HL Deb 07 February 1854 vol 130 cc296-305

said, it had been his intention to put a question to the noble Earl at the head of the Government, of which he had given notice, respecting the state and condition of the Navy List; but as to that question he might simply get an answer in the negative, he would, wit h the permission of their Lordships, change his course of proceeding, and merely pro formâ conclude with a Motion for a Committee. This question had assumed rather more importance, owing to the circumstances that had occurred since the last meeting of Parliament. He would say, at the outset, that he had not the slightest intention to give offence:—he felt sure, notwithstanding anything he might say in reference to this question, that there was not one of his brother officers out of that House or in it, whatever might be his age or circumstances, who was not ready to render to the country any services that might be required of him. It was also his intention not to mention the name of a single officer, but to confine himself to a statement of the average age of officers of the highest rank. The list that was most prominent, and of the greatest importance, was the list of Admirals, there being undoubtedly a sufficient number of captains in the vigour of youth and intellect who were capable of being selected for Her Majesty's service. The active list of full Admirals consisted of twenty-two in number, and he had calculated what was about the age of the youngest of those Admirals who stood upon the list. The manner in which he had calculated it was this—he had taken the date of his commission as captain, and the difference between it and the present year, to which he had added the age at which it was to be presumed he had been promoted to be a captain. He took that age to be twenty-five, and he believed that would be a very fair average age at which to presume an officer would be promoted to the rank of post-captain; and according to that calculation he found that the youngest officer on the list must be seventy-five years of age. To the Vice-Admirals' list he had applied the same test, and he found that the youngest officer amongst them was about sixty-nine. He would then go to the list of Rear-Admirals, and on that list there would be found many officers who were capable of taking charge of a squadron. There was still another list which without any exaggeration might be put in the same category as the Rear-Admirals' list, namely, the reserved list, which he believed stood pretty nearly at the same average age, with some exceptions. The various Orders in Council that had been drawn up for the purpose of relieving the country from officers who might be considered useless, had produced the result which he would now lay before their Lordships—a result which did not give a very satisfactory prospect to the country, at a period when it might be about to enter into a long war. The first of those Orders in Council was dated the 30th June, 1827, when it was thought advisable that steps should be taken for the purpose of so regulating the Navy List as to get rid by a certain process of the aged officers upon the list, and appoint young officers to fill their places. That Order in Council pro- vided that captains who had reached by seniority the head of the list of captains with unblemished character, and had not declined or avoided service, should be deemed eligible to be superannuated with the rank of retired Rear-Admiral; secondly, that captains should be eligible to receive appointments as flag-officers, provided they should have commanded a rated ship for tour years during war, or six complete years during peace, or five complete years of war and peace combined; thirdly, that lieutenants and commanders should respectively serve on board, in their respective ranks, two years, and one year before being capable of promotion to the rank of commander or captain. This Order in Council was considered by the Government and the country so unjust in its operation, that in the year 1840 it was repealed, and a new Order in Council was passed, enacting— That, in all flag promotions, every captain whose seniority brings him in turn for advancement shall be placed on the list of flag-officers, provided he has served as a captain, and shall not have declined service at any time when called upon, and that there be nothing against his character as an officer and a gentleman; but that the half-pay of those flag-officers who have not commanded one or more of Your Majesty's rated ships four complete years during war, or six complete years during peace, or five complete years of war and peace combined, shall not be increased beyond that of rear-admiral, unless they shall have rendered, as flag-officers, sea service of equal length to complete the period above mentioned, of which they were deficient as captains. By the same Order in Council it was decreed that retired Rear-Admirals should be allowed to remain on the active list, but should receive only the pay of Rear-Admirals. Again, in 1851, the Government went back, by another Order in Council, to the former system, and any officer not having served for their flags, according to the Order in Council of June 30, 1827, was obliged to retire to the reserved list, which reserved list, so called, was, he believed, virtually a retired list. He would paint out to their Lordships the gross injustice perpetrated in this case. Taking sixteen officers promiscuously from the reserved list, and comparing them with sixteen taken at random from the active list, it would be found that the