HC Deb 27 March 1889 vol 334 cc933-45

Order for Second Reading read.

*SIR E. BIRKBECK (Norfolk, E.)

In moving the Second Reading of this Bill it will not be necessary for me to take up the time of the House by explaining the provisions of the measure. Everybody must realize how extremely important it is that no obstacle should exist that might in any way jeopardize or impede the great work of saving life at sea—a hazardous operation at all times, but most especially so at night, when lifeboats often have to go out to vessels in danger, in order to save the lives of the crews. When the Bill for the removal of wrecks was before this House in 1877 the question of the safety of vessels in navigable waters was alone before the House, and the question as regards the safety of those engaged in lifeboat work was, as far as I am aware, not discussed at all. The two sections of the Bill which related to the removal of wreck were Sections 4 and 5. Section 4 gave power to the harbour and conservancy authorities to remove wreck, and Section 5 gave power to the general lighthouse authority also to remove wreck. But since 1877 great strides have been made in the work of the saving of life around our coast, and I venture to say that public opinion is more than ever in favour of legislation of this character, and that nothing ought to stand in the way of the best measures for saving the lives of the crews of shipwrecked vessels. I hope that hon. Members have read the admirable speech which was made by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. Chamberlain) last week, at the annual meeting of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, on the question of saving life at sea. In my opinion, it was undoubtedly a great oversight and omission that the Removal of Wrecks Act of 1877 contained no power for removing wrecks that were dangerous to the work of saving life—a work that our gallant fishermen and Coastguardsmen and others are always ready to undertake at the risk of their own lives, however great the danger may be. I feel very strongly that dangerous obstacles, such as wrecks either near the shore or in the vicinity of a lifeboat station or wrecks on outlying sands, should no longer be left as they now are to jeopardize the lives of the gallant men who man our lifeboats. As regards the question of what is an obstruction or danger to navigation is defined in the Removal of Wrecks Act, 1877. It is simply that— Wherever there is a wreck or portion of wreck that is in navigable waters, supposed to be an obstruction or a danger to navigation, the authorities shall have power to remove it. But if a vessel is wrecked in the vicinity of any lifeboat station around our coast and it is in such a position, either on account of the state of the tide or the state of the wind, that in some cases lifeboats absolutely cannot be launched until there is a change of the wind or a change of the tide, then I say that there ought to be power to remove such an obstacle. It is of no use to argue that a lifeboat can be launched so many hundred yards on one side or the other, because at many of the lifeboat stations it is absolutely impossible to launch the lifeboat except from a slipway attached to the lifeboat house itself. If a lifeboat is launched on either side of a wreck to try and avoid it, there are, in many places, still more dangerous obstacles in the shape of breakwaters, rocks, and other impediments, and therefore I contend that where a wreck is opposite a lifeboat station, endangering the lifeboat services, it ought to be removed. Then, as regards wrecks on outlying sands, that is another matter of very great importance, not only to the lifeboat service, but to the work of saving ships. There are many cases where a vessel in thick weather or a snowstorm is driven on a sand bank. It may be just on the very edge of the bank; a portion of the wreck may be in deep water, and if it is a wooden vessel, in all probability after the first two or three gales of wind it would be knocked to pieces and blown away. But that is not the case if the vessel is a composite or an iron vessel. In such cases it often occurs that the vessel may remain for years, not intact, perhaps, but with part of her ribs or stumps stuck out of water, and possibly only visible at dead low water. This is a source of very great danger, and I am informed that in many cases where a vessel has gone on the sand in the vicinity of one of these wrecks, the tugs in trying to tow off the vessel from the sand have been in very great danger. I have been assured by the master of a tug that it would be of great benefit if there were power to remove such wrecks from the edges of a sand bank, and that it would greatly facilitate the work of saving stranded vessels. I hope that every shipowner will consider that point if he has any doubt on the subject. I do not wish to speak entirely from hearsay, but I can prove my case by facts. Last September I went out in a