HL Deb 17 July 1885 vol 299 cc1028-40

in rising to call attention to the insufficiently defended condition of our commercial ports and seaside towns; and to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they did not think that this condition should be remedied; and, if so, what measures they were themselves prepared to take for the purpose, and also what measures they thought should be left to voluntary-effort? said, that he had no intention at all of making any attack either upon the present or the late Government. The present Government had been much too short a time in Office to enable them to take any steps; and with regard to the late Government, he had not the necessary skill or knowledge of the subject to make such an attack, and if he had he should not be inclined to use it in that direction. They had all listened with great interest to the statement of the noble Earl (the Earl of Northbrook) the other evening, and they must all come to the conclusion that he had made out a very good case for himself, and that he had done in his turn of Office more than most of his Predecessors in the way of improving our Navy. His only object in asking this Question was to obtain information from the Government as to what was likely to be done for the defence of those parts of our coasts which some people considered might be attacked by foreign aggressors. The information would be very useful to the public, and it would be very useful to those seafaring men who were willing to volunteer for the defence of our coasts, as well as to those of the public who were unable to give their time, but were willing to give money, for a similar purpose. It could hardly be denied that it was necessary that our chief ports and our seaside towns should be put in a state of defence. The only people who at all denied this were those who maintained that in time of war an unfortified town would be respected by the enemy, and that our seaside towns might, therefore, safely remain in their present defenceless condition. He would remind such that very eminent men had expressly warned them against any such idea, and they all saw in the Franco-Prussian War what large sums were levied upon unprotected towns by way of ransom. The more he looked into the question of International Law, the more he was convinced that it was the undisputed right of an enemy to levy contributions on unprotected towns. If an enemy's ships were anchored opposite a defenceless town there was no doubt they would levy such contributions as they could get. They, therefore, who were trusting for protection to International Law were relying upon a vain hope. Very probably he might be told that the Government had not had time to consider so great a subject as the defence of the coasts of these Islands and our Colonies in all its bearings, and that it was inexpedient for different reasons to divulge what it was intended to do. He should, therefore, confine his remarks to that part of the subject in which Volunteer aid might be largely employed. The defence of our coasts was divided between the War Office and the Admiralty. The War Office had charge of all the submarine mines and everything connected by wire with the mainland, however distant it might be, while everything in the shape of vessels and torpedo boats not connected with the shore was managed by the Admiralty. This divided authority might be found a serious difficulty in a sudden emergency. He believed, with respect to the mines, that under the auspices of Lord Hartington and the noble Earl a system of working them with volunteered assistance had already been instituted. Mines, however, were not sufficient in themselves; it was necessary to have torpedo boats in order to prevent the enemy from destroying these mines. In connection with the question of the Volunteer system, he wished first to call attention to the men. There were already a few corps of Naval Volunteers, which did not even receive a capitation grant, or any great encouragement. Everyone who knew anything about them knew the energy, courage, self-sacrifice, and intelligence which they showed. They were recruited in some cases from the valuable seafaring population of our ports. He would like to know from the noble Earl opposite whether there was any hope of these men receiving a capitation grant like other Volunteers; and, secondly, whether there was any hope that they would be increased in number as work was found for them to do? He hoped that the Government would see their way to employing these Volunteers without limiting them to any particular number. As regarded the material, torpedo boats would be necessary for use at all sea-coast towns, if they were to be properly defended. These boats might either be paid for by private subscriptions, or be provided by the Government, or else Government might assist in providing them. On this point, he would be glad of some information from the Government. A great deal was to be said in favour of voluntary enterprize, In these days they were all inclined to trust too much for everything to the Government and Government interference; and he believed that it was the recognition of this danger that had united both sides, both of their Lordships' House and of the House of Commons, in their wish to make some effort in favour of decentralization in the form of local government. But local government would not necessarily cure the evil. The real cure lay in the extension of the voluntary principle. With regard to the voluntary principle, as applied to the defence of the country, he did not think it necessary to say anything. The Volunteer Force had been in existence for 25 years now; and without much encouragement, and in spite of a great deal of coldness, opposition, and ridicule, it had attained immense proportions in the country, and everyone was now convinced of the reality of the movement. Some people had said, with regard to the movement, that the services should be given gratis; but that the public or the Government should find the money necessary. He could not see that this was well founded. These men gave their time—and they belonged to a class whose time was money—and they were as much giving their money to the service of the State as if they had put their hands into their pockets. If the poor gave what was virtually their money, he could not see why the rich should not give theirs. In the Volunteer Corps, when founded, there had been two classes—those who gave their time, and those who gave their money—and he thought that now, when the Admiralty had so much necessity for spending all that they could get, there was very little hope that they would spend money in the direction which he had specified. What he wanted to know was how they stood with regard to this matter. No one would give his money for any object if he thought that the state would provide it. He wanted to know whether or not the Government would be willing to find torpedo boats for the defence of our principal seaports, rivers, and commercial ports? He would also be glad if the noble Earl would give him any information as to the general action which the Government would assume upon the question, or if he would tell them anything of their intentions with regard to this Naval Volunteer movement, which had already grown to a certain extent in this country, and which, he hoped, would every day increase in strength.


