HL Deb 23 April 1858 vol 149 cc1575-83

rose to move, "That an humble Addess be presented to Her Majesty for Copies or Extracts of any Correspondence between the Secretary of State and the Government of Newfoundland and the other North American Colonies with respect to any Acts passed for giving an exclusive Right to the Establishment of Telegraphic Communication between this Country and North America to One Company; and also, Of any Correspondence between Her Majesty's Government and Companies proposing to establish Electric Telegraphs with respect to the Grant to them of exclusive Privileges." The subject was one of great importance in a national point of view, and as bearing on the commercial and political intercommunication between this country, the continent of Europe, and America. He understood that the colonial Government had recently granted to one particular telegraphic company a complete monopoly of this medium of communication for a long series of years between England and British North America; and he had also heard, he confessed with no less surprise, that the Colonial Department in this country had advised the Crown to confirm these exclusive privileges and powers. It seemed to him that conferring such a monopoly on one company, and confining ourselves to one means of communication alone, was calculated to create not only a monopoly in the means of the transmission of international intelligence, but also in the rate of charge at which that intelligence would be conveyed, besides being prejudicial to the control which the Government ought to have over this great means of international communication. He was anxious to know on what grounds of policy the Government had come to this determination; and without further remarks, he would conclude by asking the House to agree to grant the papers he had asked for. If this system were to be pursued, it would only furnish an objectionable precedent for granting monopolies in the case of other telegraphic routes of communication —a system which ought not to be encouraged, it being, on the contrary, of the utmost consequence that the Government of this country should have complete and entire control over all telegraphs radiating from the British coast over the continents of Europe and America. The noble Earl concluded by moving the Address.


said, there was no objection to the papers moved for by the noble Earl, but would suggest that in the first paragraph it would be desirable to add, after the word "correspondence," also "extracts or copies," as it would very much simplify the arrangement of the return. It was perfectly true that exclusive privileges had been granted to a certain telegraph company in relation to the colonies of British North America; but he might also state that the grant of those exclusive privileges was one for which Her Majesty's present Government were in no way responsible; it was the act of the late Ministers; but, perhaps, the simplest plan of replying to the noble Earl would be to narrate what were the facts. In 1851, a company was organized for the purpose of establishing electric telegraph communication between the shores of British North America and this country, and in 1854 that company applied to the local legislature of Newfoundland, who passed an Act conferring on them a monopoly of that extensive telegraphic route. The company undertook to lay down or submerge that line of telegraph, the principal part of it being to carry their line across the Atlantic between the coast of Ireland and the Newfoundland coast; and in return for its accomplishment they were to have privileges of an exclusive character. They were entitled to a monopoly for fifty years and to the selection of fifty square miles of land near the line proposed within the colony. The Act was transmitted home, and was confirmed, it was fair to say, by an oversight rather than by the deliberate judgment of the then Colonial Secretary (Sir G. Grey). Within a year, however, of that time, doubts seem to have crossed his mind as to the expediency of granting such exclusive privileges and powers; and in the correspondence which he would lay on the table would be found a circular letter which Sir George Grey addressed, while acting as Colonial Secretary, in the absence of Lord John Russell, who was then at Vienna, to the governors of the different colonies, cautioning them in future not to assent to concessions of exclusive privileges of this nature. In 1857, an Act was passed by the same Legislature, which, while correcting some blots in the original Act, indirectly tended more firmly to secure and rivet, as it were, the original monopoly; it, in fact, amalgamated the old or original company with the New York and Newfoundland Telegraph Company, which was the company engaged last year in conjunction with the Atlantic Telegraph Company in the experiment of establishing telegraphic communication between this country and America. An Act was passed by which those two companies were amalgamated, and it was agreed to — not without some hesitation, as the despatches would show—by Mr. Labouchere. That was the history of the matter, so far as the Newfoundland Company was concerned. In 1854, the same company applied to the Legislature of Prince Edward's Island for a similar Act with similar privileges; and they obtained it, with a subsidy of £300,000. A petition was forwarded also from New Brunswick praying for the establishment of a telegraphic line on similar principles, and proposing either a grant of exclusive privileges or pecuniary assistance. The Colonial Secretary, Mr. Labouchere, said, that as to the subsidy, that was a matter for the local legislature; but that, although a precedent of exclusive privilege had been established in the Newfound-hind ease, he would not sanction it in any future one. As to Nova Scotia, an Act had been recently passed there granting pretty nearly the same privileges to the company, but limiting them to twenty years, instead of fifty. When that Act arrived in England, his noble Friend the present Colonial Secretary (Lord Stanley) gave to the subject a very full consideration, but came to the most unequivocal resolution in no way to confirm the monopoly. An Order in Council had accordingly gone out within the last few days disallowing the Act in question. The noble Earl (Earl Grey) had asked on what grounds of policy the sanction of such a monopoly could be defended. That was a question which he could not answer. It rather concerned Her Majesty's late Government than the present; but at the same time he fully agreed in all that the noble Earl (Earl Grey) had said with regard to the establishment of any such monopoly, which was calculated to prove seriously prejudicial in a multitude of ways, commercial and political. It must be borne in mind that the science of electro-telegraphic communication had wonderfully progressed during the last few years, but it was still comparatively in its infancy; and if now, by a precipitate step, we fixed, as it were, on any particular plan or system, by conferring on it exclusive privileges, and ratified it with legislative authority, we might have reason, in the course of a few years, to repent the premature decision and find that it would work detrimentally alike to the interests of commerce and the political interests of the empire. With the modification before-mentioned there was no objection to the Motion of the noble Earl.


