HL Deb 31 March 1873 vol 215 cc332-43

said, that in rising to put some inquiries on the subject of Her Majesty's ship Devastation, he must remind their Lordships that his Questions had been on the Notice Paper upwards of six weeks, and that he had postponed the matter at the request of his noble Friend the Earl of Camperdown, until after the First Lord of the Admiralty should have made his official statement to the other House in moving the Navy Estimates. The right hon. Gentleman had now made a very clear and straightforward statement, showing the state of the Navy generally; but when touching on professional points he said he did not so much speak for himself as repeat the opinions of his professional advisers and of scientific men; consequently, it was to those professional men and philosophers any observations which he (the Earl of Lauderdale) had now to make would be mainly directed. The Devastation was one of four vessels of the same class and character—the others being the Thunderer, the Fury, and another. Those vessels were intended to be sea-going ships, and the question to be determined was whether they really were safe-going vessels. They had no masts, and there had never before been ships of war with such a low freeboard and such a high centre of gravity. He considered these to be most dangerous features in such vessels, and it was necessary that there should be a trial of the Devastation as soon as possible—and all the more necessary because it had been found necessary to appoint a Royal Commission to inquire into the subject of the serious loss of merchant vessels, much of which was attributed to low freeboards. Why were the Devastation and the Thunderer and the two other vessels of the same class to have a low freeboard and a high centre of gravity? The reason assigned was that those qualities were supposed to give a steady platform, so that the fire of the guns would not be thrown away. In passenger ships a low freeboard and a high centre of gravity were believed to contribute to the comfort of the stomachs of those on board. In a ship-of-war a steady platform was exceedingly desirable—it was indeed a requisite; but that object, however valuable, must not be obtained at the sacrifice of the safety of the ship and her crew. Now, up to the present time there was nothing but theory to show that those low freeboards were safe. He thought, however, the public would not be satisfied to go on theory alone—we wanted experiment. When guns of a new kind were constructed they were subjected to the utmost trial—they were tried till they burst. He did not go to the length of saying a ship ought to be tried until she was destroyed, but he did think that she ought to be tried until it became apparent that it would not be safe to try her further. The First Lord of the Admiralty said that Department would look on the Devastation as a trial vessel. Well, if she was really to be tried against a heavy sea, the sooner that was done the better. For himself, he had no objection to the building of one such ship as the Devastation; but as an experiment, because he was not at all satisfied that vessels of that class would prove to be good seagoing ships. He found that some authorities denied that the Devastation was a vessel of low freeboard, and asserted that she had a foot and a half more freeboard than certain passenger vessels. What were the facts? She had 9 feet out of the water forward, and 4 feet 6 inches aft. He had never heard of a passenger ship with such a low freeboard as that. The Serapis was 22 feet out of the water forward, and 16 feet aft. The Thunderer had been round by Plymouth and Portsmouth recently, when she was going 12 knots. He thought the sea must have been nearly smooth then; but as the vessel was going at 12 knots, and in a cross sea, that would make a great wind. He thought there was some miscalculation as to the actual wind blowing in the Channel; but at all events the experiment with the Thunderer could not be regarded as one which settled the question of low freeboards. It was said that the Devastation could not be capsized because she had no sails, but ships with sails were not capsized till the sails were blown away. The Devastation had a great hurricane-house, and the danger of her capsizing would probably arise, if it arose at all, from the sea acting on that and as it were getting under the eaves of it. One question which ought at once to be settled was whether the Devastation was a high freeboard or a low one. His own opinion was that she was a low freeboard. Was Her Majesty's Government satisfied that such a vessel as this would be safe at sea and able to live in a gale? The professional advisers of the First Lord were of opinion that she was fit to go to any part of the world; but he had his doubts on that point. He was satisfied of this—that if every vessel in the British Navy were to be cut down to the same freeboard as the Devastation, there would not be one of them but would be unseaworthy. The Monarch turret-ship was 24 feet over water at the bows; the Sultan was 31 feet, and the Royal Sovereign 10 feet, and she was not a good seagoing vessel. The Blazer gunboat, which was not much larger than a ship's launch, was 9 feet. What the performance at sea of vessels of the Devastation class would be, was a very serious matter; and in order to solve it as little delay as possible should be allowed to intervene before there was a trial. He did not want the vessel to be taken to sea in a gale of wind, but he thought that she ought to be taken down the Channel at four or five knots. If it was found that there was no danger at that speed, she might be taken a little further, and got into the trough of the sea; and if she answered so far, she might be taken out to sea until the officers on board did not think fit to go any further; or let her be taken to Bantry Bay in company with the Monarch, or some other of Her Majesty's sea-going ships—let her wait until a gale came, and after the gale had blown itself out let her go out and see how she would behave herself in the heavy swell that would follow. He believed that could be done without danger, and it was the only effectual and satisfactory mode of dealing with such a vessel as the Devastation. Thirty years ago he served on a Committee for Harbour Defences—the Committee had a good advisor in Mr. Scott Russell—that Committee contemplated the building of vessels of freeboard, but at the time they were intended for harbour defence, and not for sea-going ships. There were seas 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet, and 50 feet high. Admiral Fitzroy was not prepared to say that there were not seas even 60 feet high; but let them take a sea 30 feet high, and how would the captain force such a ship as the Devastation off a lee shore? He agreed it was quite right to build the Devastation as a trial ship; but three more of these vessels had been built at a cost of £2,000,000, and yet no proper test of their safety had as yet been made. He begged to ask, If the "Devastation" is to be inclined in order to ascertain her stability at various angles; and as to what trials are to be made at sea in order to ascertain her efficiency and safety as a sea-going vessel in bad weather such as a sea-going vessel was liable to encounter at all seasons?


