HL Deb 07 May 1886 vol 305 cc492-5

in rising to ask the First Lord of the Admiralty, Whether an official Report has been received of the circumstances that attended the bursting of a gun on board H.M.S. Collingwood; and, if no Report has reached the Admiralty, by what process the First Lord intends that an inquiry shall be conducted? pointed out that the bursting of a gun of that kind was a matter of very great importance, because there were only eight or ten such guns on board a vessel; and it was a very different matter as compared with the time when there were a much larger number of guns of a lesser calibre. It was not the first time that accidents of this serious character had occurred. The opinions as to the cause were exceedingly diverse, and it was very necessary that a full investigation and inquiry should take place.


I am not at all surprised that a Question has been put to me on this subject, and I quite agree with the noble Viscount in thinking that the accident was a very serious one indeed, and deserves, as it will most assuredly receive so far as I am concerned, the most careful consideration of the Government. There ought certainly to be a full and ample investigation into all the circumstances which attended it. This occurrence took place last Tuesday, the gun bursting with a charge of 221¼lb. of powder, being about three-fourths of the proper charge. As the House is aware, the gun burst about 8 feet from the muzzle. That, no doubt, was a very serious matter indeed, for the Admiralty had, at the time of this accident, 11 of these particular 43-ton guns, and this accident, of course, throws great doubt on the security of the other 10 guns on board the Collingwood and two other ships, the Colossus and the Conqueror. A full Report on the accident was received at the Admiralty yesterday from Captain Fisher, who was in command of the Excellent; but I did not wait until this Report had been received to take action in the matter. I immediately placed myself in communication with the Ordnance Department of the War Office as to what steps should be taken with regard to the remaining 10 43-ton guns. I conferred with Colonel Maitland, Superintendent of the Royal Gun Factories, Captain Noble, the manager of the Elswick Company, who happened to be in town, and with the Director of Naval Ordnance; and the result of our discussion was that these three officers were of opinion that it was desirable—they did not go so far as to say it was necessary—they said it was desirable to strengthen these 10 remaining guns by hooping them near the muzzle. I communicated the result of this conversation to my Colleagues on the Board of Admiralty, and yesterday we wrote to the War Office to request that they would proceed as rapidly as they could to strengthen these 10 guns. I fear that this will be a matter requiring some time; but Colonel Maitland is of opinion that the work can be done in a month, and that it will not be necessary to interfere with the gun carriages. Even if it is an under-estimate, and it takes two or three months to carry it out, it will still be very much less time than many have been led to suppose. All that will be necessary will be to send the guns to Woolwich Factory—not all at the same time, but two or three at a time. We must all be agreed that this question requires a searching inquiry; and I understand it is the intention of the War Department to call on the Ordnance Select Committee, with certain associate members, men of great distinction, to report upon this accident. I have not been able to enter into communication with my right hon. Friend (Mr. Campbell-Bannerman)on this question, as he has been absent from London; but he will return to-day or to-morrow, and I shall place myself in communication with him. I will suggest to him that inquiry shall not end with the Report of the Ordnance Committee, but that a further and subsequent inquiry shall take place into the whole of the circumstances connected with this unfortunate accident. I quite agree with the noble Viscount that this is a very serious matter indeed, and I can assure him that it will not be my fault if it is not thoroughly examined into, and if steps are not taken to prevent, so far as possible, the recurrence of such accidents. It must, however, be remembered that steel is a very uncertain material, and accidents of this sort must, unhappily, be expected from time to time.


observed, that the supply of ordnance was one of the most important questions of the day. Ships were delayed in their construction not only for months, but for years, because the question of the guns which the ship was to carry had not been settled. Unless the constructor of a ship knew what the size and power of the guns were to be which she was to carry it was perfectly impossible for him to design a ship properly. With regard to the question of the 43-ton guns, he wished to know whether he was correct in the idea that the very important Ordnance Committee, which had sat for at least a year, and which had reported last July or August, had recommended the 43-ton gun, but had joined that recommendation with another distinct recommendation that the full charge should not be used? If that was the case, that recommendation was surely very negative praise of that ordnance, and looked very much as if there was a suspicion concerning it in the minds of those experts who had examined into the ques- tion. Now that slow burning powder was used the pressure upon the gun was very great where the hooping ceased, and this caused the danger. He had only a short time before been speaking to one who was a thorough judge both of ships and guns—Lord Charles Beresford—who had said that it was better to lose three ships than burst one gun, because if men distrusted the weapon with which they had to work it inevitably had a demoralizing effect upon them. That showed the immense importance of the question; and it was one also which affected the whole question of our home defences. Considerable progress had been made lately by the engineers upon some of our defences; but until they knew what the gun was to be they were altogether in the dark. He earnestly hoped that the work of strengthening the guns would be rapidly proceeded with, and also that this question, as affecting the manufacture of heavy ordnance, would be thoroughly sifted to the very bottom. He also trusted that the Government would carefully consider the possibility of making the Admiralty itself responsible for the supply of guns to the Navy.


said, that with respect to the large and important question alluded to by the noble Earl in the latter part of his remarks he fully recognized its importance, and both before and since the accident it had been occupyiug his attention, and would continue to do so. With respect to what had fallen from the noble Earl with regard to the recommendation of the Committee which had reported last year, the noble Earl was very nearly right, but not quite. This question did not touch all the 43-ton guns or those now being manufactured, which were made stronger towards the muzzle; and there were also several other 43-ton guns which were of stronger make. The question affected only 11 guns; and with respect to these 11 guns the Committee had reported that no alteration was required, but recommended that the full charge of 295lb. of cocoa powder should not be exceeded. He quite admitted that this direction that the full charge should not be exceeded might seem to express some doubt as to the gun, unless they bore in mind that in spite of this the Committee had reported that the gun should not be altered.