HL Deb 01 August 1882 vol 273 cc362-7

rose to move for— 1. Steam ships (ironclad) now building, with, the state of forwardness in each case, the thickness of armour proposed; stating also whether the armour-plating is to he carried from end to end of the vessel, the number and weight of guns, whether breech or muzzle loading, and estimated draught of water; 2. The number of swift cruisers now building, estimated speed in each case, and state of forwardness; 3. The number of vessels of every class which it is intended shall be laid down during the present year. The noble Viscount said, that the Returns for which he moved were not so comprehensive as he had originally intended, owing to a statement which appeared in The Times some time since, furnishing some of the information which he desired to obtain. He complained that the country had not received sufficient information with regard to the relative position of our Navy as compared with that of foreign nations. It had always been the policy of England that our Navy should stand not only superior in every respect to the Navy of any Power, but in a position to resist the united Navies of Europe. At the Battle of Trafalgar we had no less than 176 line-of-battle ships, against 100 French and Spanish vessels. It was, therefore, important that a comparison should be made between the condition of our Navy with that of the Navies of other countries. During the past 20 years the whole system of the Navy had been completely revolutionized; and he felt that the country was not thoroughly informed as to the position of our Navy in relation to those of other countries. He wished to ascertain what preparations were being made to place our Navy on an equality with the powerful Navies now being constructed by Italy and some other Powers. When he brought the subject before their Lordships on a previous occasion he was told that it would be injurious to the Service to enter into any comparison between the English and Foreign Navies; but since then certain statistics had been issued and had appeared in the newspapers which rendered reticence unnecessary. It was true that the French Navy was numerically inferior to ours; but it comprised many ships of great power. Thus, while we had only three powerful vessels which could pass through the Suez Canal, and thus protect our trade with India, the French possessed 11 such vessels. He hoped the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty (the Earl of Northbrook) would be able to inform the country that the Government were on the alert; because, from all appearances, the French Navy in 1885 would be one of the most powerful in the world; for by that time they would have four of the most powerful vessels afloat, whereas we should only be able to add a second Inflexible to our Fleet by that date. They should also bear in mind that the Navies of Italy, Germany, and other European Powers would be very powerful. One of the new French vessels was protected with 23-inch or 24-inch armour all along her water line, and it was continued round her ram; whereas the Inflexible's ram was mounted on a wooden framework, which greatly diminished the force of the blow she delivered. The French were in a position to turn out their vessels far more rapidly than we could, inasmuch as that nation voted £1,200,000 annually towards increasing her Navy, a sum which was far larger than we appropriated for that purpose; and, moreover, she employed 23,000 workmen in her shipyards as against 16,000 we employed. He thought England ought to have vessels at each end of the Suez Canal, and one so constructed as to steam through it. According to the Re-port of Captain Dawson and Admiral Ryland, ships drawing more than 20 feet of water would be unable to render service in many circumstances; and he condemned the Gorgon class of vessels. He did not blame the First Lord or the Board of Admiralty, because he was quite convinced that the noble Earl at the head of the Admiralty was anxious to secure a good Navy, and, indeed, it was highly necessary, because it was estimated that the value of the property we had at sea was no less than about £800,000,000, of which no less than £100,000,000 was invested in ships alone. So large an amount of property required a corresponding amount of protection in time of war. The country, therefore, must make up its mind to lay aside the question of expense, as it was only by enormous outlay in this direction that we could hope to maintain the position of this country as it ought to be as regarded the prestige of our Navy. No doubt we had some very powerful ships, such as the Inflexible; but the great defect of her was that she was not armoured all round. He hoped that the noble Earl would be able to give a full answer to his question, otherwise he should feel it his duty to bring the matter forward again next Session. The noble Viscount concluded by moving for the Returns mentioned.

Moved, That there be laid before this House Returns of,—

  1. "1. Steam ships (ironclad) now building, with the state of forwardness in each case, the thickness of armour proposed; stating also whether the armour-plating is to be carried from end to end of the vessel, the number and weight of guns, whether breech or muzzle loading, and estimated draught of water;
  2. "2. The number of swift cruisers now building, estimated speed in each case and state of forwardness;
  3. "3. The number of vessels of every class which it is intended shall be laid down during the present year."—(The Viscount Sidmouth.)


