HL Deb 16 June 1871 vol 207 cc122-35

rose to call attention to the Minute by the late First Lord of the Admiralty with reference to H.M.S. "Captain." He thought the issue of this Minute a great mistake, inasmuch as it was published without the knowledge of some of the late First Lord's Colleagues, upon whom, and especially upon Sir Spencer Robinson and the officers of the Controller's Department, it, by implication, cast much blame, because it reflected upon matters in which they were personally and officially concerned. That this blame was not justly deserved was evidenced by the finding of the Court Martial that had sat to inquire into the loss of the Captain, and who found that the ship capsized by pressure of sail, assisted by the heave of the sea; and that the sail carried at the time of her loss—regard being had to the force of the wind and state of the sea—was insufficient to have endangered a ship endued with a proper amount of stability—and they added— That the Court, before separating, find it their duty to record their conviction that the Captain was built in deference to public opinion, expressed in Parliament, and in opposition to the views and opinions of the Controller and his Department, and that the evidence all tends to show that they generally disapproved of her construction. That finding he (the Earl of Lauderdale) thought was just and proper, for no man could have been more opposed to the plans of this vessel than Sir Spencer Robinson and Mr. Reed. The experiment was strongly urged upon the Admiralty by speeches in Parliament, and by letters in the public Press. Mr. Childers, he thought, ought to have allowed the matter to rest on that finding. Instead of that, Mr. Childers issued the Minute to which he was calling their Lordships' attention. On examining the Minute, he found it to be very inaccurate in its statements. For instance, the history of the circumstances which led to the ordering of the Captain was imperfect and one-sided, and the extract from the Report of the Committee of Naval Officers, of which he (the Earl of Lauderdale) had the honour to be Chairman, was so selected as to suggest that the Committee recommended that a conclusive trial should be given to a sea-going turret-ship similar to the Captain; whereas the plan of which they recommended a trial contemplated a vessel only half the size of the Captain, and with 10 feet freeboard; whereas the Captain was intended to have 8 feet freeboard, but when launched had only 6 feet 6 inches. That the Admiralty comprehended their recommendation was shown by their building the Monarch, a ship with 14 feet freeboard, and with two turrets. The Monarch was intended to carry out Captain Coles' views as to turret-ships; but the Admiralty gave up an essential part of Captain Coles' original plan, for they gave up the all-round fire, and put a forecastle on her; and this, no doubt, made her a better sea-going vessel. Captain Coles, however, objected to these parts of the design as discarding some of the chief merits of the turret system. He was then allowed to build a ship on his own plan:—when, however, the plan was laid before the Admiralty she had both a poop and forecastle, thus sacrificing the all-round fire he (Captain Coles) had up to that time so strongly advocated. The Controller's Department was consulted on the plan of the Captain, and they reported that they saw nothing to lead them to believe there was any deficiency in the stability of the vessel; but the plan they reported on had a freeboard of eight feet. The ship was ordered to be constructed by Sir John Pakington, as First Lord of the Admiralty, who was succeeded in his office by Mr. Corry. Mr. Childers had nothing to do with the building of the Captain; but she was received into the service during his tenure of office, and it was impossible to read the Minute without being led to believe that blame was thrown on the Controller's Department for not expressing strongly enough their objections to the plan. It was perfectly clear the Admiralty intended that the Captain should be built according to the plans of Captain Coles and Mr. Laird, the builder, and that they did not wish to take any responsibility on themselves unless the Constructor's Department reported she was totally unfit for sea. Now, it never entered the heads of the Department that that was the case, and though they totally disapproved of the plan, they did not think she was unfit to go to sea. He had, however, reason to believe that every bit of information known to the Controller's Department was known also to Captain Coles and Mr. Laird, the builder. The only point they were unaware of was the result of the final calculations after the heeling over alongside of Portsmouth Dockyard just before her final departure. That experiment of heeling over was made in the presence of Captain Coles, and he belioved all were satisfied about her centre of gravity. Mr. Laird had stated that the results almost exactly tallied with his estimate, and that had the final calculations been made known to him they would not have made him doubt her fitness to go to sea. Nor was this doubted by the Controller's Department, although they disapproved the plan. Both Mr. Reed and Mr. Scott Russell had previously urged the danger of low freeboards; and after the launching of the Captain, when the freeboard proved to be only 6½ feet, the former gentleman stated that she was unsafe without a breastwork. What he supposed Mr. Reed meant was, that she was quite unfit for a sea-going ship, and that sooner or later