aggregate ages of the sixteen on the reserved list amounted to 1,027 years, and those of the sixteen on the active list amounted to 1,038 years. Therefore, according to this arrangement, the officers on the active list were the older officers of the two. At the same time, that he was ready to admit that there might be officers at an advanced age who might be entitled to stand on the active list by reason of having retained their bodily and mental vigour to a degree which enabled them to undergo the fatigues of service to a late period; yet an injustice had certainly been inflicted upon the service, which no other body of men except the servants of the Crown would have quietly endured for so many years. When an officer entered the Navy, a moral contract was entered into with him by the Government, that if he was zealous in his duties, and conducted himself in an officer-like and gentlemanly manner, he might expect to have an opportunity of rising to the top of his profession; and that when he had gone through the whole ordeal of the service, and had perhaps, been connected with Governments and with Cabinets, and was expecting to attain the highest honour of his profession, he should not have the door of promotion shut in his face. Yet this was what the Order in Council actually did; for if an officer had not served in a rated ship for six years in time of peace, he was compelled to make his bow and retire from the service. If every officer had an opportunity of serving offered to him, and did not choose to avail himself of it, no injustice would be done to him by denying him promotion; but when the character of the service was such that they could not employ him, and such opportunities did not occur, then it seemed to him the last profession in the world in which they ought, when a vacancy occurred, to say to a man that because he had not served the fixed number of years he must retire altogether. Yet they actually said to him, "You may be a good and blameless officer, but we would not employ you, or have not employed you, and therefore, we must cashier you." It was absolutely necessary, if they wished to promote the efficiency of the service, that the list should at length be revised, and that nothing should be suffered to continue which created well-founded dissatisfaction in the minds of the service. Again, the regulation with regard to "rated ships" operated very unfairly. A rated ship might be very small, and an officer might have commanded her twenty years ago; he was, however, eligible to promotion, whereas the officer who might at a later period have served in a frigate or in a line-of-battle ship, simply because he had not ful- filled the arbitrary term of service, would be altogether rejected. The Order in Council of 1846 also provided that the Superintendents of Her Majesty's Dockyards should have the time they had served on shore reckoned as time of service afloat; and even civil service, as the governor of an hospital, enabled an officer to obtain his rank in the Navy. Recently, a very peculiar mode had been adopted to check the advance of officers in the Navy. The deaths of Admirals were speculated upon, and when an officer was seen to have approached near to the top of the list, the Government refused to employ him, in order to prevent him from fulfilling the period of service necessary to qualify him for a flag. The Order in Council stated that the reason why an officer was required to have served six years was, that he should be fitted by previous experience to take the command. This appeared to be extremely sound and right; but how was it carried out? Whilst the regulation precluded a captain from rising to the rank of an active Admiral, because he had not served the whole time, on the other hand a young officer sometimes received a very magnificent ship, and a broad pennant, with the command of a squadron, who had perhaps never commanded anything but a small frigate in his life, and that, perhaps, only for a period of two or three years. Thus they perfectly stultified the alleged grounds of the system established by the Order in Council. He might make out a much stronger case before their Lordships if he were to enter into minute details, and to point out the case of individual officers; but that was a course which, out of delicacy for private feelings, he would not pursue. He was aware that there was a certain class of officers who personally benefited by the Order in Council, and who therefore might not be sorry for its existence; but he was perfectly satisfied that there was not one of those officers who would not acknowledge the injustice of the present system. He believed, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer would give his assistance in this matter, by offering to officers of various grades in the service the opportunity of disposing of their commissions altogether for an equivalent to be determined upon a fair principle, that a voluntary relief might be afforded both to the service and to the finances of the country by such an arrangement. He believed, moreover, if the Navy List was left on its old footing, and as an officer rose he was allowed to take his rank, always reserving at the same time to the Crown the right of making any special selection of officers which it thought proper to employ, that these questions with regard to promotion in the Navy would never come before their Lordships. He hoped their Lordships would excuse him for detaining them so long, and he would merely conclude by moving for a Committee to inquire into this important subject.

