HC Deb 31 July 1879 vol 248 cc1755-69

, in rising to call attention to the importance of making sufficient provision for the widows and orphans of Seamen of Her Majesty's Navy and Royal Marines, said, the subject had been before the House for a considerable time; and he, therefore, would not trouble them with many remarks. His object that evening was to get from Her Majesty's Government some statement as to what they were now prepared to do in the matter. He did not ask for any definite promise; but he hoped to receive an assurance that they were prepared to give assistance to the men in making provision for their wives and children. According to careful calculations which had been made by an actuary, it would require a stoppage from a man's pay of 10s. a-month in order to provide a pension of £20 a-year for his widow. It was out of the question that a seaman could give such a sum; and it was, therefore, proposed that each man should give 5s. a-month, and that the other 5s. should be provided by the Government. If the seamen could only give 3s. a-month, the Government should only give a similar amount. The scheme had been reduced to very simple limits. It was proposed that the insurance should be effected in the same way that all assurances were effected—namely, by a man giving a certain sum to secure a certain pension. Having settled what the total cost would be of providing a Pension Fund according to the Returns which had been presented, the question naturally arose now it could be kept within proper limits. One of the modes in which that could be done was for the Government to impose a limit of age. They should not be called on to pay a pension to the widow of any man who chose to marry under 25. That would reduce the amount required, and keep it within certain limits. The total number of married men in the Service was about 15,000; but of these about 1,500 were under 25 years of age. The adoption, therefore, of that rule would limit the number of pensions to widows to a corresponding amount. The number might also be limited by requiring a certain amount of extra service. He had taken the opinion of many petty officers and others who were interested in this question, and he understood that some would be quite prepared to give as much as five years' extra service, which would be a sufficient quid pro quo for such a grant. There would be a great advantage to the Service in this, that such a scheme would operate as a check upon desertion. He did not think the cost of desertion could be less than £300,000 a-year, and a large sum would, therefore, be saved to the country by the proposed scheme. In the Navies of France and Germany the principle he advocated was carried out. In the German Service the widow of a petty officer received £12 12s., and he was not sure whether any pension was given to the children. The widows of able and ordinary seamen got pensions of £9 a-year, with £6 6s. for every child up to the age of 16. This made a very considerable pension. No doubt, it might be said our men received higher pay; but the difference of pay did not enable our seamen and marines to provide for their widows and orphans. If France and Germany could give pensions to the widows of their seamen and marines, surely a great country like this could do something in the same direction. The principle which he advocated had been already adopted in the case of the Coastguards. It might, he knew, be said that whenever a great disaster occurred in the Navy the public came forward and subscribed liberally for the widows and orphans of the sufferers. That was true; but they should not forget that every year men suffered violent deaths in the Service, of which the public knew nothing. The year 1874 was a year of peace, and one in which no great disaster occurred, yet the deaths from drowning in the Service were 79; from falling from aloft, 35; from accidental wounds, 9; and from various causes other than natural, 8. In fact, every two years and a-half it might be said that an Eurydice was lost—that was to say, about the same number of deaths by violence occurred in the Navy as occurred through the loss of the Eurydice; and he might add that the feeling in the Service was opposed to appeals being made to the charitable feelings of the public. It was thought that a great deal of blame rested on Parliament for not adopting some such suggestion as he now made for the relief of these constantly recurring cases of great distress. One of the sources from which the pensions to widows and orphans might be derived was the savings on rations to the men in the Service which were not taken up. Some years since a Committee sat to consider the subject, and they reported that the saving to the Government under the head of provisions amounted to something like £70,000 a-year. He trusted that they would hear something definite and satisfactory from Her Majesty's Government with respect to the question, pressing and important as it was, which he had ventured to bring under the notice of the House. He did not expect them to commit themselves to any plan; but he trusted they would promise to appoint a Committee to inquire into the subject.


said, if there was any blot in the Naval Service it was want of practical experience, and it was nonsense to suppose that experience could be gained by mere theoretical or scientific training. With regard to the accidents to the Megœra and the Thunderer, they were due to the imperfection of the system adopted, and not to want of skill on the part of officers holding positions of trust in the Dockyards. He, for one, did not object to high situations of trust being held by men who had been promoted gradually from the position of apprentices, and that view was supported by the fact that men who had reflected the greatest lustre on the Royal Navy included those who had risen from the ranks. With respect to salaries, if the Admiralty had not already got the best men in the country, he would say by all means let them engage their services, and not shrink from doing so for the mere sake of saving a few hundreds a-year.


said, great credit was due to the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Brassey) for the remarks he had addressed to the House, notwithstanding the invidiousness of having to suggest an increase of expenditure on the Government of the day. The people on whose behalf his hon. Friend had spoken had very few advocates or friends. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Childers) had once, rightly or wrongly, stated in. a public document that he (Mr. E. J. Reed) had saved the country £100,000 on every ship which was built under his direction, and yet he had never received a single sixpence of reward in the shape of pension or otherwise; and yet, when one took up a list of pensions relating to the Navy, he found pensions of various kinds, and distributed to such a large extent, that he thought the Admiralty must be at a loss sometimes to know where to bestow these large sums. It did not lie in the mouth of the Government to say they had no funds—that they must set their face against any considerable increase in the salaries of those who had rendered good services—while they had such large pensions at their disposal to distribute unnecessarily to other classes of officers. His hon. Friend said it was true that the civil officers of the Admiralty received decorations and orders, and other things of the kind, in exchange for their services. He received a decoration to remain in the Service when on the point of leaving, and he believed a decoration was conferred on another gentleman; but he was at a loss to recollect any other instance, and he could not understand what had happened to the country; why it should go on under a system which showered decorations and orders upon one branch—namely, the militant branch—not for war services or great distinctions—while nothing of the kind was bestowed on men who laboured perpetually and successfully in other branches. He thought the day would come when this question of the distribution of decorations and orders would have to be considered by the country. He was satisfied that from the Naval Service would be drawn examples of the unfair distribution of these honours. We lived in an age in which mechanism played a more important part than in days gone by, and we were approaching a time when the merits of mechanical men would be more recognized than at present. In the same way, a great effort was made by the former Administration to combine the shipbuilding and engineering branches under one authority. He had never advocated putting the engineers under the shipbuilders, any more than the shipbuilders under the engineers; but his experience at the Admiralty showed that the Public Service sustained great disadvantages from having two authorities in connection with shipbuilding and engineering. He hoped the present Government had not taken any steps to weaken what had been done by the former Government in that respect. Although he represented Pembroke, a small Yard, he had no hesitation in joining his hon. Friend in trying to improve the position of the Chief Constructors in the large Yards. The Government had elevated the position of Chatham, and of the officers with it, and had shown a desire to improve both their status and pay. The Government ought to remember that the course of events had forced mechanism and mechanics into more and more importance in the Naval Service; and, therefore, they ought to deal with those who were concerned with that branch of the business in a larger and broader spirit than they had done hitherto. The officers of the Admiralty and the Dockyards generally received pensions. He was one of those who did not. He was very proud of the fact that he had been privileged for seven years to serve the public without a pension of any kind. He quite agreed with those who held that it was a great distinction for a man to be able to serve his country in a position of responsibility, like that of the principal officers of the Admiralty and the Dockyards. It was hardly possible to exaggerate the weight of the responsibility that rested on them, and no one would more readily bear witness to the manner in which it was sustained than, on the one hand, the political chiefs, and, on the other, the Naval officers who came into contact with them. He believed all his hon. Friend desired could be done without in any way injuring the status of any naval officer. It might be said that one of the consequences of putting technical officers of Her Majesty's Dockyards into positions of greater responsibility would be to throw those positions open to competition. He was satisfied that to throw them open to competition could not be done with advantage to the Public Service. When he retired from Office he believed his right hon. Friend (Mr. Childers) did cast about for some outside person to be put in his place. He had heard that his right hon. Friend had fixed his mind on a gentleman in a private dockyard. But there was a diffi- culty in carrying out that idea, and the area of choice was very limited indeed. The officers of the Dockyards were not open to the suspicion of being theoretical rather than practical men. He did not believe there was a more practical body of men in the country than the technical officers of the Admiralty and the Royal Dockyards. Nearly every man among them had begun his profession with apprenticeship, and had acquainted himself with the use of tools, and nearly every one had risen from a humble position to the position he now occupied. What happened when a private yard wanted a manager? They came to the Royal Dockyards, and the men they got were those who had not been successful in the competition of the Public Service. The inference he drew was that the men in the Royal Dockyards were of the highest skill, both theoretically and practically, that could be found at present in the whole world. A word as to one or two practical suggestions of his hon. Friend. At present, the Admiralty systematically sent the Office estimates of the cost of new ships to the Dockyards, and there they were overhauled, revised, and reported on by the local officers. But there would be great disadvantage in attaching the name of the local Chief Constructor to the estimate of the cost of a ship. If the Admiralty were, in this matter of the estimates, to screen themselves behind the local officers, Members of that House would be in a worse position in criticizing them than they now were. Those who thought otherwise ought to be excused, on account of the variations which the Navy Estimates presented as to the cost of ships. He did not see that the slightest fault could be found with the Admiralty for modifying, from time to time, the estimated cost of their ships, for this reason, that a large ship took a considerable time in constructing, and in these days, as the art of naval construction underwent much modification, it was one of the most important duties of the Admiralty to improve their ships as the building of them went on. The only thing they were not justified in doing was in delaying ships. The best thing to do was to complete a ship that might be in progress according to the best information they had at the time. The present Board of Admiralty had given many indications of a desire to meet the actual circumstances of the case, and to improve the position of technical officers. They ought to continue to bear in mind that the demand was for large changes in every Department of the Service, and if, out of the total Navy Estimates, they attempted to do full justice to those officers, he believed they might give them what was right without doing any injustice to anyone.


desired to make a few remarks of a general character. He had always regretted the apparent indifference of the House of Commons to everything connected with the welfare of the British Navy. He could not congratulate the Government either on their Navy Estimates or on the manner in which they had been introduced. He believed this was the first time on record when the Navy Estimates had come on for the first time for discussion as the Second Order of the Day.


remarked, that on the first night they were brought forward they were the First Order of the Day.


said, that might be so; but they were not discussed. This was the first time they had come up for discussion. It might appear odd that in discussing the Navy Estimates he should refer to the condition of the Army. This country had two arms for the purposes of defence and aggression, and if one of those arms was in bad condition, the fact made it all the more incumbent upon us to look to the state of the other. He contended, without fear of disproof, that the Army of this country was a myth. It had ceased to exist, and the proof was that when we had to contend with a few savages in South Africa the whole British force was not equal to the undertaking, and we were compelled to supplement our Army by a corps of Marines. Our Army had been destroyed by the late Government, and the present Government had not had the courage to restore it. And what was the condition of the Navy? It was not equal, at the present moment, to the requirements of the country. We had not iron-clads enough for the duty of the country in time of peace. An incontestable proof of this was that the Admiralty had been obliged to send the Shah as flag ship to the Pacific, confessedly be- cause they had no iron-clad available for service. Moreover, he maintained that we did not possess a sufficient number of ships to protect our own commerce in time of war, or to prey upon the commerce of our enemy. As a matter of sound policy, we ought to have such a number of ships that; in the event of war with a great maritime Power, we could at once sweep the sea of her property, and defend our own. Under what were called the blessings of Free Trade, this country had not more than two or three months' supply of food in hand. This was a question of life and death to this country, as our supply of food was wholly dependent upon our having command of the sea. We had not a sufficient number of frigates and corvettes, and very few of those we possessed could be handled under canvas. This result was caused by our having too much of the scientific element, and too little of the seaman element in the construction of our ships. We were building nothing but floating batteries, which would not do anything except under steam. Quite understanding the difficulty which the First Lord of the Admiralty must feel when going to his Colleagues in Council, and asking them to supply more money for the wants of his Department—understanding that the right hon. Gentleman must feel the same difficulty in coming to the House of Commons, and asking for larger supplies for the Navy—his belief was that the present or any other Government would stand much higher in the opinion of the country if they came frankly forward at once and said—what they knew to be true—that the present condition of the Navy was not what it ought to be, and that more money was required to make it efficient.


, in supporting the Motion, urged the importance of suitable provision being made in the form of pensions for the widows and orphans of the seamen of Her Majesty's Navy and the Royal Marines. He found that out of 53,500 men upon the books of the Navy, rather more than one-third were married., and it was calculated about £100,000 a-year would be required to provide a fund for the insurance of the widows of those men. He did not urge the First Lord of the Admiralty to give any definite promise, but merely to assent to the Motion which had been brought forward, or to grant a Commit- tee, which might, without any unnecessary delay, obtain all requisite information connected with that subject.


said, he could not complain of the manner in which the discussion or conversation that had now gone on for two or three hours had been introduced by his hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. T. Brassey), who had called attention to the claims of that most valuable body of men, of whom it was impossible for anyone occupying his position to speak too highly. The Admiralty desired now to express their confidence in, and their obligations to, the officers who were called the constructors, and whose abilities had been of the greatest possible value to this country in developing a powerful Navy, which was certainly equal, and, he believed, superior, to any Navy which existed on the face of the earth. That, he ventured to assert, notwithstanding what had just fallen from the hon. Member for West Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck). His hon. Friend the Member for Hastings had stated the case of those officers with his usual moderation and discretion, and he had wound up by saying that he did not desire to ask from the Government or from the House any particular remedy to be applied at the present moment; but that his object was to bring before the House the claims of a body of scientific gentlemen, whose services were of great value to the country, to fair consideration whenever it was possible that that consideration could be given. He was perfectly ready to accept the suggestions of his hon. Friend in the sense and with the feeling with which they had been put forward. He could not undertake to make specific improvements in regard either to position or salary, or in any of the various modes which had been hinted at by his hon. Friend. But he wished to repeat, what he had often said in the Board-room of the Admiralty, that they owed great acknowledgments, not only to the gentlemen at Whitehall who assisted them in designing their ships of war, and who assisted them with their advice on the questions from time to time submitted to them, but also owed a great debt of gratitude to the scientific staff of the Dockyards, who certainly had performed their work with very great zeal and very great success; and, notwithstanding the absence of some of those inducements to which the hon. Member referred—inducements which could be offered by private establishments, but which could not, in the nature of things, be offered, at any rate so completely, by Public Departments. They had certainly discharged their very difficult duties with very great advantage to the Public Service. The hon. Member had spoken of the constructors and the constructing staff of the Navy as not being always rewarded for the economy they might effect, or the improvements they might make, in the management of the Dockyards, or in the conduct of the business particularly under their charge. Well, it would be an exceedingly difficult thing to lay down any system by which a distinct appreciation of good service might be always accorded in the manner in which he admitted it was possible for the independent head of a great mercantile establishment to reward an efficient manager or head of a department. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. E. J. Reed) had alluded to the results of his exertions in the construction of ships, and to the fact that no money reward, or other reward, was given to him in acknowledgment of those services. The hon. Gentleman had, at least, the satisfaction of knowing that they were very highly appreciated; and it might be said that the position he occupied in the House and the country was due, in some degree, to the position he had previously held in the Admiralty, and to the fame his abilities had acquired for him in the Public Service. But ho was bound to say that if he could see a way that was entirely free from bias, and from all those difficulties which surrounded the giving of rewards for good work in the administration of Public Departments, he would be extremely glad to adopt it. His hon. Friend the Member for Hastings (Mr. T. Brassey) had referred to the fact that, at the pro-sent moment, certain positions in the Constructor's Department in the Dockyards and at the Admiralty were unattainable by the sons of gentlemen. Perhaps, in one sense it might be called an exclusive Service; but, whatever might be said from that point of view, the mechanical and scientific abilities of the gentlemen who were now occupied in constructing ships and in superintending the construction of ships for Her Majesty's Service were, at least, equal to those of any body of men filling the same positions in any other part of the world. He did not compare them invidiously with the officers of other countries; but if their position was not the same, and if they did not spring from the same class as the constructive Service of other countries did, the results, at least, were as satisfactory as they could desire them to be. It was, as the hon. Member for Pembroke stated, essentially a practical Service. The constructors were selected, first of all, from the apprentices in the Dockyards. These apprentices were admitted on open competition, and the best, after a further competition, were sent to Greenwich, where they received a careful and complete training, after which they came back to the Dockyards. The result of this system was highly satisfactory in producing highly-trained men with a practical knowledge of their profession. At that time in the evening he was sure the House would forgive him if he spoke briefly; but he was anxious to record their high sense of the value of these gentlemen. The hon. Member for Pembroke had referred to the fact that, in the Dockyard establishments, the work of concentration set on foot by his right hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Childers) had, to some extent, been undone. The fact was, experience had shown that this concentration had been carried rather too far. The Chief Constructor was found to have more work and responsibility thrown upon him than he could efficiently perform, and he himself welcomed the change. The Chief Constructor retained his superior position, and the storekeeper was, in all essential points, subordinate to him. At Devonport, the change had not been made, it was left to compare with the working of the new system after sufficient experience at the other yards, the system was found to work better there than at Portsmouth. Reference had also been made to the mode in which the estimates for ships were dealt with. He agreed that it would be unfair to the Chief Constructor, who might not be responsible for any changes made in a ship during her construction, that his name should be bracketed with the estimate during its whole course from first to last. The system adopted was this. The estimates for the new ship were, first of all, made at Whitehall, and then sent to the dockyard at which the ship was to be constructed. There they were most carefully overhauled and reported upon, after which they were sent back to Whitehall, where they were again considered. In this way, two sets of minds were brought to bear upon them. In the case of estimates for repairs, the process was reversed. This system was found to work most advantageously. As to the care that was exercised in the Dockyards, he doubted whether, in any private yard, the work was done so efficiently as in Her Majesty's Dockyards. The officers all felt the great responsibility of their position, and knew that they would be seriously called to account were they to overlook any circumstance or condition necessary to efficiency or to safety. The consequence was that the work was most thoroughly done. In fact, it was done, if anything, he might say, a little too thoroughly. Our ships were so built that they would last a very long time, and he believed they had a very satisfactory result for their expenditure. The hon. Member for Hastings had referred to a number of Reports made during the last 50 years. He must confess that he had not himself been able to go through these Reports; but he was obliged to the hon. Member for his industry, and he would give them most careful attention. His hon. Friend had compared the French Service with our own. He admitted that the position of the officers in the French Service was, in some respects, superior. Their rank, and the distinction with which they were treated were greater; but he believed their salaries were not so good. Rank was, in the French Service, often taken in lieu of salary; but he was not sure that our officers would welcome a change upon this principle. He might refer the hon. Member to a Report drawn up by M. Gambetta, and presented to the French Chambers this year upon the Naval Service, in which it would be found that, in the opinion of the French Budget Committee, our Naval administration compared favourably with their own. His hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Devonport (Captain Price) had asked for some assurance from the Government as to provision, in the shape of pensions, being made for the widows and orphans of seamen. He must, in the first place, point out that the Estimates to which he had drawn attention had only come to his hands a very few days ago. He must also draw attention to the fact that, in the Notice which appeared upon the Paper, his hon. and gallant Friend spoke of a provision for orphans as well as widows, whereas in his speech he had omitted all reference to orphans. The introduction of the orphans would make a great difference in the calculations. He would, therefore, have to speak with great caution. When the subject was first introduced, some years ago, it was proposed that seamen should contribute 6d. a-month, the remainder being supplied by Parliament. Subsequently, it was proposed that this 6d. should be raised to 1s. 8d. a-month. The present proposal that the seamen should contribute as much as 5s. a-month was one on which he should hesitate to express an opinion before he knew how far the men would be content to submit to such a large deduction from their wages. His hon. and gallant Friend proposed that these allowances should not be granted to any men who married below a certain age. But this itself would give rise to difficulty; for it had been pointed out to him that the greatest danger to such a fund would arise from men marrying above a certain age. If the system of pensions to widows of seamen were carried too far, it would serve as an incentive to young women to marry very old men, in order that they might get their pensions the sooner, while they themselves would live a long time. All he could promise was that he would take the matter into further consideration, and would endeavour to ascertain what was the real feeling of the men on the subject of forming a provision for their wives in case of their own deaths; and he should be glad to accept any suggestion in reference to the matter which did not throw too heavy a burden upon the country. The hon. and gallant Member had said that, by making some adequate provision for the widows of sailors, desertion from the Navy would be checked. He was afraid that men who were content to abandon their own long service pensions would not be much influenced by the fear of forfeiting the pensions of their wives. He fully admitted the painful position in which a sailor's widow was placed by her husband being cut off in early life by some accident, and he could assure the hon. and gallant Member that the subject of pensions to the widows should have the careful consideration of the Government. It must not be forgotten, however, that these men were themselves entitled to pensions at the early age of 38, which formed a very heavy item in the Estimates of the year. The hon. Member for West Norfolk had asked for information as to the present condition of the Royal Navy. If he understood the hon. Member rightly, he was of opinion that this country should possess a Navy sufficiently powerful to cope with any emergencies to which we might be exposed. He himself was quite prepared to assent to that proposition, and, in his view, our Navy was quite sufficient for that purpose. We had a Mediterranean Fleet in good order; we had a Channel Squadron which was not in bad order; we had eight iron-clad ships in commission attached to the Coastguard equal to any others of a similar type which were to be found in foreign Navies; we had in the first-class Steam Reserve four sea-going iron-clads equal to those of any foreign Navy, ready to go to sea; we had nine more which would be complete in the course of the year, and most of which might, if necessary, be ready in the course of two or three months. At the present moment we had 26 ironclads in commission; we had four seagoing iron-clads ready for sea in reserve, including the Dreadnought, and, in addition, three coast defence ships; and we had nine others which would be ready in the course of the year, including the powerful ships Sultan, Superb, Neptune, and Devastation. These figures ought, he thought, to be satisfactory to the House. We had 42 iron-clads, either in commission or ready to put to sea in a short time, and these constituted a force adequate to any emergency which was likely to arise. If he felt it necessary to come down to the House for further Supplies, in order to increase the offensive or defensive force of the country, he should not hesitate to do so; but he did not think it desirable to ask for increased Votes for building ships which might become obsolete in a few years, and especially at a time when, he believed, our Navy was thoroughly adequate to any service which it might be called upon to perform, and thoroughly able to cope with any Power which might be brought against it. With these few remarks, he hoped the House would now go into Committee on the Estimates.