My Lords, I do not think that it is necessary for me to impress upon your Lordships my sense of the importance of this subject; and I can at once say to the noble Earl, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that I am very grateful to him for the prominent part which he has taken in this matter. My noble Friend has wisely and patriotically put himself at the head of a movement which I believe will assume a very great and important character—the Naval Volunteer and Home Defence Association — an association which already numbers amongst its members a body of distinguished men, and, I am proud to say, several Members of your Lordships' House. I rejoice very much indeed that the noble Earl should have taken such a prominent part in this movement, and that he should have lent to it the benefit of his calm judgment and great ability. The matter which my noble Friend has brought forward is one which requires careful consideration. My noble Friend touches only one branch of a great subject—a matter upon which the safety of the country depends—namely, the naval condition of this country. I am one of those who do not believe that, in face of war, we should actually suffer terrible disasters in this direction, for this reason—that I have full confidence in the energy, courage, and money resources of the people; and I believe that if the threat of attack against our commercial harbours became serious, that such is the martial spirit in the country that there would be a tremendous rush of men to the front in defence of the sea coast, that we should save our towns from any very serious injury. But there would have to be almost superhuman efforts, very serious loss of life, and probably enormous waste of money. For my own part, I can speak on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. We are very strongly of opinion that our harbours and ports should not remain in their present defenceless condition, although in case of panic we are convinced that they would be successfully defended. However, we have made up our minds that the condition of these ports must be faced, and we believe that it is wiser to provide in times of peace against panic, and to see that the proposed remedies are wise, and sensible, and adequate. My noble Friend the First Lord of the Admiralty is not satisfied with the present condition of defence, and will shortly lay before his Naval Colleagues proposals for their consideration for the purpose of improving those defences. When I say consideration, I trust that your Lordships will not think that we mean to stop short there. In our opinion, the time has come when a prompt decision should be taken on this subject. It must be remembered that if war broke out our Fleet could not be employed solely in defending our ports. Every ship, small and large, would have to be occupied in shutting up the ships of the enemy in their ports, in conveying our merchant fleets, and in watching scattered Colonies all over the world, and this over and above any aggressive action. It is not sounding unduly a note of alarm to say that the great Fleet of this country would not be at the disposal of the commercial ports and harbours. We have to face this state of things. Your Lordships will not suppose that I am alarmed because I believe that a great disaster would be averted; but still I believe that the state of things is most grave and serious. Of course, we know where the danger would come from. The fastest unar-moured cruisers would endeavour to make descents on our wealthy commercial harbours. The danger is one that must be considered and faced, though without any feeling of panic. Would it be possible for Her Majesty's Government, with any idea of the most ordinary economy, or with any ordinary Estimates that could pass the House of Commons, to undertake the defence of all these commercial ports? I believe the expense would be so enormous that you could not expect the House of Commons to meet it, and the country would not expect the Government to undertake the serious operations which would be necessary for the defence of our ports and harbours. Although it is rather early for Her Majesty's Government to make any definite announcement, yet the view that is taken by the Admiralty under the present Government is that we must rely to a great extent upon the localities for the serious part of this work. Not only on the ground of expense do I say this, but we believe they would probably do the work better for themselves than a Government Department would do it. We also believe it will be done cheaper by the localities, and the facts of their being asked to bestir themselves in their own defence, and of some of their best men enrolling themselves in Naval Volunteer Corps, would tend to encourage a noble spirit in the locality, to keep up the national spirit, and to improve the tone of all who joined in the work of self-defence. I cordially endorse what has been said by my noble Friend, that the encouragement of the Volunteer spirit is a matter of national importance. The attitude of the Government would not be one of mere cold approval; but they would do all in their power to encourage such a movement, to back it up, and to cooperate with those who patriotically identified themselves with it. From a naval point of view, what would be wanted for the defence of these ports and harbours? There are three matters which do not