HL Deb 28 June 1860 vol 159 cc1069-82

rose, pursuant to notice, for the appointment of a Select Committee, to inquire how far it may be practicable to afford better shelter for Shipping upon our Coasts than is at present afforded by the adoption of some plan for the Construction of Breakwaters and Harbours less costly and better adapted for certain localities than the system of solid masonry hitherto in use; and whether any such plan appears likely to be also serviceable for the improvement of our National Defence. The noble Marquess said he addressed their Lordships on this subject some two months ago; but since that time two events had taken place which must have brought the necessities of the case very strongly home to their Lordships' minds. He alluded to the late fearful gale, which had destroyed so much property and so many precious lives, and to a recent vote of the House of Commons, come to, he thought, in haste, and with something of rashness; a vote desiring the execution of the works recommended by the Commission on Harbours of Refuge. The loss of life to which he alluded was most fearful, more especially on those parts of the coast where no attempt had been made to provide any shelter whatever—namely, on the east coast, particularly off Norfolk and Suffolk. It was so fearful that 194 fishermen belonging to one town—Yarmouth—perished, leaving upwards of eighty widows and 200 children totally unprovided for. It behoved the Government and Parliament to consider seriously and well whether those calamities could not be greatly mitigated. In his conscience he believed that they might be. It was his conviction, after a careful consideration of the subject, that if the matter were taken in hand earnestly and energetically by the State and the Legislature, such shelter might be provided as would insure the preservation of hundreds of lives and millions of property. It was stated in the Board of Trade returns that the average loss of life by wrecks on our coasts was 800, and the loss of property, £1,500,000. But, unfortunately, the loss of life had been going on increasing in ratio,—and when he talked of those returns their Lordships knew that they did not give the whole loss incurred, but only the losses which had been ascertained. Many wrecks occurred-which did not find their way into the official Returns. It appeared from a paper which was not official, but which he believed to be perfectly faithful—one issued by the Shipwrecked Mariners' and Fishermen's Royal Benevolent Society—that in 1858 they relieved 8,205 persons, and in 1859 no less than 10,354. Putting aside for a moment the question of humanity, he did not hesitate to say that this nation could not afford to throw away recklessly the lives of our seamen, who formed so important an element in the national defences. About 18,000 seamen had left this country and disappeared without our having received any account of them. This had no direct bearing on the question now before their Lordships, only so far as it showed that we could not afford to lose any of our mariners. If our coasts had shelter for an humble class of vessels as well as for the largo ones we should have a great increase in the number of our seamen and a great increase in our coasting trade. He knew it was argued that a great many of the wrecks were such as harbours of refuge would not prevent, and that a great proportion arose not so much from the want of shelter as from the unseaworthiness of the vessels and the unskilfulness of the captains and crews. He believed there was not as much truth in that allegation as was generally supposed. It was supported by quotations from the statistics of large shipping firms, especially those of one great firm in the north of this country, which it was said had for a long period lost hardly a ship, because its system was to send to sea none but good and well-found ships, with able commanders and efficient crews. No doubt there was a great number of lives lost at sea in consequence of a neglect of those precautions; but he must observe that the particular firm alluded to, and other such firms, were not engaged in the coasting, but in the foreign and colonial trade. Their ships, the moment they came out of harbour, avoided our coasts and got as far from them as possible, and on their return they did not dwell an instant on those coasts before entering harbour. It was the coasting trade that suffered so severely from the want of harbour accommodation. He objected to the recommendation of the Commissioners on Harbours of Refuge on two grounds. First, they recommended nothing but works of the greatest magnitude, and next, the works which they recommended were in direct violation of the most approved principle of constructing harbours. He had great respect for the Commissioners personally, but he was astonished at the audacity which enabled them to say that works of stone-masonry were the best, and, in fact, the only ones the State should assist. They recommended that class of harbours for their durability. Now if there was one quality in which, above all others, they were deficient, it was that of durability. The Commissioners said that such harbours were calculated to last for centuries or for ages, he forgot which term was used. Could they show him any harbour built on that principle which had lasted for centuries? He must say that the vote of the House of Commons the other evening, directing the Government to proceed with the execution of a certain plan of the Commissioners of Harbours of Refuge, was one of the most rash and ill-considered votes that had ever been come to by a deliberative assembly. Even the Commissioners themselves did not confidently recommend those works, which were estimated to cost between £2,000,000 and £3,000,000 of the public money, to be immediately undertaken. The Commissioners said that those works might he extended over a period of ten years at a cost to be defrayed by the country of £200,000 or £300,000 a year. Now, he contended, if the works they recommended were at all sound in principle, that they should be carried out without one day's unnecessary delay, at whatever cost, in order to afford protection as speedily as possible to the lives and property of our seamen. If they were fit to be executed at all it was an inhuman and indefensible economy to sacrifice by delay the lives that might be saved by promptness. If it were right to execute these works, not a day should be lost in undertaking and carrying them to completion. But the evidence of the best authorities was all the other way. Captain Cunningham said he was clearly of opinion that where a tidal river or the mouth of a bay existed on the coast to which the question applied "No refuge can be supplied by a space contained within piers projecting from the shore, because by that means you entail the loss of your harbour." Sir John Burgoyne's evidence corroborated this view. Yet these were the works which the Commissioners recommended to be executed in disregard of the plans of the modern authorities in science. One of the witnesses declared that Dovor Harbour presented a most miserable case of failure and waste of public money. It was stated at a recent meeting of the Institution of Civil Engineers that about £400,000 had been spent at Dovor, and that it was now often impracticable to effect the landing of the passengers at low water even from the small steamers that ran between that port and Calais. It was also calculated that if the harbour were made according to the plan proposed, it would cost £20,000 a year to keep it up. The Plymouth breakwater, which was another work of solid masonry, cost, he believed, £10,000 a year to keep it in repair. The Commissioners had flown in the face of all experience when they recommended works of solid masonry, which were constructed at an enormous expense, and were not, after all, durable. If there was a harbour on the coast that was expected to be useful, it was the great har- bour at Holyhead. But this harbour did not answer as it ought to do, for only a month ago, when he was there, the packets were in the greatest danger, and one of the witnesses declared that it was silting up and gradually decreasing in depth. A letter from a scientific gentleman given in the blue-book said no one should be employed to construct these works who was not thoroughly acquainted with the natural laws of the movements of the waves; that the engineers usually employed might or might not have the nautical knowledge that was required, but the practical result was that the value of any nautical opinion given was determined by the engineer. If the Government sanctioned the large expenditure proposed in the blue-book, they would only be expending a great deal of money on schemes that it was perfectly notorious had failed in other instances. Before they consented to the expenditure of such large sums he thought they ought to appoint a Committee, with the view of obtaining evidence on the point whether or not it was practicable to carry out some scheme that would effect all they desired at a moderate cost. If, instead of spending the £800,000 which the Committee recommended in the first instance, they were to spend £100,000 or £200,000 in trying experiments, the result of which might guide them in their permanent constructions. But he did not hesitate to say that if the Government concurred in the propriety of spending the money as proposed by the Commissioners instead of spreading it over a number of years at the rate of £250,000 a year, they ought to spend the whole sum at once, and not lose a day in taking steps to save life and property on our coasts. A great responsibility rested on the Government and on both Houses of Parliament if they did not look closely into this matter, and if they were not able conscientiously to say that they had done all in their power, and that without delay, to remedy the evils so loudly complained of. The noble Marquess concluded by proposing the appointment of a Select Committee.


