HL Deb 25 June 1872 vol 212 cc161-6

rose to inquire of Her Majesty's Government, If it is their intention to do away with that class of officers in the Royal Navy now called Staff Commanders and Navigating Lieutenants? The noble Lord said that among other changes that had been proposed with respect to the Royal Navy was, to do do away with that most useful class of officers formerly known as masters, now called staff commanders and navigating lieutenants. The question had become one of great importance, because the fact that several of our ships had recently got aground had been, by some, attributed to the navigation having been entirely left to this distinct class of officers. It had been argued that as captains of merchant vessels navigated their own ships, captains in the Navy ought not to be allowed a sailing officer or navigating lieutenant. Now it was the greatest possible mistake to suppose that the captains of the Royal Navy did not navigate their ships; but with the many duties which a captain in the Navy now had to perform, it was impossible that he could personally perform that duty, and therefore a sailing master was appointed to assist him, who acted under the captain's direction and superintendence in the performance of his duties. But the sailing masters had not only the charge of the navigation of the ship but they had to undertake, under the Queen's Regulations, the duty of pilots. Ships of war when near land could not be safely navigated unless they had such an officer as the master on board. With merchant ships it was different. As the usual custom with merchant ships was to trade between particular ports, the officers became to know the course between those ports thoroughly, and were able to act as pilots, so that sometimes there were as many as five or six good pilots on board a merchant ship. Moreover, when merchant ships were insured they were obliged to take regular pilots on board. Now, their Lordships would see the case was quite different with Her Majesty's ships, which went all over the world, and not in regular course between particular ports, and frequently not one of the officers of a ship of war had ever visited the port to which they were bound. Again, in case of war, we should never be able to get pilots for an enemy's coast unless we obtained them from merchant ships. Two hundrd years ago the admirals and captains occupied a position in the Navy somewhat similar to that of our generals in the Army, and the men who fought the ships were soldiers—the only sailors on board being the sailing masters and pilots. It had been objected against the sailing masters that they were of no use; but if that charge were true the fault lay with the Admiralty, who failed to give them a proper training. Under the present system, the second masters, who were generally below when a ship entered or left harbour superintending the stopping of the chain cable or paying them into the lockers, were promoted to the office of masters, and yet surprise was expressed that they were entirety ignorant of their new duties. Second masters ought to be thoroughly taught their duties, and every opportunity should be afforded them of becoming efficient pilots. Navigating lieutenants should be appointed as mail agents in all ships carrying mails, by which means they would soon have a large number of them good pilots. He had been induced to bring this question forward in consequence of his having ascertained that the number of navigating cadets had been reduced to 12—a number which was not sufficient to keep up the supply of sailing masters, which looked as if the Government intended to allow the office of sailing master to die out. The noble Earl concluded by asking, Whether it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to do away with that class of officers in the Royal Navy now called Staff Commanders and Navigating Lieutenants?


, as a naval officer, wished to express his opinion that the captains and lieutenants of Her Majesty's ships were as well able to navigate their vessels as sailing masters would be. All lieutenants, before obtaining their commissions, had to pass a very severe examination in navigation; and the only reason that captains required assistance in navigating their ships was because their time was so fully occupied by other matters that they had not time to attend to that branch of seamanship. It was not, therefore, from any want of ability on the part of the captains that the class of navigating officers had been instituted. It would be seen from the Queen's Regulations, that the captain navigated the ship, and the sailing master acted under his direction. During the Prussian war the French Fleet, who had no navigating class of officers, were paralyzed for want of pilots, and utterly useless; but when hostili- ties broke out between this country and Russia, and we sent a Fleet, to the Baltic, the officers of our ships of war had had such experience in navigation and surveying that scarcely a casualty occurred. It was often said that as the masters of merchant vessels navigated their own ships, why should not the captain of a man-of-war do the same? But the duties of the master of a merchantman were very different from those of the captain of a man-of-war, the former being bound by Act of Parliament, when in certain waters, to take a pilot; if he did not, and any casualty occurred, the insurance was forfeited—and the moment the pilot planted his foot on a vessel's deck he was responsible for the ship, and the master's responsibility ceased. For himself, if he were in command of a ship to-morrow, he would as soon see the devil come on board as a pilot. At present he trusted that the Admiralty would not remove so useful a class as the staff commanders and navigating officers.


