HL Deb 14 May 1860 vol 158 cc1179-89

THE EARL OF HARDWICKE moved for, Return of all the Vessels or Gunboats below 1,000 Tons Burden built by Contract since the Year 1852, with the Names and Residences of the Contractors of each Vessel; showing at the same Time the Year of their Construction, the Price contracted for, together with their present Condition as to Sea-worthiness. The noble Earl said he was induced to make this Motion in consequence of the reports which had been for some time current, and which were now thoroughly believed, that a number of the small vessels built within the last four or five years by contractors, under the sanction of the Crown, had turned out to be in such a decayed condition that they were not supposed to be fit for any service whatever until they had undergone a thorough repair. These rumours had naturally produced in the country a feeling of indignation; because it was felt that there was something, either on the part of the Government or on the part of the contractors, or perhaps on the part of both, owing to which a large sum of money had been lost to the country, and the hope and belief which had been entertained that the defences of the country were daily strengthening and improving had been at once destroyed. This was a matter for very grave consideration. He was bound to say that the present Government were not implicated in this matter, as the contracts were made before they came into office, and he had no doubt the noble Duke at the head of the Admiralty was as anxious as he was himself to remedy so great a grievance. The contractors, no doubt, undertook to perform that of which they had notice in the document called a "specification of work," which he had not moved for, but which would, if the present Return were granted, as it would be necessary in fairly judging of the state of the case; and he intended, on a future occasion, to move for it. From what had fallen from one of the Ministers in "another place," he understood it was well known to the Government that there was in the merchant builders' yard at the time the contracts were entered into no timber of good quality, but only such as was usually termed unseasoned, and only fit for temporary purposes. If it turned out that the contractors made the agreement with a clear engagement to perform the very best work at the very best prices, and that the specification contained those words which involved the very best description of construction, with the most expensive materials, and the best price, and if the Government were then aware that the timber was unfit for use, then he must say that, the Government were more in fault than the contractors: be- cause, if it had been thought necessary to run up a number of vessels for temporary use, it would have been easy to draw up specifications which would have allowed of vessels being built for temporary purposes at a moderate cost. If, on the other hand, the contractors made an agreement, and stated that they were quite prepared to build ships with the best materials and the best work, then they were the parties to be censured. But with regard to the Government, he wanted to know where the responsibility rested, in order that he might lay his hand on the right person. He knew that the responsibility of the Government, as a general matter, was very attainable; that is, the Government was responsible, and if not acceptable to the country, would speedily cease to be a Government. He knew also that the Board of Admiralty was responsible for naval matters. Yet, as it happened in this case, there was not what was wanted, knowledge in combination with responsibility. There could be no real responsibility where there was no knowledge. While a civilian was at the head of the Admiralty, there was a difficulty in dealing with questions connected with management of the naval resources of the country. But in this case this did not apply, for he apprehended that the real party responsible was the Surveyor of the Navy. Now the Surveyor of the Navy, since it had been discovered that these boats had rotted, had changed his name, and become "Controller" of the Navy. What he (the Earl of Hardwicke) wanted to know was, whether the Controller was responsible for what had taken place? That functionary was bred a seaman, and was a highly respectable officer; and he was placed in the position of Surveyor of the Navy, for which situation a person should be selected who was brought up from his earliest life, as an apprentice in the building yard, to the use of the adze. But at present all the Surveyor could say was, that as he had not been educated to the business of a shipwright, he knew nothing of the details of construction, and could only refer to those under him in order to ascertain whether the work had been done agreeably to the specification. Formerly they had for Surveyors of the Navy responsible officers—men who had served their apprenticeship and gone through the various grades of the shipwright business. Those men looked to promotion to the Surveyor-ship of the Navy just as an eminent lawyer looked to becoming Lord Chancellor. Sir James Graham, in his wisdom, when First Lord, abolished the system, and appointed a gentleman who, however distinguished in other matters, was utterly incapable as a Surveyor. The powerful Whig jobbery of the day introduced Sir William Symonds as surveyor. He was an excellent officer and able man, but he was quite ignorant of shipbuilding, and in his new office proved quite a failure he was succeeded by Sir Baldwin Walker, who was an able naval officer and an excellent administrator, but was no more fit for Surveyor than he (the Earl of