6th May 1862
Alderney debated in the House of Commons
Alderney was once an important component of Britain’s coastal defences. The country was frequently coming up against France, and Alderney’s outpost location meant it could warn of potential invasion.
However, the harbour was costing the country a lot of money to maintain. So much money that, when MPs were asked to vote on allowing more money to be spent on it – and on Alderney’s defences in general – questions were asked in Parliament on this day in 1862.
A divided house
Those in favour argued that in time of war, occupying Alderney would be essential to effective monitoring of shipping in the Channel. The harbour was therefore not merely a place of refuge, as it had been described until then, but a vital asset for national security.
George Bentick, MP for Norfolk Western, was having none of it. Perhaps this was because his constituency was a comfortable distance from any likely landing point of the French. He told the Commons that,
A more wasteful expenditure… had never been incurred in the annals of any other country. It was no harbour of refuge at all, for no captain would ever think of running for it, except [if] he had the finest possible weather and everything in his favour to execute so dangerous an operation; and although the right honourable [member for Droitwich] called it a work of defence, he would undertake to show that, so far as defence was concerned, the most sensible thing they could do with it would be to blow it up on the following morning.
The MPs were being asked to commit somewhere between £200,000 and £2m to its improvement. Despite the enormous margin of error in the two figures, it was seemingly impossible to produce a reference document that would give an accurate estimate before the vote could take place.
Voices against, votes in favour
In the end, the vote did proceed, on 16 May. On that day Lord Henry Lennox outlined his belief that “whilst England remained mistress of the sea, Alderney in a strategical point of view would be of no value whatever”.
Despite Lennox’s objection, the vote was carried with a majority of just eight. Disraeli, leader of the opposition at the time but shortly to become prime minister, had voted against.