she would come to grief. His opinion, however, did not prevent the vessel from going to sea. Indeed, public feeling was so strongly in favour of the trial that nothing could have prevented this. One of Mr. Childers' complaints was, that the Controller's Department did not give him full information upon the subject, and that they did not urge their objections with sufficient strength. When, however, he proposed to build other ships something like the Captain, Mr. Reed informed him that it would not be safe to build low freeboard ships with masts; and when he found his remonstrance useless, he retired from his office. All the sea Lords, Mr. Reed said, were opposed to the construction of low freeboard ships—especially with masts; and, so far as he (the Earl of Lauderdale) could understand from the Minute, the only person in favour of low freeboard ships when the Captain was received into the Navy was Mr. Childers himself. It was a professional question, and it was not right in Mr. Childers to throw the blame on the professional men who were opposed to the construction of such vessels. The building of the Captain was a national experiment, and nothing could be known without subjecting such a vessel to a full trial. But it must be remembered that such experiments could not be made without danger. The real point of a trial commenced at the point of danger, and it was no use arguing, for sailors would not believe in words. The danger attending such trials was illustrated by the indiarubber boats carrying a 13-inch mortar, which were tested at Spithead during the Crimean War, and after promising well, split in halves on the mortar being fired, all but one of those on board happily escaping. The Court Martial reported that the Captain was capsized from want of stability, and the public wished to know to what it was owing: but no report of that kind had been made, and Mr. Childers had stated that he hoped more ships of the same character would be built. Since her loss various reasons had been given for the accident. It had been said that she had too low a freeboard — that she had too high a centre of gravity — that she had not beam enough, and that she carried 800 tons more than she was designed for. Those were points which the public wanted settled — because either one of them was sufficient to capsize a vessel like the Captain. Mr. Childers, in the third part of the Minute, appeared to have proposed to construct a double turret-ship, with a low freeboard, with limited sail power. Mr. Reed objected to this proposal, and it was abandoned; but after discussion it was agreed to build two two-turreted ships, without masts, following out very nearly Mr. Reed's original designs. These were the Thunderer and the Devastation. He thought that a doubtful experiment, and the late First Lord was wrong in building more than one of those ships until the plan had been fairly tried and tested. He distinctly stated that he did not approve of those ships. He objected to their want of masts, to their low freeboard, and to their draught of water. The new principle of sea-going ships like the Monitor was a low freeboard, its advocates arguing that the old principle of a ship rising on the top of the waves was a mistake—that it was better that ships should be built so as to enable them to cut through the waves, and so avoid pitching and rolling. It seemed to him that sailing in such a ship would be submarine navigation, and would be worse than travelling by an underground railway. In the railway you did now and then come to the surface and get a breath of fresh air; but in such a vessel you must be close shut up and live by artificial ventilation. He hoped that only one of those vessels would be completed at first, in order that its powers might be fully tested by a fair trial before the whole expenditure was incurred for the completion of the remainder of them. This low freeboard question was a most serious one. Being a gunnery man himself he was quite aware of the value of a low freeboard and the turret for gunnery purposes; but it was of far greater importance to secure the safety of the men on board. In regard to merchant ships the Legislature was acting differently, inasmuch as it was trying to prevent low freeboards as much as possible—for a low freeboard meant overloading, and no merchant vessels were built with low freeboards. But men-of-war were laden with coal and iron, and with a low freeboard would be much less safe than merchant ships. In the latter the centre of gravity might be low; but the centre of gravity in men-of-war could not be low. The noble Earl read a letter from a sailor to his sweetheart, on the eve of his departure on board a merchant ship which was overladen—the writer stating that he did not at all like the look of the vessel, but that he was not one to show the white feather; but he supposed that if it were good for the captain it was equally good for him, and hoping that she would keep up her heart and pray for his safe return. Now, that vessel was never heard of again. He knew also of a case of an officer of an iron-clad vessel going to insure his life for £ 1,000; but the authorities at the insurance office, on hearing that his ship was an iron-clad, refused to accept him. In conclusion, he would urge upon the Government the views he had expressed with regard to the Captain. He trusted also they would consider the point he had urged as to the overloading of merchant vessels, and the propriety of introducing into the Merchant Shipping Act provisions to prevent this practice.


