HC Deb 13 August 1867 vol 189 cc1487-98

, in calling attention to the unsatisfactory state of the Merchant Shipping Laws, said, that his task would be an easy one, as he gathered from an answer given by the President of the Board of Trade to a Question put to him yesterday, that it was the intention of the Government to consider the subject, if not of the consolidation, at least of the amendment of the Merchant Shipping Laws. At present there were about fourteen Acts and 700 sections bearing on this most intricate subject, so that it was difficult to discover what the law really was. He therefore thought that in itself would go far to prove that consolidation was necessary. The Act of 1854 was very unsatisfactory with respect to many of its provisions, and first as to the rules laid down for the measurement of ships. Certain clauses in that Act empowered the Board of Trade to make rules with respect to such measurement, and the Dublin Steam Packet Company, thinking the rules established by the Board of Trade to be injurious and unauthorized, appealed to a Court of Law in Dublin, and the Court unanimously decided that those rules were beyond the powers given by the Act; this judgment was appealed from, and the Lords Justices, some months since, affirmed the decision of the Irish Judge. The new rules were, in consequence, cancelled, and the old system, which was a clumsy one, was resumed; consequently, it would be admitted that upon this point, new legislation was necessary. The Act of 1854 established Local Marine Boards, but it was not explicit as to the duties of those Boards. As far as he could understand, their duties were confined to examining masters and other officers who desired to obtain certificates, and to assisting in inquiries respecting wrecks and other casualties. It was not found, however, that they very usually attended at those inquiries, and, as all the papers of real value connected with those inquiries were, under the Act of Parliament, sent to the Board of Trade, it was a point worthy of consideration whether the machinery of these Local Marine Boards might not be got rid of, and all their duties transacted by the Board of Trade and the Registrar General of Shipping. He came next to the question of seamen, which was one of the greatest importance. There were several considerations which suggested themselves in dealing with that branch of the subject. The Committee which was appointed a short time ago, and examined the matter thoroughly, recommended the discontinuance of advance notes, which were payments on account made to the sailor when he joined his ship, the money being generally squandered and of little advantage to him. They also urged the advantage of giving monthly notes—that was to say, the making of monthly payments by the shipowners while the ship was at sea to the family of the seamen. The establishment of pension funds and of life insurances for the benefit of the sailor was advocated, too, among others, by Captain Toynbee, who took so great an interest in the welfare of this large class. Prompt payment of the men on their arrival in England was also very impressingly recommended by all who took an interest in this question, as waiting for two or three days to be paid off produced a most baneful effect in the case of the sailor. He was thus kept idling about, fell into bad company, and became the victim of the crimps. The same Committee had given it as their opinion that the crimping system was mainly attributable to the delay which arose between the discharge of the crew and their payment. They, therefore, recommended that pay clerks should be attached to the shipping offices, in whose presence the men should receive a portion of the pay legally due to them. The question of pilotage, also, was one which, as it at present stood, was in a most unsatisfactory state. There were six boards, as he was informed, the oldest being the Trinity Board, by which the system of pilotage was regulated, but they were absolutely independent one of the other, and great practical inconvenience was suffered because of the constant collisions between them. On the subject of salvage, which had been taken up by his hon. Friend the Member for Sandwich, he would only say that it, too, was in a most unsatisfactory position. A great amount of property lay in various directions on the coast, especially at the mouth of the Thames, which was admittedly capable of being recovered, but which the boatmen never attempted to recover, inasmuch as they were not certain they would be paid for doing so. The next question on which he should touch—and it was perhaps the most important of all—was that of the safety of the public. There was a general feeling abroad that the remedies proposed by the Act of 1859 and subsequent Acts did not take within their purview the safety of the public sufficiently. Many objections, for instance, were offered to the present system of surveys of vessels, and of inquiry in the case of wrecks. The surveys under the 303rd section of the