come in the naval purview. Forts, batteries, and submarine mines from the land are under the War Department, and we put them aside for the moment. I have every reason to believe that the War Department and the Admiralty will act with the most friendly concert in this matter, and that every endeavour will be used to secure that Engineers, Artillery, and Navy will work together cordially in the furtherance of this great undertaking. The naval requirements for the defence of these commercial harbours and ports are two—materials and men. As to materials, ships are wanted. I mean rather torpedo boats and everything connected with torpedo defence and steam tugs of sufficient speed for gun-boats. As to the supply of materials, the First Lord of the Admiralty, having taken the best advice on the subject, is of opinion that we ought to rely, not upon the Government, but upon localities and patriotic associations, such as that with which my noble Friend has identified himself. Coming to the second head—that of men—of course, the great object will be to have trained men to work these for- pedoes and gun-boats; and Her Majesty's Government are ready to give every possible encouragement to the creation of Naval Volunteer Corps. Everyone must have seen with satisfaction the start made in this matter in London, Liverpool, and Bristol. Her Majesty's Government feel that the best help they can give to this movement, independently of co-operation and assistance in smaller matters, will be to contribute in some way to the maintenance of the men of the Naval Volunteers. I am not authorized by the First Lord of the Admiralty to state the exact way in which he proposes to contribute to their maintenance; but he accepts the principle, and hopes to be able to make a statement next week as to how it may be applied. As to the supply of the materials, we hope that the patriotism of localities and of wealthy individuals connected with societies will come to the aid of the country. With regard to the men, we hope that the patriotism which we know prevails so largely in all ranks in the country, and particularly in naval districts, will lead men to come forward and to serve as Naval Volunteers, and we shall merely assist in the maintenance in some way to be afterwards disclosed. In the time of the great War from 1798 to 1810, the seafaring population contributed 12,000 men in England, headed by 92 captains, and 12,000 men in Ireland, who formed the Sea Fencibles, and helped to make the country secure; and I am not without hope that the same spirit among the same population will render equal service in the future. But, after all, this is only part of a very great question—the naval position of this country. The nation is manifesting great anxiety as to its Fleet. It is asking whether the ships are numerous enough, strong enough, fast enough, well armed, and fitted with modern appliances, and whether our Navy could hold its own against all probable as well as possible combinations. The nation is also asking whether the Navy will be strong enough to guard our food supplies in case of war, to guard our treasure ships, to protect our merchandise, to protect our Colonies, to keep our merchant ships from being driven under a foreign flag, and to preserve this Island absolutely intact from fear and danger. Her Majesty's Government feel that these are questions the nation will have a right to demand an answer to before very long. We have pronounced no opinion on the subject; but we feel that no question is so important at the present time as the state of our Navy, and no question requires more careful thought and more continuous investigation, and, at the same time investigation free from anything like undue alarm or panic. Her Majesty's Government hope to be able before long, after careful examination, to satisfy the feelings of the nation on this subject. What the answer will be we know not. But we do feel one thing. Suppose we were able to say that our Navy is virtually, as of old, mistress of the sea, that our commercial ports are safe from all fear of attack, that our seaside towns are safe, that our Colonial towns are safe, through local energy and Government help, and that our coaling stations are safe—if we can say all this, the effect upon the prosperity of the country will be no slight matter. We believe that instead of having a warlike effect upon the nations of the world the effect would be exactly the contrary. We believe that if we can give the answer which we may be able to give, and which, at any rate, we ought to be able to give, we should promote the peace of the world more than we could in any other way. We believe that the effect upon our commerce would be seen at once in a resurrection of enterprize and in the return of prosperity to labour and industry. Instability and uncertainty as to the future seriously interfere with the national prosperity; stability and certainty give elasticity to our resources and the enterprize of our people. I hope and believe we shall be able to give that good account. We hope for the best, and if we do not find things as we hope we must do our best to set them right. The country will never forgive a Government who deceives them about our naval supremacy, and it will refuse no sacrifice that is necessary to preserve that supremacy, and to preserve the flag, commerce, and soil of England from insult and from injury.