Hardwicke) was he knew nothing whatever of construction, he had never been educated to it; yet he was the only person whom the Admiralty had to make responsible for these vessels. It would not be difficult to find men who were thoroughly fitted for the office. He knew he might be told that there was a Board of Construction. He knew very well what a Board of Construction was, and what a Board of Admiralty was also. There was a First Lord of the Admiralty at the head of the one, and a Surveyor of the Navy at the head of the other, and neither of them had been educated to the profession which he had undertaken. Those men who were responsible had no professional knowledge, and those who had professional knowledge were irresponsible. The case of these gunboats was one of so flagrant a character, and it was important that the fullest information should be obtained on the subject, that he hoped the House would grant him these Returns. If they did, he would promise to follow the matter up with the view of bringing before them the exact state of facts with reference to the boats themselves, and also the responsible persons connected with these transactions. The subject would at any time have been an important one, but it was more especially so now when we were building by contract on so large a scale. No less than £1,000,000 was to be expended on four iron vessels for which a contract had been entered into. These vessels were to cost £250,000 each. Under these circumstances he was sure their Lordships would agree with him that it was their duty to do all that could be done in the way of precaution for the future. With regard to those gunboats which were the subject of his remarks, he was told that a few of them had been examined and found in a very decayed state, and that two or three were broken up; but from the information he had received—which he hoped might not be accurate—he was led to be- lieve that the whole of them were more or less worthless. He was told that the whole sixteen which had been hauled up at the slip at Portsmouth were rotten, and that the condition of the remainder was such that those which were to be repaired would cost as much for repairs as the cost of their original construction. There was not only the question of unseasoned timber, but also that of the fastenings. Their Lordships had no doubt heard that in some cases there was no thorough fastening, but that while a bolt-head appeared at each side there was no union in the centre. This was even a more important matter to the seaman than the other. A seaman might not perhaps care so much about being obliged to be at sea for a few months in a vessel of which the timber was not sound; but what must be his feelings if he learned that he was aboard one which had not proper fastenings? He trusted their Lordships would grant him Returns which might be the means of bringing home to the proper parties acts which he could not designate by any other term than criminal. There was the more necessity for the supervision of Parliament, where they had rascally contractors on one side and an irresponsible Surveyor on the other.


There can be no objection to give the information which the noble Earl desires, and which, indeed, has already been moved for and ordered in the other House of Parliament. One part of the information sought for in the Return would be difficult to obtain immediately—namely, the present state of all those boats with respect to sea-worthiness. We have at present no fewer than 162 gunboats, and to be able to give an account of their sea-worthiness we should be obliged to have them all brought into dock, stripped, and examined. That cannot be done with regard to the whole of them, as your Lordships will see when I state how they are distributed. There are 53, divided into three divisions in different ports, at home; at Haslar, 45; in commission at Pembroke and elsewhere, 8; in China, 24; North America, 3; Mediterranean, 3; South-east Coast of America, 2; connected with the Coastguard, 14; in course of construction, 10;—making a total of 162. When the present Board of Admiralty came into office we heard a great deal about the gunboats, particularly those at Haslar, and we thought it our duty to have them inspected. They were inspected, and certainly a considerable amount of decay was found in them. I believe, indeed, their defective state had been discovered some months before, and at the time of our inspection workmen were already engaged in repairing them. More hands were put on, and during the whole of the summer there were 100 men employed. Of the 45 gunboats at Haslar 23 have been thoroughly repaired; 6 more are in hand; so that 29 are either repaired or in a state of progress. We have been told that it was a mistake to keep the gunboats out of the water; but some of those afloat are quite as much decayed at those at Haslar. The one class does not seem to be more exempt from decay than the other. With regard to those in commission we have heard no complaint. We have had gunboats constantly at work in China and with our Coastguard, and, as far as we know, they have been, and are, perfectly efficient. So that the matter is not quite so serious as some people suppose; nor is it correct to say that no reliance whatever can be placed upon any of the gunboats. I admit, however, that great blame rests somewhere for the mode in which many of these vessels were constructed. But we must look back to the circumstances which then existed. We commenced the Russian war with no gunboats. We were then engaged in repairing ships and replacing sailing by steam vessels. Your Lordships may be aware that in the private builders' yards there