HL Deb 30 April 1863 vol 170 cc983-8

rose to put a Question with regard to the Continuation of the Works on the Forts at Spithead. He said, that in the Session of Parliament of 1861, a very considerable sum of money was placed at the disposal of the Crown for the purpose of strengthening the fortifications and defences of the United Kingdom; and last year the Government began works of very considerable importance for this purpose. Among these works was one of great cost at Spithead; but after the expenditure of a very large sum of money, and when the foundation was nearly completed, a great difference of opinion arose in the public mind in respect to the expediency of carrying on the work, and the progress of the work was suspended. There was sunk under the water a very considerable sum of money —perhaps about £100,000, though he did not exactly know the amount—and the work was bang acted on by time. Should it be suspended much longer, the public money expended on it would certainly be lost. Recently there had taken place on the other side of the Atlantic, in the port of Charleston, an occurrence which had awakened public attention, and induced him to take the opportunity of pressing the Government for a declaration as to their intentions in reference to the future progress of the work he had alluded to. A fortress had always had, from the most ancient times, the advantage over ships. He could cite an immense number of cases showing that from the beginning to the end fixed artillery and a fortress had the advantage over ships. For instance, in 1805, no less a person than Sir Sidney Smith attacked a single gun in a Martello tower with an 80 gun ship. After cannonading it for an hour, his first lieutenant went to Sir Sidney who was sitting in his cabin writing a despatch, and told him that (though there were a great many splinters round the Admiral) the fire had not been able to do the town any harm. Sir Sidney said, that under those circumstances, they had better go away; and so the ship was beaten off by a single gun. Other cases of a similar kind might be mentioned where two or three fixed guns were employed against heavy ships. At the battle of Copenhagen the victory was certainly with the English, but not in consequence of their artillery having an advantage over that of the Danes; but, in consideration for the population of that capital, it was thought proper to treat with the English rather than cause the town to be destroyed. At Algiers the case was different. No question arose there of a feeling for the population, but the battle was fought out; and so thoroughly were the English beaten that they cut their cables and got out of range, with the land wind. Afterwards the question was settled by the ingenuity and clever manner in. which Lord Exmouth conducted the affair; but the ships went out of action with the loss of a thousand men, and with no means of renewing the action again. Then, again, in the Black Sea, the result of the attack of our fleet on the forts of Sebastapol was well known to their Lordships, and in the Baltic they only attempted the process of shelling a fort at long ranges. No doubt, in former times these operations were conducted by means of sailing vessels, which were exposed to the danger of their masts being shot away, or the wind falling off— inconveniences which were now obviated by the use of steam. Nevertheless, he maintained that fortresses and ships stood yet in the same comparative position as formerly; and not with standing the advantage given to ships by armour plating, the fixed gun and the fortress, in consequence of the improvements made in artillery, were still superior to ships. They had a proof of this in what occurred the other day in America. Whether the attack on Charleston was a real attack or not he could not pretend to say, and what was the true history of the attack and of the defence they none of them as yet exactly knew; but one or two points were unquestionable—namely, that nine iron-plated ships, very heavily armed had been beaten off and obliged to retreat, one vessel being sunk, and several others being seriously injured; and that this was done while the Federal squadron was advancing up a channel very much resembling that which the channel at Spithead would be if the proposed forts were built. Under these circumstances, he ventured to bring under the notice of the Government the position in which the question now stood with regard to the forts at Spithead. Both past and present events proved that the fortress was the master of the ship, and he therefore begged to ask whether it was the intention of the Government to proceed with the plans previously arranged, or with any others, in regard to the fortifications of Portsmouth. A large sum of public money had been expended; and if the work remained untouched for another year, a very great loss would be the result. He would give no opinion with respect to the mode of constructing the forts; but the whole of the inland waters near Portsmouth formed a great basin for the protection of vessels; and if it was determined to carry out the work, he thought that one fortress should be erected on the Brambles, which constituted a central position, whence the guns could reach the shore on all sides.


