HC Deb 27 March 1873 vol 215 cc248-60

in rising to call the attention of the House to the present inefficient state of the 'rules of the road at sea,' as regards the common practice of propelling steam vessels at a high rate of speed at night and in thick weather; and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, other regulations are required, with a view to the better avoidance of the annual great loss of life and of property which is caused by the want of more stringent regulations on the subject, said, the object he had was to obtain legislation the effect of which would be a considerable saving of life. If he could show that the want of certain rules and regulations, or Acts of Parliament—whichever might be required for the purpose—was the cause of an annual loss of human life, he thought it would be the duty of the Government to deal with the question. He wished to call the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade to what occurred last year when this question was brought forward by the hon. and gallant Member for Stamford (Sir John Hay). The right hon. Gentleman opposed that Motion upon the ground that great inconvenience, possibly great risk, might arise if any attempt were made to change what were termed the 'rules of the road at sea,' after their being adopted by all the principal countries of Europe. In the present Motion he (Mr. Bentinck) did not ask for any alteration of the existing rule of the road,' but simply that a slight addition should be made to those rules, and if his suggestion should be adopted by the Government of this country, it could be made applicable to their own coasts, where it was chiefly required. If it should be adopted by other nations so much the better, but if not their rules would remain as they were. At any rate there would be greater security on their own coasts. The facts of the case were clear and simple, and they did not require the slightest knowledge of nautical matters upon the part of hon. Members to understand them. The practice on their own coasts where steamers abounded was to drive those steamers day and night and in thick and dark weather at the highest possible rate of speed, in order to curtail the time occupied in their voyages as much as possible. Now it was clear that the practice which he complained of must end in a great annual sacrifice of human life. He would not trouble the House with figures, but the Returns of the Board of Trade upon the subject showed that the practice led to many fatal consequences. What he complained of was that there was no law against the practice, the result of which in some cases might come under the head of misdemeanour, and there ought to be a law by which persons could be punished for the consequences of their acts. The present was a state of things which ought not to exist in a civilized country, for it led to a wanton sacrifice of human life. It was true there were stringent regulations in existence as to keeping a good lookout on board ships, but if steamers were driven in thick weather and in crowded waters, at a great rate of speed, those regulations were practically useless. Ought the present state of things to be allowed to continue? The secretary of Lloyd's stated, and the statement was quoted in the House last year by his hon. and gallant Friend (Sir John Hay), that whilst the number of sailing vessels had increased 9 per cent, and the collisions had increased by 7 per cent, the number of steamers had increased 39 per cent, and the number of collisions by 39½ per cent. That showed that the collisions were mainly attributable to the number of steamers running on our own coast, and if that was the case, was there any possible ground upon which the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. Fortescue) could refuse to deal with the subject, and to take such steps as would prevent that great annual sacrifice of human life which, according to the Returns in the right hon. Gentleman's own possession, undoubtedly resulted from the practice to which he was referring. He might be asked why steamers ran the risk they necessarily did in steaming up and down our coast at such excessive speed in all weathers and under all circumstances that it was a mere matter of chance whether or not a collision would occur? The simple reason was that, in regard to the voyages of those steamers, as in all other commercial operations, time was money; and every half hour that was lost on their passage was so much out of the owner's pocket. He assumed that right hon. Gentlemen would not deny the facts which he had stated. There was no difficulty in dealing with the subject, because it was not necessary to alter the 'rules of the road,' but only to make an addition to those rules, which he could confine solely to our own coasts, where the grievance complained of principally existed. He maintained that it was the bounden duty of the Government to deal with the subject, and if they failed to do so they would be virtually responsible hereafter for every life lost on our coast by the practice to which he had referred. The hon. Member concluded by moving the Resolution of which he had given Notice.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That in the opinion of this House other regulations are required, with a view to the better avoidance of the annual great loss of life and of property which is caused by the want of more stringent regulations on the subject."—(Mr. Bentinck.)


