HL Deb 11 July 1873 vol 217 cc196-201

rose to call the attention of the House to the Report of the Select Committee in last Session on the Works in Alderney, and to ask what decision the Government had arrived at with respect to the maintenance of those Works? The circumstances which had led to the construction of these Works were well known to their Lordships. They were commenced about a quarter of a century ago—in 1847, he believed—on the recommendation of the first naval and military authorities of the day, and with the sanction of the Duke of Wellington and Sir John Burgoyne, who considered them essential to the protection of the Channel and very important to the defence of the United Kingdom itself. They were completed after a very large expenditure of money in 1859 or 1860. The maintenance of the works in repair required a certain annual expenditure; and in 1867 great damage was done to the breakwater by heavy storms, which had been repaired at great outlay. Objection being taken to this expenditure in the House of Commons, the Secretary to the Treasury stated that as soon as the harbour was finished it would be necessary to commence the fortifications for its defence, whereas the fact was that they had already been constructed, and the whole works as a system of national defence were completed. The Select Committee for which he moved last Session unanimously recommended that the Government should seriously consider the course to be adopted. The question to be decided, they said, was in what way the fortified harbour should be now treated—whether it should be maintained in whole or in part—or destroyed and obliterated, or allowed gradually to perish by neglect?—and they stated that there was a very general concurrence of opinion amongst military and naval officers that in ease of war the harbour at Alderney would be of great service and that the altered conditions of naval war did not detract from its value as a look-out station; as to the question of abandonment, they stated that the immense mass of materials would hold together for many years and afford an incomplete shelter to vessels of war, from which, if seized by an enemy, it would be difficult to dislodge him; and therefore to leave the breakwater in existence and to leave it undefended, Colonel Jervois said, was a proceeding which could not be contemplated. As to the question of the destruction of the harbour and fortifications, the work would, if possible at all, be extremely difficult, and at all events very costly, and Parliament after having expended £1,500,000 on the works would hardly now be disposed to vote a large sum of money for their destruction. He therefore desired to ask Her Majesty's Government what decision they had arrived at with respect to these works? The Lord Privy Seal, who was at the Admiralty a great part of the time that the works were carried on, and was more responsible than himself for them, asked him early in the Session to postpone his Motion, in order that the Government might have another examination and report of the actual state of the breakwater, and he believed they had since had a full Report from a naval engineer, a military engineer, and an independent civil engineer. But it was not only on account of the importance that might be attached to Alderney as a harbour of refuge and a base for naval operations, that he pressed the Government to come to a decision—it was unfair to the inhabitants of the island that matters should be left in their present condition. The lights which these works rendered necessary at a cost of £60 a-year, had hitherto been provided by the Government, but this year they took a very economical view, and the Board of Trade had decided that they would no longer be maintained. On the States being summoned, it was shown that the whole revenue of the island was only £750 a-year. Every great country had its debt, and the public debt of Alderney involved an annual charge of£or£90, and they had a standing army of 25 police. Then there was the comparatively handsome contribution of £50 a-year for education, besides other charges, and the States said £60 a-year for the lights would ruin them. Thinking they might influence the Chancellor of the Exchequer, they urged on the Treasury that the breakwater had not been made by them, that there was a shoal at the extremity of it, and that what with the breakwater and the shoal they would be shut out from communication unless the lights were kept up, though they had a communication before the breakwater was made. The Chancellor of the Exchequer so far relented as to say he would do nothing this year; but unfortunately his own motto—Exluce lucellum occurred to his mind, and he thought that by putting out the light he could gain £60 a-year. Alderney had either therefore to pay or be left in darkness. This was a serious thing; last December several vessels were injured owing to the absence of the light. The forts contained about 200 guns, with some artillery and troops, and either the forts must be blown up and the troops withdrawn, or some landing- place for stores must be maintained. The breakwater was nearly a mile in length, and a great deal of it in very deep water, rising 21 feet above high-water mark. Perhaps out of the materials some small harbour or landing-place might be made. Its entire abandonment would be unwise, for the forts were solidly built and could easily be maintained. If the principle adopted in "another place," that war was to cease and everything to be settled by International Arbitration and by paying a sum of money was to prevail, of course all fortifications might be given up; but he was not quite a believer in this new principle, and he attached great value to these works. He trusted, therefore, that he should hear from the Government that something was to be clone with them.