, a shipmate of Sir Spencer Robinson's 48 years ago, said, it was no exaggeration to say that Sir Spencer was a distinguished officer, who deserved well of his country, and could not be fairly blamed for the loss of the Captain; under no circumstances could he be held accountable for the occurrence. But, at the same time, he acquitted Mr. Childers of any desire to shuffle off responsibility from his own shoulders. The fault lay in the constitution of the Board of Admiralty, which was characterized by responsibility without professional experience, and so full of anomalies that he should not be surprised to hear of a "Battle of Dorking" any day. He anticipated that great disaster would result in the future from the fact that the First Lord of the Admiralty possessed almost unlimited powers to build ships of whatever design pleased him best, even though in doing so he might be acting contrary to the advice of his professional colleagues. These unprofessional First Lords were, to his thinking, to be regarded in the light of national misfortunes. The late Sir James Graham, for instance, commenced his naval reforms by depriving the officers and architects of the means of technical education—he then reduced the Navy of the country to a state of utter impotence, and he abolished the Marine Artillery—one of the finest and most useful corps in the service He regretted, however, to find that the Court Martial had travelled out of the inquiry which was specially committed to them—they had nothing to do in the finding except what had been brought before them in evidence. He meant nothing personal against Mr. Childers; but he wished to point out the difficulty of non-professional First Lords when dealing with strictly naval questions.


said, that when a great national loss, such as that of the Captain, one of the finest ships in the Navy, occurred, and several hundreds of lives were sacrificed by the catastrophe, the subject was one which undoubtedly deserved the attention of their Lordships, and all the papers and documents calculated to throw any light upon it would receive their most careful consideration. In bringing this subject forward the noble Earl (the Earl of Lauderdale) had referred to several naval questions which were, no doubt, of great interest and importance; but it would perhaps be more convenient if he (the Earl of Camperdown) were to confine himself strictly to the noble Earl's Notice as it appeared on the Paper—namely, the Minute relating to the loss of the Captain. The noble Earl had criticized two matters which were recorded in that Minute, the first being the reply of the Admiralty to the finding of the Court Martial, and the second the proceedings of the Admiralty in ascribing a portion of the blame for the loss of the Captain to the Controller's Department. And here it should be remembered that besides the reputation of the officers who sat on the Court Martial and those in the Controller's Department there was also involved the reputation of the officers who were lost in the ship. As to the reply of the Admiralty on the finding of the Court Martial, the noble Earl said that the Admiralty were scarcely justified in expressing their extreme surprise that so grave a reflection on public opinion and on the Board of Admiralty which in 1866 ordered the building of the Captain, should have been recorded by a Court Martial. But the reason why their Lordships objected to the finding—or to that part of the finding—was that though the statement made by the Court Martial might be perfectly true, it did not rest upon anything that had been set forth in the evidence that had been laid before them. The Court Martial referred in their decision to what they called "a proper amount of stability;" but, as the Admiralty pointed out, it must have been known to the officers of the fleet, and to the Court that a turret-ship with a low-freeboard had not the same conditions of stability as a broadside ship with a high freeboard. That was a fair matter for remark by the Admiralty. But, independently of that, the Lords of the Admiralty called attention—as he thought they had a perfect right to do—to the fact that the Controller of the Navy was not called before the Court. Now, the Lords of the Admiralty had not the slightest wish to interfere with the independence of the proceedings of the Court; but when a ship like the Captain was lost, and the Controller of the Navy—the head of the constructive department of the Admiralty, within whose period of office the ship had been built, and with the building of which he had been to a certain degree connected—was not examined before a Court Martial which was inquiring into the circumstance of the ship's loss, he thought the Lords of the Admiralty were not only justified in calling attention to the circumstance, but that they would hardly have been justified if they had not done so. He would observe that the Minute was published by the First Lord of the Admiralty, that the words "By order of the Board of Admiralty" were printed upon it by the Stationery Office without authority—and that the Minute was not the Minute of the Board, but of the First Lord alone, and was written by him in consequence of decided opinions he held on the subject of the individual responsibility of the Ministers of the Crown for the business connected with their departments. When this matter occurred, the First Lord made his own inquiry, and, attributing the fault to certain officers in the Department, he wrote his Minute. The Minute consisted of 42 pages of facts and 73 pages of Appendix.

