HC Deb 15 February 1848 vol 96 cc668-73

, in submitting the Motion of which he had given notice, said, it would not be necessary for him to urge its importance with a view to gain the attention of hon. Gentlemen to the subject. Three Committees of the House of Commons had already sat on the question of shipwrecks; one in 1836, another in 1841, and the third in 1842. The inquiry embraced a variety of topics, and the evidence was of a highly valuable character. The Committees recommended many important matters to the attention of the House; but the chief point on which they all concurred was, that whereas many cases of shipwreck had arisen from carelessness, ignorance, and a variety of other causes of that nature, they recommended that an inquiry should be instituted in all cases of shipwreck, with a view to collect information both for the Government and the public. The Committees had recommended that masters and mates of ships should be examined, and should only be permitted to take charge of property and life when they were found qualified for doing so. He certainly was of opinion that a great depreciation of the character of our seamen had taken place of late years. Thirty or forty years ago the custom was to retain the seamen on board the merchant ships whenever they entered harbour, that they might acquire experience in navigation, as well as assist in all that was necessary to be done in shipping and unshipping the vessels; but since the establishment of docks, the moment a ship arrived in port the sailors were sent on shore, and no provision was made by the Government or the merchants to keep them together. It was certainly the duty of the Government to have instituted long ago an inquiry as to the cause of the deterioration which had clearly taken place in the seamanlike qualities of the men who navigated our merchant vessels. The object, however, of his present Motion was, that some official record should be obtained and kept as to the manner, and, if possible, the cause of shipwrecks. It appeared from the report of the Committee on Shipwrecks of 1836, that in addition to the ascertained number of persons drowned in the years 1816 to 1818, and in the years 1833 to 1835, the entire crews of 49 vessels were lost within the first period, and the entire crews of 81 vessels in the last period, whose numbers were not known; but, taking an average of 10 men to each vessel, this made a total loss of life, for the first period, of 2,228 persons, and of 2,686 for the last. The loss to the community, during the last period, amounted to 8,510,000l.; and when it was recollected that this estimate included only the losses entered in Lloyd's books, he undervalued the loss to the public when he took it at 3,000,000l. annually. The Committee of 1836 recommended— The arrangement of a plan for the institution of courts of inquiry to examine into the circumstances of every shipwreck that occurs, as far as may be practicable, with power to pronounce a verdict of censure on the owners or commanders of all those vessels where the result of the inquiry should establish the fact of such wreck being occasioned by any fault or deficiency on the part of either, as well as to acquit honourably the owners or commanders of those ships against whom no fault could be proved, and to make the evidence and verdict in each case public in every port in the kingdom; with further power to suspend, for a given time, the licenses or certificates of such officers and seamen as should be proved guilty of gross incompetency or gross neglect of duty; and to reward, either by reimbursement of their loss of wages and effects, or by gratuities, or medals of honour and distinction, those officers and men who should have particularly distinguished themselves by their skill, courage, or humanity, in preserving the lives and property of others, whether actually belonging to the ships that were wrecked, or coming to their assistance from other vessels or from the shore. The Committee of 1843 made a similar recommendation. He would therefore move for— A Select Committee to consider whether, in all cases of Shipwreck, and of Collisions of Merchant Vessels, attended with loss of life, an inquiry, as speedily after the accident, and as near as possible to the place, should be appointed, to examine into the attendant circumstances and causes of the Shipwreck, and to report to the House in what manner the inquiry should be conducted.


seconded the Motion. He hoped that one of the results of the labours of the proposed Committee would be the adoption of a measure for ensuring an examination of masters and mates before they were intrusted with the command of vessels. It appeared from evidence taken by the Committee on the Navigation Laws last Session, that the captains of our ships employed in long voyages were as capable of discharging their duties as the captains of American vessels, or of the vessels of any other people; while the captains of our vessels employed in short voyages and in our coasting trade were men of very inferior qualifications.


