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Coal For The Navy—Observations

Volume 203: debated on Friday 29 July 1870

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said, he rose to call attention to the quality of steam coal in use by Her Majesty's Steam Fleet. Experiments had been going on for some time with a view to effect economy or improvement by the mixture of north country smoky coal with the smokeless coal of South Wales, and at this period of the Session he would not have interfered, satisfied as he was that these experiments would end in failure, if the events of the last few days had not given a new aspect to the question. The present was not a time for hazardous experiments with respect to the motive power of the steam vessels of the Navy. They had got the finest steam coal in the world: let them make use of it, and keep their experiments for another time. Let them remember what Admiral Napier wrote home from the Baltic—"Send me out Welsh coal, or I cannot be responsible for the safety of the fleet." It might be thought that he was representing Merthyr Tydvil and Aberdare, the seat of this coal, and he might be thought an interested party. But the truth was that the contract with the Navy was not so important as it was supposed to be. Out of the 3,000,000 tons of coal annually raised in the district the Navy only took about 200,000. His own collieries would supply four times the amount of coal consumed by the Admiralty. He hoped, therefore, he might be acquitted of any selfish feeling in having brought forward this subject. He raised it altogether as a national question. It was a fascinating idea that great economy might be effected by the mixture of the two coals. He understood that a series of experiments with mixed coal had been carried on on board Her Majesty's ships Urgent and Lucifer, and that the conclusion drawn from these experiments was a recommendation in favour of the mixed coal, on the ground of economy. Now he had for the last 17 years devoted his attention to mixing coal, not exactly with the same object as the Admiralty, but for coking purposes. He wished to utilize the screenings of the coal, which up to that time only encumbered the banks, and he found that commercially the mixture was a great success; but with the best mechanical arrangements it was scarcely possible on a large scale to mix different kinds of coal successfully, so far as the Admiralty was concerned. If the mixture were left to stokers or engineers it could not be effectual. The result would be that a column of smoke would pour out of the funnel of a steamer and remain visible in the atmosphere for hours, acting as an unerring guide to an enemy. The Welsh coal was a steam coal mixed by nature and of a perfect character—the very best to be found in the world. The geological formation of the Welsh coal basin was a peculiar one. At the western extremity it consisted of anthracite or stone coal, a mineral very difficult to burn, and to the cast of a highly bituminous coal. It was in the intermediate district—the Merthyr and Aberdare fields—that coal best suited for steam purposes was to be found. Each lump, when in a state of combustion, opened like a cauliflower—and indeed, in the French market, it was termed the cauliflower coal—and it burned with a most remarkable fierceness and duration, owing to its being almost pure carbon. When it was remembered that we had this coal of surpassing quality, and in unlimited quantity, he ventured to think the Admiralty should be content to use it and postpone their experiments. He highly appreciated the efforts of the First Lord of the Admiralty and the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter) to promote economy; but being convinced that the mixing of coal would be practically disadvantageous, he had thought it his duty to call the attention of the House to the subject.

said, being connected with the north country coal districts, he must protest against Parliament expressing any opinion that Welsh coal was superior to north country coal. There was no evidence to show that the Welsh coal was superior to the mixed coal. The north country and Welsh coal mixed might be burnt with less smoke than the ordinary Welsh coal. The mixture of the two kept steam very well; but the north country coal kept steam perfectly. If there was any failure of steam the service of the country could not be carried on efficiently. One great advantage of the north country coal was that it would keep much better than the Welsh coal, which soon became deteriorated and unfit for the service. A large percentage of the Welsh coal, when exposed to a hot sun, turned into dust, which was perfectly useless. That was a great disadvantage to vessels going on foreign stations; but that dust, mixed with north country coal, made a most excellent fuel. Captain Rice's Report of the trials on board the Lucifer showed that the two coals mixed in equal quantities were as good as the best Welsh coal. There was no insuperable difficulty in the mixing. It might be carried on with ordinary care, and would produce a saving of 15 per cent in the cost, and give an increased power by 7 per cent. One undisputed quality of the north country coal was that it could get up steam more quickly than the Welsh coal, and nothing was of more consequence than this to a vessel desirous of pursuing or avoiding an enemy.