said, no one could regard the loss of life and property by shipwreck, that took place on our coasts, without the deepest regret; and he was sure that no amount of money, however large, would be refused by Parliament, if it were thought that its expenditure would have the effect of better securing the lives and property of our seamen. But it was not merely by looking at the question of harbours of refuge or breakwaters, that knowledge could be obtained upon the subject. The matter had been gravely considered by many former Committees, and especially by the Committee on Shipwrecks; and the result arrived at was, that it was not merely a question of harbours of refuge, but was intimately connected with the subject of insurance. So long as the owners of vessels could recover from insurance companies the amount for which they had insured them, they were careless of what became of them. A great number of schemes for harbours of refuge, as their Lordships were aware, had been proposed, some of them most extensive and costly; but they differed so entirely from each other, that the more one looked into the evidence given in respect of them, the more perplexing the whole subject became. The most distinguished engineers were found to differ in opinion from each other upon every scheme proposed. By the terms of the noble Marquess's Motion, he appeared to object to every harbour and breakwater constructed of solid masonry. And in his speech he seemed to object to every breakwater that was connected in the form of a pier with the shore. He (the Duke of Somerset), however, was not aware, from the information they had obtained on the subject, that they could adopt any better system. The breakwater at Plymouth was detached from the shore, and therefore he thought the noble Marquess would have approved it; but, on the contrary, he pointed it out as an annual source of great expenditure.