hoped his noble Friend would excuse him if he did not occupy their Lordships' time by entering into the comparative merits of broadside iron ships, turret ships with high freeboard, and turret ships with low freeboard. Each of these classes had its advocates, and as they were able men he could not pretend to say how long the discussion might not be maintained. In reference to the Question itself, he had to thank his noble Friend (the Earl of Lauderdale) for having acceded to his request for a postponement of his Questions till after the statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty in. "another place," and he thought their Lordships had the advantage of a very clear and able statement. He thought that when a new class of ship was introduced into the Navy, it was both right and proper that the first official statement respecting it should be made by that Member of the Government who, more than any other person, was responsible to Parliament and the country for the ships built under the direction of the Board of Admiralty. With reference to the observation of his noble Friend as to the First Lord having in the matter of ships of the Devastation class acted on the advice of professional advisers and men of science—whom his noble Friend was pleased to term "philosophers"—he thought it right to remind him that among those professional advisers and scientific men were naval officers of the highest experience, including Controllers like Sir Spencer Robinson and Admiral Stewart; and those ships had been designed not only on the advice of professional advisers, but also on that of the Committee, who examined and considered designs submitted to the First Lord. He found that on the 24th of March, 1869, the following gentlemen, especially invited by the First Lord, assembled at the Admiralty:—Admiral the Earl of Lauderdale, Rear Admiral H. R. Yelverton, Captain Cowper Coles, Mr. William Fairbairn, Mr. Joseph Whitworth, and Dr. Woolley; and that there were also present besides all the members of the Board of Admiralty, Rear Admiral Key and Mr. E. J. Reed, at that time Chief Constructor of the Navy. A design was submitted, and the First Lord taking a note of the principal and important features of that design, invited a discussion upon each of these seriatim. They were considered to be—1, low freeboard; 2, draught of water with special reference to twin screws; 3, the absence of masts; and, 4th, the nature of the armaments. He believed that 8 feet 9 inches forward and 4 feet 6 inches aft was the freeboard in the design approved, not only by that Committee, but also by the Committee presided over by Lord Dufferin. It was then believed that ships of the Devastation class would prove first-class fighting ships; and, notwithstanding the doubts expressed by his noble Friend to the contrary, it would, perhaps, be a proof to the House and the country that in the minds of experienced officers there was great confidence in those vessels, if he mentioned that Admiral Stewart was prepared to take a passage in the Devastation on her trial trip, and that Mr. Barnaby, the Chief Naval Architect, had asked permission to be on board during the trial. As to the force of the wind on the occasion when the sister ship of the Devastation, the Thunderer, made her trip, he thought it was not likely there had been any miscalculation as to the wind, Admiral Stewart being on board; but, even granting that there had been such a mistake, and the force of wind was not so great as had been stated, still the result showed that the Thunderer made better way against a head sea than the Valorous. Some curiosity had been expressed to know why, when the Devastation had been tried so long ago as October last, no further trial of her had been made since that time. The trial in October was one for her engines, and with a view to deciding on the engines for other vessels, it was desirable the experiments should be made at the earliest possible period. If his right hon. Friend the First Lord, when making his statement on the Navy Estimates, and if he himself now spoke with caution respecting the Devastation, it was not that they, or that the advisers of the Admiralty had any reason to question her safety or stability as a sea-going ship, but because they had not yet had any experience of the Devastation's seagoing powers; and, until they had satisfactory evidence on the subject from experience, they would not say that she was in that respect a satisfactory ship. At the same time everything approach- ing a trial that she or the Thunderer had undergone had been in the direction of success, and the First Lord had no ground for supposing, from what his professional advisers said, that there was the least reason to question her safety or stability. The reason there had been no trial since October was that it had not been thought desirable to make a further trial until her fittings were complete. They would be complete in a few days, and then she would be subjected to a different trial from that which she had undergone to test the power of her engines. That was not the sort of trial contemplated by his noble Friend; but there would be a series of progressive trials such as he had spoken of in order that the seagoing qualities of the Devastation might be fully tested. The Admiralty were quite aware of the responsibility which the invention of a new class of ship entailed upon them. They were perfectly aware that the Devastation was an experimental ship, and while they did not in the least distrust her, they felt that every precaution must be taken in conducting these trials so as not to endanger the lives of those who were on board. His noble Friend, however, rather overstated the case in mentioning that her freeboard was so very low. Perhaps, it had escaped his recollection that since she was originally designed her superstructure had been increased, the effect of which had been to raise very materially the height of her freeboard, and, therefore, to increase her stability. [The Earl of LAUDERDALE: That is amidships. My figures are fore and aft.] Originally, she was designed for 50 feet of her length forward with a freeboard of 8 feet 9 inches; and for the remaining 234 feet of her length with a freeboard of 4 feet 6 inches. Now, by the alterations made, for the first 60 feet of her length she has a freeboard of 8 feet 9 inches, as originally proposed; for the next 184 feet she has a freeboard of 10 feet 9 inches; and only for the last 50 feet has she a freeboard of 4 feet 6 inches. In this way the range of her stability had been increased from 43 degrees, as originally designed, to 55½ degrees. The ship had been inclined some time ago, and the inclination showed the result he had just mentioned. Within the last few days she had been inclined a second time. The calculations had not yet been worked out; but he should be glad to let his noble Friend have them when they were completed. Having now given what he thought was a complete answer to the question, he would only repeat a hope that it would not be supposed that the Admiralty were running anything which could properly be called a risk with respect to this new class of ship. Of course, every new type of vessel was necessarily an experiment, possessing qualities which could only be tested by actual trial. All the Admiralty could do was to take every precaution, and see that no risk was run, and that the officers in charge were persons in whom the country and the service placed confidence. He was sure his noble Friend would agree with him that no fitter person could have been chosen, and no one in whom the ship's company would have greater confidence than Captain Hewitt, to whom the command of the Devastation had been given.