in reply, said, that the noble Viscount opposite (Viscount Sidmouth) had entered into comparisons and questions of which he had given no Notice. With those their Lordships would, no doubt, excuse him (the Earl of Northbrook) from dealing. Nothing was more difficult than to decide upon the relative merits of a ship; and against the noble Viscount's opinion of the Inflexible they could set the opinions of many distinguished and experienced officers, who considered her an exceedingly powerful vessel. He should like the noble Viscount to enter into a calculation as to what her weight would be if she were covered with thickest armour throughout, as he suggested. To the second and third heads of the noble Viscount's Motion he had no objection to make, except that the information was already contained in the Estimates of the year. To the first he hoped that their Lordships would not accede. Not that he believed such a Return to be particu- larly objectionable, as it had been customary to give very freely, in debates in the other House, the particulars of the ships laid down; but he found that such details had never been given by the Admiralty in a Return, and he did not desire to set a precedent which might possibly, under other circumstances, be contrary to the public interests. Three new iron-clad ships would be laid down this year. One of these, the Benbow, would be of 10,000 tons displacement, and of an estimated measured mile speed of 16 knots. The armament would consist of four breech-loading guns of about 60 tons, of power not less than the 80-ton guns of the Inflexible. Those guns would be mounted en barbette. There would be an auxiliary armament of about six 6-inch breech-loading guns, not completely protected by armour. The armour on the protected part of the hull of the ship would be 18 inches thick, and on the barbettes inclined armour equivalent to vertical armour of 16 inches and 14 inches; all the armour would be steel-faced. This ship would be built by contract, if a reasonable offer could be obtained, and it would take about fouryears to build. Two other iron-clads which would be laid down this year would be of a type which had not yet been settled. The Admiralty had nearly come to their conclusion as to the particular class of ship which should be adopted in those two cases, when the recent operations took place at Alexandria; and as considerable experience must necessarily be gained when they obtained a full account of the way in which the guns and the iron-plated ships had behaved in that action, it was thought desirable to wait until they had detailed information from the Fleet before they finally determined on the designs of the other two iron-plated ships which would be laid down in the course of the present year. It was never intended to do much work on those ships this year; and, therefore, there would be no inconvenience from a slight postponement of their designs. The Admiralty had this year, for the first time, come to a decision which, he thought, would have a considerable effect in future on the class of ships which they would build for the Service. They had decided to build ships which would be in a position to cruise and keep the sea, depending entirely on steam power. They proposed to build two cruisers, capable of operating with fleets of armoured ships. They would not be rigged, but would have high speed under steam, and a large fuel supply. Their designed measured mile speed was 16½ to 17 knots, and they would be able to steam at low speed without coaling for a month. They would have twin screws and be protected by a strong steel deck at or near the water-line from end to end. They would be 300 feet long, of about 3,300 tons displacement, and would have a complement of 200 men. In one of these vessels artillery power would be developed, two breech-loading guns of about 18 tons being mounted, but not protected by armour, excepting against machine guns; and, in the other, Whitehead torpedoes would be the principal armament; but each ship would be capable of receiving the alternative armament at pleasure. Several 6-inch breech-loading guns would be carried in each, in addition to the principal armament. The vessels would, of course, be capable of operating as rams. The Admiralty were quite sensible of the necessity of keeping up the strength of all classes of Her Majesty's ships. He might state the quantity of armoured shipping built within the last few years. In 1879–80 there were built 7,427 tons of armoured shipping; in 1880–1, when the present Board of Admiralty came into Office, there were built 9,235, the amount which their Predecessors had intended to build in that year being only 7,948 tons. In 1881–2 there had been built 10,748 tons; and it was estimated that this year the quantity built would be 11,466 tons. Their Lordships would be glad to hear that, in the last few years, they had been able in the Dockyards to work better up to their programme than had been the case on some former occasions. The total tonnage of the shipping built had increased, so that no class of ships had been neglected. He could not at all concur with the noble Viscount in the feeling he had expressed, that the Navy of this country was not in a satisfactory condition in respect to strength, and was not prepared to take the same position in the world as the Navy of England always had taken. The present Board of Admiralty had especially directed their attention to the construction of armour-plated ships, and also of fast cruisers. The Government had decided, in their programme for the present year, to try the effect of erecting bulwarks round the decks of one vessel of the Gorgon class. In conclusion, he hoped the noble Viscount would accept his assurance, that the Board of Admiralty felt fully sensible of their responsibility in maintaining the Fleet in a proper state of efficiency, and begged, him not to believe that any Board of Admiralty, whether present or past, were so insensible to their duties as to allow the Navy to fall into an unsatisfactory condition.


said, the statement of the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty (the Earl of North-brook) was exceedingly satisfactory to his mind; but he would still press upon the attention of the noble Earl that, irrespective of home demands and of the necessity for protecting our various Possessions, the Navy of this country ought always to be on the footing of being able to place in European waters a Fleet equal to that of any other Power. There was one point which had been very much overlooked in the construction of the vessels of the Navy, and that had struck him with regard to all the ships he had seen—namely, the weakness of the conning-tower. The life of a ship in action depended on the life of the captain, and so long as the conning-tower was not properly protected a great risk was run of losing that officer's life, and, therefore, of the means needed for directing the ship. He hoped that steps would be taken to provide proper protection.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.