is at any moment but a small stock of timber, and therefore when this pressure arose the builders had great difficulty in obtaining timber. Under these circumstances the Government offered not only the contract price, but also a bonus for each gunboat that was completed within a certain time; so that the builders had the advantage not only of the contract, but also of the bonus. This however was not much to their profit, because the shipwrights in the Thames, being bound by no engagements, demanded an increase of wages; and this, combined with the rise of the price of timber, had been so seriously to the disadvantage of the contractors, that it is reported that some of them had been ruined by their contracts. As regards what took place in 1854–55 I speak quite independently; I am in no way responsible for what the Government did then; but I have inquired into what occurred, and I have been told that in many of these yards there were two inspectors—a chief inspector, and a leading man under him—to watch the progress of the work. They were, however, working day and night; it was during the winter, in many cases snow was upon the ground; and thus under this pressure opportunities were offered to dishonest workmen to commit the fraud which has been referred to by cutting off the bolts. What makes that offence more flagrant is that the copper was supplied to the contractors in long lengths by the Admiralty to be cut up for bolts as it was required by the builders. So far as we have gone we have found only two or three vessels in which this iniquitous fraud has been committed, and I do not attribute it to the contractors, but to some of the workmen who may have been introduced into the yards under the pressure of the period. That question of the bolts was brought under the notice of the Admiralty only about two months ago, since which time I have instituted inquiries with a view to taking such legal proceedings as may raise the whole question, and, if possible, secure the punishment of the guilty parties. What the noble Earl said about the Surveyor of the Navy is not applicable to this case. At that time great exertions were being made in our dockyards to fit out vessels rapidly; there were a number of vessels to be built, and contracts and specifications to be drawn up, and the Surveyor of the Navy, as he was then called, could not himself visit the private yards and inspect the works which were going on there. He was much more usefully employed in overlooking the great works which were going on in our dockyards. All he could do was to employ the best men he could get as inspectors. With the advice and concurrence of the superintendents of the different yards he took the best leading men and workmen, and sent them to the different contractors' yards to inspect the work which was going on there. That I believe is the system which has always prevailed, and I know no better one which could be adopted. If you are building a house you must trust to the clerk of the works, and if he chooses to connect himself with the contractor and permit him to put in bad timber, you are quite helpless until you find it out some time afterwards. In the same manner, in the case of building a ship, if the man or men whom you appoint as inspectors enter into connivance with the builders—I do not say that that was the case in this instance—but, if they do, I do not see what resource you have or by what moans you can protect yourselves. The noble Earl complains that the Sur- veyor of the Navy is not a practical shipwright. That question has been discussed over and over again. We have had shipbuilders as Surveyors of the Navy, and naval men have complained of them, that though they could build a ship they knew nothing about fitting it, and that the vessels which they constructed were not suited to go to sea, In the last arrangement which has been made the Admiralty took; this course. They appointed a practical shipbuilder to attend to the construction of the vessel, a practical engineer to look after the machinery, and a naval man to act with them and to give them advice. So far as I can learn—although, of course, great improvements may still be made, and I think naval architecture is making very rapid progress—the ships which have been built under this system are very satisfactory. The Channel fleet has, as your Lordships are aware, been at sea in one or two gales, and it has been tried, although not very seriously, yet enough to enable naval officers to judge of the qualities of the ships of which it is composed. As soon as it arrived in port I wrote to the captain of each vessel, and asked him to tell me what he thought of her and of her behaviour while she had been under his command, and what, if any, improvements be could suggest in her build. Upon the whole, the Reports which I have received in reply are most satisfactory and do great credit to the builders of these vessels, because they show that they are very efficient ships and have, so far as they have been tried, behaved very well. Therefore, I think, in opposition to the view of the noble Earl, that the system which we have got is, upon the whole, a good system. The reason for changing the title of the Surveyor of the Navy to that of "Controller of the Navy" is to show that he is not actually a shipbuilder, but that he is to overlook the other two departments, and to bring the practical knowledge of a seaman to the technical information of the shipbuilder and the scientific information of the engineer, and by the combination of the three to give to naval men the assurance that they will have placed under their command the best ships that can be constructed. It