Act, to which he had just alluded, referred simply to the case of a vessel after she was built. They required that she should be seaworthy, have certain signals, and be in other respects in accordance with the schedules laid down by the Act. But that survey having taken place as soon as the vessel was built, there was no other survey for six months, and, therefore, the ship might go to sea in any state which the master thought proper, provided she did not come within the category of passenger ships. The surveys made of passenger ships were also of a very inefficient character. He did not mean to say that the surveyors were not as active as they ought to be, but many of them were not shipwrights or acquainted with shipbuilding, and he did not think they were as efficient men as they might be. Sometimes they did great mischief by requiring alterations to be made which were needless, and at other times by not requiring alterations to be made which were necessary. Attached to the establishment there was a Surveyor General, but he had never heard that that officer exercised any super- vision over the sub-surveyor, or, in fact, that he discharged any duties; and it might, therefore, be well to consider whether, on economical grounds, his office ought not to be abolished. A great improvement would be effected if in all cases it was provided that there should be a final inspection before the ship left port. At present many seamen were brought before the magistrates of Chester and elsewhere for deserting, and the defence of the men often was that their ship was not seaworthy. If the principle of a final survey were enforced, many casualties arising from bad stowage and what was called deck hamper would be prevented. Again, the number of boats which the Act directed should be carried was entirely inadequate to the number of passengers which ships were entitled to take. It might be said that it was impossible to carry sufficient boats for taking all the passengers ashore; but the proportion of boats to passengers which the Act directed to be kept was not at all reasonable, and some larger reform was necessary on this point. A ship authorized to carry some 1,600 persons was not now obliged to take more boats than were capable of saving about 500, exclusive of the crew. The provisions of the American law in relation to lifeboats, life preservers, and other means of saving passengers, well deserve the attention of our own authorities. Another subject, and one in respect to which the public mind was very sensitive, was, with reference to the inquiries instituted into casualties at sea. What had taken place in the instance of that ill-fated vessel the London painfully illustrated the inefficiency of the inquiries which the Act permitted or directed to be made in such cases. Those inquiries had no sort of issue which could be satisfactory to the public. The issue raised was not one as between the passenger and the shipowner, or between the shipowner and the authorities, but simply between the Board of Trade and the captain of the ship. The court was constituted of two assessors named by the Board of Trade and a stipendiary magistrate of the locality, and its duty was to investigate the circumstances attending the casualty and to report whether the captain had been guilty of any default, or whether he had shown any negligence or any want of nautical knowledge, but beyond that point it had no power to go. The courts of inquiry into shipwrecks were in many respects unsatisfactory in their constitution, operation, and results; and he hoped that the Government would take this important question into their consideration, Much inconvenience also was occasioned by these inquiries taking place at so great a distance from the scene of the casualty, and the Board of Trade had, he believed, received a memorial from Newcastle-on-Tyne on the subject, earnestly urging a radical change in the entire system of these investigations, and praying for a full, clear, and impartial inquiry before a competent tribunal. This memorial, which was on the table of the House, was well entitled to the attention of hon. Members, and to the right hon. Gentleman the Vice President of the Board of Trade. There were very many more subjects, and some of equal importance to those to which he had referred, which required to be dealt with. He, however, had full reliance upon the disposition of the Government to handle this question largely, and in the hope that the hon. Gentleman opposite would give the House an assurance that his Motion would have his attention during the recess, he would not press his Resolution to a division. The hon. Member concluded by moving his Resolution.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, in the opinion of this House, it is necessary that the Laws with reference to Merchant Shipping should be revised and consolidated, and that such Amendments should be made therein as will better protect the interests of the public and the mercantile marine of this Country."—(Mr. O'Beirne.)