Moved— That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the State and Condition of the Navy List.


said, that the noble Earl who had just resumed his seat might be assured that there was no noble Lord who did not sympathise with the views and motives which had induced him to bring this subject before their Lordships; and if it were not from a sense of what he (the Earl of Aberdeen) believed to be a duty he owed to the service and to the public, he should not be disposed to oppose the Motion of the noble Earl. He was quite aware that much difference of opinion had prevailed upon the subject from the time of the enactment of the regulation to which the noble Earl had referred; but it was a remarkable fact that, although that regulation had, he presumed, been brought before every Board of Admiralty that had existed since 1827, not one of those Boards, in any instance whatever, had thought proper to deal with that regulation. The regulation in question was framed by Sir George Cockburn when he was the naval adviser to the Board of Admiralty, at the time when King William was Lord High Admiral; and from that day to this not a single instance had occurred of an attempt to make any alteration in the rule in any respect whatever. It was true that there had been subsequent Orders in Council with a view to the extension of the rule then made, but not for the purpose of introducing any alteration in the Order in Council of the 30th of June, 1827. He would repeat that in no instance had any officer whatever been promoted to his flag without having previously complied with the conditions of that regulation. Before the regulation of 1827 was made, there was so much favour and caprice shown in the promotion of officers in the Navy, that there was no certainty whatever as to who would be promoted or who would not; and their Lordships must be aware of practices that were exceed- ingly to be deprecated, that were resorted to in the promotion of officers in the naval service. It was, therefore, thought only reasonable that six years' active service as post-captain should be required as a necessary qualification, previously to any officer being entitled to receive an appointment as flag officer of the Fleet. Of course any regulation of an invariable description, such as that, must in its operation be attended with cases of individual hardship. He regretted that such should be the case. The noble Earl himself, and other noble Lords who were in a similar condition, might think that an alteration of the regulation of 1827 was necessary, and they might have reason to deplore the operation of the existing rule; but their Lordships would perceive that, if such a regulation were of any service at all, it must be invariably adhered to—for if once an exception were made, and the invariable character of the rule infringed upon, that would deprive it at once of all its fairness and of all its merit. He had conferred with his right hon. Friend at the head of the Admiralty (Sir James Graham) on this subject, and it was his opinion, as well as that of every preceding Board of Admiralty since the year 1827, that no mode more fair could be adopted to preserve efficiency in the service than to require a reasonable qualification on the part of the officer to be promoted. That being the case, although he (the Earl of Aberdeen) agreed with the noble Earl that practically the regulation had operated hardly in individual instances, yet he could not concur with him in thinking that the rule should in any case be relaxed, because he believed that any such departure from a fixed and unalterable character would impair the efficiency of the service, and be attended with consequences which would put an end to that fair and equitable proceeding which had hitherto characterised the conduct of the Crown in the promotion of officers in the Navy. Therefore, he could only say that, after the most full inquiries and examination of the subject, he had come to the same decision at which all preceding Boards of Admiralty had arrived—that, upon the whole, the present system, although attended with individual cases of hardship, nevertheless, was the most just and the most advantageous to the service that had been proposed.


said, that no doubt the subject to which his noble Friend had called the attention of their Lordships was one of great difficulty. The noble Earl at the head of the Government had said that the regulation of 1827 was made by Sir George Cockburn when he was at the Board of Admiralty, and that it had never since been altered. Now, he begged to remind the noble Earl that two Orders in Council had been subsequently issued on the same subject—one in 1840, and the other in 1851. In the Order in Council of the 10th of August, 1840, it was stated—"that so much of the Order in Council of the 30th of June, 1827, as related to the promotion of captains to flag officers should be rescinded, and that those officers who had been placed on the retired list under that Order in Council should be placed on the list of flag officers according to their seniority as captains." He believed that this alteration of the regulation of 1827 was made in consequence of the case of Captain Debenham, which was considered at the time to be one of great hardship. Under the Order in Council of 1840 all captains who were ready to serve, whether they served or not, were put on a level with rear-admirals in respect to their pay. By the Order in Council of 1851, again, captains who had not served their full time, instead of being placed on the active list, were required to be placed on the reserved list, and to receive the pay of rear-admirals. Thus the Government had neither the power to require the services of officers on the reserved list, nor were the finances of the country benefited by the arrangement. With regard to the period of six years which an officer was required to serve in time of peace before he was entitled to his flag, he thought there ought to be some limit as to the time within which that service should have taken place. At present a captain might have served in command of two brigs, and remained on shore twenty-two years afterwards, and then he would be entitled to his flag, whereas another officer, who might have served two years in command of a large ship, and three years in command of a line-of-battle ship, would be thrown aside, merely because he wanted a year's more service.