said, that when before Easter he requested his noble Friend to postpone his Motion, Her Majesty's Government were of opinion that further information was required before they could give a satisfactory answer to the noble Duke's inquiry, or themselves arrive at any decision as to what ought to be done; and he then said that as they understood that considerable damage had been done to the works during the winter, it was essential that there should be an examination into the actual state of the breakwater. Accordingly, at Easter, Colonel Clarke, Mr. Hawkshaw, and Colonel Jervois, who had examined the works before, and who were well acquainted with the whole subject, proceeded to the island and had since made a Report. The Government were desirous of obtaining information not only as to what would be the cost of maintaining the works, but what would be the cost of demolishing them, should that course be determined on. The proposal of destroying the works was one of so unusual a character that for some weeks the engineers could not prepare anything like an estimate—and when prepared it was of a most unsatisfactory nature. It was not till the day before yesterday that it had been in his power to bring the matter before his Colleagues with the necessary information. The noble Duke was quite right in saying that the works at the Channel Islands bad been sanctioned by successive administrations. They had been planned during Sir Robert Peel's Government. On the accession to office of Lord John Russell's Government, he (Viscount Halifax) ascertained the opinion of the Duke of Wellington on the works, which was strongly favourable to a much larger plan. The scheme then was to have a station for a squadron in the Channel Islands. Steam had not at that time been applied to large vessels, and the wind which would bring French vessels out would keep ours in port, and it was thought necessary to have a station on the same side of the Channel to secure an equal advantage of wind. Works for this purpose were to be erected at Guernsey and Jersey. Alderney was then regarded as an advanced post for watching Cherbourg. Circumstances had since entirely changed. The introduction of steam had effected a great revolution in naval warfare, and these works could never be of the advantage that was expected from them when their construction was determined on. The application of steam to large vessels had rendered them almost independent of the wind, and the intended works at Guernsey were abandoned and those at Jersey discontinued; while it was doubtful whether, if the matter was untouched, works would have been constructed at Alderney. There, however, they were, and £250,000 had been spent on the forts, with near £1,500,000 on the harbour and breakwater. To let the works perish by neglect would be foolish and discreditable, and the question was whether they should be maintained or demolished—for it would never do to let such a place as this fall into the possession of any other nation. The noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset) hail a longer reign than himself at the Admiralty during the progress of the works; but they were begun under his own superintendence when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, under the name of a harbour of refuge—a decided misnomer, for they were a military and naval station, and nothing else. They were afterwards most improperly transferred to the Board of Trade, and he believed that this was done by the noble Duke himself. After carefully considering all these matters, the Admiralty were of opinion that in case of war a station for watching all vessels lying at Cherbourg and giving telegraphic information of their movements would be of great use, and our trade in the Channel would be in a critical posi- tion if Alderney some fine morning were in the possession of the French. The Government had therefore determined to present an estimate to the other House for the maintenance of the works as they were; and he thought they ought to be thankful to the noble Duke for moving for the Committee last year and forcing their attention to the subject. Very little damage was sustained by the works last winter, and the expense of maintenance would be £5,000 or £7,000 a-year, while the estimated cost of demolition varied from £100,000 to £200,000, and perhaps more; so that the interest on the money required for destruction of the works would be sufficient for their maintenance.


said, that he had sat upon the Committee; and having heard all the details fully discussed, he would suggest that it was worthy of consideration whether convict labour might not be employed on the maintenance of the works—the work would then be done at very small cost. The fact that the large convict establishments at Portland and Portsmouth were within easy reach made the position of Alderney very favourable, and an interchange of convicts might be beneficial. He rejoiced at the decision of the Government to maintain the works, for, though they would not now be probably undertaken had nothing been done, the large sum spent made their abandonment undesirable, and it was essential to exclude any other country from them.


in the interest of economy, urged promptitude in carrying out the repairs. The longer the works were left unrepaired the greater would be the difficulty in repairing them; and he hoped, therefore, that whatever was intended to be done would be commenced as soon as possible.


admitted that the suggestion of the illustrious Duke was well worthy of consideration, but thought that convict labour was cheap only when employed on large works and in a particular kind of labour. Skilled labour would be required in this case.

Back to