HL Deb 03 April 1879 vol 245 cc246-53

said, that before he put the Question of which he had given Notice, he desired to say a few words by way of explanation. In the discussion which arose some days ago on the explosion in the Thunderer the noble and gallant Lord who represented the Admiralty in that House (Lord Elphinstone) stated that the Government proposed to re-constitute the "Heavy Gun Committee," to refer to it all questions arising out of the explosion; and he understood the noble and gallant Lord also to intimate that the Committee would consider questions generally relating to improvements in gunnery science. Now, on the formation of the Committee very much depended. Was it to be an impartial, unprejudiced tribunal, free from bias of manufacturing departments? Was it to have a full proportion of naval officers upon it? They were deeply interested in the decision arrived at. From 1857 to 1868 we had a very fair and impartial Ordnance Select Committee, and it was under their superintendence all the great gun experiments were made between rival competitors, and by which we had obtained our present construction and system of ordnance, In 1868 Lord Hampton, at that time Sir John Pakington, came to the conclusion that as the great wave of invention had somewhat slackened, and as the Committee had arrived at certain definite conclusions on construction and rifling, the time had arrived when they might accept the general question of construction as settled, and proceed to carry out the armament of our forts and ships on the principles thus laid down. Having come to this determination, the Committee was dissolved, and General Lefroy was appointed a sort of dictator to carry out the general armament on this definite system. Subsequently, when Lord Northbrook's Committee sat, this office was merged in that of Director General. The cadre of the old Ordnance Select Committee was, however, retained, and the secretary and two or three officials were attached to carry out, with the assistance of officials from the gun factories or other departments, acting in small committee, such experiments as might, from time to time, be found necessary. Now, he had no wish to question the decision which was arrived at when the old Ordnance Select Committee was abolished. It was most desirable at that time to proceed with a general system, and perhaps it would have been difficult to have done so while experiments on a great scale were being carried out. But, since that date, 10 years had passed away, and gunnery knowledge had not stood still. Enormous changes had been effected, and it was impossible to shut their eyes to the great artillery improvement which had been carried out by private manufacturers, especially during the last two years, which had virtually revolutionized the whole system, and rendered the reappointment of such a Committee a necessity. He would glance for a moment at what these improvements really were. About two or three years ago it was discovered that the pressure in the powder chamber could be regulated so as not to exceed certain limits, first, by increasing the space occupied by the cartridge; and, second, by modifying the nature of the powder, so that it should burn more slowly. Directly this was ascertained, it became possible to increase the charge very largely, and with it came the necessity of lengthening the gun. Two or three times the amount of powder could now be used, and the general result was that with this new type of gun, chambered and lengthened, they could obtain double the power. The enormous leap in advance which this had made in our gunnery science could best be shown by quoting two or three cases. They had obtained very high velocities without any additional strain. The new 6-inch gun, 4 tons weight, had greater penetrating power than the old 8-inch, 9 tons weight, and almost equalled the old 9-inch, 12 tons weight. The new 8-inch, 11 tons weight, was much more powerful than the old-service 25-ton gun, and equalled the old-service 35-ton gun. The old-service 12-inch 35-ton gun would go through the turret of the Thunderer or the Peter the Great at 500 yards; the new 8-inch of 11 tons could do exactly the same. The old-service 18-ton gun could penetrate Hercules armour at 500 yards, and the breastwork of the Thunderer and Devastation; the new 8-inch 11-ton gun could do the same at 2,000 yards, and yet the gun weighed 5½ tons less. These alterations had also opened up the question of breech-loaders. Now that they were able to regulate the pressure in the chamber of the gun, nearly all the old objections to breech-loaders had vanished, and with the increased length—26 calibres instead of 16 calibres—they must in turret and in broadside ships have breech-loaders. It was not only the great penetrating power which we obtained, there was another advantage of most material importance. The great additional velocity which was got, going up to 2,100 feet in a second, enabled us to fire point blank up to a long range, and the shot was far more likely to strike an adversary, because the path of the projectile was less curved, and therefore less likely to pass over. This at sea, with ships rolling about, was of the utmost importance. These alterations were, he apprehended, as great as the change from smooth-bore to rifle guns. It was no question of construction, but merely of pattern and