HL Deb 18 July 1882 vol 272 cc844-8

, who had the following Notice on the Paper:— To ask the First Lord of the Admiralty the number of ships of war of which it is intended to commence the construction during the present year, the thickness of armour in each case, the number and weight of guns, breech and muzzle loading, and the date at which it may be expected each ship will be completed; the number of torpedo boats, and estimated speed of each; and to move for Returns of the number and armament of ships of war in the navies of Foreign Powers, number and weight of guns carried by them, with the number of torpedo boats at the present time, and the estimated naval forces that are expected to he at the disposal of each Power at the expiration of three years from the present date, said, that since he had taken his seat that afternoon the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Northbrook) had sent him a note, with the terms of which he felt it impossible not to comply. The noble Earl had stated that any reference to the Navies of Foreign Powers would, perhaps, be impolitic, and had requested that such should not be made, and to this request he (Viscount Sidmouth) felt bound to accede. Although precluded from going into the subject and the condition of the Navies of Foreign Powers, he might be allowed to say that he had gone through all the documents which had come within his reach most carefully, amongst others through the exhaustive book published by a Colleague of the noble Earl at the Admiralty, Sir Thomas Brassey; and every line he had read, and all the statistics he had perused, confirmed him in his belief that the numerical strength, and, in some instances, the condition of our Navy was not such as became a maritime country like England. He did not wish to lay the smallest blame on the noble Earl, because, no doubt, he was restricted in his operations by the Treasury; but all he could say was, that if the noble Earl, with all the information which he and his Colleagues must possess, could look on the Navy, numerically speaking, and, in some respects, as regarded construction of ships, as sufficient for the safety of this country, he (Viscount Sidmouth) was perfectly astonished. He was sure, were the noble Earl and his Colleagues in his place, they would not regard the condi- tion of the Navy as satisfactory. Let them look at what was occurring in the Mediterranean—whether it was a measure of police or a naval demonstration—he did not know what to call it, that had resulted in the blowing up of an ancient city. We had had to send every available ship to overcome a sixth-rate Power in the hands of a rebel; while we had got just three ships at home for the protection of the Channel. Supposing a great war were to break out, and we had to defend our commerce, we had only one iron-clad in America, one in Australia, and another in China, and at present only three ships, and those not of the first class, to protect the Channel. Now, he would ask any of their Lordships, whether they were acquainted with naval affairs or not, whether the country could possibly be in a safe state under such conditions? He considered it his positive duty to state these things, and he should reserve to himself the right of bringing this subject before the country, either this or next Session, in some different form, because he was satisfied, on the opinion of the highest naval authorities of the country, that the Navy of England was not now too large for the force of united Powers that might be brought against it, and a few years hence there was reason to believe that it would not only be not superior, but absolutely inferior, to the Navy of a certain Power. The Inflexible was our strongest ship; but other countries would soon possess vessels superior to the Inflexible. It should be borne in mind that our merchant ships would require protection in time of war, and, without a very powerful Fleet and a sufficient supply of torpedoes, our Mercantile Marine could not be properly protected. The Inflexible had taken six or eight years to build, and it was well known that no iron-clad could be completed in these days in less than three or four years. Having regard to that fact, he could not refrain from observing that our staff of Dockyard workmen was less in number by some thousands than the staff of more than one foreign country. The Navy, he contended, was not in a state to inspire confidence, and the subject to which he had drawn attention ought, consequently, to command serious consideration.