said, he had referred to Plymouth breakwater to show that even the most useful work of the kind they possessed was attended with great expense.


said, at all events, there was great difference of opinion as to the kind of works that ought to be constructed. Any variety of opinions could be got from engineers on this question. Nothing was easier than to get a number of engineers to speak on one side, and an equal number on the other; and nothing could be more unfortunate than the scientific evidence given before Committees on the subject. The noble Marquess wished to know whether any plan less costly, and better adapted for certain localities than the system of solid masonry hitherto in use, could not be carried out. In putting this question, he pointed to the system of floating breakwaters, of which so much had been heard. The Commission which recently inquired into the subject of harbours of refuge, had looked into this question; and they stated in their Report that, having taken evidence on the matter, they considered there were serious drawbacks to the construction of floating breakwaters. Indeed, so far as their Report went, it was adverse to these floating breakwaters. A floating breakwater had been tried at Dovor, which came adrift in a storm. Another had been constructed by Admiral Taylor at Brighton; but that came ashore in a gale of wind. Those experiments justified the opinion of the Commissioners as to what might happen if breakwaters were not solidly built. There would be great risk in establishing breakwaters, which would increase the dangers of the sea; because the perils of the ocean would be increased if a ship was steered in a storm to a particular point, in the hopes of finding shelter; but, upon reaching that point, it was found that the breakwater had been driven ashore. It might happen, also, that when ships had actually taken refuge behind a floating breakwater, it might come adrift, and breakwater and ships be driven ashore together. Not being a professional man himself, he should like to have seen some experiments made of these floating breakwaters; but he thought no Board of Admiralty would take the responsibility of trying them. When in February last a company applied to the Admiralty, and proposed to lay down a floating breakwater at Hastings, he had to see how far the Admiralty—who were to some extent the guardians of the shores of the country—how far, if it failed, they would be responsible; and having legal advice that by proper care they would not be responsible, he answered that the Admiralty would not offer any opposition to the construction of a breakwater; but that it was to be distinctly understood that the promoters were not in any way the agents of the Admiralty; and that neither the Crown nor the Admiralty were to be responsible for any loss or damage that might arise to shipping or otherwise, from its construction or its failure. He had sent this answer to the company. He did not know whether they were satisfied or not; but he had not heard any more as to whether they were willing to take upon themselves the responsibility of placing the breakwater; but no Board of Admiralty, with naval men and others conversant with the subject, would be willing, and he believed their Lordships would be most unwilling, to establish any breakwater on any such principle. The example of light vessels was not without importance in reference to this subject. The light vessels along our shores were moored and fastened in the strongest way in which the Trinity House could secure them, and they had many advantages that a breakwater could not possess; but in 1841 all the three light vessels in the North Sea parted anchors, and drifted away in a storm. And in view of this, was it not likely that the same thing would happen with a breakwater, and that it would also give way at the very time it was expected to give shelter? Doubtless breakwaters of solid masonry were most expensive; but if they undertook the work at all, he thought it must be undertaken in that manner. He was aware that the breakwaters and harbours already constructed had not succeeded in many respects; and one reason was, that not only engineers differed, but that successive Governments differed on the subject. Last year he went to Alderney, accompanied by a military engineer and a naval one, and he called for all the plans with regard to the alteration of the harbour. There were fourteen plans that had been brought under the consideration of different Governments for the purpose. One Government thought they went a little too far, and another thought they ought to go in another direction, and under that system no doubt they had spent a great deal of money, and without getting a very satisfactory harbour; and they were now told in "another place" that the best thing they could do was to abandon the place altogether. He did not agree in that. It was not quite on the scale that he could wish, yet it should be remembered that the harbour was constructed at a time when vessels were not so large as they were at present, and he believed that for purposes of defence the harbour would be found very useful. The harbour of Holyhead had not been carried out on the scale originally proposed, and which would have rendered it a better harbour, but necessarily more costly. The noble Marquess had referred to Dovor Harbour. It was of solid masonry, and proceeded from the shore. [The Marquess of CLANRICARDE: No.] Well, then, it was solid work. It was not masonry below the water. He believed that it was as well constructed as could be, and they had every facility that they had not in other places. The materials were close at hand, and other questions must be considered when making a harbour like that. Undoubtedly Dovor Harbour was not at present successful, but he understood that when the pier was carried out a little further, it would be found useful; so that it would be unwise to abandon it, and not continue it for a short distance. This was our position with reference to harbours. With regard to commencing any of the other twelve great Harbours of Refuge recommended by the Commissioners, he confessed he thought the Government ought to pause, and consider exactly where the harbours should most properly be placed;—because the responsibility rested with the Government, and there were so many questions involved in the consideration of the question, that he should be very sorry to pledge himself to any one of the harbours brought before them. The noble Marquess wished for a Committee of Inquiry on the subject; but if his Committee was to be in the words of the Motion, "to inquire how far it may be practicable to afford better shelter for shipping on our coasts than is at present afforded, by the adoption of some plan for the construction of breakwaters and harbours better adapted than the system of solid masonry," he confessed he did not see much use in it, or the use of entering on another inquiry on the subject of floating breakwaters. He believed that, even with the authority of the noble Lords that had been on that Committee, no Board of Admiralty would ever venture to construct such a floating breakwater. He did not think that such a Committee would be of any use. The subject would be much better left to the responsibility of the Government, who would, when they had matured their plans, state to the House on their responsibility what harbours they thought should be constructed.