said, the hon. Member (Mr. T. E. Smith) had read the results of the experiments, but not the governing clause. The savings which he attributed to the mixture of coal were due simply to the use of a particular kind of furnace. There was a positive saving of from 12 to 14 per cent upon Welsh over north country coal. The hon. Member had said that the Welsh coal disintegrated and became useless. Now, a Return which was obtained upon his (Mr. Hussey Vivian's) Motion last year of the coals burnt in Her Majesty's Navy during the six months ending June, 1869, showed that out of 700 Reports received from ships in all parts of the world, there was but one Report in which complaint was made of the Welsh coal.

said, that his remark was not that Welsh coal became unfit for use, but that a large portion of it turned to dust.

said, that it was somewhat curious that in the Returns no mention was made of that specific fact. The hon. Member appeared to think that mixing coal out of different bunks was a very easy matter. The stokers, however, were the very lowest class of persons employed on board a ship of war, and could not be expected to exercise any very nice discrimination as to the quantities in which coal ought to be mixed. Moreover, in hot climates, the mere manual labour would give them quite enough to do without thinking of mixing the coals at all. He himself had considerable experience in this matter, and attempts to mix coal had given rise to some of the greatest difficulties which he ever had to contend with. Experiments had been made at different times from 1848 to 1868 as to the relative values of Welsh and north country coal. Those made between 1848 and 1852 showed the great advantages of the Welsh coal; those made in the years 1862 and 1867 showed the superiority of the Welsh coal over the mixed coal; and, up to the time at which the present Board of Admiralty came into Office, the results of these experiments had led to the use almost exclusively of the Welsh coal. He wished to know on what the present Board of Admiralty based the change which marked its advent to power; because, unless the Board had in its possession some evidence with which he was unacquainted, he thought it conclusively proved that no such change was called for. The experiments made on board the ships Urgent and Lucifer—which, by the way, were experiments not so much upon coal as upon furnaces—clearly showed that the result of using Welsh coal alone was a freedom from smoke during three-fourths of the time over which the experiments extended, while the mixed fuel produced during two-thirds of the time a smoke so dense as to prevent the signals being seen. When first lighted it gave off for several minutes a dense black smoke, which changed afterwards to a brown smoke. It had not been shown, he would remark further, that the use of north country coal decreased the consumption; but, on the other hand, the Report stated that the amount of north country coal burnt per hour was one-eighth in excess of the consumption of Welsh coal. The saving in the use of Welsh coal over mixed coal was 17·5 per cent, and the gain in revolution was 6 per cent; so that, in effect, the loss occasioned by the use of mixed coal amounted to 17½ per cent. Then, again, Admiral Cooper Key said the annual expenditure would be increased by the use of north country coal in large proportions, while it occupied about 4 or 5 per cent more space than that taken up by Welsh coal. "I think, however," said the Admiral, "that the proportions now adopted in the service will be found very suitable." [Mr. T. E. SMITH: Hear, hear!] The hon. Member might say "Hear, hear;" but how could he show the last statement of Admiral Key to be consistent with his former ones? Certainly, the amount of smoke produced by the mixed coal had been diminished by the use of intricate and finely contrived devices applied to the furnaces; but these, he thought, would not stand, the wear, tear, and hurry of actual service. After all, he would ask, why they should struggle against nature? Nature had provided the country with the very best fuel in the world; and the Government was seeking, for some occult reason which passed his understanding, to violate the laws of Nature, and to use a fuel which was, without doubt, of a most inferior character. He had got a Return of some 700 trials, and the commanders of Her Majesty's ships invariably reported in favour of Welsh coal. It was not the consumption by the Admiralty that their constituents regarded; but it was the stamp put upon the coal which Her Majesty's Navy used. If there was a trial at all let it be a practical one. Let two ships be supplied—tho one with Welsh and the other with mixed coal or north country coal—and sent across the Atlantic, and then it would be seen which was the better; but a trial of five or six hours was not sufficient. The experience of the world showed the superiority of the Welsh coal. The great steam companies, whose vessels carried passengers and mails, never dreamt of using these mixtures; they got the best coal, and that was the Welsh. What happened at the measured mile? Had his hon. Friend over heard of a vessel taken to the measured mile to be tried and any other coal used but Welsh coal? But this was what was done—They tried a vessel at the measured mile; she made her 14 or 15 knots an hour, and then they put this inferior coal on board and immediately brought down her speed. All things being equal, and there being a saving of 12 or 15 per cent by the use of Welsh coal, there must be some very strong reasons indeed to justify the use of any other. This was a time when it was important that the ships of Her Majesty's Navy should be placed in the very best position. When this kind of unnatural alliance was forced upon them they must protest against it, and he trusted the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Childers) would grant a divorce from an alliance which they detested and abhorred.