wished to say a few words on this matter. This was an experimental ship, and for the last seven or eight years a great deal had been heard in the House of Commons as to the necessity of fixing the responsibility for every ship that was built. Now, he wanted to show their Lordships the position at which we had arrived with regard to the responsibility for this experimental ship, the Devastation. The vessel was designed by Mr. Reed, and the drawings were at the Dockyard, but when he left the Admiralty the stem had only just been laid down. As, however, he was very anxious that justice should be done to the ship, he offered to give his services gratuitously in order that the vessel might be built according to his design;—and, of course, in planning so complicated a structure a great deal must be still in the designer's mind, without being reduced to paper. Mr. Reed's offer was refused. He was told that he was not wanted, and that the Constructing Committee at the Admiralty could build the vessel without his assistance. He left the Admiralty, and the Constructing Committee began their work; but before they had gone far the Admiralty appointed another Committee—Lord Dufferin's Committee, as it was called. They sat in the Board Room at the Admiralty, took evidence, and recommended what they thought right, superseding both Mr. Reed and the Constructing Committee. But, after discussing the question they were divided in opinion—one section desiring that the ship should be constructed in one way, and the other in another way. Their Report, therefore, was not a very satisfactory one. The Devastation was talked of as a fighting ship; but what did the Committee themselves say in their Report of July 26, 1871?— Persons whose opinions are entitled to weight have expressed their conviction that it will be impossible for these ships to be forced head to sea without being smothered. This is a point which cannot be decided in any other way than by actual trial. So that, according to the Committee, until we had smothered the Devastation we could not know whether it was in danger of being smothered. Well, after this the Admiralty took the ship in hand. But Mr. Goschen could not be fixed with the responsibility—he could not set aside the Report of a Committee sitting in the Board Room of the Admiralty; nor could the Constructing Committee accept the responsibility, because they had been superseded by another Committee. Thus, if the Devastation should meet with the fate of the Captain, we should be in the same position now as we were then, and should not know where to fix responsibility. It was clear that under such a system no one could be responsible for ships that were built. His noble Friend (the Earl of Lauderdale) talked of the responsibility of the Admiralty; but it was not fair to fix the responsibility on Mr. Goschen. He had asked, in their Lordships' Committee, Admiral Robinson who would be responsible for the Devastation when completed, and Admiral Robinson said that he could not tell; that the Constructing Committee had departed from his recommendation, and therefore he could not be responsible any more than Mr. Reed could be. Thus the responsibility was shifted from one to another, and it was now impossible to say who was responsible for this ship. Such a state of things was most unsatisfactory.


