HL Deb 06 March 1900 vol 80 cc168-74

I beg to ask the Postmaster General when the scheme of registered telegraphic addresses for the troops in South Africa, promised by the Secretary of State for War, will be put in force; and whether, under that scheme, four words costing sixteen shillings will be insisted on as the minimum for the address of a private soldier; also, whether the arrangements recently announced in the press relating to a registered code word for inquiring about wounded soldiers cannot be modified by leaving out the name of the town or place where the hospital is situated. At the request of the noble Duke, I postponed this question from last week until to-day, with the result that the Postmaster General has been enabled during the interval to bring out the scheme. I do not for a moment complain of this, because my object in putting down the question was to ascertain the cause of the delay. I was beginning to fear that the scheme would not be published until after the completion of the war. The noble Marquess the Secretary of State for War said, on February 8th, in answer to a question which I addressed to him— The Post Office has considered this matter in conjunction with the Eastern Telegraph Company. A list of code words has been framed, and has been sent out to South Africa, and, I think, must have arrived there two or three days ago. As soon as the telegraphic, authorities at the Cape have informed us, as they no doubt will by telegraph, that they are able to accept the code, the new arrangement will come into force and will be made known by the Post Office here. The noble Marquess made that statement nearly a month ago, and no doubt the Postmaster General will be able to explain the cause of the great delay that has taken place. The scheme appeared in last Saturday's newspapers, but for a week before then a most extraordinary state of affairs existed. The Eastern Telegraph Company had been advised, either by the Post Office or the War Office, about this scheme, and for a week before it was made public the company were taking messages under the scheme, with the result that the fortunate man in the street who went direct to the Eastern Telegraph Company was able to send his message at the reduced price, whereas the *See The Parliamentary Debates [Fourth Series], Vol. lxxviii., p. 899. unfortunate man in the street who used the Post Office was charged at the old rate. No doubt during that week all the messages that were sent by the Post Office through the Eastern Telegraph Company were charged to the Post Office at the reduced rate, and I should like to ask the Postmaster General whether he can see his way to refund to the public the excess charged to them during that week. With regard to the second part of my question, the scheme as I feared insists upon a minimum of four words for the address of a soldier, which therefore costs 16s. The four words consist, first of all, of the number of the private; secondly, of his name; thirdly, of the registered telegraphic address of his regiment; and, fourthly, of "Cape Town." I would venture to suggest that the name is quite unnecessary. A private is known by his number in the regiment, and a number can be safely sent by cable. All business men assert that they are accustomed to accept numbers sent by cable as thoroughly reliable, and if a number is reliable in business it should be reliable enough for this purpose. Moreover, the cable companies always repeat numbers to make sure that they arrive correctly at the other end, whereas they do not repeat a word. The insertion of the name of a private should certainly be left optional. With regard to "Cape Town," I had hoped that the Government would have seen their way to have incorporated it in the telegraphic address of the regiment, for all telegrams go to Cape Town. I should have thought the Government could easily have arranged this with the Eastern Telegraph Company, if necessary by paying them some small sum. But if the authorities do not see their way to go so far as this, I would urge them to approach the Telegraph Company with a view to their charging 2s. instead of 4s. for "Cape Town." Looking to the fact that the Eastern Telegraph Company have had an enormous increase of business in consequence of the war, I cannot but feel that they would be willing to meet the authorities in a liberal spirit and only charge half price. If my suggestions could be adopted the cost of the address would be reduced from 16s. to 8s. or 10s. This would be a substantial reduction, and one which would be very much appreciated. Coming to the last part of my question, I thank the authorities for having introduced a registered code word signifying that the soldier is in hospital, but I am sorry to see in the statement that was issued that the name of the town or place in all cases must be added. This will to a great extent destroy the value of the concession, because the idea was that whenever anyone read in the paper that his relative or friend was wounded he might telegraph at once to find out how he was going on. How is it possible for the public to know to what town or place the wounded soldier is taken? It is impossible to know this until some weeks afterwards. Seeing that the authorities have all along taken letters to the troops with simply the words "Cape Colony" or South Africa," and looking to the fact that under this new scheme they are going to deliver telegrams to soldiers not wounded without any town or place being named, they should do the same for wounded soldiers. If my proposal should be adopted I take it that the form would be this. For a wounded soldier you would put his regimental number, the name of his regiment, and the registered code word signifying that he was wounded and in hospital, and the authorities ought to have very little difficulty in sending that telegram to the hospital in which the wounded soldier lies. I hope the Government will consider these proposals, not so much as a concession to the public at home, but as a small concession to the troops who have been fighting so magnificently for us in South Africa.