said, his hon. Friend (Mr. Hussey Vivian) had asked—"Why struggle against nature? What has induced you to take one kind of coal when you can get another?" The answer was very simple. The particular district which his hon. Friend represented produced only about 1–50th of our coal, and the policy he advocated would exclude the rest of the country, which produced 49–50ths. Unless, therefore, it was shown to be absolutely necessary to go to this small district exclusively, he was not prepared to establish such a monopoly. The debate, however, was premature. Certain experiments had been made, and immediately on their completion he laid upon the Table an abstract of the Reports, with a note stating that they had been presented without tables or sketches, as these would take some time to print; but in the course of a few days the tables and sketches would also be produced. Subsequently his right hon. Friend the Member for Tyrone (Mr. Corry) gave notice that he would move for Returns for the last six months showing the opinion of officers on the two classes of coal. Returns would be made up to the end of June; and his right hon. Friend saw it was impossible to bring on the subject this year, so he postponed doing so until next Session. But now the hon. Member for Merthyr (Mr. Fothergill) challenged the Admiralty to prove their case upon Returns which were not before the House. His hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr and his hon. Friend who had last spoken had been good enough to say that in the orders the Admiralty had given about the coal they had endeavoured to carry out those pledges of economy which Her Majesty's Government had given on coming into Office, but they had not done so in a wise manner. It was satisfactory, at any rate, to know that the Admiralty were trying to do the best for the public; but he hoped to show, when the subject could be fully discussed, that they had succeeded. But at present he hardly knew what to answer. The class of naval stokers had been spoken of somewhat disparagingly; but his hon. Friend was entirely mistaken as to their position in the service. The chief stokers were well-educated and intelligent men, and the ordinary stokers were by no means of the class described by him. Again as to the experiments to which the hon. Member for Glamorganshire (Mr. Hussey Vivian) had alluded, these were only two single experiments conducted by Captain Rice in May 1869, when the changes in the furnaces had not been made; whereas if he would refer to the subsequent Papers he would see that the experiments carried on under Mr. Murdock, the Chief Inspector of Machinery Afloat, were 114 in number, and extended over 14 months, from May, 1869, to July last. As far as their experience up to the present time went, the Reports were conclusively in favour of the course which had been provisionally taken of using one-third of north country coal and two-thirds of Welsh coal. He might say generally, according to the accounts they were receiving from foreign stations, Welsh coal deteriorated more rapidly than north country or mixed coal, and with Welsh coal unmixed it was often more difficult to get up and keep up steam than with the mixture in those proportions. The Government had not the smallest objection to lay on the Table all those most valuable half-yearly Returns, and would be perfectly prepared next year, when the House would have more information in its possession, to discuss that question fully. The hon. Member for Merthyr had observed that at the present time—for reasons which he hinted at rather than named—it was particularly important that they should have the best coal they could get, and which produced the smallest amount of smoke. All he could say on the part of the Government was that they were quite alive to that consideration, and would be very cautious not to be led astray by temporary experiments in a matter of that kind into doing anything which would be prejudicial to the Navy. Of course, he did not intend by that that the policy recently adopted on this subject would be lightly reversed. He merely meant that the Admiralty had no object in view but the public interest and the efficiency of the Navy.