HL Deb 07 May 1883 vol 279 cc12-4

, in rising to ask, Whether it was the intention of the Admiralty to construct any vessel or vessels expressly for the purposes to which H.M.S. "Hecla" had been converted; and whether, in the construction of vessels of war, the proposed draught of water, with reference to the depth of the Suez Canal, was an element of consideration? said, the Hecla was quite different from any other vessel in the Service, and had been purchased from the Merchant Navy by Mr. Smith, and therefore the present Board of Admiralty were not responsible for her. She was fitted up as a torpedo defence vessel, and was intended originally as an experiment, to be followed up by vessels of the same class if she were successful. He condemned the practice of purchasing merchant vessels for the Navy, as he believed that practice to be expensive and inexpedient in the long run; and he had received information that the Hecla was not quite what she had been intended to be. Before putting the Question, he should like to ask the noble Earl, who he believed was responsible for The Navy List, whether it would not be possible to introduce a little more information into it; and also whether he considered that the one naval attaché was sufficient, when other Powers sent an attaché to every country in the world? The Russian Government had sent a naval attaché to this country for the purpose of ascertaining [the method of construction which prevailed in our Dockyards, and they actually had obtained possession of certain information which this country desired to conceal from them. Then, again, the draught of water of our large iron-clads was a matter of the utmost importance in connection with the depth of the Suez Canal. The Canal had a depth of only 24 feet 8 inches. One foreign Power had 11 iron- clads of the first class capable of passing through the Suez Canal, and seven or eight others were being built. This he regarded as a standing danger to our commerce in the absence of lighter draught vessels of the same magnitude in our Navy. It was quite possible, in the event of war, that sudden attacks might be made upon our commerce, and if they were they ought to be in a position at once to send powerful vessels through the Canal. He would now, in conclusion, ask the Question of which he had given Notice.


My Lords, the noble Viscount asks me whether, in the construction of vessels of war, their draught of water is an important consideration in reference to the Suez Canal? It is, of course, an element of consideration; but in the case of first class iron-clads, it is not possible to construct them with a draught sufficiently light to enable them to pass through the Suez Canal. In the late operations in Egypt we had several vessels in the Canal; and since that time two iron-clad ships of considerable power—the Ajax and Agamemnon—have been greatly advanced, and they, as well as two others now in course of construction, will be able to pass through it. I may say that its depth is not 24 feet 8 inches, but something over 20 feet; 24 feet 8 inches is the limit of draught permitted by the Canal regulations to vessels which enter it. The noble Viscount has referred to the Hecla. We do not think it advisable to spend more money in constructing a class of vessels which can readily be bought at any time. With regard to the question of additional naval attachés, I may say that at present we have only one, and not two, as the noble Viscount imagines, and we think for our present purposes one is sufficient; he is at present stationed in France. The fact is, the reason why foreign nations send attachés into this country is because they think they have much to learn from us. We do not deny that we may have something to learn from them; but we do not think we can obtain from them as much information as they can from us, and therefore we do not think it necessary to station a naval attaché constantly at any foreign Court. We send one to any place where there is reason to expect a particular advantage. With respect to the free admission of foreign attachés into our Dockyards, the fact is, it is impossible, in the case of great ships and great guns, to keep anything secret, so we consider that the best plan is frankly to show whatever we have to show in the way of shipbuilding. There is no difficulty placed in the way of our naval attaché's visiting the Dockyards and ships of foreign nations, and this country is bound to act in a reciprocal spirit. As to the proposal to give additional information respecting Her Majesty's ships in the Navy List, that list has a tendency to get more and more bulky, and the noble Viscount will, I am confident, find the information he requires in other official documents which have peen published.