He would confine himself to the positive statements therein made. It was set forth in the document that— When Sir John Pakington's Board approved of the design, Captain Coles and the Messrs. Laird accepted the entire responsibility, and the Controller of the Navy and other officers of the Navy were for a time relieved from it. That— It was also clear that, when the Captain was completed and sent for trial to sea, although the responsibility of Captain Coles and the Messrs. Laird for the construction of the ship continued, yet the Controller of the Navy and the other officers became responsible for the ship's fitness to go to sea. It could not be denied that if the Controller of the Navy entertained the opinion that a ship was not fit to go to sea, he ought to make a direct representation to the First Lord of the Admiralty on the subject. In that view Sir Spencer Robinson himself concurred, when he stated in his reply that the Constructor's Department had no responsibility, either technical or moral; but that they had no apprehensions that a trial at sea would subject the ship to imminent danger, and that if the Chief Constructor had apprehended any such danger the department would have felt itself under an irresistible moral obligation to point out its apprehensions.>Sir Spencer Robinson went on to say that neither he nor Mr. Reed considered the ship to be unsafe for trial "if properly handled." Mr. Reed in his report, though he considered that no satisfactory result would be obtained from the trial of the ship, did not express any anticipation of the Captain going to the bottom. This was before the loss of the ship; but at the Court Martial he said, in reply to questions as to the stability and seaworthiness of the vessel, that owing to the want of stability shown in the design and construction of the ship he had for some time entertained doubts as to her seaworthiness. Mr. Reed was asked whether he did not think it was necessary to give that information to Captain Burgoyne; and his reply was that he did not think it was necessary for him to do anything which he did not do. Now, Mr. Childers absolved the Controller in the first instance from responsibility, but went on to say that he became responsible for the ship's fitness to go to sea at a certain period—by which was meant that he ought to have reported to him the vessel's unworthiness to go to sea. Mr. Childers went on to say that he could not believe Mr. Reed's memory was correct when he gave those answers, for if they described accurately Mr. Reed's position it was one of very heavy responsibility. Either he knew the ship was unfit to be sent to sea or not. In the former case he was bound to represent his opinion in the strongest way to Sir Spencer Robinson, who would have been bound by his sense of official responsibility to lay the matter before Mr. Childers; if, on the other hand, Mr. Reed was unaware of the fact, the evidence he gave before the Court Martial was very unfortunate. It was true that Mr. Reed, in a lecture delivered at the Institute of Naval Architects, expressed the same views as were contained in his evidence before the Court Martial; but if he really entertained those opinions, it was an unfortunate circumstance that he did not present a Report on the subject to Sir Spencer Robinson, his superior officer. At all events, Mr. Reed's lecture could hardly be taken as a Report to the Board of Admiralty that the ship was not fit to be sent to sea. He conceived that when a vessel of this importance went to sea, carring with it hundreds of precious lives, it was a duty imperative on any person connected with the Constructive Department of the Navy to represent to his superior officer all facts within his knowledge as to its unworthiness. All the Constructors, he presumed, were responsible to the Controller; for if they possessed information which they did not give to the Controller, the latter would be placed in a very unfair position. Messrs. Laird asked in February that experiments should be made with regard to the centre of gravity of the Captain. This was deferred by "the Chief Constructor until after the steam trial, and when the vessel had gone to sea and was lost Mr. Childers expressed his opinion that the centre of gravity ought to have been ascertained at an earlier period than it actually was. Now, he (the Earl of Camperdown) did not mean to assert that if the centre of gravity had been earlier ascertained the Captain would have been saved; but, at the same time, he ventured to submit that Mr. Childers was justified in making such a statement. The curve of stability of the Capiain was not ascertained until