HL Deb 07 August 1902 vol 112 cc935-8

My Lords, I rise to ask the Under Secretary of State for War what is the registered tonnage of the Government hired transport ss. "Drayton Grange," what is her carrying capacity for passengers, and what number of troops were embarked on her last passage from Durban to Australian ports. This transport left Durban about three weeks ago carrying Australian troops, including one of the best regiments that Australia has furnished — namely, the 3rd New South Wales Bushmen, who started in very good condition and were at the time, to use the expression of their commanding officer, fit to go anywhere and do anything. A report has reached this country that all was not well on board. Since I put the Question on the Paper more information has been received. We were informed that three deaths had Occurred on the homeward passage, and that several invalids had been landed at Albany, the first port at which the vessel touched. A later Router telegram stated that the principal medical officer at Durban declared that the vessel was fitted out to accommodate forty officers and 2,000 men, that she left Durban with forty officers, seven warrant officers, and 1,930 men, and that provisions had been put on board sufficient for six times the number of men who sailed in her. Another telegram from Melborne which came this morning states that the ship had arrived off that port; that five deaths had occurred since she left Albany; that there were ninety cases of enteric, measles, and pneumonia on board; that thirty of the patients were seriously ill, and that four more were in a critical condition. I would like to know the name of the P. M. O. who passed the ship at Durban, and by whom she was inspected and certified as fit to carry forty officers and 2,000 men; whether this transport was originally a passenger ship, a cargo boat, or a cattle boat; whether any officer of the Royal Navy was on board, or whether she was in charge of the skipper; and also how many invalids were left behind at Albany. It is my opinion, which is shared by many in this country and in Australia, that this is hardly the treatment for men who, in time of stress and storm, left their professions and country to fight so gallantly for the Empire.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend the Under Secretary for War I have been asked to reply to the noble Earl's Question; but I think it would have been more convenient if he had given the War Office private notice of the supplementary Questions to which he has asked me to give a direct answer. I came prepared to reply fully to the Question on the Paper, and will give the noble Earl what information I can with regard to the extra Questions he has put. I may say at once that Mr. Brodrick is prepared to make any inquiry that may be necessary into the statements that have appeared in the Press regarding this ship, and, therefore, if the information I can give at this moment is not sufficient, the War Office will be able to convey privately to the noble Earl anything he wishes to know. The "Drayton Grange" belongs to the Houlder Line, and is a twin-screw vessel of 6,592 tons gross, built in 1901,450 feet long and 55 feet beam. Including her shelter deck, which was utilised on this occasion, her tonnage was 8,000. She is a large cargo ship, carrying on her ordinary trade forty - four first-class passengers only, and she has a Board of Trade certificate for that number. She is not a hired transport, but a freight ship engaged at rates per head for the voyage. She was surveyed by the naval authorities at the Cape, passed for forty officers and 2,000 men, and her tween decks were fitted up as usual, in accordance with the Transport Regulations, each man having a hammock berth, and the usual hospital accommodation being provided. The principal transport officer in South Africa, and the principal medical officer at Durban, deny categorically that there was any overcrowding, and the latter further states that all the troops embarked in good health, and that no case of infection was on board. The actual number embarked at Durban were forty - one officers, seven warrant officers, and 1,934 men. As the noble Earl stated, reports have appeared in the Press of an outbreak of measles on board. The only information the War Office have of that is a telegram from the owners of the "Dray ton Grange," to the effect that the vessel had arrived at Albany, and that an outbreak of measles had occurred. We have no information with regard to the deaths to which the noble Earl referred.


My Lords, I am glad to hear that the War Office intend to inquire very thoroughly into the matter, because it is not a solitary case, complaints having been made with respect to other transports, notably; the ''Britannia," which conveyed troops from South Africa to New Zealand. In the latter case, complaints were made of overcrowding, and it was also stated; that the men were not only packed like sardines but were very badly fed. In that ship also, there was an outbreak of measles. There were, in all, fifty-five cases of serious illness—mostly measles—requiring treatment in hospital, and it is said that the hospital accommodation was insufficient, and that three deaths from pneumonia occurred on board. The question was brought before the New Zealand House of Legislature, and the acting Premier said he would take care that a full inquiry into all the facts of the case was made in New Zealand, and he further promised to communicate at once, by cable, with the home Government to secure that, in future, greater care should be exercised in the conveyance of our colonial troops from South Africa to their respective homes. All will agree that it is most desirable that these colonial troops should not be allowed to go home with what I may call a bad taste in their mouths. It is claimed—I hope rightly claimed—that the effect of the war in South Africa has been to draw closer the ties between the colonies and ourselves. That operation has, I am afraid, been rather an expensive one; and it would indeed be foolish to spoil the good work that has been done by any false economy in the equipment of the transports.