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Mercantile Marine—Resolution

Volume 203: debated on Thursday 28 July 1870

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

, in rising to call the attention of the House to the state of a portion of the Mercantile Marine of this Country, and to certain practices connected therewith; and to move a Resolution thereon, observed that shipowners, in consequence of the competition to which they were subjected, were driven into practices which many of them regretted, and from which they would be glad to have the opportunity of retreating. Parliament had extended its protection to the workers in mines and factories, and the safety of the people was one of its first considerations. He thought Parliament might interfere in the case which he was now considering, by providing that vessels should not be loaded beyond their maximum capacity, and that there should be a compulsory survey of unclassed ships. The colliers trading on the East Coast were notoriously unfit to carry human lives, yet such a thing as breaking up these ships had not been known for many years. Vessels like these could only be insured in the regular offices at premiums that would be totally prohibitory, and the result was that the owners mutually insured them in clubs, which, however, had broken down in large numbers within the last few years, after making very heavy calls upon the subscribers. The general results of the neglect of Parliament to extend to the Mercantile Navy such regulations for its care as were extended over other walks of industry had been most deplorable. The right hon. Member for Droitwich (Sir John Pakington) had referred on a previous occasion to one ship of 800 tons which was loaded with 1,600 tons of iron and despatched for the Baltic in the month of November; but, of course, that vessel being so dreadfully overladen was unable to get away from the coast, and she went down in sight of land, all her crew being saved. In another case a shipowner had lost seven sea-going ships within a very brief period, as the result of his inveterate habit of overloading; his name was such that at Lloyd's he could not get his ships insured; and the underwriters always refused to sign open policies to cover risks on vessels sailing from the port in which this particular shipowner did business, unless they had a written guarantee that none of his ships were included. The shipowner in question was a Member of that House. He also knew the case of a vessel called the Faith, which was so overloaded that one of Lloyd's surveyors said she was unfit to go to sea in that state; but more cargo was put on board of her even after that, and soon after she sailed from London she sank off the Isle of Wight. Indeed, the fact was that most of the calamities at sea, which were generally considered to be inevitable might be altogether prevented. Vessels carrying between this and the North, which spent the greater part of their time at sea, did so with perfect immunity from loss, the losses not exceeding 2 per cent in the year. Of course losses arising from fogs were, to a certain extent, inevitable; but they were not more frequent than accidents arising from fogs on railways. The worst case that had come under his notice was that of a firm on the Clyde, who, out of 21 ocean-going steamers, had lost no less than 11 since 1867, five of them being so totally lost that the only record against their names was that they had never been heard of more. The owners in that case kept their vessels constantly under weigh, not even allowing them to stop for necessary repairs, and never allowing an authorized surveyor to go on board to see their condition. The experience of the Cunard and Peninsular and Oriental lines was sufficient to prove that ocean travelling might be made quite as safe or even safer than travelling by railway. The objections to any system of Governmental supervision were easily disposed of. It was said that a Government survey would put an end to the individual responsibility of shipowners; but he could not admit this, as that which had never existed could not be destroyed. The responsibility would begin to be felt when shipowners saw Parliament determined to extend to our fellow-subjects at sea some portion of the care that had been so beneficially extended to those on land. Then it was said that an army of surveyors would be required to survey the unclassed ships; but seeing that there were only 27,635 ships registered in British ports, that 12,656 of them were surveyed by Lloyd's surveyors, that 6,182 of the remainder had been built within the last five years, and that from the residue all the ships belonging to the Cunard, the Peninsular and Oriental, the Inman, and General Steam Navigation Companies' lines must be deducted, a force of 19 surveyors would be quite sufficient to do all the work required. It was also said that to undertake the survey would entail upon the country a cost of £500,000 a-year; but so far from that being an accurate statement of the case, he would venture to commend the scheme to the Chancellor of the Exchequer as one by means of which, and without making the charges for surveys any higher than they are at present, a handsome yearly surplus might be handed over to the Treasury. Lloyd's Registry had sometimes a yearly surplus of £14,000, and in one year it was £18,000; the result being that having no company of proprietors among whom to divide the money, they found themselves in the embarrassing position of possessing a vast accumulated fund with which they did not know what to do. Another objection to such a proposal was that it would be an interference with, the private rights of shipowners; but that argument was worth nothing, seeing that Parliament had interfered with the private rights of all other persons whenever it was necessary to do so in the interest of life and property. As long ago as 1866 a memorial was sent from the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce, praying the Board of Trade to establish a maximum load line, and a compulsory survey of our Mercantile Marine, and in the prayer of that memorial the Chambers of Commerce of Dundee, Hartlepool, Bristol, Cardiff, and several other of our leading seaports concurred. In the case of the Mercantile Navy, it was proved by the evidence of the surveyor of the Board of Trade, given on the inquiry into the fate of the Sea Queen, that at present there was no legislative power whatever to stop a ship from going to sea, no matter what her condition might be. That was a state of things which required to be altered, and it ought to be provided by the Legislature that every ship which needed repair should be repaired, and that no ship should go to sea overladen. And what would be the result? That half of the lives lost every winter would be saved. No fewer than 500 lives per annum would be saved. If the Government would only bring in a short Bill this Session the whole thing might be done by October. If they refused, then these men must die. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution.