after that vessel had gone to sea for the last time—though within a month after the centre of gravity had been discovered by experiment. Without knowing the centre of gravity it was impossible to find the curve of stability. If, in February, the centre of gravity had been ascertained, it would have been possible to discover the curve of stability long before the ship left England on her last voyage, and the calculations would have served as a caution to the officer commanding the ship. With regard to an omission in the Minute of some words at the beginning of a Report of the Controller, no person could regret more than Mr. Childers did that any words which appeared in a Report of the Controller to him, and especially on such a subject, should not also have appeared in the Report as printed in the Minute, and the result of the inquiry as to the way in which the omission occurred was that it was due to an error on the part of a copyist; but the omission did not, in fact, alter the case. The portion of the Report which dealt with facts, as distinguished from observations, was shown by Mr. Childers to two of his Colleagues, and therefore Sir Spencer Robinson might have seen this particular portion of the Report. He wished to call special attention to the bearing of the words which were omitted in the remainder of the letter. If Sir Spencer Robinson had stated the conclusion that the Captain was unseaworthy, and had specially called the attention of Mr. Childers to the fact, then Sir Spencer Robinson was quite free even from constructive responsibility; but what Sir Spencer Robinson wrote was that, although under certain conditions the stability of the Captain was not quite satisfactory, the ship might be accepted; and their Lordships had, therefore, given instructions for the final payment of the account, waiving a condition which had been imposed that Messrs. Laird should hold themselves responsible for making such alterations as might be deemed necessary; and therefore the words omitted had reference, not to the question whether the Captain was or was not a seaworthy ship, but entirely to payment of the claim of Messrs. Laird. The attention of Mr. Childers was called to the matter with reference to the Question of payment, and the seaworthiness of the Captain was a secondary question. If the Controller was impressed with the idea that the Captain was not seaworthy, he ought to have specially called the attention of the First Lord to the question of unseaworthiness. He might have been expected to say—"I should really wish you to consider the question whether the Captain should go to sea or not;" and he ought also to have addressed the First Sea Lord, without whose order the ship could not go to sea. The question had been considered only from the side of the Court Martial and from that of the Controller. It might be that if the calculations had been sent to Captain Burgoyne he would have been more on his guard. He (the Earl of Camperdown) thought he need go no further into the question than to remark that a considerable portion of the public maintained that these calculations should have been forwarded to him; and therefore it must be remembered that there was a third side to be taken into consideration, and that involved the reputation of Captain Burgoyne. In reply to the question whether there had been any Report by the Constructor since the accident, such Report had been submitted to the Committee on the loss of the Captain, presided over by his noble Friend (Lord Dufferin), and the Report of the Committee had been laid on the Table. ["No, no!] He was not aware that that Report had not been laid on their Lordships' Table. He should be unwilling to allude to any document which was not in the possession of their Lordships: he must, therefore, close the remarks he felt himself able on this occasion to make. He would simply recapitulate in few words the reasons which appeared to have led Mr. Childers to draw the conclusions he did in this Minute. Mr. Childers had a strong idea of individual responsibility in each of his Colleagues at the Admiralty to himself. He saw that evidence had been given on this Court Martial which did not tally with the Reports which had been presented to the Board. He was of opinion that the centre of gravity and stability should have been calculated earlier than they were, and that his attention had not been sufficiently called to the question of the liability of the Captain to be upset on the idea that existed in the Constructor's Department. For these reasons Mr. Childers wrote this Minute, and he must leave it in their Lordships' hands to form their opinion upon it.