said, a good deal of the difficulty in this matter arose out of certain political complications. Sometimes the masters had considerable influence in the other House of Parliament, where their case had been frequently brought forward, and the Admiralty made some changes in their favour. Upon the whole, whether the class of masters was dispensed with or not, it was necessary that captains, who were held responsible, should be practically capable of navigating and managing their own ships. That was very much a matter of Admiralty regulation, and a flag officer might attain his flag without ever having taken his own ship out of harbour. Formerly our Admirals wore armour and spurs; and these gentlemen in spurs naturally not being very efficient sailors, it became a tradition that the master should take the whole of the navigation upon himself. The French naval officer, from not having a master to rely upon, was a far better hydrographer than the English naval officer, and if the French authorities wanted a survey they would send to the Admiral on the station and get a very good survey made. Although, however, the French naval officers were better surveyors and hydrographers than the English, yet those English officers who gave their whole time and attention specially to hydrography were, of course, superior to the French.


said, the subject raised by the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Lauderdale) had been a vexed question with successive Boards of Admiralty for many years; and he could hardly give a positive answer on a subject which was still unsettled. From the earliest days in which we had a Navy, and down to the year 1824, it was the custom that the captains, assisted by masters who were frequently taken from the merchant service, should take charge of the navigation of Her Majesty's ships. In 1824 a separate class of officers was established in Her Majesty's Navy for the express purpose of navigation. There were three ways only in which it was possible to navigate a ship—first, by a separate class set apart for the purpose; secondly, that all the officers should be able and ready to assist the captain in the navigation of the ship; thirdly, by setting apart a portion of the officers to confine their attention chiefly to the study of navigation, without, however, constituting them into a separate class. The second of these alternatives was that adopted by the French. It was, however, considered by the Admiralty to be too much to expect that all the officers should be able efficiently to conduct the navigation of the ship without some special study. The masters had long complained of the inferiority of their position to the Executive officers, and also of their pay and want of promotion. Their complaints received attention from the Admiralty, and resulted more than once in an increase of pay and pension, and when the noble Duke near him (the Duke of Somerset) was at the head of the Admiralty he instituted the special ranks of staff captain, staff commander, and navigating lieutenant for navigating officers, who had up to that time been styled masters. The question of the continuance of a separate class of navigating officers had been dealt with in public on more than one occasion. A Committee of Naval Officers inquired into the matter in 1862, and reported in favour of the discontinuance of a separate line, and recommended that a certain number of lieutenants should be set apart to the study of the science of navigation, who should navigate the ship and receive an additional amount of pay. But this was not carried out. Difference of opinion as to which was the best method still prevailed; but up to the present time the preponderance was on the whole in favour of a special navigating class. It was contended, and with much apparent force, that the knowledge of navigation possessed by officers whose time was much occupied by other duties could not be so thorough and so practical as that possessed by officers whose whole time was devoted to the practical study of navigation. The whole subject was engaging the serious attention of the Admiralty; but the opinions of the most experienced officers were divided, and the question was altogether in so unsettled a state that it was not at present thought advisable to abolish the navigating class as a separate branch of the service.


thought discussion upon so technical a subject would not be very profitable. He had appointed the Committee in 1862 because much discontent had arisen between the masters and other officers on grounds corresponding with the differences existing between the officers of the Line and the Scientific Corps, discussed the other evening. As an experiment the Admiralty had decided to do away with the title of master, and substitute that of navigating lieutenant and staff commander, the ultimate change to be decided by experience. It would certainly be unwise to do away with the special rank and special position of the officers responsible for the navigation of Her Majesty's vessels until they were certain that there were lieutenants sufficiently capable of performing this service. The matter, however, was one in which the Admiralty might safely be allowed to do justice to the officers, having at the same time due regard to the interests of the service.


, in reply, observed that if Her Majesty's ships were obliged to be insured by the Lords of the Admiralty, very good care would be taken not to buy in-inferior coals or contract ropes, and to provide every vessel with a competent master.