Amendment proposed,

To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the statement in the Report of the Board of Trade, that more than half of the losses at sea for the six years ending in 1868 are owing to overladen and unseaworthy ships of the collier class, requires immediate legislation, with a view to the diminution of such losses,"—(Mr. Plimsoll,)

—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

said, that the great thing which the hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, wanted to prove was that there was no intelligent and reasonable supervision over ships, and yet he stated that at least half of our ships were classed at Lloyd's. For their own part he did not see how that House could recognize the action of an irresponsible Committee sitting at Cornhill. But independent of the ships that were classed at Lloyd's, there were three or four large associations which inspected ships. If the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves) were in his place, he could tell the House that a great portion of the vessels which sailed from Liverpool were not classed at Lloyd's because the people of that port had a classification of their own. Why should they assume that Lloyd's was the only good classification of ships, and pass over all the other societies in the country? The hon. Member for Derby said the underwriters exercised no supervision over the character of the ships, and yet a few minutes afterwards he told them it was generally reported that there was a shipowner who could not get his ships insured. That showed that the underwriters did exercise a close supervision over the character both of the owners and also of the ships; and if a particular owner was found to lose a great proportion of his ships within a certain period he experienced a difficulty in insuring them. No persons were more qualified to give an opinion in regard to the ships on the East Coast than the sailors who worked in them, and yet they were told that the reason a great many of the men preferred these ships was because they had a greater number of opportunities of seeing their wives and families; whereas, if the statement of the hon. Member for Derby was accurate, it would lead them to infer that their object in joining this service of ships was that they might lose their lives and never see their wives and families again. No doubt some insurance clubs had failed, but so had many life insurance offices and mercantile associations, and he believed nothing would be found in these insurance statistics to justify entering upon the suggested course of legislation. What the hon. Member desired could only be done partially, and would have the undesirable result of leading people to suppose that ships in which no confidence could be placed were seaworthy, while an army of Inspectors would have to be employed. He therefore hoped that the hon. Gentleman the Secretary of the Board of Trade would not entertain the proposal.

said, he thought that the statement of the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) had established the existence of an amount of loss of life beyond what we, as a mercantile nation, should expect, and preceding discussions had shown that much of this calamity was quite preventible. But the proposals of the hon. Member, if adopted, would, in all probability, reduce the careful portion of the Mercantile Marine to a lower level without raising those whom it was his object to reach. In his (Mr. Samuda's) opinion the great cure for this evil would be found in one of the proposals of the Government when seeking to legislate on this subject—namely, to make it a misdemeanour on the part of the shipowner to send a ship to sea in an inefficient and unseaworthy state, and the further proposal to allow sailors to refuse to proceed to sea in unseaworthy ships, when discovered to be so, would also be a valuable security to the public. The attempt to establish a fixed load line would be open to many serious objections. It would be well to make it the interest of the owner to fit and equip his vessel in a proper manner, by insisting that he should be to a considerable extent his own insurer—say to the amount of one-third or one-quarter of the risk covered by each policy. The consequence of which would be that the loss of the ship, instead of being an immediate cash gain, would be a loss of a sufficiently serious character to induce carefulness on the part of the owner.

said, he deeply sympathized with the motives which actuated the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll), and he fully admitted the importance of the subject he had so ably brought forward. That subject had already been brought before the House—once by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Droitwich (Sir John Pakington), and, secondly, on the second reading of the Merchant Shipping Code Bill. On both occasions he addressed the House upon this subject, and for that reason it would be the less necessary for him to go into it at any great length at present. He regretted that he had been unable to proceed with the Merchant Shipping Code Bill, owing to the exigency of questions of greater magnitude. The time devoted to that measure, however, had not, he trusted, been altogether lost, as it had received much consideration from an informal Committee of Members interested in the question, which had met at the Board of Trade, and was in such a forward state that he believed the House would be able to deal with the question at a very early period next Session. The extension to all vessels not classed at Lloyd's of the triennial inspection to which vessels so classed are subjected would be, to a great extent, useless for meeting the evils referred to. This triennial inspection of 12,000 vessels cost Lloyd's, he believed, about £40,000 a year; and if all vessels were to be surveyed at the commencement of each voyage an army of surveyors would be required, and the cost of inspection would be enormous. A further proposal was to establish an official load line. That was a subject worthy of great consideration, though it was one of extreme difficulty, for he had never met any persons who agreed as to what the line should be. The Bill for amending the Merchant Shipping Code proceeded in the direction of increasing the responsibility of shipowners, and making it a criminal offence to send a ship to sea in an unseaworthy condition; and he believed that this proposal would go far to meet the evils complained of. Allusion had been made to the case of colliers on the East Coast of England; but he was glad to know that natural causes were coming into operation which would be far more operative than any legislation. Steamers were being substituted for sailing vessels to such an extent that while in 1852 there were only 17 voyages of steam colliers from the Tyne to the Thames, last year there were 2,440 voyages of steamers, and they might therefore look forward to the time when the sailing collier would be extinct. He believed the case of the Sea Queen would have been met by the Amendments which the Government had suggested, and that they would do something to prevent disasters; but as it was out of the question that the Government should this Session deal with the subject in the limited way now suggested, he trusted the Motion would not be pressed.

said, he regretted the withdrawal of the Merchant Shipping Code Bill, which would have done as much as Government could do to remedy existing evils. The proposition to make it a misdemeanour to send a ship to sea in an unseaworthy state, and to give a sailor liberty to call for a public survey without being treated as a deserter or a coward, were very valuable; and, understanding that the Resolution merely asked the House to affirm the necessity for early legislation, he thought it would be wise to adopt it.