said, his hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck) had brought that subject forward with the weight and ability which belonged to him, and also with the great experience of the sea which that eminently English sport, yachting, of which he was so great a master, had conferred upon him. That question was not one that required any great discussion. The House had already been put in possession of the facts of the great loss of life caused by the imperfect regulations for navigation which now exist. He had himself had the honour of suggesting in the papers of the House certain changes in the wording of the present 'rules of the road at sea,' but he was by no means wedded to the particular changes he had submitted. Last year, when he introduced that subject, every hon. Member of the House who had served in the Navy, with a single exception, was of opinion that a Committee should be appointed. It was said that a Committee of that House was, perhaps, not the best tribunal to decide such a question, and there was some force in that observation; but it was true that there was some great objection in the Department to making or considering the changes which were requisite. In former years it had been opposed by the right hon. Member for Birmingham (Mr. Bright), when President of the Board of Trade, and also by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Fortescue), upon information given by that Department. But last year his Motion for an inquiry was supported by two former Presidents of the Board of Trade, the right hon. Baronet the Member for Devonshire (Sir Stafford North-cote), and the right hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Cave), who both, with their knowledge of that Department, thought there was an opportunity for further investigation so as to save life and property at sea. The principal argument put forward by the Department was that those rules, whether perfect or imperfect, having been adopted by all nations, there would be very great inconvenience in making any change without the sanction of all nations who were parties to the agreement. But two of the principal nations who were parties to the agreement had themselves suggested that the present rules were imperfect. It was true that after making changes France and the United States of America gave way to the urgency of our Board of Trade; and, looking to this country as possessing the greatest mercantile marine, said that as great inconvenience would arise at sea from any change made by themselves, they would not force them on the world without the sanction of England. The correspondence on the subject showed that the United States had withdrawn the alterations, which they thought necessary, not because they believed they would not conduce to the safety of shipping, but out of deference to our Board of Trade. Again, in the opinion of France, two of the rules now in force were a source of considerable danger. When two considerable Maritime Powers like the United States and Franco pointed out changes which they thought necessary for the safety of shipping, and only withdrew their endeavours to effect them owing to the numerical superiority of our mercantile marine, and their belief that these things must be carefully weighed by us, with the disposition to make prudent changes when they were shown to be necessary, surely it was time for the Board of Trade to cause inquiries to be made as to whether they were necessary or not? He had already quoted in the House many naval officers of eminence, to whose opinions weight and authority attached, who said that the rules now existing were the source of danger, and that change was necessary. He might allude to Admiral Sir Alexander Milne, the present First Sea Lord, an officer of the highest character and the greatest experience, to Commodore de Horsey, to Captain Colomb, than whom no one's opinion was more entitled to consideration, and Admiral Randolph. All these officers thought some change was necessary, though he was bound to admit they did not fully concur in the amendment he proposed. He must also allude to another sea-officer, Mr. Stirling Jason, who had put himself in communication with the naval authorities and the representatives of the commercial marines of six or seven of the principal Maritime Powers of Europe, and they all concurred in saying that change was necessary for the safety of life and property at sea. We knew that in 10 years 1,000 lives had been lost through collisions alone, which was at the rate of 100 a year; and surely such a sacrifice of life deserved the attention of Parliament? A suggestion he would offer was that the Royal Commission which it was understood was about to inquire into the safety of life and property at sea should have this cognate subject referred to it. The decisions of such a commission would carry great weight, and he was sure they would be accepted not only by the shipowners and masters of England, but by the mercantile marine of the United States and France, and indeed by the navies of the world.


said, he recognized the importance of the subject, and concurred in the belief that the number of collisions was on the increase; but he was not certain whether the real defect in the rules, which was the cause of many collisions, was correctly apprehended. The rules directed that when steamers were meeting each other, each should port its helm—that is, move away to the right. That, he admitted, would secure safety when they saw each other's green and red lights, or each other's red lights only, but when they saw each other's green light—that is, the light on the right, then porting the helm in nine cases out of ten brought them into collision. It was important to consider whether this rule should not be varied, and whether steamers, under these circumstances, should not be directed to stand still. It would not be wise for Parliament to interfere with the discretion of captains as to the speed with which their steamers made their trips; but, as non-observance of the rule now involved liability for payment of damages, and observance of the rule caused collisions, we ought to consider whether some change could not be made in it.


