HC Deb 16 May 1876 vol 229 cc794-804

, in rising to move— That it is expedient that voluntary examinations should be held under the Board of Trade in modern languages and commercial law, and that further inducements should be given to merchant officers to study at the Naval University at Greenwich, said, that, amid the long debate on the causes of shipwreck in which they had lately been engaged, the efficiency of the officers of the Merchant Service had never been called in question. While it was generally acknowledged that the examinations for masters and mates, conducted under the Board of Trade, had produced excellent results, it was obvious, from the Consular Reports, to which he would shortly refer, that the condition of the Merchant Service as to officers still left much to be desired. It would be his duty to insist chiefly on the defects of the inferior class of shipmasters. He desired, how- ever, not to be misunderstood, as intending to draw a general indictment against our Merchant officers. The state of the profession might still be accurately described in the language of Lord Ellenborough, in the Report of the Committee on Pensions— Masters of merchant vessels differ widely in their qualifications and character, and are of many various grades in society. While some may be little superior to seamen, there are others not only distinguished by the highest acquirements in the practice and science of navigation, but as gentlemen of the best education and manners. His object on the present occasion was to induce the Government to make further efforts to raise the standard of professional knowledge among the Merchant officers of the inferior class; and, in order to show how necessary it was that something should be done, he would refer, in the first place, to the Report of the Commission on Unseaworthy Ships, wherein it was stated that while from 1856 to 1872, inclusive, only 60 ships were known to have been lost from defects in the vessels, 711 were lost from neglect and bad navigation. As a commentary on these melancholy statistics, the Mercantile Marine Association of Liverpool had lately re-published the following observations from The Shipping Gazette:Great as is the improvement in the status and condition of merchant captains and officers, which has resulted from the Board of Trade examinations, the system has not by any means completed its work, or produced all the results of which, properly administered, it is capable. He would now refer to the replies of Her Majesty's Consuls to the letter of the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre), calling for their opinion as to the condition of the Merchant Service. Similar inquiries had been made in 1843 and 1847, and a comparison of the earlier Reports with those of 1872 showed a marked improvement. As a rule, steamers and first-class sailing ships were well commanded. Good ships generally attracted good crews; but, in inferior ships, many even of the latest Reports indicated a state of things which was far from satisfactory. It would be necessary to give a few quotations, in order to convince the House of the necessity for reform. Mr. Mark, British Consul at Marseilles, had written as follows:— England is not fairly represented by the men who command her ships on the ocean. The grossest ignorance is seen, and drunkenness largely prevails among them. In those branches of trade, in which British ships competed with foreign vessels commanded by a superior class of officers, shippers naturally gave a preference to the foreign flag. Sir S. R. Crowe, our Consul General at Christiania, said— In cases of competition between British and Norwegian ships, when the master of the latter accepts the same rate of freight as his British competitor, he will generally be preferred; as the British sailing ships visiting Norway are commanded by third and fourth class masters, who frequently have neither education nor sobriety to recommend them. Mr. Ward, Vice Consul at Memel, had made a similar Report— It is only too true that the German seamen, and more especially the masters of ships, are, as a rule, a very superior class of men in point of ability, education, and manners, in comparison with British seamen and masters employed in the Baltic trade. We had a similar opinion from Mr. Doyle, Consul at Pernambuco— The masters of British sailing ships are, as a rule, a proverbial contrast to the masters of ships of most other nations; and it is a wonder, considering the disproportion between the remuneration for which British masters work, and the valuable property entrusted to them, that the navigation of these vessels and the trade through them is carried on with so much honesty and regularity. He would next refer to the Report of Mr. Gould, our Secretary of Legation at Stockholm, on the British shipping trade with the Baltic— In 1872, 1,714,000 tons of shipping were employed in the direct trade between Sweden and Great Britain. Only 25 per cent of this tonnage was British. The Swedish shipowners had no advantages in the cost of building and sailing their ships. Mr. Gould attributed the success of the Swedish shipowners solely to the superior education of the masters they employed. Our shipmasters were totally ignorant of the Swedish language, while the Swedish and Norwegian masters were as much at home in England as in their own country. It had not been a difficult task to show that, in the inferior class of British merchant