said, it was essential to the effective power of the service, and that the public interest required it, that every captain to have the qualification and rank of Admiral should have served for a certain period as commander of a ship in Her Majesty's service. Such was the rule, and no doubt it was a just rule; still, after what had been stated by his noble Friend, he thought it very desirable to reconsider the details of the Orders in Council. For, certainly, there was something contrary to all reason in saying, that an officer should be considered qualified for a flag after having served six years in one of Her Majesty's rated ships, perhaps before 1830, yet that he should not be considered qualified by having served in another ship, where equal or even superior experience might have been acquired. Service rendered before steam had been introduced, and before very large ships were built, which were more difficult in manœuvring than smaller vessels, would be a very imperfect qualification for a flag in the present day; and generally the tendency of the Order in Council of 1827 was not to give us the captains who were most acquainted with the service as it was now, but captains acquainted with the service as it used to be, and as it was not now and never could be again. It appeared to him, therefore, that it was most desirable the details of the rule should be reconsidered. The noble Earl (the Earl of Aberdeen) had stated, that the rule was established in 1827, at the suggestion of Sir George Cockburn. No man was held in higher esteem, or more honoured, and deservedly so, than Sir George Cockburn, by the whole of the British Navy; but their Lordships must consider the difference of the naval service in the year 1827, and of the same service in the year 1853. In 1827 not many years had elapsed since the country had been involved in a long and arduous war, and, therefore, the probability of any captain being excluded by the restriction as to four years' service was very remote; but now after forty years' peace the practical effect of the rule was exclusion from promotion, and not admission. This was a further reason why he thought it highly desirable that the rule should be reconsidered in its details. He recollected most distinctly a claim made on behalf of Her Majesty, by Sir Robert Peel in 1846, to a power of promoting any officer of any rank in the Navy. That was a power which should never be confided to the Admiralty—it should not be for the Admiralty to make any such extraordinary promotion. That power had been most rightly reserved to the Crown, and a case might arise when Her Majesty might most wisely exercise that power by an Order in Council. There would be an ample guarantee against the power being improperly exercised. No Order in Council could take place without the whole merits of the officer to be promoted being brought before the Cabinet. It would thus become a public measure, and one of the highest importance, and which it would be the dutiy of the Minister to defend in Parliament; and they might rest perfectly satisfied that it would not be adopted except under circumstances when the public would see it was plainly demanded. He thought it most desirable to guard the Navy against the introduction, or rather the extension, of anything like party feeling in the selection of any officer for any employment in the service of the Crown. He believed that he hardly used too strong an expression when he said he thought it a public crime in a man at the head of the Naval Department, or at the head of the Army, when, from private, personal, or party motives, he promoted a person over the head of another who was deserving of the promotion. It was his first duty to look around and select from every department the fittest man he could find. That was the true secret of success in war. It was, indeed, the true secret of success in civil affairs; but in war it was essential to success. Let them look around; for they would invariably find that, whatever might be the general merits of individuals—whatever might be their ability or their zeal—all great things in civil life, and even more, perhaps, all great things in war, were performed by some few, some very few, men of superior ability and superior genius; and there could not be a greater or a more valuable talent in a man placed in the situation of his noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Aberdeen), or, yet more, placed in the direction of the Admiralty, or of the Army, than that of discovering the ability by which great things might be done.

After a few words from Earl WALDEGRAVE, which were inaudible,

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.

House adjourned to Thursday next.