HL Deb 07 July 1871 vol 207 cc1282-5

, in moving for a Return of expenditure incurred since the year 1850 on fortifications in Alderney, expressed his astonishment at the statement recently made by Opposition Members in the House of Commons that the harbour at Alderney was a harbour of refuge, and at the announcement made by Members of the Government that on the completion of the harbour fortifications would have to be constructed to defend it. The fact was that it was a military harbour, designed solely for the defence of the Channel, and the fortifications were constructed years ago, four or five forts being already completed, and eight batteries ready for arming. The works for the harbour and fortifications of Alderney dated back beyond 1850, and were strongly urged by the late Duke of Wellington and Lord Hardinge. It was thought by them, and by many other eminent naval and military authorities, that with Alderney on one side, and Portland on the other, the Channel would be made safe from hostile cruisers in the event of war. So far from circumstances having since occurred to render it less advisable to construct these fortifications at Alderney, they had become more and more expedient. Whatever was then doubtful was now favourable. The dimensions and increased power of our guns would enable us to pierce and destroy any ironclad that might enter the Channel. Lord Herbert, as Secretary for War, visited Alderney at his (the Duke of Somerset's) instance when First Lord of the Admiralty. He himself inspected it three times, first with Sir John Burgoyne, next with Sir George Lewis, and afterwards with Lord Ripon. Eminent authorities accompanied him on each visit, and on each occasion it was decided that the harbour and fortifications should be maintained. It would have been madness to make a harbour for merchant shipping among rocks; but the Government, apparently misled by the name "harbour of refuge," had actually regarded it as such, and had handed it over to the Board of Trade. That Board might as well have been intrusted with the fortifications of Gibraltar or Malta. The work, no doubt, was originally undertaken to some extent out of jealousy of Cherbourg; but long after that jealousy it was still deemed advisable for the defence of the Channel. At a time when there was so much discussion as to the safety of our shores, and when imaginary invasions and defences were published, some little attention might surely have been paid to Alderney; but the harbour, it appeared, was to be abandoned, and he wished to know whether the fortifications were also to be abandoned? At one time the House of Commons decided on erecting forts at Spithead; but a year or two afterwards, in a fit of economy, they were stopped, and a heavy fine had to be paid to the contractor, but next year the works were resumed. The sea wall at Holyhead had suffered from similar vacillations, and at Dover something of the same kind had occurred. It might be right to give up the works at Alderney, on which a large sum of money had been expended; but it could not be right that the House of Commons should decide in ignorance of the facts, and under the impression that the forts had still to be erected. Unless as a military harbour, the harbour was good for nothing; but as a military harbour, it was of the highest value. He believed that with telegraphic communication between Portland and Alderney, and a strong naval force at Portland, it would provide efficient means of defending the Channel.

Moved, "That there be laid before this House, Return of expenditure incurred since the year 1850 on the Fortifications in the Isle of Alderney.—(The Duke of Somerset.)


attributed the undertaking of the work to the mistaken impression that from Alderney one could look into Cherbourg. Its shallow water, strong tides, and sunken rocks, rendered Alderney an undesirable station for ships, and he doubted whether any useful purpose would be served by proceeding with the work.


stated, in reply, that the harbour was handed over to the Board of Trade in 1866, the noble Duke himself being then First Lord of the Admiralty, and probably taking part in the transfer. Mr. Hawkshaw had made a rough estimate of the amount required to repair the damage done to the harbour by a recent storm; but the Government were waiting for a more detailed estimate, and it would then have to be considered whether it was worth while expending any more money upon it. The original Estimate for that part of the harbour already constructed was £620,000, but over £1,300,000 had been spent upon it; and six successive heads of the Department had made changes in the plan, which might partly account for the increased cost. The harbour consisted at present of a western breakwater only; but if it were to be made secure there must be an eastern breakwater, which would also cost a large sum. When completed it would be almost useless in an cast wind, which was very violent at that spot, and would afford little safety even for a large ship. It was full of rocks, and was, indeed, the most dangerous spot in the Channel. £10,000 a-year would be required in perpetuity to repair breaches; while, according to a rough estimate, £250,000 would be required to prevent such breaches. It was a question how far it was wise to throw good money after bad, and whether the completion of an undertaking which everybody now condemned would prove a profitable investment.


said, it was most lamentable that so large a sum of money should have been expended on a harbonr which was useless either for belligerent or commercial purposes, while there was so urgent a necessity for the construction of harbours of refuge on our northern and eastern coasts. The annual loss of property from shipwreck on our coast was estimated at £2,400,000, while the yearly loss of life was from 600 to 1,000. Notwithstanding the recommendations of a Select Committee and of a Royal Commission, no action had been taken by the Government, though local enterprise had so improved the mouth of the Tyne and Hartlepool as to supply some of the exigencies of our commercial marine. A time would come when the increasing loss of life and property would induce some attempt to provide protection for shipping, and those who denied the value of such protection might as reasonably deny the value of a wayside inn to a benighted wanderer on a desolate moor.


said, it was a mistake to suppose that the Government thought the harbour had been undertaken as a harbour of refuge for our merchant shipping. The reason why the first Vote was taken for it under the name of a harbour of refuge was lest the jealousy of the French should be excited, the intention from the first being that Cherbourg should be watched from Alderney.


said, he could not understand the conduct of the Government in this matter. They proposed a Vote for certain repairs of the harbour; but when that Vote came to be discussed it seemed to him that they practically condemned it, and consequently it was rejected by the House of Commons. He could not think that that was a right way of doing the business of the country. If it was proper to abandon Alderney—if we had spent our money upon it foolishly—we had better make an end of the expense, and it was the duty of Her Majesty's Government upon full deliberation to go down to the House of Commons and manfully make that declaration. If, on the contrary, they came to a different conclusion, and should be of opinion that, though originally it might have been a mistake to make this harbour, still as it had been made, it was advisable not to give it up, they ought to ask the House of Commons to vote the necessary repairs. He thought that in this matter they had evaded the proper responsibility that belonged to a Government. The course they had adopted was most fatal to the system of Parliamentary Government.

Motion agreed to.