hoped that the noble Earl would not press the last paragraph on their Lordships, but be content with accepting the assurance that there were at present no pecuniary engagements on matters of telegraphic communication on the part of the Government, excepting with two companies—the one, the Atlantic Telegraph Company; the other, the Mediterranean Telegraph Company; and in neither of these cases were there any grants for exclusive privileges. He might add further that negotiations were now going on in connection with another telegraph company in which it was distinctly understood on both sides that no exclusive privileges would be granted; and the only objection there was to the production of this correspondence was that it might he productive of inconvenience in respect of future negotiations. He had been informed that the companies would be put to a considerable inconvenience, carrying on, as they were, communications and negotiations with other companies in which the shareholders of both were interested, if the whole of the negotiations between them- selves and the Government were laid on the table of the House. He hoped the noble Earl and the House would accept his assurance—first, that no such exclusive privileges had been granted; and, secondly, that as a matter of principle it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government sedulously and entirely to abstain from granting any of these exclusive privileges for the future. On the contrary, Her Majesty's Government were of opinion, in the present state of international telegraphic communication, that the country should have as many routes for the telegraphic transmission as possible, and consequently would take very good care not to permit any monopoly of intercommunication in this new and marvellous means for the conveyance of international news and international intelligence.


said, it was satisfactory to learn from the noble Lord that Her Majesty's late Government had refused to give assent to the Act of the Nova Scotia Legislature conferring a monopoly of telegraphic communication to one company, and he had also heard with pleasure from the noble Earl at the head of Her Majesty's present Government that it was their intention to refuse all future applications of this character. He thought, however, that ampler information should be given on another part of the subject to which the noble Earl had referred—namely, that which related to the negotiations with the Austrian Government in connection with the extension of the telegraph through Corfu to Alexandria. If this negotiation was proceeded with electric telegraphic communication along the Mediterranean from Corfu viâ Ragusa to Alexandria, and thence to India, would be in the hands of a. foreign country—that country being Austria — a country with which we might be in a state of hostility; or we might be in a state of hostility with other foreign countries, and if so it would be in the power of Austria to control, or interfere with the direction and management of telegraphic communication over the Continent, and of conveying intelligence of the greatest importance either to themselves or, perchance, to our enemies; while we should have no counteractive control to such power over these routes of telegraph as the British Government possessed over the lines of telegraph in this country, and which he had laid it down as a general rule in case of any public emer- gency, and in cases where the public interest required it, the Government should have in the way of a permissive power to take possession of them for the time being. He trusted, therefore, that the negotiations with Austria had not proceeded to such an extent as to commit Her Majesty's Government to agree to any terms that would place electric telegraph communication in the Mediterranean, and radiating from Corfu, in the hands of the Austrian Government. He should like still further to know what answer had been made to the proposals of the Sardinian Government to lay a line from Malta to Alexandria on much more favourable terms in a pecuniary point of view than the Austrian Government were disposed to exact. It was highly objectionable that any foreign Government should have control over the telegraphic communication of the country from such an important military post as Corfu; and if that important link in continental telegraphic communication were to be made, an invitation should be given to British capitalists and British companies, to know if they would not undertake to lay the wires at the same rate, or even at a more favourable rate to the English Government, than a foreign Government might feel inclined to offer. If it would answer the purpose of foreign capitalists to undertake it, it would surely answer that of British capitalists. In a communication of that important character he thought it highly essential that the key of the communication between Malta and Alexandria should he in the hands of the British Government itself, and that the Government of this country should undertake the line, guaranteeing interest on the money expended. Before, however, it was given over either to the Austrian, Sardinian, or any other foreign Government, he trusted that British capitalists and British companies would be allowed to compete for its concession.