length. If this was the state of the case, let them see what was being done towards adopting these improvements. He believed he was correct in saying that the gun factories had not made any of these new type of guns, except two 80-ton guns, and that at the present moment the Navy was still being supplied with guns of the old pattern, which were, as he had already shown, of half the power of the new. Now, he was the last person who would wish to say one word against the gun factories, or would desire to set up any jealousy or friction between the War Office and the Admiralty. General Young husband, who was now at the head of the gun factories, was second to none in ability and in his determination to do his duty. He was quite aware that the gun factories were admirably managed, and that the highest credit was due to all the officials concerned for the manner in which their work was carried out. It was quite clear also that, with the enormous number of forts and establishments scattered about, it was essential that there should be interchange-ability of patterns and ammunition; and therefore they were bound to look with the most jealous eye on any alteration which would throw confusion into this vast array of stores. But with these difficulties constantly before them, it seemed to him the very reason why the officials should not be the judges as to what improvements were necessary. What he did blame was the system which made the Navy dependent on the War Department. In the Army there was no urgent haste in altering patterns of heavy ordnance for forts; but in the Navy it was of the most imperative importance that every improvement should be at once adopted. He understood that at least three foreign Governments were at this moment being supplied with these guns of the newest types for their Navies from a private firm which was on the most intimate and friendly terms with the Government. In the Navy we spent vast sums—£300,000 and £500,000—in building our ships, which, say what we would, were only gun carriages. In former days our large ships carried 120 guns, and then the gun element was not of so much importance; but now our largest ships carried only four guns, and therefore it was of vital importance that those guns should be the most efficient it was possible to obtain. Let their Lordships think for one moment of the enormous change in the offensive power of a ship like the Thunderer, if by adopting these alterations they could actually double the effect of her guns and obtain double the penetrating power. Let them remember that this was no mere inventive theory, but it was an actual ascertained fact. If we were to carry out any of these great improvements, it was imperative that the Select I Committee to be re-appointed should be; based on the lines of the old Select Committee. At present the only Body; responsible for these matters, and who had to consider them, was what was termed the Heavy Gun Committee, which was a War Office Departmental Committee composed entirely of the heads of the Gun Department, and on which the Navy was entirely unrepresented. It was true that on a branch of their work there were two naval officers—Captain Bridge and Captain Bruce; but they had only to deal with the 80-ton gun question. On the general subject the Navy was utterly and entirely unrepresented. Now, could this be satisfactory? We had a great Service—whose principal weapon of offence was the gun, whose direct interest it was, in every conceivable way, to have the best gun that money could procure—left in the consideration of these vital points dependent on another Department. In the Navy ships had now so few guns that inter-changeability of stores was not so material a point as on shore, and a ship could be very much self-contained. He contended that the Navy had so deep an interest in the gun question, that it must be fully represented on whatever Committee was formed, and, beyond and above that, he thought the Admiralty must be perfectly free. As it was, with machinery and steam engines, the highest skill this great mechanical nation could call forth should be placed at the disposal of the Admiralty. On the Committee he hoped a naval architect would be appointed, in the same manner that Royal Engineers were thought necessary. Experiments against iron plates were made, and questions as to how guns were to be carried arose; and it was most important that the naval architect should be kept fully aware of all that went on, and able to advise and assist. This was a question of the most vital interest to the Navy. The noble Duke (the Duke of Somerset) the other day spoke in noble and generous language of the manner in which the officers and men behaved after the terrible explosion on the Thunderer, amid that darkened scene of horror and desolation. He went on to say, that with the terrible dangers our men encountered externally from shot above and torpedoes below water, it was to be hoped that no pains would be spared to save them in future from internal danger and from explosions. The best way to effect that was by appointing a thoroughly competent tribunal to look after? He matter; and, with the vast stake the Navy had in the question, he did hope the noble and gallant Lord who represented the Admiralty would be able to say that in future they would not be unrepresented. The noble Lord concluded by asking—