thought that the Motion of the hon. Member for Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck), in the form in which he had put it before the House, must receive support from all hon. Members, and even be accepted by the President of the Board of Trade. Whether collisions occurred from errors in the regulation or not, it was known that a large number of collisions were due to too rapid steaming in thick weather. He had crossed the Atlantic with a captain who rather boasted that in one trip in a fog he had run a ship down, and in 22 minutes after the collision was steaming away with every member of the shipwrecked crew on his steamer—an incident which he spoke of simply as a clever feat. It was no secret that ships sometimes steamed at full speed through fog all the way from Liverpool to New York. He had heard it said that it was a common practice among captains on our eastern coast to keep driving up and down during the prevalence of fogs. If the Board of Trade were to visit with condign punishment every breach of the rules which resulted in collisions, he felt convinced the number of lives lost at sea would be considerably diminished. As for the proposal of the hon. and gallant Baronet (Sir John Hay), from inquiries he had made he found that it met with little approval from the Mercantile Marine. It was highly important to have a uniform rule, universally accepted by all maritime nations, and one that should be strenuously acted upon.


said, he understood that the fact of a steamer not having a look-out did not constitute a positive offence against the law. If the information he had received were correct, the crews of large steamers running coastwise were very often in such a condition that they were unable to keep a look out. Their physical condition, arising from fatigue and sometimes from drink, incapacitated them from doing so. In these days steamers made rapid voyages, and were speedily reladen, so that the crews often left port in a weary and worn-out condition. Indeed, he had seen it stated that, soon after a ship left a port, it frequently happened that not a single man on board was awake with the exception of the steerer. Such being the case, it was no wonder that collisions constantly occurred. Moreover, it had been stated that none but passenger and mail steamers kept a look-out, as a rule, when at sea. Surely a stringent law ought to be laid down to compel every ship to keep a look-out? Again, it was an almost incomprehensible thing that in a maritime country like ours there should be no distinction between the danger signal and the signal for a pilot. This was one of the causes which contributed to the fearful calamity to the Northfleet off Dungeness, which was so fresh in their recollection. Several vessels were in the neighbourhood of that ill-fated ship, and might have rendered assistance to her, but it was thought the signals she made were merely for a pilot. Surely this was a matter which might be easily remedied, and that in concert with other maritime nations, and he trusted it would receive serious attention from the Board of Trade.