said, that he would second the Motion, upon the understanding that it was not brought forward in any spirit hostile to the Government, but solely with a view of urging them to consider the whole question during the recess. There were many points connected with the subject upon which, had the opportunity allowed, he would have been glad to make some observations. But the House would agree with him that the consolidation of our Merchant Shipping Laws was a question of too great a magnitude to be satisfactorily discussed at the fag end of a Session, and that, too, a Session of a character more than ordinarily laborious. He would therefore only call attention to one point, upon which the interest of his own constituents were much affected—namely, the question of salvage. He had been induced to look into this question on account of a circumstance which had given rise to much newspaper correspondence during the last autumn—namely, the wreck of the ship North upon the Goodwin Sands. With respect to property lost from that ship, charges of a grossly exaggerated character had been made against a portion of his constituents, which charges, even in a lesser degree, could not be substantially proved when an inquiry took place by order of the Board of Trade. But the circumstance had directed his attention to the question of salvage, with a view to ascertain whether adequate remuneration was given to the boatmen of the coast for the risk, expense, and trouble which they underwent in saving property in such cases, or whether the insufficiency of such remuneration did not throw much temptation in the path of these poor men, and really tend to discourage their efforts. Subsequently, he had had the honour of introducing a deputation upon this subject to his noble Friend at the head of the Board of Trade (the Duke of Richmond). He found that the two principal complaints made by the boatmen were—first, insufficiency of payment; and secondly, the unnecessary delay in obtaining that payment. He had ventured to suggest to the noble Duke an improved scale of payment, varying with the value of the property recovered, and also that the payment should be expedited. He would not enter into details at that moment, but he earnestly pressed the attention of the Government to the matter. That, however, to which he especially begged to call attention at this moment was the question of lost anchors and chains—a large number of these were now in the Downs, and unless removed, could not but prove a serious detriment to the shipping. He had been in correspondence with his constituents, and would read two short extracts from letters which he had received, and which would put the whole matter clearly before the House. The first extract was from one of that valuable class of men, the pilots, whose services to shipping were so great, and whose evidence on the subject was well worth consideration. The second extract was from one of the boatmen themselves, a man of good character, and who expressed the feeling of his class— The number of anchors and chains that lay strewed about between the North and South Forelands cannot be much less than 200, a fearful thing to contemplate when one is about to let go an anchor for safety. I do hope, for the safety of the anchorage, that those impediments will soon be removed. As regards the anchors and chains now in the Downs, you may safely say there are from 150 to 200, and men would be very glad to get them if they would pay for getting, for there is very little doing now; it is quite clear they must be got some time, for another blustering winter will block the roadstead up, and the longer they lie the worse they will be, for they will soon rust. If they will give us 2s. 6d. per cwt, good and bad anchors and chains, we will get them, and be very glad to do it—for I am very sure if they do not pay better than they pay at present people will not get them. He (Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen) would add nothing to the statements, nor delay the House at a moment when time was of so much importance; but he left the matter in the hands of the Government, and earnestly bogged them to deal with it before winter comes on, and to deal justly and fairly with those whom he represented. He would second the Motion in the spirit in which he had spoken.


trusted that the Vice President of the Board of Trade would consider whether the Government might not relax the provisions under which merchant seamen could be taken out of their ships in any part of the world and be compelled to serve in the Royal Navy.


said, he was too deeply sensible that there was much which required alteration and amendment in the laws relating to merchant shipping to find fault with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's proposition. But when we were reviewing our shortcomings it was only fair to take into account what had been done, in order that the House and the country should form a just estimate of the difficulties which had been surmounted and the evils which had been overcome, as well as of those against which we had still to do battle. He believed that it frequently happened that an outcry against an abuse was a pretty sure indication that much had been already done to remove it. The public mind required to be educated by successive attempts at legislation, or in other ways, before it perceived the hideousness of an evil to which it was accustomed. In reading the narratives of Anson and Cook and other celebrated navigators of a past generation, and seeing the evident pride with which they ascribed their success, and the little loss they experienced in certain voyages, to precautions which were now ranked among