HL Deb 31 March 1910 vol 5 cc514-8

LORD BRASSEY rose "to call attention to the disposal of ships which may from time to time be removed from the effective list of the Navy, and to urge that all such ships as are efficient for port defence and gunnery training of Colonial Navies should be put in reserve for those services in Colonial harbours."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hesitate to trouble your Lordships, however briefly, on the occasion of a formal meeting; but the subject with which I propose to deal is urgent. Ships may be offered for sale on an early day, as to the disposal of which I submit that further consideration should be given. In dealing with the naval defence of the Empire we cannot limit our view to the home land. The requirements of the Colonies claim our consideration. The Imperial Conference lately held in London marks an epoch. The Colonies undertook for the first time to provide naval forces for local defence. They have ample resources for manning, but to build ships is costly. The Colonies require ships for the defence of their ports and coasting trade, and ships for training in gunnery. We can spare vessels suitable for all these services, vessels which, although no longer fit to lie in line, opposed to the latest types, will long continue effective in distant seas.

I will take first the protection of harbours. The latest Navy List gives two battleships for immediate sale—the "Edinburgh" and the "Howe." The latter was completed in 1889 at a cost of 770,000l., and was overhauled at Jarrow in 1904. Two more battleships—the "Centurion" and the "Barfleur"—completed in 1893–4, are doomed, if there is no change of policy, to early destruction. All these vessels are heavily armoured and armed. They would be valuable for harbour defence, and especially the defence of ports such as Brisbane, Melbourne, and Adelaide, situated on inland seas. The "Centurion" and "Barfleur" steam well. They would be effective for the protection of trade. Let us not be hasty in putting such vessels on the sale list. Nor should we be reckless in the disposal of other ships completed in quite recent years. It is impossible to name all the ports of the outer Empire where battleships, not of the latest type, would be valuable. The beat of England's morning drum rolls round the world.

When we come to ships more immediately preceding the Dreadnought, it is not perhaps premature to urge that they should be taken in hand in good time for such reconstruction and rearmament as may be necessary. To prolong the useful services of such ships is worth a serious effort. The battleships of the older types are valuable for other service than that of harbour defence. Gunnery ships are required in all the self-governing Colonies. On a late occasion I had the opportunity of seeing the Naval Volunteers, enrolled at Cape Town, at drill. They were fine fellows, every officer, instructor, and man being full of zeal. But they were gunners under instruction without guns. Gunnery ships are costly to build. We are able to provide them.

Turn to cruisers. It has been proposed to begin the creation of the local Colonial Navies by laying down cruisers. We are able to provide the vessels required. Among the ships struck off the effective list we have no fewer than eight second-class cruisers, ordered when Lord George Hamilton was at the Admiralty. They were designed by Sir William White, completed for sea in 1893, and cost £200,000; their speed is 20 knots; displacement, 3,600 tons; and they are armed with 6-inch guns. Let us make a free gift of these vessels to the Colonies. The Admiralty stand pledged to co-operate with the Colonial Governments. They have explained their views and their policy in an able Memorandum. While insisting that the Imperial Navy is the best security from attack for all parts of the Empire, they recognise the importance to the Colonies of local forces always at hand. The Admiralty have declared their readiness to co-operate in providing such a flotilla. The scrapping of ships has been adopted as a measure of economy. It is better to give ships to our fellow-subjects, and thus co-operate in necessary defensive preparations, than to sell to ship-breakers. We have also to consider our own interests. I submit that to condemn ships prematurely is to weaken our position unduly in the estimate of foreign nations. The stronger the British Navy is held to be, the more effective it becomes as one of the guarantees for the peace of the world.


My Lords, I should like to say a word first of all with regard to the procedure of the noble Lord in reference to the subject he has raised this afternoon. It is the practice of your Lordships' House that a Question or Motion that has been put down for a certain day should not be taken at an earlier date without the sanction of the House. It is not a matter of Standing Order but of practice, and I think the noble Earl who leads the House will concur that it is a rule which we should not lightly depart from.