How many members the re-constituted Heavy Gun Committee is to consist of, and what will be the proportion upon it of naval officers:

Whether a naval architect will be put upon it:

Whether any officers identified with inventions or novel proposals submitted to its consideration, or any officer con- nected with any manufacturing department, will be appointed or retained upon it:

Whether the Committee will be directed to make periodical reports; and whether such reports will be communicated either to the public or to those persons directly affected by them within a reasonable lapse of time?


said, he did not propose to follow the noble Lord through the various subjects which he had brought forward, but rather to reply to the Questions put as they stood upon the Notice Paper. The Heavy Ordnance Committee would be re-constituted, and it was intended that it should consist of seven members—two Naval officers, one officer of the Royal Engineers, three officers of the Royal Artillery, one officer of the Indian Artillery. These officers would act immediately under the orders of their own respective Departments—the Naval members under the Admiralty, to whom they would be answerable; the Military members under the War Office, to whom they would be answerable. If at the Admiralty it was considered desirable that any particular experiments should be carried out with any particular gun, they would instruct the Naval members of the Committee accordingly, who would bring the matter before the whole Committee, where it would be discussed, and the nature of the experiments would be determined on; and the War Office would act in the same way. To this Committee, in the first instance, would be referred the questions now before the Heavy Gun Committee, and the question of breech-loading. The Admiralty had not decided as to what officers they would place upon this Committee; but they would be selected as men of the broadest views, irrespective of rank, men specially competent to advise, and men who, although not naval architects themselves, would be, at the same time, qualified to form and express an opinion upon all questions in which naval architecture might form a prominent feature—as, indeed, it must do, a ship being, to a very great extent, as described by the noble Lord opposite (Lord Sudeley), a floating gun carriage. For this reason, it was not intended to appoint a naval architect as a member of the Committee. The Government certainly would not feel bound to refuse to employ a man because he might have turned his attention to invention. He thought their Lordships would agree with Her Majesty's Government that it would be very unwise to say to a man—"No, we cannot employ you. You are an inventor." Why, everyone who turned his attention to any particular subject was an inventor. An inventor was a man who endeavoured to suggest improvement; and it seemed to him that was the very man to have upon a Committee of this kind—though, at the same time, it was not desirable that any member should have a personal or pecuniary interest in any of the great inventions connected with heavy ordnance, or, indeed, any personal interest in any particular invention. With regard to the latter part of the Question, it was intended that the Committee should make their Reports direct to the Admiralty and to the War Office; and they would consider how far it might be for the public benefit that these Reports should be made public. It was obvious that it would not be desirable that all Reports should be considered public property; for their Lordships must remember that information given to the public was not given to the public of this country only, but to the whole world. For instance, suppose some grave defect was found in our mode of arming our ships or our forts. It would not be desirable that we should publish that fact to the world—especially when it might take years to remedy that defect. And, in the same way, if we discovered some great improvement that could be applied either to the manufacture or to the working of our guns—or, indeed, to any other matter connected with heavy ordnance—it would be most undesirable that we should at once proclaim that discovery upon the housetop, and so give the benefit of it to the world. The question, therefore, of making the Reports public would rest entirely with the Admiralty and the War Office. The inventors whose inventions were under investigation and trial were, of course, in a different position; they were "persons directly affected," and they would probably be made aware of the Report of the Committee, although the public in general might not be. He had so far merely attempted to give a rough outline of what it was proposed the duties of the re-constituted Committee would consist of. There might be—and he need scarcely say there probably would be—many matters of more or less importance that would have to be considered. The authorities were fully alive to the great importance of the subject; and in reconstituting this Committee they would spare no pains to make it as good, as effective, and as valuable as possible.


said, that he understood the object of the appointment of the Committee was that the Naval Profession and the public at largo should be able to entertain a well-grounded confidence in the large guns in use in the Navy; and that another object in view was to inquire generally into the question of the construction of our heavy armaments, with a view to ascertain whether a better class of guns than were now in use could be provided. The deplorable explosion on board the Thunderer, to which he (the Duke of Somerset) called the attention of the House the other day, showed how important it was that the manufacture of our guns should be looked into, and he alluded to this question of guns because he had had experience of the former breech-loading guns, and knew how defective they were. But with the experience they had since had of improvements in construction, he was inclined to think that a better class of breech-loaders could now be made than the guns at present in use, which he confessed he believed to be defective in the metal, in the mode of rifling, and in construction generally. This opened a large subject of inquiry; and, therefore, what he desired to know was, whether the Committee that was to be appointed would be empowered to re-open the whole question of the construction of the guns now in use in the Navy—in fact, whether it would be competent to the Committee to begin the work de novo?


said, he could assure the noble Duke that the Government intended the investigation should be of the most thorough and searching character.