HL Deb 28 April 1885 vol 297 cc953-8

in rising to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty, What steps have been or are being taken by the Board of Admiralty to complete in the Royal Dockyards the shipbuilding programme, presented to both Houses of Parliament on the 2nd December last, for the financial year ending the 31st March 1886? said, it would be in the recollection of the House that on the occasion to which he referred the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Northbrook) made a very important announcement with respect to the Navy. The occasion was an important one, and the circumstances connected with it were important. It was felt that the question was urgent then, and if so it was much more urgent now. In his (the Earl of Ravens worth's) opinion, the provision made in the Naval Estimates for the year in respect of the two iron-clads to be built by the Admiralty was most inadequate. In the present state of the country, he considered it would be a mistake to lay down any new ship in any of the four Government Dockyards—namely, Chatham, Sheerness, Portsmouth, or Devon-port; because, when repairing and refitting were going on to a large extent, the work of building was liable to serious interruption. That observation, however, did not apply to Pembroke. He asked particularly for information as to what was being done with regard to the 10 torpedo cruisers known by the name of Scouts, the 30 first-class torpedo boats, and the two torpedo rams of the Polyphemus type, and would conclude by asking the Question of which he had given Notice.


My Lords, it would be desirable, if any other Questions are to be asked, that they should be put before I make my reply; because if they are put afterwards the Rules of Debate prevent me speaking again. I shall be glad to answer the Question of the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Ravensworth) as plainly as I can. Your Lordships will recollect that, in December of last year, I explained that it was the intention of the Government to ask for money in the Estimates for the current year to enable them to spend a capital sum of £3,100,000 on ships to be built by contract. I explained at the time that for that money we calculated on building one iron-clad, five belted cruisers, two torpedo rams, 10 Scouts, and 30 torpedo boats of the first class, in addition to the ordinary rate of shipbuilding. At the same time, I said I was by no means certain that would be the precise manner in which the money would be spent; I said it might be possible that, instead of giving a contract for one ironclad, we might give contracts for two or three; and that, of course, involved that the money would not go so far to provide ships of the other classes. I will now explain what we have actually done. Instead of ordering by contract one iron-clad, we have ordered two. We have ordered by contract five belted cruisers and six vessels of the Scout class, and we have ordered the whole number of torpedo boats of the first class. We have thus ordered by contract ships representing the sum of £3,100,000; and, indeed, we have gone somewhat above that sum. I have always endeavoured to go a little beyond the pledges given to Parliament, rather than to fall short of them. An iron-clad is more expensive than two rams and four ships of the Scout class put together. Therefore, the orders given by the Government for ships to be built by contract exceed the expectation held out in the statement I made in the month of December last. Your Lordships will be glad to hear that in no case has our estimate of the cost of the ships been exceeded by the tenders we have accepted. It is also gratifying to find, owing to the ability of the great shipbuilding firms of the country, that we have secured both for the iron-clads and belted cruisers a speed sensibly higher than we expected. We shall have, for the iron-clads, a speed of over 16 knots, and for the bolted cruisers 18 knots. With respect to the programme of shipbuilding in the Dockyards, the matter is more difficult. The circumstances were not the same when the Estimates were framed as they were when I made the statement in December. I then said, and it met with the general concurrence of your Lordships, that if it were necessary to spend more money upon the construction of ships of war, it was desirable, both for reasons well known to my noble Friend, as the Chairman of a Committee that had inquired into the subject, and also because there was at the time a want of employment in the shipbuilding trade of the country, that the extra money should be spent in building ships by contract, and that we should be content to let the Dockyards go on steadily at the rate of construction at which they were then carried on. When we came to frame the Naval Estimates, it appeared to us, for reasons it is hardly necessary for me now to explain, that it was desirable that the naval programme of this year should be based upon the policy of completing, as quickly as possible, those ships which could be completed in the course of the financial year. It is not a very economical thing to do, because to complete a large number of ships at the same time disturbs somewhat the distri- bution of labour. Still, there were reasons which led the Board of Admiralty to the conclusion that it was the best policy to pursue in framing the Estimates for the year. The number of ships we are expecting to complete this year is considerable. We shall complete in the year the Edinburgh, the Collingwood, the Impérieuse, and the War-spite.


