected to the completion of the exchange, upon which the Prussian Government answered, "Oh, but we have obtained your word—your word has been given," and it was under those circumstances that the exchange was consented to. With respect to the Thetis herself, I understand that she requires an expenditure of nearly 8,000l. before she can be put in a proper state, and that she will be handed over to the Prussian Government without any armament whatever. I hope this answer will be satisfactory to my noble Friend.