said, the experience of his noble Friend (the Duke of Somerset) at the Admiralty must surely have taught him that when experimental ships were being built it was the duty of the First Lord to take the best advice he could during the whole time of their construction; and this was not less the case when a considerable time elapsed before the vessel was sent to sea. There could not, however, be the slightest doubt who was responsible when such a vessel actually went to sea. It was the Board of Admiralty, at the time of her being sent to sea, and the Constructor upon whose official responsibility the final arrangements of the vessel were determined. In this case, no doubt, there had been alterations of construction since Mr. Reed laid the first lines of the Devastation. The ultimate responsibility lay with the Admiralty, whose present adviser was Mr. Barnaby. So far as Constructors were responsible, he was responsible for the ship as she stood at this moment. All authorities concurred in the necessity of having ships with a much lower freeboard than was formerly the case when they were not armourplated. The reason was that if the height of ships out of the water was as great as that of the old class of ships it would be impossible they could carry the armour-plating which was necessary to make them efficient engines of war. The scientific men and the naval men who were consulted concurred in believing that the Devastation was the type of the fighting ship of the future. It was impossible, however, to establish the soundness of a theory without ample experiment. Theory went a long way, but experience went further. His right hon. Friend Mr. Goschen was proceeding in the matter with great care, while recognizing fully the fact that the Devastation must be tried under all those conditions which, as a sea-going ship, she must be prepared to meet. So far as her engines were concerned, she would be tried directly, and if that trial was satisfactory she would proceed to sea at once. In a very few days, therefore, an opportunity would be given for testing, as his noble Friend had pointed out, the sea-going capabilities of this ship.


said, that though there were not only scientific and philosophical and the best known men on Lord Dufferin's Committee, there was not a single naval architect, according to the best of his knowledge, who was accustomed to build iron ships of that size. The principle adopted was far away from the principle of no freeboard, and if the principle of no freeboard had been adopted, the water would have simply washed over the vessel and she would have been steady. It was easy to explain why the Thunderer had sailed 12 knots in rough weather, when she was going to Portsmouth the other day, accompanied by the Valorous. He believed the Valorous had only 2,000 tons weight, whereas the Thunderer had 10,000 tons, so that if they were caught in a chopping sea, the weight and length of the Thunderer would cause her to go very smoothly ahead, which the Valorous with her lighter weight could not do. His noble Friend (the Earl of Camperdown) had reminded him that he was on the Committee which recommended the building of this ship. Now, he certainly was on that Committee, and he had stated so before to the House. When the papers were laid before him first of all, and his opinion was asked whether a ship of that type would be serviceable, he asked if she was intended to be a regular seagoing ship and to do the business of the country wherever wanted; and the reply being in the affirmative, he said that he did not think she would do, or that she would be safe. Another member, Mr. Fairbairn, one of the Naval Architects, to whom the question was also put, said that he could give no other answer than that given by the Earl of Lauderdale. In the course of the discussion he (the Earl of Lauderdale) said there was no use arguing this point, and as some said she would be fit for anything, and as others said she would not, and as there was only one way of deciding the question, the thing to be done was to build one ship and try her; and under these circumstances he would give his approval to the building of one vessel. That was a very different thing from advocating the building of four such vessels for the Navy. But while saying she would not be fit for sea-going service, he had admitted she would be one of the most powerful vessels in the Navy, and would do for coast defence; but the drawback even there would be that she drew too much water. He certainly could not be described as one who had advocated the Devastation class of ships before the principle had been tried.


said, that the remarks which the noble Earl had just addressed to their Lordships would illustrate the difficulties in which the Admiralty was sometimes placed. The noble Earl had told them that he was for building one ship of the Devasta tion class, and one only; but last autumn their Lordships would have seen every kind of advice given to the Admiralty through the medium of the public journals. If there were eminent naval officers who advocated the building of one ship of the Devastation type only, there were persons equally eminent who advised the Admiralty to build a squadron of Devastations. The Admiralty were then told they had no gunboats, and that they ought to build squadrons of gunboats. They were also told that they had no frigates, and that they ought to build squadrons of frigates. He was glad therefore to find that there were in naval circles officers like his noble Friend who thought the Admiralty sometimes did too much in the way of shipbuilding.

House adjourned at a quarter before Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.