said, that the commercial communities would thoroughly appreciate the tone of the speech that the noble Earl had made on behalf of the Government. It was with no intention of throwing cold water on the scheme that he urged the Govern- ment to look the difficulties full in the face, for there were grave difficulties to overcome. In the first place, there was the danger of friction between the War Office and the Admiralty, with both of which Departments the new force would have to do. It was necessary, therefore, to define clearly the relations which were to subsist in this matter between those two great authorities. Next, it it would be no easy matter to find and train a suitable body of men for the service. Neither seamen nor soldiers were wanted; but men possessing what might be called amphibious qualifications, and being, above all, good oarsmen. It was important in forming this force not to trench unduly on the recruiting grounds of the Navy and Engineers. A capitation grant would be absolutely necessary if the force was to be of real value. Naval officers, probably lieutenants, would have to be placed in command at each port. Above all, it was essential that the scheme should form part of a great national policy of steady and persistent preparation, with absolute freedom from panic. He further thought that the Government should find the means of instruction and the gun-boats.


said, he thought their Lordships must have heard with great satisfaction the announcement by the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Harrowby) of the determination of Her Majesty's Government to maintain the strength of the Navy. He hoped, however, that their Lordships would, on this occasion, recollect that this was not mainly a naval question at all. The noble Lords who had joined in this discussion omitted to explain that the main defence of our commercial harbours must be by guns. Not one of those who had addressed their Lordships had mentioned one of the most valuable Forces now existing in this country—namely, the Artillery Volunteers. Those Volunteers when supplied with guns, which could be moved from place to place along the coast, would, in many cases, be able to render valuable assistance in the defence of our commercial ports and harbours. Their Lordships ought not to run away with the idea that torpedoes were going to be all powerful in the future. This was a matter of grave doubt, and, indeed, recent experiments were rather in the opposite direction. Therefore, if we relied upon torpedo boats alone, we might be living in a fool's paradise, and we might not be taking the right measures for the defence of our commercial harbours. They were all agreed that our commercial harbours ought to be adequately defended by arrangements made beforehand. Circumstances had prevented him from carrying his own views with respect to the assistance the Navy could give by organizing and supporting local Volunteer Forces into effect; but he was ready to give his most cordial support to any steps which Her Majesty's Government might take in that direction. Ho understood that Her Majesty's Government supported his noble Friend's patriotic movement with the object of supplying, by local efforts, supplemented by general subscriptions, certain classes of torpedo boats and other craft. In the next place, he understood the noble Earl to say that, in some way or other, by capitation grants or otherwise, Her Majesty's Government had decided to give active aid to the Naval Volunteers at the different ports. He thought Her Majesty's Government were perfectly right in coming to that decision. The number of men required to man the boats which would render assistance in the defence of these ports need not be very large; and he did not think the raising of this corps would act prejudicially on any other movement of the kind. In the opinion of naval officers, it would be possible to train seafaring men in the different ports in the management of that class of torpedo boats which would be used for the defence. The Reports received by the late Board of Admiralty of the public spirit and efficiency of the present Royal Naval Volunteers had been most satisfactory; and no one could be more glad than he was to hear that Her Majesty's Government were going to give increased development to that important form of the Volunteer movement. In conclusion, he wished to impress upon the House that it was not, and could not. be considered at all to be the duty of the Government to use the Fleet for the protection of ports and harbours. It had been the policy of successive Boards of Admiralty, announced in that House and elsewhere, that Her Majesty's Fleets must be used in attacking the enemy and the enemy's squadrons in all parts of the world. If that were the case, it was impossible at the same time to tell off Her Majesty's ships for the purpose of protecting our ports. That protection must be provided by means of batteries, mines, and the new system of torpedo defence. He might state, in certain recent contingencies the Admiralty had no serious apprehension of an attack on the commercial harbours of this country; but there might be other contingencies in which more defences would be required.


wished to express his thanks to his noble Friend for having brought this important subject under the notice of the House. From what he could learn from the speeches which had been made from both sides of the House, he was under the impression that the late as well as the present Government were prepared to lend the movement moral but not material support. He wished to know whether, supposing the localities provided the men and the batteries, the Government would be prepared to provide the necessary guns for the defence of the harbours? The old 40-pounder guns would be practically useless for that purpose, for, owing to the great improvements in artillery, they were only equal to the 12 and 16-pounders, and he trusted that a more efficient weapon would be provided. His only doubt was whether the Government had the necessary supply of guns fit for the purpose.


said, he thought the noble Earl was under a delusion as to the 40-pounders, which for various purposes were very suitable and good guns. However, he admitted that if these forts were to be armed with the old 40-pounder guns the country would be relying on a broken reed. Much more formidable weapons than those would be required to efficiently defend the batteries, which ought to be armed with heavy, penetrating, and long - range guns. He agreed that everything should be done not merely to encourage that important body of men the Artillery Volunteers, but in the way of arrangements for the forts being manned by the force occasionally. Measures were being taken and had all but been completed by the late Government to this end when they left Office. He attached the greatest possible importance to faci- lities being given to make themselves well acquainted with military details, such as actual experience in the forts alone gave. The Engineer Volunteers likewise were a most valuable body of men, and opportunities should also be given them to become proficient in laying marine mines, for he believed that, assisted by a body of the Royal Engineers, they would play a most important part in home defences, particularly in the defence of the ports and commercial harbours in time of war.


wished to know whether the Government were in possession of a sufficient number of heavy guns for these various purposes?