vessels, many officers were to be found who were ill-conducted and badly educated. It was not equally easy to provide a legislative remedy for the evils which had been described. As a rule, only the ill-paid were ill-conducted; and it was impracticable for the Legislature to regulate the private bargains between needy shipmasters and parsimonious shipowners. His statement, however, would be incomplete without some reference to this aspect of the question. Mr. Mark, our Consul at Marseilles, said that British shipowners should give better remuneration to their captains, and oblige them to hold a share in their vessels. Captain Toynbee, in a speech delivered last year at the Society of Arts, pointed out that there were masters of ships of 800 tons, in the East Indian trade, whose salaries were only £10 a-month. The institutions set up by the benevolent for the relief of merchant seamen, were chiefly used for the benefit of the officers under whom they serve. Of the 1,200 orphans, who had been inmates of the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum, at Snaresbrook, the children of captains number 637, those of mates 330, while the children of seamen were only 77 in number. There were at present 254 orphans at Snaresbrook; but, of these, only 16 were the children of seamen. While he admitted that the question of remuneration must be left in the hands of the shipowners, he ventured to hope that an expression of opinion in that House might have the effect of establishing a more just view of the responsibilities which belonged, and of the reward which was due, to the masters of merchant ships freighted with cargoes, and often with hundreds of human beings. Turning from the remuneration to the professional education of merchant officers, the examinations already established had done great good; and the Board of Trade would do well to proceed further in the same direction by encouraging a broader education for the Merchant Service. Modern languages, as suggested by Mr. Gould, and the elements of a commercial education, should be added to the subjects included in the present examinations. The new subjects might at first be offered voluntarily by candidates, to whom an honorary certificate might be given, as it was already granted for superior proficiency in mathematics. In the Merchant Service a knowledge of languages was, at least, as essential as a high standard of mathematical attainments. You might make a good landfall without trigonometry; you could not trade with people whose language you did not understand. In offering these suggestions to the Government, he might refer to the long-established regulations of the principal maritime nations. Mr. Lindsay, in his History of Merchant Shipping, said that, in Norway and Sweden, masters of ships had to undergo a general examination in shipping affairs, in the customs and navigation laws, and in the foreign exchanges. In Russia and Prussia, they had to show some knowledge both of French and English. In France, a Professor, paid by the Government, resided at each of the principal ports, and afforded to all, seeking to be masters in the Merchant Service, instruction, free of charge, on the different subjects connected with their profession. He claimed the example of France as an argument which, he hoped, would prevail with the First Lord of the Admiralty, and induce him to consider favourably his second proposal. We had organized a considerable force of seamen as a Naval Reserve; but we had not formed a corresponding body of thoroughly trained officers for that Reserve. In the debate on the Manning of the Navy, in 1860, Sir Charles Napier said truly— Suppose you have obtained your Naval Reserve, where would you get officers to command them? You would find it absolutely necessary to come to the Merchant Service. He would not enter, on that occasion, into the question of the general organization of the Naval Reserve; but he would urge the importance of making the University at Greenwich a connecting link between the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine. Not until its benefits were extended to officers of the Merchant Service could the College at Greenwich claim to be regarded as a truly national institution. The lectures were already accessible to Merchant officers; but that was not enough. The majority of masters and mates were too poor to be able to give up a year's income for the purposes of study. He would, therefore, propose, that studentships for a certain number of officers of the Naval Reserve should be established at Greenwich. Students should be admitted to residence at the Naval College for 12 months, free of charge, and should receive a sum of not less than £60 a-year. These privileges would enable an officer, who had served in the Merchant Service in the capacity of mate, to study at the College without pecuniary loss. The studentships should be open for competition to all midshipmen of the Naval Reserve, who could show a sufficient length of actual service at sea. The gradual introduction into the Merchant Service of officers of higher attainments, who had had associations with the Royal Navy, must be a mutual benefit to the two Services, and therefore a public advantage. We might look to the Greenwich students as men well qualified to serve in the Navy in time of war, while their example and influence in their own Service, in time of peace, would tend to raise the general tone of their profession.