the most ordinary duties of the master of a ship, he was impressed not only by their exceptional energy and humanity, but by the reflection how wretched must have been the state of things when these ordinary precautions were of such rare occurrence that they deserved to be chronicled—when even a man-of-war was not un-frequently designated as a "floating Hell." It could not be said that the present Government, or their predecessors for many years past, had been unmindful of this important subject. In 1851, to go no further back, Acts were passed regulating the condition of apprentices to the sea service, and placing on a new footing the Merchant Seamen's Fund. In 1853 were passed Acts relating to pilots and pilotage, and to the merchant shipping law in general; and he might here pause to remark that although the hon. Member had mentioned the different jurisdictions to which pilots were subject, he had not alluded to the most difficult part of the question, that—namely, of compulsory or voluntary pilotage. In 1854 was passed the General Merchant Shipping Act and Merchant Shipping Repeal Act, which might be called Acts of amendment and consolidation (to which the hon. Member had referred) of great length, containing between 500 and 600 sections, besides Schedules under almost every letter in the alphabet. These Acts were amended by another the very next year. Then in 1856 came the Seamen's Savings Bank Act, and in 1862 another general Amendment Act. This year the department which he represented had not been inactive in the matter, though legislation had on this as on many other pressing subjects been prevented by the absorption of the time and attention of the House by one engrossing topic. A Bill was introduced, as the hon. Member was aware, called the Admiralty Jurisdiction Bill, which had been reluctantly dropped for the Session, being impeded by the opposition of some of the legal Members of the House, though it received the cordial support of the mercantile community in every part of the country. The object of that Bill was to establish local courts for the trial of nautical questions, with an appeal to the Court of Admiralty. It was proposed to bring all questions relating to a ship, such as freight, average, demurrage, seamen's wages, salvage, &c., before a court which could try and decide several questions in one suit, instead of their being, perhaps, tried in different courts and settled on different principles. Another Bill, which was introduced into the House of Lords by the noble Duke the President of the Board of Trade, had passed all its stages in both Houses, and would doubtless shortly become law. It was only a fragmentary measure, dealing with pressing matters in anticipation of a more complete measure in a quieter Session. Fragmentary as it was at best, it had been still more curtailed, and some valuable clauses had had to be abandoned in order to secure its passage through this House, one of which was for the survey of ships alleged to be unseaworthy, to which the hon. Member had referred. The hon. Member had said truly that the condition of our merchant seamen was one of the most important subjects which could be considered by the House. This Bill dealt with that subject. It related, as the hon. Member was aware, to scurvy and to the accommodation of merchant seamen. It provided that the space for the crew should be improved, better lighted and ventilated, and free from the incumbrance of ship's stores. It provided also that this space should be exempted from measurement, and subject to inspection, and that the same number of cubic feet of air should be allowed for those sleeping in berths and in hammocks. It gave the crew a personal remedy in case of the space allotted to them being, as was too often the case, blocked up with ship's stores. It provided, likewise, that there should be certain conveniences on board merchant ships to prevent the necessity of the men going out on the chains or head, which had led to so many fatal accidents. It directed the appointment of inspectors of provisions, medicines, and anti-scorbutics. It confined the sale of lime-juice for ships' stores to dealers who would deliver it out of bond mixed with 15 per cent of spirits, and took power to authorize the use of other anti-scorbutics. It also dealt with offences by British subjects on board foreign merchant vessels, and with other matters. So much for the present Session. With regard to the future, the Board had issued a very carefully - prepared memorandum respecting tonnage, dealing with the very difficult questions of measurement, the allowance for engine room, and other deductions from the computation in respect of which payments were made to harbours and dock companies; also for lights and other payments depending on tonnage. On this question the hon. Member had mentioned the Bill of the late Government, but he had not stated that the question was really one between steamers and sailing ships; that the owners of the latter demurred to an allowance being made such as the steamship owners desired, for those accessories to the propelling power, by which the steamers carried higher freights. This was with a view to future legislation. They had, moreover, been carefully collecting statistics with a view to applying to the merchant service the provisions of the Contagious Diseases Act, which had been so successful in the case of the Royal Navy. Such an extension of the Act was necessary, indeed, for the effectual working of its provisions, because it was found that when the disease had been stamped out in Government ports, like Woolwich and Sheerness, it was constantly reintroduced from merchant ports, like Gravesend. He