said, a Bill passed through Parliament last Session, by virtue of which certain works specified in the schedule, and no others, were authorized to be carried on. After a good deal of discussion in the House of Commons it was agreed that the construction of the forts at Spithead were to be not entirely abandoned, but suspended for a time. It was stated by the Government on that occasion, that as there were many works connected with the defences to be carried on, and as there was a doubt about the special advantage of the forts at Spithead, it might be as well to go on with the other works, and leave these for further consideration. A sum of £900,000 had been expended altogether, of which the expenditure on Spithead, up to July 1862, was only £15,000. A certain amount had been subsequently spent, owing to the engagement with the contractors, but the whole sum was not so large as the noble Earl seemed to think. In regard to what had occurred at Charleston, it was remarkable, that if the American Government had intended to carry out an experiment for our benefit in connection with this subject, they could not have done anything more to the point. The distance between our forts on the mainland and the sandbank was exactly 2,000 yards; and measuring on the charts the distance between Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie, it would be found to be 2,000 yards also. In both cases there was a strong current, and in both cases similar facilities in approaching to within a certain distance of the forts. In both cases the same means of obstructing the attack, by means of fishing nets and other similar contrivances for fowling the screws and impeding the vessels, were talked of. Therefore, if we had asked them to try the experiment, they could not have selected a place more suitable than Charleston for that purpose. With regard to the vessels employed in the attack, he must admit that the experiment had not been equally satisfactory. It might be remembered that fourteen months ago we were told, by the American shipbuilders, that they had built the Monitor by way of warning to the British Admiralty. It certainly was a warning, for the first moment she met with a gale she went to the bottom. They built more Monitors, and these had failed in the first experiment of an action against forts. Had they built them more strongly and of a better class, we should have had a more interesting experiment, and should have known better what iron plated vessels could do against forts. The experiment, therefore, was not quite satisfactory. We did not know the description of guns that were employed, mid the kind of shot and quantities of powder that were used, and many other particulars that were important to enable us to form an opinion upon that experiment. It was quite clear, however, that those vessels were completely defeated, and that another Monitor was sunk. So far it had been very decidedly in favour of the forts. With regard to Spithead, no money could he spent on the forts there at present. But it would be shortly necessary to come to Parliament for a grant of money, and that made it desirable that this question of the Spithead forts should be settled this year. If anything was to be done, the summer months ought not to be allowed to be lost. He hoped in a short time the Government would be able to bring the subject under the consideration of Parliament.


said, he understood the noble Duke to say that the circumstances at Charleston and Spithead were precisely similar, and to speak of the distance as 2,000 yards. But he (the Earl of Derby) thought the injury which had been inflicted on the iron plated vessels was inflicted after they entered the harbour, and had thus exposed themselves to a concentric fire from the batteries at a distance of from 300 to 500 yards. That was an important element in considering the subject.


said, as far as the charts went, and as far as he could make out, the vessels at the nearest point must have been very nearly 600 yards from Fort Sumter, and the other forts must have been at a much greater distance. When he spoke of 2,000 yards, he meant the distance from one fort to another.


said, he believed the iron-plated ships employed at Charleston were by all accounts inferior vessels, and yet they so far protected the men that scarcely any one on board was injured by the tremendous fire. Was not that the case? Was it not true that Charleston was six or seven miles from the place where the action took place; and, if the iron-plated vessels had been at Portsmouth instead of Charleston, would they not have been quite within range of the dockyard, so as to shell it, while allowing the forts to play on them?


said, he did not know exactly the amount of damage that had been done. His impression was, that the ships were too far from the town to enable them to do much harm. Any one who looked at the chart would see that the town was six or seven miles distant. The position of the ships with regard to the forts would, he thought, make it very disagreeable for any vessels to have strayed to shell the town.

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