Hear, hear.


I do not propose to raise any objection on the present occasion; but it is obviously to the convenience of your Lordships that you should know the exact dates on which matters of this kind are to be raised. As to the merits of what the noble Lord has said, with his great knowledge of all that affects the Navy, I assume that the questions dealt with—the questions, for instance, of guard ships in Colonial ports and training ships and to what extent vessels that are out of date in our own Navy may be of use in Colonial Navies—were carefully considered by the Government and the Colonial I Premiers at the Imperial Conference last summer. I am not aware that requests have boon made by Colonial Governments to His Majesty's Government for old vessels of the Navy to be employed in the defence of their ports and harbours. I should have thought there were other measures more effective for such a service than the provision of ships twenty-five years old. With regard to the suggestion of the noble Lord that old vessels should be put into proper condition for fighting purposes, it is the opinion of naval experts that money is better spent in providing vessels of the latest and most efficient type than in equipping ships that are out of date. I did not rise to enter in any detail into this matter, and I hope the noble Earl who will reply will tell us what the views of His Majesty's Government are on the subject.


My Lords, I am afraid I must plead guilty to being responsible for the breach of the rules of the House committed by my noble friend Lord Brassey, because it was at my suggestion that lie advanced the Notice and put it on the Paper for to-day. My noble friend has had great experience in naval matters, and we always welcome his participation in a discussion of this kind. I may say, however, in reply to him, that the whole question of the Dominions and the Navy was dealt with by the Imperial Conference. The Dominions then undertook to provide a naval force to co-operate with His Majesty's Navy in time of war. It is also the opinion of the Admiralty that shore batteries, submarines, and torpedoes are more effective for the defence of harbours than stationary guardships of the old type. I think the Dominions quite appreciate, this, for we have had no demand from them for any of these old ships. Such ships would be outdistanced by speed and in range by modern ships. Moreover, the upkeep of one of these old ships would be quite as much as, if not more than, the upkeep of a new ship. The noble Lord said that these ships would be of use to the Colonies as gunnery schools; but the modern developments of gunnery have not favoured the course of building these gunnery ships. At Portsmouth the whole of the gunnery establishment has been transferred to the shore. Tenders are of course attached to the schools, but they possess modern equipment and modern guns.

The noble Lord mentioned his visit to Cape Colony last year. He said the Naval Volunteers were fine fellows and full of zeal, but that they were gunners under instruction without guns. It may interest the noble Lord to know that in the last few days the Cape Government have decided to build a shore battery, as they think it more economical and useful than an old ship. Then the noble Lord touched on the question of protecting commerce. All the old cruisers that we are getting rid of are perfectly useless to protect commerce in this country, and I should think they would be equally useless in Colonial waters. The noble Lord referred to a certain class of ship—I think they belong to the Apollo class—which he suggested should be given over to the Colonies. The Admiralty are not anxious at present to get rid of these ships, but Canada is in negotiation for the purchase of one. There has been no demand for any of the old ships from the Colonies, and surely if they really wanted any of them they would ask the Admiralty for them.

As your Lordships are aware, New Zealand is continuing its monetary contribution on the condition that the Imperial Navy shall station some submarines and I destroyers in those waters, which it is proposed to do in a very short time. The Commonwealth have authorised the construction of three protected cruisers, besides submarines and destroyers. One destroyer has been already launched and the construction of others is rapidly proceeding. In regard to South Africa it was thought at the Colonial Conference last year that no definite conclusion had better be come to in view of the Union. I think I have touched on most of the points raised by the noble Lord. I can only add, in conclusion, that the Admiralty do not think there is any prospect of using old ships usefully in the way suggested by my noble friend.

House adjourned at five minutes before Five o'clock, to Monday next, a quarter past Four o'clock.