did not rise for the purpose of offering any objection to the Motion. On the contrary, he thought that the greatest benefit would result from the labours of the Committee. He quite agreed with his hon. Friend that the subject was one very well worth the attention of the House. His hon. Friend was probably aware that there already existed a power given to the Board of Trade by Act of Parliament of inquiring into the circumstances of the shipwrecks of steam vessels, and collisions between steam vessels, or between steam vessels and sailing vessels. But at present the Government had no power of instituting an inquiry into the wrecks or collisions of any other than steam vessels. He could undertake to say that great advantage had hitherto resulted from the exercise of the power of inquiring into the circumstances attending the wrecks of steam vessels. The other day the Board of Trade had received a very valuable and elaborate report from the officer appointed to inquire into the case of the loss of the Tribune on the coast of Ireland. He was aware that there would be some difficulty in extending inquiries of that description to sailing vessels; but he felt persuaded that the present state of the law upon the subject was not for the benefit of the shipping interest, while it was inconsistent with the interests of humanity. His hon. Friend had said, with too much truth, that the character of our mercantile marine, instead of having improved of late years, in comparison with that of other nations, had seriously deteriorated. He had lately had occasion to read the reports received from British consuls, in all parts of the world, in reply to questions addressed to them from the Foreign Office upon that subject; and he should say that those reports presented a picture which must be extremely painful to every Englishman. They described a state of things to which it was most important that Government and Parliament should address themselves as speedily as possible, with a view to its alteration. In consequence, he was afraid, of the low character, in too many instances, of the masters and mates appointed to command our merchant vessels, the character of the British marine had of late greatly deteriorated; and merchants preferred committing their cargoes to the ships of foreign nations, rather than to British vessels. He believed it was the intention of his noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to lay the reports in question without delay on the table of the House; and he certainly hoped those reports would induce the House to lend a willing assent to any ulterior measures that it might be the duty of the Government to propose with a view to remedy that evil. But, above all, he hoped that the attention of those connected with the shipping interest would be called to those documents, and that they would see that it was desirable for their sakes in particular, that stringent and effective measures should be applied to put an end to a state of things, which, while it was discreditable and injurious to the country at large, fell upon them with the greatest weight. His hon. Friend had also adverted to the very important question of the expediency of adopting a system of examination for the masters and mates of merchant vessels, with a view to ensure the possession of the necessary qualifications for the performance of their duties. Now, it would not be true to say that nothing had of late years been done upon that subject. No compulsory system of examination had, indeed, been enforced by Parliament, mainly in consequence, he believed, of the very great opposition of the mercantile interest to any such system. But provision had been made by Parliament for the adoption of a voluntary system of examination for masters and mates of vessels. If he recollected rightly, the House had appointed one examiner, Lloyd's had appointed another, and some third party had appointed another. These three examiners had deputies throughout the country, and constituted a hoard before which any master or mate of a vessel who pleased might undergo an examination, and obtain a certificate of qualification if he should be found to deserve it. He was happy to say that that system had recommended itself more and more to those connected with our mercantile marine, and that the number of persons who had applied for, and had obtained, those certificates had of late considerably increased. Whether they were then ripe for rendering that system compulsory, he would not at that moment undertake to discusss. But he thought it was a fortunate circumstance that they had at any rate begun that system in a manner altogether in accordance with the feelings of the classes connected with our mercantile marine; and he trusted it would be found that they had commenced a system which would lead to an improvement of persons who occupied situations so important to the character of our navy as the masters and mates of our merchant vessels. He thought that, under any circumstances, and at any time, it would be right for them most seriously to consider those subjects with a view to their taking that course with regard to them which they might think most likely to promote the interests of a most important branch of our national prosperity. But he felt that it was more particularly incumbent on them to do so at a time when they proposed to bring under the consideration of Parliament the question of the navigation laws. He thought that while they entertained that determination, the mercantile marine had a perfect right to expect from them that they should also take into their consideration other questions connected with the interests of that body. He believed that the whole of those subjects ought to receive a connected and deliberate consideration from the House; and he hoped that before the close of the Session they would be able, at all events, to lay the foundation of a different state of things from that which he regretted to! think at present existed with regard to our mercantile navy.

Motion agreed to.