HL Deb 14 July 1859 vol 154 cc1195-9

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they had taken into consideration the Expediency of entering into Arrangements with Persons or Companies owning Steam Vessels other than those which carry the Mails, for the purpose of rendering such steam vessels capable of carrying Armaments of heavy guns, if required? He said that it was well known that steamers which received Government subsidies to carry mails were under engagement the they should be so constructed as to be able to carry guns in case of necessity, and should be placed at the service of the Government for warlike purposes if required. But there was a very prevalent impression that the contract that these steam vessels should be so constructed as to be capable of being turned into armed vessels had been very imperfectly kept, and that in fact they were not capable of carrying any armament. If this were the case, it was time that the public should know the real fact, and that the contracts should be more rigorously enforced. But as the principle had been admitted that certain steamers—commercial steamers—should be so fitted as to be able to carry heavy guns, why should not the same arrangement be applied to other steam vessels as well as those which carried mails? The steamers which carried mails had a Government agent on board, but he did not know if it was his duty to see if the vessel was seaworthy; but under the Passengers' Act the Government had the power of ascertaining whether any steamer which carried passengers was seaworthy. The service of largo steamers carrying mails was of great importance to the public; it was important that the mails should be regularly transmitted, and the service liable to no interruption. A strong case, therefore, ought to be made out before the Government should take these vessels for warlike purposes. There had been lately published a pamphlet by a gentleman whose opinion was of great weight on all matters relating to steam navigation—Mr. Laird. That gentleman said that many steam vessels employed in the coasting trade of a smaller description might be used for warlike purposes, and be useful in defending the coast and the mouths of great rivers like the Mersey, which were now unprotected. Mr. Laird had made an estimate of the cost of fitting these vessels for warlike purposes. His scheme was that the vessels should be made so strong as to be capable of mounting heavy guns, and he proposed to fit out 200 of these vessels so as to serve as gunboats. Mr. Laird put the cost of building and fitting 200 gunboats at £1,900,000, and the annual charge for keeping them up he put at 10 per cent of the cost, or £190,000. The cost of fitting vessels already in existence as gunboats would, he calculated, be £200 each, or £40,000; and the annual charge for them at £100 each, or £20,000. The difference between the expense of regular gunboats and the fitting of the proposed vessels for the purpose of converting them into gunboats was, that the former would cost exactly eleven times as much as the latter. Mr. Laird, however, admitted that he did not expect that the vessels so fitted would be quite so well adapted as regularly built gunboats for warlike purposes. These vessels besides would be quite as quickly made available for service as the gunboats laid up in ordinary, especially considering the way in which those vessels had been treated. It was not for him to say whether Mr. Laird's scheme was a feasible one, and if it was carried out, in what manner it was to be carried out. Vessels of that description ought certainly to be manned in such a manner as not to interfere with the manning of the regular navy. Men might be got for that service beyond the age when they would be received into the navy for continual service. It was quite certain it was not possible to construct fortifications sufficient for the defence of the whole of our coasts, and if we could we should not be able to man them; while any fortifications, if they were so situated as not to be efficient, had better not be erected at all. Some such scheme as this was therefore necessary, but it was not necessary to go to any great expense at first, but to try it on a small scale in the first instance. He would not at that late hour enter, as he might have done earlier in the evening, into the general subject of our national defences, but he would content himself with putting the question of which he had given notice.


said, their Lordships were probably aware that for the last fifteen or sixteen years this subject had, at various times, been brought under the consideration of Parliament. For many years, indeed, it was part of the contract of those great companies which carried the West India and other mails that they should adapt their vessels for the purpose of carrying armaments. This went on for some time; until about 1852 a Committee, consisting of naval and military officers, was appointed to examine into this question. That Committee went into the subject with great care, and they surveyed almost all the steam vessels round the coast of England. The general result of their report was, that it was not expedient to attempt to render these vessels fit for war purposes; that, in fact, the attempt to make them fit for war purposes would render them very unfit for commercial vessels. In 1853 another inquiry was instituted, going still further into the matter: and that, probably, accounted for some little difference in the report. It was on that occasion admitted that by a considerable expenditure some of the steam vessels might be rendered fit to carry armaments, but not fit to cope with vessels of war; that they might be made fit to defend themselves, and thus be so much more fitted for the conveyance of troops; but even that the Commission, which looked into the matter with very great care, and which consisted entirely of professional men, did not recommend. At the same time they stated that some of these vessels, in the case of an emergency, might, at an expense of £3,000 or £4,000 each, be rendered available for defence. The proposal of Mr. Laird was much to this effect—that there were certain steam tugs and other small vessels, especially in the Mersey, which might be fitted up for the defence of that river. As soon as that question was brought before the Admiralty they sent down agents and had those vessels surveyed, that they might ascertain how far it was possible that some of them might be used for that purpose. He did not anticipate that very much would result from this inquiry; but at the same time it was desirable that they should know how far these vessels might be rendered fit for the defence of the river. He did not think that anybody now was of opinion that our large steamers which went round the coast or to our colonies could be rendered fit for war; and he believed that any attempt to make them so would only be throwing the money away. But there was no doubt that from the great resources of these Companies, they could, on any pressing emergency, rapidly turn out vessels which would be available for war, and they had the means of putting on board engines that would produce in a short time a very considerable steam navy. The late Government had tried this to some extent by making arrangements to build a certain number of corvettes by contract, a species of vessel which the commercial yards were peculiarly qualified to deal with, and if any sudden emergency should arise he should be inclined to deal with the matter in the same spirit. He would conclude by saying, in answer to the noble Earl, that the Government had considered the expediency of converting small steam tugs and other, vessels into ships of war, but they did not contemplate re-opening the question, which was thoroughly discussed in 1852 and 1853. The reports made on those occasions were printed, and could be referred to by anybody who wished to investigate the matter.


thought that this matter was of some importance, as bearing upon the defence of our shores. He did not think, unless an expensive system of investigation were set on foot in reference to the construction of merchant vessels, which would cause great expense, and very much interfere with trade, there was any likelihood of merchant vessels being very well suited for war. He therefore very much concurred with the noble Duke that anything of the kind proposed would waste the public money without any adequate result. With our immense power of production he believed that we could produce such a quantity of ships as would meet any emergency. He did not think it was necessary to rely on our mercantile marine for the purposes of war.

House adjourned at a quarter past Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half-past Ten o'clock.