said, no one could be more anxious than he was to take every means within the power or the invention of the Government in order to diminish the loss of life and property at sea, but the practical question was how far these matters were within the power of legislation and Parliament. The matter was not so easy of practical solution as some people in their ardour imagined; but that was no reason why the best efforts of the Government should not be directed to that end, and so far as he was concerned, they should be so directed. The general question of the 'rules of the road at sea,' though not included in the terms of the Motion, had been raised by the hon. and gallant Baronet opposite (Sir John Hay), but he regretted that he was not able to take the view that had been propounded. Without going into the question, he would rest the opposition which he deemed it his bounden duty to give to any re-opening of our present system as to those 'rules of the road at sea,' on the ground so well put by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Smith). As far as he was concerned this was necessarily a question of authority and of agreement between the maritime nations of the world. Now, the vast preponderance of authority, both theoretical and practical, was much more in favour of the rules as they stood than of those which the hon. and gallant Baronet wished to substitute for them. The present rules were settled, after a great amount of care and consideration, by agreement with the other Maritime Powers, chiefly in consequence of the exertions of one of his prececessors in the Presidency of the Board of Trade—Mr. Milner Gibson. It was under that gentleman's personal direction that the Code was brought to its present state and received the sanction of all the maritime nations of the world. Certainly, he could not consent to reopen the question now by any expression of opinion in favour of a change, or by referring the rules to a Royal Commission, which would have plenty of other matters to consider. The real object of the hon. Member for Norfolk (Mr. Bentinck) was the attainment of some change in the law, though what that change should be was not clearly expressed, but it seemed to refer to some increased stringency in the regulations, with a view to diminish the number of collisions by checking the practice of driving steamers at a high speed. There was nothing in the hon. Member's motion to prepare him for any particular kind of legislation, and he could hardly be expected to give positive advice to the House on a proposition he had never heard before. As he understood the proposal, it was that every breach of the rules forbidding a high rate of speed should be made a criminal offence. The hon. Member omitted, however, to state that a penalty was inflicted now for a breach of the regulations. One of these regulations was to the effect that ships under steam were to slacken speed when approaching another vessel, and, if necessary, stop and reverse; that in a fog they should go at a moderate speed. Surely this rule was clear and intelligible enough? As to the observance of the rules, the Merchant Shipping Act provided that captains who did not obey them should be deemed guilty of misdemeanour, and their ships should be adjudged in default. He admitted that prosecutions for misdemeanour in those cases were difficult, and the difficulty was increased by the absence of a public prosecutor in this country. But, independently of the proof of misdemeanour, proof of the breach of these rules was attended with important consequences to the ship, and secured her condemnation, which in itself was a serious penalty. As to the suggestion of further legislation for the purpose of preventing collisions, he had in preparation a Bill which, without pledging himself as to the particular mode of meeting the question which had been raised by the hon. Gentleman opposite, contained what he hoped would prove acceptable provisions on this subject. One of those provisions would for the first time render it a criminal offence on the part of the master of any ship to act in the disgraceful way in which the master of the ship—whoever he might be—that ran down the Northfleet conducted himself. An attempt was once made by the late Lord Kingsdown to render that conduct criminal, but it was resisted by other legal authorities in the other House. However, he (Mr. Chichester Fortescue) was now in consultation with the Law Officers of the Crown upon it, and felt confident they would be able to propose a change in the law which would for the future render such acts criminal.

Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


resuming, said, the Bill now being prepared also contained clauses for providing an improved system of danger signals. It was not so easy as some persons might imagine to devise danger signals which should be of a thoroughly simple and practical kind, as they must be, and yet not capable of being confounded with ordinary signals for pilots. It was necessary to consult with parties having special knowledge on the subject, but after a great deal of time had been thus necessarily occupied, a large amount of agreement had been secured as to the simple form of signals which would be proposed in the Bill. These signals had been laid before foreign maritime countries through the Foreign Office, and had been assented to by Holland, Italy, France, Greece, and the United States. They would not consist of a coloured light as suggested. The adoption of a system of coloured lights would be dangerous, as there never could be any certainty that a vessel in danger would have a store of that particular kind of light; and if the means of making a danger signal could not be relied on for all conceivable occasions the danger was increased instead of diminished. He could not venture off-hand upon an opinion respecting the particular addition to the 'rules of the road' in respect of collisions, of which he had heard for the first time to-night. The subject, however, should have his best attention, and he should be glad if he could see his way to any increased stringency of rule. His opposition to change in the general 'rule of the road at sea' was founded upon a concurrence of authority against it; and he could not undertake to re-open the question by referring it to the Royal Commission. He had a recent conversation with a gentleman cognisant of this matter who said that in an interview with the late Dr. Lushington, that distinguished jurist said not long before his death—"Never allow the rule of the road at sea' to be altered;" and as far as the experience of the Court of Admiralty went, he had never been able to hear of vessels lost through the observance of the rule; they were lost, if not by accident, then through the violation of the rule.