said, that if the noble Duke had intimated that he intended to carry out the views of the Commissioners, or had he intimated that it was his intention to cause any public money to be laid out without grave considerations as to the way in which it would be expended, he should have found it necessary to enter into the question of harbours of refuge. But the proposition of the noble Marquess was entirely of a different description; all he proposed being that a Committee should be appointed to ascertain whether floating breakwters could be constructed of such a character as to afford shelter at a moderate cost. He proposed that an experiment should be tried, but that, beforehand, there should be an examination by a Committee. For his own part he was much inclined to believe that what the noble Duke had stated was true as to the risks that characterized floating breakwaters. The noble Duke had referred to two unsuccessful experiments; but notwithstanding he (the Earl of Hardwicke) thought they might try the experiment of floating breakwaters on a small scale; that would not entail a great loss if they failed. He was strongly of opinion that they could secure a breakwater in such a manner that it would not fail; that it might be formed so as to oppose the smallest resistance to the sea: and that it might be secured by anchors and cables so as to be rendered perfectly safe. They all knew that there were certain parts of the coast, such as Yarmouth and Hastings, frequented by fishing boats, where the boats were built for beaching, and that when heavy weather came on they ran for the shore and beached themselves. But beaching was only practicable under certain circumstances, and if these circumstances did not present themselves the boats were destroyed. The experiment he should like to see tried would be floating breakwaters, covering a certain portion of beach, not for vessels to anchor behind, but simply to secure beaching for these boats. If they could apply the test in that experimental manner, and without the expenditure of a large sum of money, they would prove satisfactorily the value of floating breakwaters, and render great service to the fishermen. That was the only experiment he was disposed to try. In this way they would be able to lay before Parliament the best mode and form of construction to be adopted. The question was now so much advocated, and with so much warmth, that it was painful for the House to be in the position of being thought to be opposed to harbours of refuge, and of being content to see thousands of lives and millions of property sacrificed; but ill-found as vessels now too often were, he feared that if harbours of refuge were studied all along the coast, vessels would be sent to sea in a still worse state, and that the owners would take advantage of these harbours to relieve themselves from sufficient outlay. The harbours, moreover, proposed by the Commissioners would of themselves most probably become utterly useless in a short time, because the laws of nature always came in, and the tidal flow of the rivers in- terfered—in some cases extending the bar, and in others converting them into a mud trap. The question of a harbour of refuge was one more for a naturalist than for engineers, to whom it was too frequently an object to get a great job of masonry, and a commission of 5 or 10 per cent on the outlay. Under these circumstances it became hardly possible for the Government to undertake the question of harbours of refuge on the great scale proposed; but he did think it would be perfectly easy to construct a breakwater of timber which should settle the question with regard to the safety, durability, and expense of a breakwater of that description. As to the loss of life which occurred the other day off Yarmouth, no harbour of refuge could have prevented that. If those smacks had run for the beach early in the gale none would have been lost, but they foundered at sea owing to the tenacity with which they stuck to their nets.


