HL Deb 30 March 1871 vol 205 cc878-84

rose to move for a Return of the number of Armour-clad Vessels at present available for Coast and Harbour Defence, not drawing more than 16 feet of water, and capable of resisting shot from the present guns of 12 and 18 tons at 500 yards, direct fire, right angle. His reason for desiring this information was that the inaction of the French Fleet in the late war was owing, according to the French Admiral, to the absence of any iron-clad vessels of light draught which could go near the shore, and he feared that this country was in much the same position. The Navy List, periodically published, gave the number of ships, their tonnage, guns, and horse-power, but did not show their draught or the strength of the armourplating, without which it was impossible to judge what service they were fit for. Unless we had light draught vessels we could not chase and cut off an enemy inshore, and unless their plating was strong enough to resist at least the smallest broadside-guns of the present day, we could not attack powerful batteries on the coast. The Russians had 20 of this class of vessels, the Americans upwards of 30, and the French, according to a letter in The Times of to-day, written by the late Controller of the Navy, had 30. This last statement was, of course, inconsistent with the excuse offered by the French Admiral. He did not believe we had above two or three—a very unsatisfactory state of things. He should like a Return, not only of the number of such vessels available, but of the number manned, for a very extraordinary disclosure was made the other day. The present First Lord of the Admiralty had recently stated that since the loss of the Captain the Navy had been 500 men short, and that only 50 had been obtained, and this in the days of voluntary enlistment. The Navy was usually styled the popular service, yet in nearly six months only 50 blue-jackets had been obtained. To talk, therefore, of being able to man ships in a hurry by voluntary entry was a farce. In 1859 the Government undertook the consideration of the armaments necessary for the defence of our coasts and harbours, and appointed the Defence Commission to inquire into the subject. The Defence Commission obtained the assistance of a Committee of naval officers, of which he (the Earl of Lauderdale) had the honour to be Chairman. The upshot was that after taking the advice of eminent naval architects, such as Mr. Scott Russell, the Committee recommended the construction of a powerful vessel, not drawing more than 16 feet water, of about 2,000 tons, with strong armour-plating, carrying the heaviest guns, capable of going eight or ten knots an hour, and so constructed as to turn easily, be manœuvred in narrow waters, and strongly built to enable them to run into an enemy's ship. Their Report went up to the Royal Commissioners, who consisted of Engineer and Artillery officers of the highest rank, and civil engineers. Mr. Scott Russell designed a vessel answering the required description, and estimated to cost £100,000. The Commissioners, adopting the Report of the naval officers Committee, recommended the expenditure of a very considerable sum—£7,000,000, he believed—on land defences, and £1,000,000 on the floating batteries. Not a sixpence, however, had been laid out in building the vessel recommended—the floating batteries had never been built. He was told at the Admiralty the other day that the officers there had never seen and never heard of such a plan—the Secretary to the Royal Commission had never seen it since it was sent in to the office. No doubt the plan went to the War Office, that it was put into a pigeonhole, and that it never came out again. He asked Mr. Scott Russell concerning the plans; and Mr. Russell's reply was that he had carefully thought over the matter, and that he had hopes to find the drawings or memoranda of the work; but that when he retired from business he gave up his papers to his son who was now abroad; but Mr. Russell distinctly remembered its leading features, and thought it a national misfortune that no action had been taken upon it. At the time in question turret-ships had never been tried. Captain Coles had at that time only just started turret-ships; but the Committee perceived their suitability for coast and harbour defence, and recommended that if the experiment answered these vessels should be fitted on that plan. Had the recommendation of the Commission been acted on we should now have had 20 or 30 of these vessels, and they would not have had very low freeboards—that point having been carefully considered. The Government were now building vessels of a new description with low freeboards—such as the Devastation and the Thunderer. Now, two years ago, when these plans were drawn out, the then First Lord asked him, together with seven or eight brother officers, to give an opinion on them. On being told that these vessels were to be regular sea-going ships, he said that, according to his experience, these ships were not fit for general sea service—that if forced out against a very heavy head sea they would founder, and he objected not only to the low freeboard but to the absence of masts and to the draught of water, which was 26 feet. To his surprise, however, all his brother officers expressed a different opinion; but his own view was endorsed by Sir William Fairbairn, who said he was not a sailor, but that such vessels, if forced against such a sea as he (the Earl of Lauderdale) described, would go under, as they could not go over it. It would, he (the Earl of Lauderdale) said, be a sort of submarine navigation. While offering these objections, he himself signed his name to the Minute, remarking that whenever a dispute arose between naval officers and naval architects it should be settled by building a single ship as an experiment. Shortly afterwards the First Lord asked him to inspect some documents in the Controller's office which would be likely to alter the very strong opinion he had given. These papers were the logbook and journals of the American monitor the Minatonomah; but they showed that the vessel had had a fair wind throughout its passage across the Atlantic, and had been towed almost the whole way. He accordingly informed the First Lord that he still thought such a vessel could not face a strong south-wester in the Channel or a heavy monsoon or trade wind. Under these circumstances, he had been rather surprised to observe, in a Minute recently laid on the Table, his own name heading a list of persons as unreservedly approving these vessels. He gave this explanation lest it should be supposed that he recommended a low freeboard except for coast and harbour defence. Sir Spencer Robinson, in his letter in The Times, said— I read in a report of a debate in the House of Commons the other day that the iron-clads now building were not of a satisfactory type, and that a Committee had reported of some of these vessels that they would be in very great danger of rolling over and going down like the Captain, and were unanimously of opinion that these vessels were not of the type which ought to be adopted. Perhaps the noble Lord the Chairman of the Naval Construction Committee would inform him whether this was a correct representation of the report.

