HL Deb 17 March 1891 vol 351 cc1193-6

in rising to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the next Navy Estimates, a Vote will be proposed for the commencement of a Government dock at Gibraltar, said: My Lords, in a Paper which was recently published by the First Lord of the Admiralty an allusion was made to the subject of my question, and I, therefore, may conclude that it is not the intention of Her Majesty's Government to make any provision for the commencement of the dock at Gibraltar; but I trust the noble Lord who represents the Admiralty, who, for reasons which I think have so misled the Government, have departed from the Resolution which they have announced, not once, but three times, during the course of last Session, will be able to give your Lordships some assurance in the matter. I invite the noble Marquess at the head of the Government, as well as the noble Lord who represents the Department, to give his personal attention to this question, because if he will consult the opinion of the Naval Service in general he will find, as the House and the public, I am sure, will feel its importance and urgency. It is not a question which is to be put off, but is one to which attention is urgently demanded. At the commencement of last Session the noble Lord told me the Government were still hesitating, but in the month of April that they had made up their minds that the dock should be constructed. The noble Lord then laid before the House particulars showing exactly the manner in which it was to be made, and he announced improvements, which met with the general approbation of the naval profession. Finding that nothing was being done, in August, before Parliament was prorogued, I ventured once again to ask whether the Government intended to proceed with the dock. My noble Friend was not then in the country; but the answer I received from the noble Lord who spoke on behalf of the Government was that a Committee had been investigating the matter, and had decided that it was desirable the work should be commenced, but that their Report had not then been laid before the Admiralty. I presume that by this time, all parties being agreed as to the desirability of our having such a dock—a desirability which has been recognised over and over again by the Admiralty—there can be now no obstacle in the way, excepting that of expense, which can possibly delay the commencement of this dock. I will not attempt to weary the House by recapitulating all that may be said as to the importance of this matter. I can only say that I have over and over again referred to naval authorities—I do not urge my own opinion the least in the matter—but I have inquired very closely, and from all I have been able to ascertain from a large number of men in the Navy, and those who are most acquainted with the Naval Service, I have only found one officer who is opposed to it, and my late noble Friend Lord Carnarvon, I believe, stated that in his opinion it was undesirable. The reason why it was ever considered on the part of Lord Carnarvon, and perhaps one or two others, undesirable was that the harbour of Gibraltar is a bad anchorage. There is no question about that, but the improvements which my noble Friend announced will go a long way towards meeting that difficulty; and whether it be bad or good, there is no question that a dock can be constructed there. Without that dock your Lordships must remember that we have really, in this respect, got all our eggs, as far as the Mediterranean is concerned, in one basket. The only prospect of a large fleet manœuvring in the Mediterranean has, in the event of accidents in case of war, or receiving damage at the present time, is of being able to lay up in one of those very fine docks (there are four of them) which we have at Malta. But your Lordships will remember we have other countries to consider, and what they are doing. Although we are now, happily, on excellent terms with our neighbours, yet we do not know what circumstances may arise, and France at this moment has two excellent dockyards, one at Toulon, which is a first-rate harbour, and she has a naval establishment at Marseilles. Both of those places are capable of supplying the wants of a Navy, which is, be it remembered, only by one vessel inferior to our own upon that station. And another tiling must be borne in mind. Although I do not know what the engagements of that country with ourselves were with regard to Tunis, there is no question whatever that France is establishing herself very firmly on the North African coast, and if, as Napoleon said, "Antwerp was a pistol-shot directed at the head of England," so in future we may come to regard the establishment of any foreign naval station at Tunis as a pistol-shot aimed at Malta. That is a very important matter. We have lost our former excellent positions. We were in possession at one time, I think for 70 years, of the best harbour in the Mediterranean, Port Mahon, but we foolishly surrendered that position, contrary to the advice of Lord St. Vincent. We subsequently surrendered Corfu, and now we are reduced entirely, as far as regards the safety we may say of our vessels in time of war and the safety of our naval equipment, to that one place which I have mentioned—Malta—with its four docks. As your Lordships know, we have another establishment; but one which I think Her Majesty's present Government, no more than any other Government which may succeed them, will ever succeed in improving, that is Cyprus. We certainly have Cyprus. But there is really only one other alternative, which I shall be happy to communicate at some other time to the noble Marquess on that station besides Gibraltar. I do hope the Government will give their attention to this matter. I can assure the noble Marquess and the Government that it is one which is looked upon by the Navy as absolutely essential to the safety of our Naval Forces in the Mediterranean in the event of war; and I am surprised to find that the matter has been deferred so long, the necessity for it having been so often admitted, and merely, as I fear, upon the question of a paltry expense of s£400,000. Your Lordships will recollect that although difficulties may arise and events may take place within the space of a few months, or even weeks, yet the construction of a dock at Gibraltar is a matter the necessity of which having once been admitted cannot possibly with any safety be deferred. It will take at least four years before your dock can be in working order; and, therefore, that being the case, I would venture most respectfully to urge upon Her Majesty's Government the necessity of at once proceeding with this work, and I also hope the noble Lord will be able to give some very good reason why it has been so long postponed.


My Lords, knowing the very great interest which my noble Friend takes in this matter, I am not the least surprised at his repeating the question which he has put to me on three or four former occasions. As I told him last time, there had been some opposition to the scheme proposed, and a Committee had been appointed to inquire into our position at Gibraltar in reference to the matter. That Committee was appointed in April last, and Mr. Ashmead-Bartlett was Chairman of it. They examined a large number of witnesses, naval, military, and civilians, and reported in September last. They were opposed to the idea of the dock being constructed and managed by a private company as had been suggested, and recommended that it should be built with Imperial funds, and wholly and solely managed by the naval authorities. They also recommended that the New Mole should be prolonged, and that another Mole should be made for commercial purposes The Report was only received in September last, as I have said, and the estimated cost of the work was so large, and so many Departments and interests had to be considered and consulted in the matter, that no action has yet been taken by the Admiralty. No Vote, therefore, was proposed in the Navy Estimates for this year, there being so many more pressing, and, as the Admiralty think, more important matters to be considered. As regards next year, we cannot at present forecast what provision should be made for a dock at Gibraltar.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Six o'clock, to Thursday next, a quarter past Ten o'clock.