, while sympathizing with the motives which induced the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll) to bring this question before the House, could not help expressing the opinion that the hon. Member had treated it in a somewhat exaggerated tone. Seeing that only 40 casulties had occurred in the case of vessels of 600 tons and upwards, he thought he was justified in asking them to exonerate the great merchant-shipping class of this country. There was, however, a class of shipowners on which blame did undoubtedly rest, and overloading did undoubtedly exist to some extent. The hon. Member had proposed that there should be a survey of every vessel leaving our ports which was not enrolled in the records of a private institution. He (Mr. Graves) agreed with the Secretary of the Board of Trade, that if they were to have a survey there should be no exception with regard to vessels connected in any way with a private institution. The unfairness of doing so would at once become patent by remembering that there was another institution which stood just as high—the Bureau Veritas—whose surveys were entitled to as much respect, and which had 17,000 classed on its books, as against 9,000 in Lloyd's. Yet the hon. Member would place a burden on those vessels which he would not place on these. France was the only country that he was aware of where the system of Government surveys existed, and their working in that country was, from his own personal investigation, very far from satisfactory. The opinion of the French people themselves was that these surveys were altogether useless, and that they threw upon the Government a very serious responsibility, which was by no means balanced by corresponding public advantages. The Deputy for Nantz had, in fact, in the month of February last, from his place in the Corps Legislatif, characterized these surveys as altogether useless and vexatious. That these Government surveys did not prevent the loss of lives and ships belonging to France was proved by statistics. In the year 1869 the number of English vessels that were lost was 1,172, being 4·40 per cent of the whole; German, 201, being 4·50 per cent; Norwegian, 105, being 3 per cent; and Swedish, 25, being 2·50 per cent. Government surveys prevailed in none of these countries; whereas the number of French vessels lost during the same year was no less than 279, or 5·30 per cent of the whole. He thought from these facts he was justified in saying that the Government survey in France had not proved a protection either to life or property. Looking at the vast commerce of this country, the enormous number of ships entering and leaving our ports daily, looking at the great competition that prevailed by which steam vessels were made to compete with railways by leaving port one afternoon and arriving the next, bearing all this in mind, any Government survey of a reliable character would in his opinion be totally impossible. With respect again to the load line, he quite admitted that if all vessels were built upon the same plan and principle there would be no difficulty in fixing such a test. But as it was, there were so many difficulties in the way that he was bound to say that the attainment of such an object was impracticable. Were a load-line system adopted owners would be led to build a peculiar kind of ship, which would be very bouyant but would be much more dangerous than any that were at present constructed. While thinking, however, that a load line was impossible, he thought something like a maximum line might beneficially be adopted. The whole matter, however, was well worthy of consideration, and he should not regret to see it referred to a Select Committee in the next Session. He believed that the mode in which the Secretary of the Board of Trade was proceeding for remedying the evils complained of—namely, by throwing the responsibility on the owners, and not shifting it on to the shoulders of the Government—was, perhaps, the best.

said, that vessels were not so much lost by overloading as by improper stowage, which was not to be charged upon the owners or captains, because they were obliged to place the stowage in the hands of a class of men who made it their special calling. Steamships had not been lost by overloading, and the loss of the City of Boston, which was under Government supervision, arose from causes in connection with the steam machinery, and not from overloading. The statement that had been made about the overloading of ships was incorrect, for of those which were alleged to have been lost from that cause three were driven on shore, one was capsized, and nothing had been heard of two others. When vessels left port no one could tell the dangers with which the seamen would have to contend, and, looking to the number of ships which formed the Mercantile Marine of this country, he submitted that the loss of life in them was comparatively very small. He urged the House to be very cautious in legislating for the Mercantile Marine, because, in his opinion, the shipping interests of the country already suffered from too much legislation.

said, he thought the House was not competent at this time to give an opinion on such an important subject; for to men who were unacquainted with seafaring matters, it was impossible to understand the great number of considerations that had to be taken into account. He admitted the importance of the subject, and thought there ought to be an investigation. If a Motion were made early next Session for the appointment of a Select Committee he would support it, for he believed that the inquiry would be acceptable to the seaports, and it would show that the matter was not so bad as had been represented by the hon. Member for Derby (Mr. Plimsoll).

, while fully sympathizing with the Motion, could not help feeling that many of the statements by which it had been supported were exaggerated, and some of them quite untrue.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.