Not the Colossus?


The Colossus is complete so far as our programme of shipbuilding is concerned. We shall also complete the Mersey, a new belted cruiser, and three ships of very nearly the same class, the Arethusa, the Phœton, and the Amphion; these three ships will be completed in the calendar year. I mention that because the financial year is usually understood. There are also, besides these, several small ships I need not mention. That being the basis of our policy, while we are spending this year somewhat more than last year, we are postponing the laying down of ships in the Dockyards until the close of the year. I understand that is the policy the noble Earl approves. During the last few months we have thought it desirable that the ships in the Dockyards should be pushed forward and prepared for sea, and that we should not lay down any new ships, because it would be inconvenient to have the staff diverted from the completion of ships. We propose, towards the end of the year, to make preparations for the commencement of two iron-clads in the Dockyards, one at Portsmouth and the other at Pembroke, of a torpedo ram at Chatham, and a Scout at Devonport. If it were desirable to increase the number of iron-clad ships beyond this programme it would be better to do it by contract than to go to the Dockyards, because we cannot undertake more building of that class than we now have on hand. But, in existing circumstances, I do not think it necessary to push on more rapidly the construction of this kind of vessels. I have often said in this House that it is a growing opinion in the Service that it is by no means certain that these large iron-clads will for ever be the ships of the greatest importance in time of war. Therefore, if we were to increase our building programme at the present time, it might be a wiser expenditure of money to order ships of a different class. My Lords, I am unable to inform my noble Friend what the precise design of the new ships will be. The Admiralty has of late been so much occupied with other matters that we have not had the leisure at our disposal to consider this question. I have shown that the expectations which I held out in December last have been somewhat more than fulfilled. We are building more by contract than I then expected, and we have kept up the same rate of building in the Dockyards. I said that the annual production of armour-clad ships would be increased by 2,000 tons a-year—from 12,000 to 14,000 tons. In the Navy Estimates of this year it will be found that we expect to build in 1885 14,423 tons. That is nearly the figure I gave last December. In addition to that, we shall build no less than 6,000 tons of protected ships, which, compared with the iron-clad ships of other nations, might almost be reckoned as iron-clads. The total tonnage proposed for this year is 28,052. as compared with 20,650 tons last year. Thus we have somewhat exceeded the programme I sketched out last December. My noble Friend asked whether, now that the Howe was launched at Pembroke, the men would be set at work on a new ship? The answer is that the men would be employed on the Anson and other ships, and can be more usefully occupied by pressing those ships forward than on a new ship. The number of men employed at Pembroke is about the same as last year. There has been a good deal of misrepresentation lately in respect of the policy of the Admiralty, and about one statement in particular which I made in this House. I have been twitted with saying that if the Admiralty had £3,000,000 or £4,000,000 to spend in shipbuilding they would not know what to do with the money. That is a very incorrect interpretation of a remark which I once made in this House. I was referring only to the largest class of ships, and my remark by no means applied to the general construction of ships. I said only what I am sure has been felt by everyone who has considered the subject. I said that if I had put into my hands £4,000,000 or £5,000,000 to spend upon the biggest iron-clad ships, I should find a difficulty in choosing the particular class of ships upon which that money should be spent. I am sure that those of your Lordships who have followed the technical discussions of the merits of one or another class of iron-clads would agree with me in that feeling. I am by no means of opinion that the money could not be usefully spent upon other classes of ships; and this statement is proved by the classes of ships ordered by the Admiralty in consequence of the liberality of Parliament in placing large sums at our disposal during the current year for the construction of ships by contract.

House adjourned at a quarter before Eight o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Ten o'clock.