Moved, "That an humble Address he presented to Her Majesty for Returns of the number and armament of ships of war in the navies of Foreign Powers, number and weight of guns carried by them, with the number of torpedo boats at the present time, and the estimated naval forces that are expected to be at the disposal of each Power at the expiration of three years from the present date.—(The Viscount Sidmouth.)


said, he would be ready at any time to give an explanation as to the shipbuilding policy of the Government; but he had certainly written to the noble Viscount a few days ago suggesting that the Motion of which he had given Notice might advantageously be withdrawn, because it referred not only to the shipbuilding policy of the Admiralty of this country, but also to the number of war ships in the Navies of other countries. The noble Viscount, he thought, had exercised a wise discretion in refraining from raising a discussion about Foreign Navies, such discussions having always been deprecated by those who had filled the office he (the Earl of Northbrook)had now the honour to fill. He altogether disputed the statement of the noble Viscount that our Navy was insufficient for the protection of the country in case of attack. The noble Viscount had omitted to take into consideration the Reserve Squadron in the Channel and the ships in the Dockyards, which were ready to be brought forward with the utmost despatch; and he could assure the House that there was no adequate foundation for the alarming statements made by the noble Viscount with regard to the present condition of the Navy. The noble Viscount had observed in the course of his remarks that the number of years in which an iron-clad could be completed was about five; and, therefore, if it were the case, as the noble Viscount contended, that this country was in a position of great peril, it was quite clear that the present Board of Admiralty could not be responsible for such a state of things. For the existing number of armour-plated ships of the newer types recently launched and completing the late Government were obviously responsible; and, therefore, if the noble Viscount should desire at a future time again to bring the subject forward, he hoped that he would give Notice of his intention to the late First Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. W. H. Smith), so that some of that right hon. Gentleman's friends might be present in the House to answer the noble Viscount's attacks. He could not him- self be expected to explain the reason which had governed the shipbuilding policy of the Board of Admiralty preceding that over which he had the honour to preside.


said, the noble Earl had the advantage of him, having precluded him from referring to the Navies of Foreign Powers. It was utterly impossible for him to make out his case under the circumstances. He did not complain of the noble Earl's administration; but unless in the future the noble Earl placed the Navy in the condition the country desired it to be placed in, the country would not be safe. All the statements he (Viscount Sidmouth) had made had been based on positive information and semi-official documents which came into his possession. So far from being incorrect, his statements, so far as they had gone, were positively true.


said, the opinion expressed in a pamphlet written by an Admiral of the Fleet—Sir Thomas. Symonds—and confirmed by a Lord of the Admiralty—Sir Thomas Brassey—was that, at the present rate of building in the two countries, the Fleet of France would by the year 1885 be superior to that of England. Since 1877 the tonnage of the French Fleet had been increased by 29,000 tons, while the British Fleet had in the same period been increased by 21,000 only. The Naval Force of 1885 would depend upon the number of ships begun in 1882, and, computed upon that basis, the French Navy of 1885 would be equal to our own. Seeing the noble Earl the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in the place usually occupied by the Foreign Secretary, he would put to him a question in regard to the coast defences at Dover. He would not ask him this question as Foreign Secretary, but in the capacity in which he probably had greater freedom and less responsibility, of Lord Warden. The French were now making two great harbours near Calais and Boulogne respectively; and he should like to know from the noble Earl whether he was still of opinion that we ought to make some corresponding defences on this side of the Channel? It was understood that the Cinque Ports used to provide ships for the Navy; but who would take charge of them if now provided he did not know. It was, how- ever, a matter of supreme importance, there being those two great harbours, with deep water, constructed within sight of our shores, that there should be some corresponding provision made for our men-of-war on this side of the Channel.


The noble and gallant Lord has made an appeal to me, and he has been good enough to distinguish between my capacity as Foreign Secretary and Lord Warden. As Foreign Secretary it is impossible to answer a Question without Notice; but, speaking not as Foreign Secretary, but as Lord Warden, I may say that, whether under this or the preceding Government, I have never left them at peace upon this question. I entirely agree not only with the noble and gallant Lord, but with the opinions which have been expressed by both branches of the Service, as to the importance of developing the harbour at Dover, and the great advantage of so doing from a military, naval, and commercial point of view. I am glad to say that this day the Harbour Board, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, has been promoting a Bill in "another place" with the object of making the preliminary arrangements for improvements to Dover Harbour.


said, it was very desirable that those who took an interest in naval matters outside the Admiralty should know something of the strength of the Navies of Foreign Powers; and, therefore, the Returns asked for should be given, so that they might consider and discuss them.

Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn.