HL Deb 23 May 1876 vol 229 cc1099-110

rose to present the Petition of Inhabitants of Dover of which he had given Notice. It was a Petition from the owners of property in Dover, numerously signed—indeed, no Petition could more completely represent all classes and all political parties in that town. It urged on the Government the pressing necessity of meeting the rapidly increasing traffic between Dover and the Continent; it gave a correct history of the last attempts at legislation, and prayed their Lordships' House to express such an opinion as would induce Her Majesty's Government to obtain powers to construct at an early date such an extended harbour at Dover as would provide for the naval and military requirements of the country, and afford ample accommodation for the rapidly increasing traffic between Dover and the Continent. Their Lordships might look with some suspicion on representations which might be biased by local interests; he would therefore add a few words to show that the Imperial grounds which they alleged, both for times of peace and for war, were not to be doubted. He would not enter into antiquarian or historical details, or ask why hundreds of years ago Dover was called "Clavis Regni;" or why £80,000 was spent on it by Henry VIII., and further large sums by Queen Elizaboth. James I., in his charter to the town, spoke of it as "for many ages a most noted and famous port and harbour," the ruin of which "would be the greatest damage and loss to this kingdom." Charles II. ascribed his successes at sea to his ships using Dover harbour to refit and revictual. Sir Walter Raleigh, in his Memorial of Queen Elizabeth, said:— No promontory, town, or haven in Christendom is so placed by nature and situation, both to gratify friends and to annoy enemies, as this town of Dover; no place is so settled to receive and deliver intelligence for all matters and actions in Europe from time to time; nor is there in the whole circuit of this famous island any port either in respect of security or defence, or of traffic or intercourse, more convenient, needful, or rather of necessity to be regarded, than this of Dover, situated on a promontory next fronting a puissant foreign King, and in the very straight, passage, and intercourse of almost all the shipping in Christendom. And of that our renowned King, your Majesty's father (Henry VIII), found how necessary it was to make a haven at Dover (when Sandwich, Rye, Camber, and others were good havens, and Calais also was then in his possession), and yet spared not to bestow of his treasure so great a mass in building that pier, which then secured a probable means to perform the same, how much more is the same now needful; or rather of necessity (those good havens being extremely decayed), no safe harbour being left in all the coast almost between Portsmouth and Yarmouth. Seeing, then, it hath pleased God to give unto this realm such a situation for a port and town, is all Christendom hath not the like, and endowed the same with all commodities both by land and sea that can be wished, methinks there remaineth no other deliberation in this case, but how most sufficiently, and, with greatest perfection possible, most speedily the same may be accomplished. He believed that every line of that was as true at the present moment as when it was originally written—only Dover had become the more important from the invention and improvements of steam. The subject had been inquired into at various times, from 1836 downwards, by Committees and Commissions. In 1840 the Commission appointed to survey the South-Eastern Harbours reported— The situation which appears to us to be of the greatest importance, and at the same time offers the most eligible position for a deep water harbour, is Dover Bay. Independently of its proximity to the Continent, this bay possesses considerable advantages. The Commissioners of 1844 in their Report said— Dover, situated at a distance of only four and a half miles from the Goodwin Sands, and standing out favourably to protect the navigation of the narrow seas, is naturally the situation, for a squadron of ships of war. Its value, in a military point of view, is undoubted; but the construction of a harbour of refuge there is, in our opinion, indispensable to give to Dover that efficiency as a naval station which is necessary in order to provide for the security of this part of the coast and the protection of trade. The Commission cannot close their Report without expressing in the strongest terms their unanimous opinion and entire conviction that measures are indispensably necessary to give to the south-eastern frontier of the kingdom means and facilities which it does not now possess for powerful naval protection. Without any except tidal harbours along the whole coast between Portsmouth and the Thames, and none accessible to large steamers, there is now, when steam Points to such great changes in maritime affairs, an imperative necessity for supplying by artificial means the want of harbours throughout the narrow part of the Channel. There were few of their Lordships who were not aware of the miserable accommodation which now existed for the important traffic between Dover and the Continent. During the last seven years the Harbour Board had made several attempts, in addition to those proposed by others, to remedy this great deficiency. In July, 1872, the Board made an agreement with the two railway companies to construct a water station for Continental traffic at a cost of £200,000. In the autumn he (Earl Granville) learnt that their Bill would be objected to by the Government Departments on the same grounds as on former occasions—namely, that it might interfere with the larger plans which were supposed to be under consideration. He brought the matter before his Colleagues, and represented that the position of the Government was untenable—that it could not continue indefinitely this dog-in-the-manger policy, obstructing all proposed improvements, without moving one step in proposing a plan of its own. The result was that a Committee of the Cabinet was formed, consisting of the President of the Board of Trade, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for War, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and himself, who most carefully investigated the subject. They commissioned Sir Andrew Clarke, R.E., of the Admiralty, and Sir John Hawkshaw to report on a larger harbour. After considerable negotiation with the Harbour Board and the Railway Companies this scheme was adopted, the Harbour Board dropped their Bill and obtained a vote of £10,000 towards the preliminary expenses of the works. In November, 1873, the Harbour Board gave the necessary notices. A change of Government occurred, and their successors very reasonably requested the Harbour Board to drop their Bill, as they had not had time to consider the question. By this time the Harbour Board was nearly £1,500 out of pocket. In 1875, after 12 months' consideration, the Government themselves promoted a Bill to carry out the same plans. The Bill was opposed by Mr. Rylands and others. Some on the ground of economy, but by more on account of the plan not being sufficiently matured. The second reading was carried, and the Bill was referred to a Select Committee. What was the evidence given before that Committee? The Duke of Cambridge said— I do not know of any other part of the Channel so important as regards defence as Dover. The plan commends itself as an advisable mode of enlarging the harbour accommodation of Dover. The position of Dover, being, as it is, in the narrowest part of the Channel, I look upon as of the greatest possible importance. There is no harbour of any importance between Portsmouth and quite the North of England, with the exception of Sheerness, and you can hardly call that a harbour, but rather the mouth of the Thames; but with that exception there is no other harbour on the coast of any magnitude excepting Dover. The Duke of Wellington always considered Dover of the greatest importance. The military works at Dover are very important and extensive. I look upon it that there is no scheme so important as the one before the Committee. Quite irrespective of any commercial question, it would be desirable to carry out the works at Dover now. But if I were asked if it is an important point of communication on general principles between this country and the Continent, I conceive, on that ground alone, there would be great importance attached to it, quite independent of any strategical ground. There is another great advantage at Dover, that there will be no outlay of public money required for the protection of the proposed harbour. A harbour without works would be valueless. The two best stations we have in the country are Portland and this new harbour at Dover. I consider the advantage of Dover very great, from the great facility of concentrating troops by railway from any part of England. Colonel Charles Nugent, R.E., Deputy Director of Works, gave the following evidence:— It is geographically the most important point in Great Britain for having a military harbour. The fortifications at Dover would command the whole of the harbour. In a confidential Report of the Duke of Wellington in 1843 the Duke particularly recommended Dover as a spot for a harbour of refuge, and as a salient military spot in connection therewith. Major-General Collins on, R.E., commanding for several years the South-Eastern District, gave this evidence— Dover is an eminently advantageous point for the embarcation of troops and stores….Very extensive accommodation for this purpose is wanted beyond that which now exists….Dover is the most important strategical point for naval and military operations in the kingdom….I think it is really absolutely necessary for strategic purposes and for military operations. Sir Alexander Milne, First Naval Lord of the Admiralty, gave this evidence— I consider the position of Dover a very important one connected with naval affairs. In case of any operations of a warlike nature, it will become a necessity to have coal in some position in the neighbourhood of Dover. There is no place better suited for it than a harbour at Dover. I attach importance to it as a position for the embarcation of troops. There is no position more central or better adapted for the embarcation of troops than at the end of two railways connected with the interior of England. It is an absolute necessity that this country should have a harbour in that position, that our fleet may have the means of coaling, and that small vessels that are not able to keep the sea in the Downs in very heavy weather should have a place where they can be concentrated. The evidence of Captain Evans, Hydrographer to the Admiralty, agreed with that of Sir Alexander Milne. Colonel Pasley, R.E., Director of Works at the Admiralty, said— I consider it of the utmost importance to the country that the harbour should be provided at Dover. Between Portsmouth and Sheerness there is at present no place where the fleet can coal, and there ought to be a place where the fleet can coal, and Dover being in the narrowest part of the Channel, and at the same time close both to the German Ocean and to the English Channel, is a most important point for the fleet to rendezvous if there be any danger of invasion, and in order that the Fleet may rendezvous there and be there, it is absolutely necessary that a place of coaling should exist. This is a necessity of modern growth. Now, as the Navy consists almost exclusively of steamships, it has become a primary necessity that facilities for coaling should exist. The importance of Dover has accordingly grown very greatly as compared with what it was in those times. If a harbour were to be made anywhere in the neighbourhood, you would have to start afresh and construct fortifications, which at Dover you have already done. At present there is no place where a large force could be embarked in a short time—absolutely none. Sir John Hawkshaw gave strong evidence as to the feasibility of the plan, of his confidence in the moderate character of the estimates, and of the almost certainty of the estimated increase of traffic. With regard to the last point, he said that engineers had made mistakes as to the cost of their works—an error which, probably, it did not require Sir John's high authority to convince their Lordships—but that he had never known an instance when, with reference to the probable growth of traffic, they had been large enough in their estimates. Mr. Druce, another eminent Civil Engineer, with, special experience, corroborated Sir John Hawkshaw's evidence. Mr. W. H. Smith, Secretary of the Treasury, said— We inherited the scheme from our predecessors. We found it in the form of a Bill last year, and it was delayed in order that the present Government might give it a more full consideration before they committed themselves to it….The Treasury would not have assented to the scheme—I am speaking of the present Treasury—unless it had felt that there were public grounds, grounds of national interest, which justified the scheme as a whole. After hearing this evidence, what did the Committee report?— The evidence adduced before them leaves no room to doubt that, in the case of this country being obliged to engage in warlike operations, the proposed harbour would be of the greatest value and importance, both in a naval and military point of view. At the present moment, it may be said that there is no place between Sheerness and Portsmouth at which vessels of Her Majesty's Navy can obtain a supply of coal if required. The Downs are, no doubt, an admirable naval station, both in point of security and convenience of position, but coaling there would have to be carried on from sea-going vessels or floating depôts, which in time of war would be exposed to attack by the enemy, unless protected by works which at present do not exist. If the proposed harbour is successfully constructed, iron-clads of the largest class can be moored alongside the existing Admiralty Pier, or the Eastern Pier, if modified with that view; coals from any part of England or Wales may be brought by railway in trucks direct to the side of vessels, and shipped with facility, safety, and despatch. In a military point of view, the advantages of the proposed harbour in time of war are not less apparent. Hitherto no proper facilities have been provided either at Woolwich, Chatham, or Sheerness for the embarcation of troops, while at Portsmouth the length of wharf in the dockyard is quite insufficient, and in time of war would probably be required by the Admiralty for naval purposes. On the other hand, Dover is in communication by two railways with the military stations of Canterbury, Maidstone, Sheerness, Chatham, Woolwich, London, Aldershot, Portsmouth, and Shorncliffe; and, as the lines of rail come down to the pier, alongside of which the transports would be lying, a very short time would suffice for the embarcation of a large force. To these considerations must be added the important fact that the proposed harbour will be under protection of great military works, which it would be necessary to provide in any other position where a harbour for naval and military purposes could be constructed. With regard to its capabilities as a harbour of refuge, the Committee, while of opinion that some advantageis likely to be derived by the commercial marine in this respect, yet do not wish to lay too much stress upon this advantage, and were that the only object in view would not feel justified in recommending its construction. Lastly, with regard to the advantage of the proposed harbour, with regard to Channel communication, there is no doubt that the convenience of embarking and disembarking in any weather in the smooth water of a sheltered harbour is of great public importance. That this is fully appreciated by the great companies which carry the postal and passenger traffic from the port of Dover to the Continent, is sufficiently evidenced by the proposals which have in past years been made by them for the construction of a smaller harbour specially designed for that purpose. In conclusion, the Committee desire to draw the attention of the House to the evidence which has been submitted to them, and by which they have been much impressed, to the effect that a considerably increased extent of deep water space might be secured by a slight modification of the present designs, at an increased cost of moderate amount. It appears, however, to the Committee that it would be beyond their functions to recommend such an increase of expenditure, and they therefore content themselves with bringing the evidence referred to specially to the notice of the House. The Bill was dropped, and in answer to a Question from him, the Duke of Richmond said— With regard to the intention of the Government in the matter, he might state that they, after reading the Report of the Committee to the effect that larger works were advisable, and finding that these larger works would cost more money than the tolls would readily cover, thought it better to withdraw the Bill for the present Session in order that they might in the autumn thoroughly sift and digest the evidence, and prepare a plan to submit to Parliament next Session. In making this statement he did not pledge the Government to any particular scheme, but wished to show their Lordships that the Bill was not withdrawn with any view of shelving the matter in any way whatever."—[3 Hansard, ccxxv. 1367.] Believing the Government intended to proceed with the Bill in the next Session the Harbour Board took no action prior to November, 1875; when on the 10th of that month a letter was received from the Board of Trade stating that the Government had decided not to proceed with the Bill next—that was, this—Session. The delay of the Government in communicating their intention prevented the Board taking any step in the matter. He was sure it was not an intentional want of courtesy, but the inconvenience was not the less. After all that had passed, it would seem as if it was a money difficulty, and increased taxation showed how pressing that money difficulty was. He was the last person to undervalue economy; he belonged to a Government which was supposed to have pushed that virtue too far, and yet, after full deliberation, they resolved that the enlargement of Dover Harbour was a necessity in peace and in war. He was certain that Her Majesty's present Go- vernment would not raise the objection of economy in any case where State necessity justified expenditure. The expenditure on the shares of the Suez Canal was justified solely on the necessity of securing the shortest of three routes to India for our commerce and our troops. But surely if that were a necessity—and it was generally admitted to be an advantage—it was, at least, an equal necessity to improve our means of communication with the Continent of Europe in time of peace, and to do that which all the naval and military authorities said was essential, not only for sending out our troops from home, but for the purpose of defence from invasion, and no one would, he presumed, say that the chance of a due pecuniary return was less for the improvement of Dover Harbour than for the purchase of the shares. He sincerely hoped Her Majesty's Government would be able to give some explicit assurance on this question.


said, it was very natural that his noble Friend, from his official connection with that part of the country and his position as Chairman of the Harbour Board, should put the Question he had just put, present a Petition, and ask for information on this subject. He could assure his noble Friend that the last thing he would think of would be to decry the Petition which he stated to have been so numerously and respectably signed, or to suggest that the persons who had signed it were not acting in a bonâ fide way, or that they did not believe the allegations set forth in it. Neither did he rise to undervalue the importance of the harbour of Dover, whether in a strategical, national, or commercial point of view. He accepted the high authorities which his noble Friend had quoted, from His Royal Highness the illustrious Duke the Field-Marshal Commander-in-Chief, down to Sir Walter Raleigh. He was satisfied with the views expressed by the present illustrious Commander-in-Chief and by the late Field-Marshal the Duke of Wellington, either of whom would have been sufficient for him, and his noble Friend need not have travelled so far back as the worthy Knight of the time of Elizabeth. His noble Friend had left him very little to say—he had with such perfect accuracy described the whole course which the late Government had taken on this subject, the Bill which had been introduced, and the position in which Her Majesty's Government found themselves with respect to that Bill during the last Session. Her Majesty's Government at that time thought it advisable that the Bill should be referred to a Select Committee of the other House of Parliament. In consequence of the recommendations of that Committee, and what occurred before it, it was not thought advisable to proceed with the Bill. It was therefore withdrawn, and the Government intended to consider the whole matter during the last autumn. They did consider it; but, as the noble Earl would admit, the subject was one of very high importance, of considerable gravity, and required very great consideration. The Government were not able during the autumn to arrive at a conclusion in time to give the notices which would have been required in accordance with Parliamentary practice. The undertaking also was very large, and one which required a very considerable outlay from the public funds; there was a very important person to be convinced—a person no less important in this Government than in the last, the Chancellor of the Exchequer—and the result was that it was not found possible to proceed with so large a scheme during the present Session of Parliament. He was not going to follow his noble Friend into an inquiry whether it was as important from a commercial point of view to improve Dover Harbour as it was to purchase the Suez Canal shares. He would content himself with saying that the Government were perfectly satisfied that Dover Harbour was of very great value from a national point of view. Mr. Smith, indeed, said so in the course of his evidence. The matter was still under the consideration of the Government; but the increased Estimates for the Army and Navy during the present year had rendered it impossible for them to proceed during the present year with a work which must naturally be attended with expense.


said, he was glad to gather from the answer of the noble Duke that the Government were perfectly alive to the importance of Dover; and, as his opinion had been referred to, he wished to take the opportunity of stating that he adhered to every word of what he had expressed on a previous occasion. It was not that he attached much importance to his own views, but they were the views of the Duke of Wellington and of every military man who had considered the question. Difficulties might, no doubt, have arisen to prevent the works from being pushed on in the present year; but he hoped that, whenever it was possible to do so, these works might be undertaken, for they formed one of the most important military undertakings which could be carried out. We had a position there very capable of defence. A harbour might be formed such as could hardly be formed on any other part of the coast, yet there existed there no satisfactory means of embarking or disembarking troops. We were a great maritime nation; and, as the possibility of such requirements must be provided for, it was of national importance that no time should be lost in making Dover available for military and naval purposes.


said, that having had charge of the Bill of the late Government on this subject in the other House, he had listened with some anxiety to the answer of the noble Duke. He was glad to hear that the Government had not changed their minds as to the national gravity of this question. The reasons given by the noble Duke for not doing anything in the present year were not convincing, but he hoped that this year's delay would be the last, and that next year they would undertake the completion of this great national work. One peculiarity of the case already mentioned by his noble Friend (Earl Granville) was that a large sum of public money had already been spent at Dover both in the water and on the land. He would not say that this expenditure was wasted; but in the present state of the works it brought in a very inadequate return. A great fortress had teen placed there to command and protect the harbour; was it not worth while, then, even at some considerable cost, for the country to complete what it had begun, and make Dover Harbour really safe and adequate for such purposes as the coaling of Her Majesty's ships in time of war, and generally as a naval station, while at the same time they thereby greatly promoted the convenience and safety of the cross-Channel traffic? While at the Board of Trade he had regretted that it was necessary to refuse the assent of the Government, and thus put a stop to plans for the improvement of the Channel intercommunication, because they might stand in the way of the plans of the Government and injure Dover as a naval harbour. He trusted that after the present year the works would be no longer postponed.


said, that Dover was, no doubt, an important harbour; but he thought that, in considering the expediency of completing the works there, the Government should not lose sight of the larger question of harbours on the North-East coast. A Royal Commission appointed not many years ago to inquire into this subject reported in favour of Filey Bay as a harbour of refuge, but no action had ever been taken by any Government to carry out this recommendation, although every year a great loss of life occurred on this coast. Nor was there a harbour of defence on the east coast; and before coming to any decision upon the completion of expensive works at any one point of the coast the Government should take into consideration the whole question of harbour refuge and defence upon the east coast.


said, that Dover stood on a different footing from other harbours. He rose, however, to ask the noble Duke opposite for a more precise answer to his Question. The noble Duke said that the Government were alive to the importance of this subject. So had other Governments been, but nothing had been done. As Chairman of the Harbour Board at Dover, he wished to know what the Government proposed to do. As the noble Duke knew, this Board had powers to raise £500,000 for improving and enlarging the harbour, but they could not act without the permission of the Government.


said, he had admitted the gravity of the question, and the great importance of Dover Harbour. The Government also had shown their desire to do something by taking up the Bill brought forward by their Predecessors. That Bill, it was true, had been withdrawn, but from no desire to stop the further progress of the works. He was not now, however, in a position to pledge the Government as to the exact course they would take next year on this subject.

Petition to lie on the Table.

House adjourned at half-past Seven o'clock, to Friday next, half-past Ten o'clock.