said, it appeared to him that there would be very little advantage in their Lordships' attempting in that House to go into the reasons winch led to the loss of the Captain. With regard to the Minute of Mr. Childers, he had already stated his objections to it. He objected to any person being the judge in his own cause. Mr. Childers had over and over declared that for everything that occurred at the Admiralty he would be responsible. This was one of the first things that had occurred;—was he responsible or was he not? If he wished to have a fair report, the question should have been submitted to an independent tribunal. He would not go into the Minute. He objected to it on principle. One great complaint Mr. Childers had against the Constructor was that he did not appoint Captain Coles to that department—Mr. Childers had such faith in Captain Coles that he wished to place him in the Constructor's Department. He repeated, this was not a subject their Lordships could inquire into—there must be an independent tribunal: but it was important for them to know who was responsible for our ships—such as the Cyclops. Certainly not Sir Spencer Robinson, nor the Constructor, who had been away for 11 months. Who, then, was responsible? They had 12 or 14 men of science sitting together endeavouring to devise a vessel which would not turn bottom upwards. Who was responsible? Were they again to have a Minute from the First Lord dividing responsibility according to his own fancy? This system must be brought to an end. Sir Spencer Robinson and Mr. Reed for four or five years had told him continually that such a ship as the Captain, with a low freeboard and with tall masts and sails, would not be a safe ship—it might be an excellent vessel for coast defensive purposes, but not a good or safe sea-going vessel; and he had himself so stated over and over again in that House. But there was a great wish to try the experiment, and he said it should be tried. Captain Coles undertook to produce a vessel of that description which should be seaworthy, and he went down to Messrs. Laird, great shipbuilders, who undertook the business. He (the Duke of Somerset) left the Admiralty without having seen the plans and without having given an opinion on the subject. But Messrs. Laird certainly did not fulfil the promise they made. The vessel they produced was totally unseaworthy. If the Captain had survived the storm, it would have been described as one of the finest vessels in the world, and Obtain Coles would have come back to re-organize all the navies in the world. It would also have been said that but for the former Board of Admiralty the country might have had eight or ten of these fine vessels instead of only one. He thought, however, that the obstinacy of that Board was not unwise, and certainly he had not from first to last any confidence in those ships.


objected to the expression that the Captain was not unsafe "if properly handled." This appeared to reflect on Captain Burgoyne, who was one of the best officers in the service. If there had been anything improper in the handling of the Captain, it must have come out in the Court Martial; but there was nothing of the sort. The vessel, no doubt, was capsized in a sudden squall; but the blame ought not to be laid on the captain, who, after being on deck all day with the Admiral, was probably at the time she was struck with the squall lying down on his sofa. The captain was not responsible during ordinary weather at night, the ship being then placed in charge of a commissioned officer, who had orders to shorten sail when necessary, or call the captain. Even the lieutenant might not be blamed—the squall came on so suddenly, and ships were often most pressed, just before the end of the watch.


said, be would only say a very few words in order to do away with the impression which appeared to have been made on the noble Earl's mind that the Admiralty had passed any censure upon Captain Burgoyne. The expression to which objection was taken was an à priori opinion given by Sir Spencer Robinson. Neither Sir Spencer Robinson nor Mr. Reed ever said beforehand that they thought the ship was unsafe, but only that she would be a bad cruiser, and could not properly fight her guns. Nothing could be clearer than the paragraph which had been quoted by his noble Friend near him from Sir Spencer Robinson's reply to Mr. Childer's Minute, that neither he nor the Chief Constructor thought for a moment that the ship would be unsafe "if properly handled." There was no anticipation on the part of the Admiralty, or indeed of anybody else, that the ship would prove unsafe, and no blame had ever been imputed by that department to Captain Burgoyne.