is impossible that any of these officers should give to the dockyards the practical inspection which is necessary, and, therefore, I had intended to connect with the department of the Controller an officer who should visit the dockyards, see what is going on and communicate with the Admiralty more readily than can be done under the existing system. The reason why I have yet made no such appointment is, that a Commission on Dockyards has been moved for in "another place," and I thought that it would be better and more respectful to Parliament to wait for its Report than at once to carry out my own idea. It has been said that many of these gunboats were constructed of green wood. That, however, is not the worst, for in many cases not only was the wood which was used green, but the sap was not properly removed from it. That was a much greater fault, because it was hardly to be expected that in private yards there should be a proper supply of seasoned timber; but the material which was used might in all cases have been properly prepared for use. In order to prevent similar occurrences in future, we have laid down a rule that when any builder applies to the Board of Admiralty for a contract for building ships, the Board shall send a person to visit his yard to see what stock of timber and what slip accommodation he has got. By watching carefully the quantity of timber they keep in store, and by giving the contracts to those builders who keep the largest quantity of suitable timber, the Admiralty hope to secure the use of proper materials in the construction of their vessels. The iron-coated vessels which are now being built are not vessels in which the question of seasoned timber materially enters; that used is chiefly foreign wood, and is used internally for strengthening the sides of the ship, and in no part is in contact with the water. With regard to the gunboats at Haslar, after consulting the other members of the Board, I am inclined to believe that vessels built some time ago, and which had not yet been launched, would be found now to be sound and well-seasoned. There were thirty or forty of those gunboats; and it was now intended to have them of a somewhat better class than those which we now possessed, so that they might be enabled to take a part in our colonial service, and save the expense of employing larger vessels. Reverting, however, to the quality of the timber used in the dockyards, I would remark that the foreign oak and teak, being brought from a distance, was all well seasoned, and the Admiralty were using that more and more every year. It was obvious that of English oak there was not a sufficient quantity in the market to meet the requirements of the dockyards, but for some purposes they were obliged to use it. Considering the rate at which they were building last year, it must be obvious that our stock of timber was limited in comparison with the demands upon it, and efforts were therefore being made to obtain timber from all parts of the world. Last year there were added to our efficient navy, by launching new vessels or by the conversion of sailing into steam vessels, 17 ships of the line, 9 frigates, 3 corvettes, and 7 sloops, which would form almost a fleet of themselves. If the Admiralty went on building at that rate, it would be impossible for them to obtain the quantity of well-seasoned timber that would be required. But as regards our present operations, we are putting vessels on the frames rather to season them than to launch them with the rapidity that we have lately done. My Lords, I know of no other point to which I need now advert. I have stated why we cannot give the information now asked for with respect to every gunboat, but only as to those of them that have been examined. But in the statement which will be produced the words "not examined" will be entered against those vessels which have not undergone inspection. One-half of the mortar-boats are built of iron. As to the wooden mortar-boats, we have not yet gone over the whole of them, and are not, therefore, able to state what is their condition.


deprecated the existing system, in conducting which no one appeared to be responsible. It was melancholy to think that men could be found who would, instead of driving copper bolts into the wood, put them into their pockets. If there was anything that could make a seaman tremble it would be a suspicion of the unseaworthy condition of his vessel, and that it was rotten and would not hold together. The inquiry should be gone into most thoroughly; and if the service was to be liable to these dreadful frauds it would be better that they should use the old trenails instead of copper bolts. As regarded unseasoned wood, they ought to have an adequate supply for our enormous navy, and if oak could not be had in sufficient quantities, supplies of teak—which was a good heavy wood—could be obtained. Something, however, must be done to prevent a recurrence of what had taken place, and somebody must be made responsible.


made a few remarks, which were inaudible.


said, there was a Board of Construction in former years, but it did not exist now. The members of the Board of Admiralty used to take part in the construction of ships; but that system was not found at all to work well, and it was then determined to make the Surveyor responsible for giving advice in such matters. At present, when the Board thought more line-of-battle ships or other vessels were required, they sent to the Surveyor, who called in the practical men under him to prepare the lines; and then his advice, together with the plans, was submitted for the approval of the Board.

Motion agreed to; Returns ordered.