Moved that there be laid before this House, Return of the number of Armour-clad Vessels at present available for Coast and Harbour Defence not drawing more than sixteen feet water, and capable of resisting shot from the present guns of twelve and eighteen tons at 500 yards, direct fire, right angle.—(The Earl of Lauderdale.)


said, there would be no objection to granting the Return if it were possible to make it; but he doubted whether there were at present either in commission or in reserve any vessels meeting the somewhat peculiar conditions of the Motion—namely, iron-clad vessels with a draught of not more than 16 feet and capable of resisting shot from 12-ton and 18-ton guns. Guns of that size, it must be remembered, had only been adopted within a very recent period. Four vessels of the Cyclops class, fulfilling all the noble Earl's conditions, were at present in progress. Passing to the other points alluded to by the noble Earl, he must admit that, since the lamentable loss of the Captain, the number of blue-jackets was 500 short; but this was easily explained. 300 were lost in the Captain, and these it was not very easy to replace; while one or two other causes had also tended to reduce the number—there had been a considerable number of desertions from the ships composing the flying squadron when on the Australian station; it was usually found that when a ship went to Australia the number of desertions was much greater than in any other quarter of the globe. The only satisfactory way of making up the number was by training more boys. In time of peace merchant seamen did not volunteer from the merchant service into the Navy, though the food and accommodation were better than in merchant vessels, as they preferred, after completing one voyage, and after going ashore for a time, and perhaps entering the Navy Reserve, to take service in a different vessel. This had been the case for a long time. The officers, moreover, objected to the entry of a large number of blue-jackets from the mercantile marine, on the ground that boys trained for the Royal Navy made far smarter seamen. He could not enter into the question of high or low freeboards, as this had been repeatedly discussed in Parliament and elsewhere. He could not explain why the plan recommended by the Defence Commission had remained in the pigeon-holes of the War Office, and why their suggestions had not been carried out. He would call the attention of the Admiralty to the absence, in their monthly return of ships in commission or reserve, of any information as to draught and thickness of armour-plating, without which the Return was obviously imperfect.