thought that this was a question upon which the House wanted practical information, and as a practising Barrister he had had much to do with these rules. From the experience he had thus acquired in collision cases, he had found that the rules were most embarrassing, and he had also found that, besides their being embarrassing, if they were regularly and invariably adopted, the two vessels which were meeting were certain to come into collision. If the order to port the helm was obeyed in certain cases a collision wes a dead certainty. His experience had convinced him that the Rules should be revolutionized, and he adopted that term advisedly. Seeing that a Royal Commission had been authorized for the purpose of inquiring into loss of life in consequence of the un seaworthiness of vessels, was anything more reasonable than that this question of the loss of life by collisions, which was a cognate subject, and involved in the other, should be inquired into at the same time? He ventured to say that if they looked to the archives of the Admiralty Court and to the decisions of Dr. Lushington or other Judges' they would find that these very rules of the road' had received different interpretations and that they had embarrassed the Judges in that Court and Judges and juries in the Courts of Common Law. He agreed with the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Samuda) in thinking that it would be impolitic to regulate the rates of speed by Act of Parliament, and it would not be for the interest of a commercial community like ours to endeavour to control it in too precise and dogmatic a manner, as that would only tend to obstruct private enterprise.


wished to say a few words in reference to a statement of the hon. Member for Northumberland (Mr. Liddell) that it was only on board large steamers that a look-out was kept at sea. This statement was by no means correct. He (Mr. Bates) had been round the Cape more than once during the last 40 years both in sailing ships and steamers, and he had never been on board any vessel on which a look-out was not kept at night. No doubt it was true, as stated by the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. T. E. Smith), that the Atlantic steamers crossed generally at full speed; but he would remind the hon. Member that those steamers would bear favourable comparison with other steamers which left our coast.


in reply, said that he had listened attentively to all that had fallen from both sides of the House with reference to the Motion he had brought forward, and he was bound to say that he had heard nothing which answered any statement he had made, nor had he heard any valid reason given for not complying with the suggestion that he had offered. What he had complained of was the driving of steamers at a high rate of speed in thick weather and at night, and in that way causing collisions and loss of life. He could not admit, as the President of the Board of Trade had said, that the question was one not easy of solution. The question could easily be solved if the right hon. Gentleman had the courage and energy to enter upon it. [Mr. CHICHESTER FORTESCUE said, that it was under consideration.] He hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would arrive at a different conclusion from that which he had understood him to express that night. Those acquainted with the details of the subject could understand how easy the solution of it would be. He did not propose to alter the 'rules of the road at sea.' All he asked was the making of an additional rule to deal with a particular case. The right hon. Gentleman complained that he had not explained the change which he (Mr. Bentinck) wanted made. It was true he did not state the precise penalties which he would attach, but what he wanted to convey was that at present the penalties were insufficient for the purpose. He asked the right hon. Gentleman to make the penalties sufficient to have a deterrent action upon the wrong-doers, who were drowning people day after day in order to put money into their own pockets, or into those of the owners. He wanted penalties not upon the owners but upon the actual perpetrators of the offence. The owner might be mulcted by the Admiralty Court in the event of a collision, but it was the master whom he wished to reach. Nobody could deny that collisions involving considerable loss annually occurred through the practice of driving steamers at great speed in thick weather, especially in the Channel. The right hon. Gentleman held out the hope that he would introduce a Bill, but it did not seem that that Bill would deal with this particular subject. The question of signals would arise only after the collision had happened, whilst what he (Mr. Bentinck) wanted was to prevent the collision. In not dealing with the precise question he had brought forward, the right hon. Gentleman was assuming a grave responsibility, and he (Mr. Bentinck) must tell him that in so acting he would himself become virtually responsible for the loss of life at sea which was caused by a state of circumstances that might be very easily remedied by him.


said, he hoped that he might be allowed to explain, as the hon. Gentleman sought to make him personally responsible for loss of life because he had not acceded to his Motion. What he had said was this, that he had no means of judging from the form of the Motion what was meant—what addition it was desired to make to these rules; and this being so, he thought it was unreaaonable that he should commit himself off-hand to any pledge as to the extent to which legislation could be carried in this matter. He also said that it should have his best attention, to see if the regulations as to excessive speed could be rendered more effectual.


added that he had distinctly stated that what he wanted was more stringent penalties; and if the right hon. Gentleman would say that he would enact the penalties which he (Mr. Bentinck) would point out, he would be perfectly satisfied.

Question put, and negatived.