was quite sure that when the House was aware how powerful for good the present Act had been, both physically and morally, it would agree with the Board that it was our bounden duty to extend those advantages to the merchant service, and to make another effort to stem that tide of iniquity which had so long impeded the improvement of our merchant seamen. They had it also in contemplation to alter the boat scale of steamers to which the hon. Member had alluded, and to provide that they should carry boats more in proportion to their passengers and voyages than simply in relation to their tonnage. They proposed to extend Government inspection to the boilers of steam tugs, the absence of which had possibly been the cause of some recent disastrous accidents, taking care at the same time not to limit unduly the responsibility of owners, which, as he had more than once remarked, formed, perhaps, the best safeguard of the public. The hon. Member had attacked the system of inspection, and said the Government surveyors were not equal to their work. He (Mr. Stephen Cave) admitted that this was sometimes the case, but this was hardly the fault of the Department; it was caused by the rapid transition from sailing vessels to steamers, from wood to iron. They proposed by degrees to appoint surveyors who had served an apprenticeship in the working of iron, and had likewise served at sea, so that the inspection to which he had alluded might be more effectual. The Board had been engaged in many other inquiries with a view to legislation, and the results of those inquiries had been laid before the House this Session in papers relating to scurvy, to merchant seamen's accommodation, to local tribunals, to disasters at sea, to wrecking in the Hebrides, and some bad cases on the English coasts. The question of salvage had been touched upon by the hon. Member for Sandwich. It was full of difficulty. We did not bear a good character in foreign countries in this respect. When he was in Paris last winter a paper of complaint had been placed in his hand by the French Minister of Marine who had spoken in almost an angry tone of the extortion practised on French vessels by English salvors. He had been informed that in France it had passed into a proverb that there was one thing worse than being wrecked altogether, and that was being saved by an Englishman. When, however, they had asked for a list of cases in which these malpractices had prevailed, the list furnished was somewhat less than they had been led to expect from the loudness of the complaints. At the same time there was considerable room for improvement, and he thought it possible, with the hon. Member, that if some more regular system of rapid payment of authorized charges were introduced these irregularities might altogether cease. Their attention had also been given to the alleged scarcity of merchant seamen, and to the establishment of training ships for merchant sailors, which had succeeded so well in the case of convicted boys, that it seemed unjust and unreasonable, to say the least, to withhold similar advantages from honest boys. They had likewise given attention to the reconstruction of courts of inquiry in case of wreck, which he quite agreed were at present insufficient and unsatisfactory, to the case of what were technically called distressed seamen, and to the general condition of British crews in foreign ports. There were several other matters to which the hon. Member had referred, and some of which had been brought before the notice of the Society of Arts in a paper read by Mr. Gray, one of the most efficient officers of the Board of Trade, such as the questions relating to local marine boards, advance, and monthly notes, pensions, life insurance, the speedy payment of crews, or payments on account, and the exclusion of crimps from dock premises. These had for some time engaged the attention of the Board; in all these they had confirmed habits and prejudices to encounter, but he hoped that by degrees a considerable improvement would be effected. It was not inquiry that was wanted, for we had had inquiries enough, but comprehensive dealing with the question, with the assistance of those practical men whom the Board were always glad to consult. This had been impossible in the present Session. He had felt sure the hon. Member did not wish to press the Motion in a hostile manner, but that his chief object had been to obtain information. He had endeavoured to give him all the information in his power, and probably the hon. Member would be satisfied with the statement he had made. He thought the House did well to consider, from time to time, these important subjects. It had discussed a similar matter, on the Motion of the hon. Member for Liverpool (Mr. Graves), at the end of last Session at considerable length. He could assure the House that the Board were most desirous to put an end to the acknowledged evils which still existed, and that want of time only had prevented more being done in the present Session of Parliament.


said, he thought the Board of Trade should have power to adapt their regulations to the experience and information which they might obtain from time to time. This would be much better than a rigid and complex Act of Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman should have regard to the expediency of carrying out these maritime regulations by a board with sufficient authority to adapt them to circumstances that might arise. This would be preferable to incumbering the statute book with statutes of 200 or 300 clauses, which could only tend to embarrass the maritime interest of the country.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.