remarked that some information it might be prudent to keep secret; but so much notice being taken of Navy matters in "another place," he thought their Lordships also should know something of them. As to the reluctance of merchant seamen to enter the Navy, this was the case not only in time of peace, but in time of war. During the Crimean campaign we got land-lubbers and ordinary seamen, but not a single able-bodied seaman from the merchant service, though an immense bounty was offered by the Admiralty. He mentioned this circumstance in reference to what was called the "voluntary system" of entering. He held there was no such thing as the "voluntary system" in real existence. That which we adopted should rather be termed the trepanning system, or public-house system. We hoisted a flag over a public-house, and persuaded those who were attracted by it that if they entered the Army or the Navy they would have good pay with little to do, and plenty to eat; and that was the "voluntary system." The men only entered the Army or Navy when they could not support themselves by other work, or when a large bounty was offered.


rose to answer a question put by the noble Earl (the Earl of Lauderdale), whether a statement made by a very distinguished officer—Sir Spencer Robinson—in a letter to The Times of that morning, was correct. The statement in question was merely a repetition of one made in "another place" on Monday night, when its correctness received an explicit denial from the First Lord of the Admiralty. So far from the Committee having reported in the sense indicated by Sir Spencer Robinson, their Report—though he could not quote its exact terms—was in a totally opposite sense.


said, he would confine his part in the discussion to the main point of the noble Earl's Address—namely, that a Commission was appointed in 1859 to consider our coast defences, and that it recommended the construction of vessels of a certain description armed with very heavy guns, and available for shallow water. The question here naturally arose—what is a ship of war? A ship of war, unless used as a ram, was a floating gun carriage, and the first thing to be considered was the kind of gun which the vessel should carry—a matter of no little importance, when only one gun was to be put on board. It then became evident that this gun must be the largest of its kind. In 1859, the largest gun we had was about seven tons. He recollected that when he spoke of 7-ton guns, a noble Earl (the Earl of Hardwicke) asked how he could be so foolish, as such a gun was too heavy to be worked or properly handled. He was at that time having 12-ton guns made; but as he did not wish to bring more censure upon himself, he said nothing about it. In 1859, moreover, 4½ inches was the maximum thickness of iron-plates, because we had not adequate machinery for the manufacture of thicker plates in this country. Then there was some talk of putting two plates together; but it was found they did not give the strength of a single-thickness plate. Some plates were even obtained from France, and our manufacturers at home being stimulated by the circumstance managed to get machinery which rolled a thicker plate, and in some two or three years more they succeeded in making a plate of 12 inches. Now, he asked what would have been the use, at this time, of a number of vessels with plates 4½ inches thick, had the Admiralty been required by Parliament in 1859 to make vessels of that strength. They would have been perfect rubbish. There was always this difficulty in connection with these questions. We had advanced from a 7-ton to a 12-ton gun. When he was directing the alteration of the Royal Sovereign, he began with a 9-ton gun; but, before the turrets were ready, the 12-ton gun appeared, and so the 12-ton gun was substituted. We had since advanced to 25 and 30-ton guns, and 12 inches was now considered to be a moderate thickness of plate for ships of war. What, then, would have been the use of building a great number of vessels with plates of less thickness? This showed the difficulty in which the War Office and the Admiralty were placed; the former went on increasing the size of the guns, and the latter the thickness of the plates. It was proposed "elsewhere" the other day that 100 gunboats of a particular class should be built. Now, this would be very foolish; first, because a small gunboat will not give a steady platform; and, next, because in a year or two there would probably be some other invention, and the money would prove to be ill-spent. He admitted that we ought to be on an equal footing in these matters with other Powers, and he did not, therefore, ignore the difficulty of determining what we ought exactly to do. It was impossible for outsiders who had not the opportunity of knowing what other countries did, to decide what our Government ought to do, nor could they confidently throw out suggestions on this subject, since they could not take upon themselves the responsibility of advising a public Department what course it should take.


explained that the Defence Commission recommended that the vessels should have the largest guns and the thickest plates which were in use, and one be built on trial. Had their Report, therefore, been carried out, the size of the guns and the thickness of the plates would have gone on increasing as the ships were built each year, and in two or three years the proper standard would have been reached, and we should now have had a considerable number.

Motion agreed to.