thought that if the Report of the Commission on Tidal Harbours, which was laid before Parliament some years ago, were completed, it would be very advantageous, and would give valuable information. He believed that at a very trifling expense a most valuable harbour might be completed on the southwest coast of Cork in the Long Island Channel. At present it was only a blind harbour, and he believed it was the intention, with the sanction of the Board of Trade, to carry out the improvement. As mention had been made of breakwaters in connection with the national defences, he wished to know whether it was the intention of the Government to provide defences on the south coast of Ireland to the west of Cork. Bantry Bay was without a single gun for the protection of the district.


thought that no further defences were required for Bantry Bay or Cork Harbour than the vessels which would be stationed there. Blockships and others would furnish as good a protection as could be supplied.


said there was a very important point, though unconnected with the subject immediately before the House. He wished to know how soon any proposition would be made, or any explanations given as to the intentions of the Government respecting the defences of the country. There had now been lying before Parliament for a considerable time a Report which involved an enormous expenditure, and upon which it was very import- ant that the intentions of her Majesty's Government should be known, so that there might be ample time for the discussion of any proposition submitted by them. The Session was now advancing so rapidly to its close that he should probably be pardoned for taking this opportunity of asking how soon they might expect a statement on this subject, and how far the Government intended to carry out the recommendations of the Commissioners on the National Defences.


replied that the proposal, whatever it was, would be made in the other House. He was not now prepared to give any other answer to his noble Friend's question.


considered the question of the defences of the country to be of the most vital importance. Every one must have been impressed with the proud scene that presented itself on Saturday, and every one must have been struck with the facility with which a great military force of Volunteers—and in saying so he made no distinction between Volunteers and troops of all services—were moved from one part of the country to another, and it was manifest that this facility would form an important element in our national defence. The Volunteer review in Hyde Park was, indeed, a proud scene, and he had to suggest that it should be repeated in other parts of the country, and that there should be an assemblage of the Volunteers in Yorkshire, in Lincolnshire, in Devonshire, and in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the island. Were that done he believed that the feeling that would be produced would be one of the happiest in its effects on the Volunteer system of this country, and that it would also have the happiest effect upon other countries.


said, that the harbour at Wick was one of the most useful in existence, and had stood for a long time, and not a stone had been removed during the late stormy season; and although he was not an advocate for experiments in general, seeing that they were costly, he believed that if an experiment could be carried out on a small scale in building piers or harbours without the introduction of lime or cement, especially at low water, it would be a great benefit. He had himself built a small pier in this way, that for two years had stood a succession of gales. No doubt in making harbours, engineers had the elements to contend with, and had to fight against the water, but they forgot the force the water had in coming up; and that every time it did so, it laid stress on the masonry, which was sooner or later disturbed. But as regarded the harbour of Wick, additional works for the protection of the harbours were much required. Next month, when the fishing season began, 1,000 boats would leave every night with at least 5,000 men, and should there come on a gale of wind from the east or south-east, they were left entirely to the mercy of the sea. He had seen a change of wind in a few minutes which made it impossible for them to enter the harbour.


very much approved the suggestion of the noble Earl (the Earl of Hardwicke) as to trying the experiment of floating breakwaters for the purpose of protecting the beaching of boats; but he thought the plan would be useful not only for the protection of beaching but also for affording facilities for launching life-boats. The noble Duke had refused to grant a Committee to inquire into the matter, and he (the Marquess of Clanricarde) did not envy the noble Duke and his colleagues the burden of responsibility which they had taken upon themselves, in refusing to accede to the Motion or to carry out the proposals of the Committee which had sat on harbours of refuge, though four out of every five men who knew anything about the matter were of opinion that at a small cost immense protection might be afforded to seamen and to trade. He believed, however, that they would ultimately be forced to take some steps.


said, the Government had not refused to accede to the Motion of the noble Marquess. For himself he had not the necessary knowledge to enable him to form an opinion upon the matter, and indeed he was so destitute of scientific knowledge that he should have doubted, if his noble Friend had not so stated, that the strength of holding of the proposed breakwaters could be tried any day. He should have thought that it could only be tried during very rough weather. If, however, his noble Friend (the Marquess of Clanricarde) had ascertained that those Peers who felt an interest in this matter, and were competent to deal with it, were willing to sit upon a Select Committee upon it he should have no objection to granting such a Committee if the noble Marquess would renew his Motion on Friday, He must say, however, that three inquiries. were now going on in the other Houses which it was necessary that officers of the Admiralty should attend for the purpose of giving evidence; and a fourth inquiry also necessitating their presence would bear hardly upon them.


said, he would withdraw the Motion with the purpose of renewing it to-morrow.

Motion, by leave of the House, withdrawn.