, in seconding the Motion, said, that his hon. Friend having confined himself mainly to the commercial aspect of the question, he should ask the attention of the House to the fact that a majority of the losses occurring in the Mercantile Marine were directly traceable to the want of education in the captains and chief officers, who ought not only to be perfectly competent to navigate the vessels entrusted to them, but should be able to advise the owners as to the state of the vessels, their equipment, stowage, and crew. That a higher education of officers in the Mercantile Marine was necessary was made clear by the Consular Reports sent to the Board of Trade from Lisbon, Bahia, Callao, Montevideo, Portland (Maine), Marseilles, and Para. It was not to be expected that men who were ignorant, drunken, and without character, could be relied upon to discharge their duty to their owners, and to exercise a proper degree of knowledge and skill in the art of navigation, and he thought his hon. Friend had done good service to the country in bringing the subject under the notice of the House. Some disastrous cases had recently occurred, and it was doubtful whether a master was justified in engaging men and going to sea with a crew with whom he could only deal by having a revolver in his hand. Now, what could be done to improve the present state of things. It was said that the Government had nothing to do with providing efficient captains. That was true in the main; but when we were voting such large sums for the education of persons whose engagements kept them on dry land we ought not to turn a deaf ear to the necessity of improving the condition of our Mercantile Marine. One of the best means of so doing was that of diffusing education amongst the young men who were growing up and who were intended to be officers and commanders, and he thought the Board of Trade might exercise considerable influence by promoting examinations in modern languages and commercial law, and trusted the right hon. Gentleman (Sir Charles Adderley) would not hesitate to take a step in that direction, the expense of which would be very inconsiderable. The second portion of the Motion of his hon. Friend must recommend itself to the House, as it was to make that great and national institution, the Naval College at Greenwich, still greater and more national, and he (Mr. Reed) thought that means might be found for accomplishing that object. But he would go further and say that it was most remarkable that there was a greater separation between the Royal and Naval Mercantile Marine in this country than in any other nation of the world, vessels abroad being frequently commanded by officers of the Royal Navy. We ought to commence with the younger officers of the Service, and the Admiralty ought to make it a condition with the officers of the Royal Naval Reserve that they should go through a thorough examination in gunnery and other important subjects. He saw nothing to prevent the cadets in the Naval Service from going to sea in merchant ships. Every gun-room in the Royal Navy was crowded with young gentlemen who were receiving a training which was far inferior to that which they would obtain on board a merchant ship. He trusted that before long a Minister would be found who would take a sufficiently large view of the subject to endeavour to bring to an end what he regarded as the utterly indefensible position of the Royal Navy in this respect. We were blaming the increase in the Navy Estimates, which arose entirely from the separation between the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine, while there was no way by which the Navy Estimates could be so well reduced as by bringing the two Services into intimate connection. He wished to suggest that the posts of British Consuls at foreign seaports should be given to retired officers of the Mercantile Marine, who were peculiarly fitted to discharge the duties attached to those appointments. There were at the present moment 126 British Consuls at foreign seaports, who were receiving salaries amounting to £81,500, and ranging from £1,000 to £400 a-year, and a considerable advantage might be gained by giving those appointments to men who had distinguished themselves in the Mercantile Marine. He trusted that he should hear from Her Majesty's Government an expression of their intention to adopt the course indicated by the Motion which he had the honour of seconding.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient that voluntary examinations should be held under the Board of Trade in modern languages and commercial law, and that further inducements should be given to merchant officers to study at the Naval University at Greenwich."—(Mr. T. Brassey.)


did not see that any serious objection could be taken either to the terms or to the object of the Motion, and expressed his belief that the hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Brassey) had done good service to the country by calling attention to the subject now before it. He must, however, remind hon. Members that many of the most efficient officers in the Mercantile Marine had risen from the forecastle, and that it would be exceedingly difficult for them to acquire a competent knowledge of foreign languages at their advanced period of life. He was, however, strongly in favour of giving an early training to our officers of the Mercantile Marine. He had had many opportunities recently of mixing with those officers, and he confessed that he had been perfectly delighted at the attainments, the intelligence, the ability, and the integrity they had displayed, while as far as general culture was concerned they were fit to hold their place in any drawing-room in England. It would be of the greatest benefit to the Royal Navy and to the Merchant Service if training ships common to both could be established in all the chief ports. It would have the effect of uniting the youth of both Services and of breaking down that odious barrier that had too long existed between them.


said, that a considerable improvement in the education of the men of the Merchant Service was introduced by the Board of trade, but it produced "cramming," and the men after they had passed their examinations were found not to be capable of performing their duty. He believed that one-half of the disasters at sea among merchant ships, of which they had heard so much, was entirely owing to the ignorance and incapacity of men placed in command of ships without a proper knowledge of their duties. As to the Reports of foreign Consuls alluded to in the debate, he did not himself place much reliance on them; he believed the source of all the evil was the want of practical judgment in the officers, which could only be learnt by long and continuous service at sea. As a rule, their best seamen were taken from the lowest class of ships, who scarcely ever received more than a scanty education. The pay of the masters in merchant ships was almost equal to that of the pay of lieutenants in the Royal Navy. He should support the Motion with great cordiality, although he did not go so far in his views as his hon. Friend.