said, it would almost appear from what had fallen from the noble Lord who had last spoken, that no communication or correspondence had been kept up between the late Treasury and Board of Trade, and that one was in blissful ignorance of what the other did. He believed that all the points alluded to by the noble Lord had been completely provided for in the negotiations that had gone on with the Austrian Government. He believed they had been most carefully and most deliberately considered; but undoubt- edly, if they should not have been so considered, it was hardly fair to suppose that the present Government were answerable for them, although the fact was that these negotiations, still pending, were proceeding on a very elaborate Minute of the Treasury which was prepared and left in the Treasury by a colleague of the noble Lord himself. In that Minute and in those negotiations every care and precaution had been taken—except that of communicating it to the noble Lord at the Board of Trade. One of the stipulations of the negotiations was, that the British Government should have complete power of laying down or availing itself of as many lines as they thought fit, and amongst others particularly of the line from Corfu and Malta to Alexandria, and that they should have the most complete control over these telegraphs. He did not go so far as to account for the negotiations not being terminated; but he thought the noble Lord would find, whenever he laid the result of these negotiations on the table, that the interests of this country had not been neglected either by his late colleagues, or by the Members of the present Government.


reminded the House that when the Bill of the Atlantic Telegraph Company was before them last Session he felt it his duty to decline taking on himself, as Chairman of the Committees of the House, the arrangements involved in that Bill. His objections were, that whereas in all telegraph Bills in this country provision was made giving priority in the transmission of messages to Her Majesty's Government, while in that Bill, notwithstanding that the line was to commence and end within Her Majesty's dominions, there was a clause giving to the American Government the same right of priority that was given to Her Majesty's Government. This was done in consideration of the American Government having given a joint guarantee. He then expressed his opinion, that it would have been much better if Her Majesty's Government had undertaken the whole responsibility, and so have secured the whole control.


said, the Government had not yet answered his question—namely, what answer had been given by Her Majesty's Government to the Sardinian Government's proposition with respect to the formation of the line between Malta and Alexandria, which proposition was precisely similar to that made by the Austrian Government?


The noble Lord will forgive me for saying that the question of the advantage or disadvantage of two telegraphic lines from Malta to Alexandria, by different routes, was very elaborately discussed in the Treasury Minute that I found when I came into office, left by the late Secretary to the Treasury, and it thereby appears that the late Government gave the preference to the line by way of Ragusa to Alexandria.


said, the noble Lord the Secretary for Foreign Affairs was very reluctant to answer the question,—What reply had been given by the Government to the proposition of the Sardinian Government?


I should not have had the least reluctance to answer the question if the noble Lord had given me notice of it. He knows perfectly well that there were two rival lines, the merits of which Her Majesty's Government had to discuss. I hope there will be two lines. We ought not to trust to one only. As the noble Lord appears to take a great interest in this matter, I may inform him that it was only the other day that a gentleman proposed to Her Majesty's Government to lay down a telegraphic line from Plymouth to Gibraltar, thence to Malta, and finally to Alexandria. I can assure the noble Lord that Her Majesty's Government are not at all monopolists in this matter.


said, he had heard with great pleasure that Her Majesty's Government had determined not to grant exclusive privileges to any company with respect to telegraphic communication between the coas of Ireland and Newfoundland. It was of great importance that the line of communication between British possessions should be kept as much as possible in British hands. He regretted very much that we had had anything to do with a guarantee with the United States as to the telegraphic line to be laid down between Newfoundland and the coast of Ireland, whereby a joint power of controlling that line was given to the United States' Government. He hoped that Her Majesty's Government would refuse to allow any of the ships of the Royal Navy to aid in laying down that line unless the United States' Government relaxed the conditions of the very imprudent bargain that had been entered into. He hoped that the line from Plymouth to Alexandria, by way of Gibraltar and Malta, of which the noble Earl the Secretary of Foreign Affairs had spoken, would be laid down, because it was of the utmost importance that Her Majesty's Government should have the power of communicating with our military garrisons in the Mediterranean by means of a telegraphic line belonging to a British company.


consented to withdraw the second part of his Motion.

Motion, as amended, agreed to

House adjourned at Eight o'clock, to Monday next, Eleven o'clock.