My Lords, I hope I may be permitted to say a word on this question before the Postmaster General replies. We all, I am sure, take an interest in the troops in South Africa, and are delighted to find that a certain concession is being made in respect of telegrams to them; but I think every noble Lord in this House and every one in another place will feel that it would be quite possible to do still more. The troops are in the immediate service of the Government, and I do not think it would be too much to to expect that a message might be sent—not only the address but the whole telegram—at a cost of two shillings a word. I am aware that it depends greatly with the Eastern Telegraph Company, but I should think that a great and wealthy corporation would be willing to accede to the wish of the Government in this respect. We find that throughout the whole of the country companies and individuals are doing everything they can for the benefit and comfort of those who are fighting so bravely and nobly for us in South Africa. I regard it, my Lords, as the duty of everybody, whether a corporation or an individual, to do so, and I should hope that by a representation to the Eastern Telegraph Company it would be possible to give to the soldier the concession to which I have referred. It may seem a small sum to noble Lords, but 16s. may prevent a soldier from receiving the word of comfort he is longing for in his sufferings. I would go even further and would say to the noble Duke the Postmaster General that, in my opinion, it would meet the general approval if, by the aid of Government, a ten-word message could be sent to wounded soldiers for a shilling. I hardly think that the Eastern Telegraph Company would be willing to take such a reduction, but what would it be to this great country to pay a certain sum out of the Treasury to enable this to be done? We all know how anxious a mother, a sister, a wife, or, it may be, others equally near and dear to those in South Africa, are to have only one word with those of whom they think so much and whom they love so dearly. It would be a great consolation to them if they could obtain only one word direct. It is very different from seeing the news of them in the papers. I cannot think that it is impossible for such a scheme to be carried out, and I hope the advisability of it will go home to the heart of the noble Duke. We are all willing in this country to pay increased taxation that the honour and dignity of the Empire may be maintained and that its solidarity may be assured, and if the proposals of my noble friend cost a few hundreds or thousands of pounds I believe the money would be readily voted by Parliament. I apologise for detaining your Lordships so long, but I believe I have spoken what is the sentiment and the wish of the great majority of the people of this country.


The noble Earl stated that his motive in putting this question was to ascertain the cause of the delay in carrying out the scheme which was promised by my noble friend the Secretary of State for War. I am bound to say that his question does not suggest that that is in his mind. I may say, however, that the delay arose from causes on the other side. The War Office had some difficulty in getting satisfactory replies to the questions which they found it necessary to ask. The answer I have prepared to the question of the noble Earl is as follows:—The scheme of registered telegraphic addresses for the troops in South Africa was put into force on the 3rd inst. Under that scheme the address must consist of at least four words, costing 16s. It must contain the number and name of the soldier (two words), the name of the regiment, which will be counted as one word, and the address to Cape Town, which is also chargeable as one word. I have communicated with the Secretary of State for War as to the possibility of this number being reduced, and if anything further can be done in this direction a notification on the subject will at once be issued. The arrangements referred to in the last part of the question are still under consideration, but the name of the town or place of destination is, of course, a necessary part of the address of any telegram. I am sure every one in this House must feel the fullest sympathy with the noble Lords who have spoken on this subject, but, of course, there are difficulties to be dealt with in the matter. It rests, as the noble Earl said, largely in the hands of the Eastern Telegraph Company. It is not a matter that is in the hands of the Government. It is for the noble Marquess to consider the proposal that the Government should undertake part of the expense. I can only say that the Government have already shown great liberality in similar matters, and I think it is possible they may feel that the pressure is becoming unduly encouraged by what has been done. As regards the statement by the noble Earl, that before our scheme was properly under way the company themselves resorted to this system of code words, that, of course, is their business; but if, on inquiry, it is found that we have been unduly charging the public for soldiers' telegrams which have been sent at the cheaper rate, we shall take all the means in our power to refund any moneys so received by us.


I beg to thank the noble Duke for his answer, but I cannot look upon it as very satisfactory. He said it was a matter for the Eastern Telegraph Company and not for the Government, but unless the Government approach the company the latter will naturally charge the full rates. I venture to suggest that the Government should consider whether they could not approach the company and get some reduction for the troops and for the public. I hope the noble Duke will reconsider this question. He stated in his answer that the name must be put in, but I still maintain that it is quite unnecessary. With regard to the hospital scheme, I cannot understand how it is possible for people in this country to know in what hospital their wounded friends are placed. Surely, what the authorities are doing for soldiers who are not wounded they could do for soldiers who are, and deliver telegrams at the hospitals where the men may be lying. I hope if any concessions are made a fresh statement will be issued to the public including both the Post Office scheme and the Hospital scheme.


I think the suggestion of the noble Earl follows directly on the lines of the instructions that are given by the Post Office for the direction of letters. I believe the proper way to address a letter for a soldier in South Africa is to give his name, his regiment, and the words "South Africa." It seems to me that a similar arrangement with regard to telegrams might very well be adopted, and the telegram forwarded to the place where the soldier actually is.

THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (The Marquess of Lansdowne)

We shall be glad to do all in our power to further abbreviate these messages for the benefit of those who desire to send them. Something has been achieved. But, as the Postmaster General has said, it does not lie entirely with us on this side to dictate our own terms. There has been a somewhat troublesome negotiation with the local Post Office authorities, and some time, no doubt, was spent in overcoming those difficulties. I will make note of the suggestion that we might substitute for the soldier's name in these messages his regimental number. If it is possible to carry that out I shall be very glad to facilitate such an arrangement.


The scheme directs that both the number and the name should be given.


I promise my noble friend to consider his suggestion, and I think he must be content with that. With regard to the other suggestion, that it might be possible in case of inquiries after a wounded soldier to omit the name of the station at which the wounded man might happen to be in hospital, I am told that that would not be an easy arrangement, and considerable delay might be incurred while the principal medical officer to whom the telegram is addressed is finding out at what particular station in Cape Colony or Natal the man for whom the message was intended happened to be quartered, but I shall be glad to look into the matter further if the noble Earl desires it. With regard to the rates per word, they are, I understand, determined by standing arrangement with the Eastern Telegraph Company, and I do not know that it would be an easy matter to obtain a reconsideration of those rates.

House adjourned at five minutes before Five of the clock, to Thursday next, half-past Ten of the clock.