said, he had a respect for anything which fell from the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Brassey) for the improvement of the Merchant Shipping Service; but it was not very encouraging to the Minister who had the subject in his own charge to find that every one of the Members who had spoken on this Motion differed as to the way in which the hon. Gentleman's proposal should be carried out. He would remind his noble Friend (Lord Eslington) and those who supported the Motion that if the condition of the Merchant Service of the country was to be raised it was not to be done by exaggerating the evils or proposing impracticable measures to remove them. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. E. J. Reed) cited a recent case, which had given great pain to all who heard of it, as illustrating a want of education on the part of the officers in the Merchant Service. That case in no way reflected on the officers, but it reflected in the greatest degree on the men. It was acknowledged by the Royal Commission, of which the hon. Member for Hastings was a most distinguished and useful Member, that the improvement of the officers in the Merchant Service was in striking contrast with the condition of the men. As to the proposal of the hon. Member for Hastings for improving the officers of the Merchant Service, suppose the higher examination which he suggested was made, and certificates were given to those who passed that examination, would those superior certificates draw higher pay for those who gained them than the lower certificates? If not, the offer would not be met. He was afraid that if the examination proposed by the hon. Member in modern languages and commercial law were established, many candidates for it would not be found, and even if they got candidates to pass such an examination, that there would not be a sufficient demand for their services to command for them higher pay. If the hon. Member suggested that the Board of Trade should stipulate that no master should take the command of ships of a certain tonnage who had not passed an examination in modern languages and commercial law, that would be a more stringent proposition, but it could hardly be carried out. He thought the examinations now provided for officers of the Merchant Service were very good for their purpose. They were of two grades, and he was afraid they were already at a standard beyond either the supply of candidates, or the demand for the services of those who passed them. The Consuls said generally, in their answers to the Circular referred to, that they considered that the present examinations offered in most cases a sufficient guarantee of the efficiency of the officers in the several capacities in which they engaged to serve; and, further, that nothing should be introduced into the test examinations for certificates beyond what was necessary to show that a man was qualified to command and navigate a ship. He rather sympathized with that opinion. As to Norwegian masters mostly now knowing a foreign language, that foreign language generally happened to be English, and it certainly took away much of the inducement to English masters to study other languages, that they found their own was getting current almost all over the maritime world. With regard to commercial law, he had always felt convinced that a little law was a dangerous thing, and to a merchant captain a smattering of commercial law might be a very doubtful advantage to himself or his employer. Under the existing examination 50 per cent of the candidates were plucked, mostly on spelling; and as they were therefore hardly mas- ters of their vernacular tongue, it was premature for them to aspire to a knowledge of foreign languages. In the common pass examination invoices, charter parties, and similar matters were already among the subjects included. There was also an examination for a higher grade. There was a marked improvement compared with 20 years since in the knowledge and acquirements of the Merchant Service. The officers of that Service were drawn in this country from the men; but in foreign countries they were drawn from a class of naval cadets, much in the way in which we drew our officers for the Royal Navy. The experience of the Service abroad and at home could not, therefore, be so easily compared. Whether it was not desirable that our Mercantile Marine should be more assimilated to the Navy was a fair subject for consideration. The hon. Member for Pembroke was mistaken in saying that the use of the Naval College at Greenwich had been practically denied to the Merchant Service. The truth was that its use had been largely offered to them, and had been practically refused. Under the Order in Council of 1873 gratuitous instruction for 10 officers of the Merchant Service at the Naval College, Greenwich, had been held out for three years, and only one had taken advantage of it. But supposing they were willing to accept the offer made to them, where was the money to come from for studentships, for the increased staff, and all the other adjuncts which would be necessary to give the plan full effect? There was certainly no appreciation of the offer likely to furnish the means. In conclusion, he did not at all depreciate the object which the hon. Member (Mr. Brassey) had in view; but he did not see how his specific proposal could be carried out, nor did he think the evil was so great as had been represented. The qualifications of the officers in our Merchant Service were now rapidly improving, the present system of examinations under the Board of Trade was very good, and the Service hardly came up to the standard already required.


said, that after the declaration of the right hon. Gentleman he should withdraw his Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.