lifeboat five miles from Great Yarmouth on the coast of Norfolk, to see the remains of a composite vessel—the Andromeda. I went out at dead low water, and the vessel whose remains I saw had been lying there for upwards of six months. I was able clearly to realize that if it had been a dark night with a strong spring tide running the lifeboat might have struck one of the ribs of this vessel and must have been lost. Even the lifeboat men themselves, although they might have had cork jackets on, must have been swept away and would have perished in a short time from cold and exposure. Perhaps I may be allowed to read the following, which I have received from the coxswain of the Caister lifeboat. The letter is dated December 25th, 1888, and the writer says— We were out with our large lifeboat a few nights ago in a dense fog to the Cross Sand in answer to guns, but we could not find the ship. We crossed over the sand several times and all our fear was the wreck of the Andromeda, should the lifeboat have struck the wreck, with our crew of 20 men so far from the shore, what would have been the consequence? I have been looking at the wreck to-day with the glass from the boat shed, and it remains about the same as it was when you went out with me in the lifeboat. I know, dear Sir, that you are doing your duty in trying to get the wreck re moved, and I should like to hear from you soon about the matter. There are very strong reasons why the crew of this lifeboat should have called my attention to that wreck, inasmuch as in the year 1885, on the 21st of July, they heard signals of distress. It was perfectly smooth water, and in order to save time they did not launch the lifeboat, but put off in a yawl. After proceeding about two miles she suddenly struck upon a sunken wreck and immediately sank, and out of a crew of 15 men eight of the poor fellows were drowned. Yet only the previous winter these same men had saved the lives of the crew of that very vessel. I have no desire to give to this lifeboat station more-praise than is due to it, but I may mention as a matter of fact that since 1858 this station, with two boats, have saved 1,143 lives. I may quote another station, where there are well-known outlying sands of great danger—namely, Ramsgate and the Goodwin Sands. Since 1865, the Ramsgate lifeboat has saved 898 lives. The same may be said of many other lifeboat stations, and it shows how important it is that steps should be taken and power given to remove these hidden dangers. Let me remind the House that lifeboats are bound to put off at once. There must be no hesitation and no delay. They must go the straightest course, and on a dark night a green wreck buoy near a sunken wreck, is of no use, because the crew would be unable to see it before they were on to the wreck itself. I have made inquiries of the Trinity Board whether there are any other means of enabling a lifeboat to avoid a sunken wreck. It has been suggested that the newly invented gas buoys might be put down, but it is impossible to carry out that arrangement all around the coast. I have been told that there is no means of getting over the difficulty except the one which I propose—namely, the amendment of the Act of 1877. As a matter of fact, the Trinity Board sometimes remove wrecks not in navigable waters that are within a few hundred yards of the buoys which show the navigable water. They have done so because they considered that although such wrecks were not within navigable waters strictly speaking, still the tugs in many instances had been in great jeopardy of being wrecked themselves in trying to get off vessels from the sand. I understand that some shipowners consider that I have no right to suggest that there should be further charges on the Mercantile Marine Fund in respect of this Bill if the House consents to pass it. At the present time the Mercantile Marine Fund is charged to the extent of £12,000 a year in respect of the saving of life, but the greater portion of that amount is paid in connection with the rocket service. Two lifeboats belonging to the Board of Trade are maintained out of that fund, and the expenses connected with the Removal of Wrecks Act, 1877, also came out of that fund. Now I do not think that if this Bill passes the charges imposed upon the Mercantile Marine Fund will be greatly augmented. There are not many cases in which wrecks would have to be removed, but from time to time such cases will occur. At present I know of six, five in England and one in Ireland, all of which are sources of very great danger. I do not believe that great demands would be made on the Mercantile Marine Fund, especially if the work were carried out in the summer time; by that means the expenses would be very much minimized. The Committee of Lloyd's have, I understand, written to Her Majesty's Government urging them to support this Bill. The whole of the pilots of the United Kingdom are strongly in favour of it, and I would suggest to the House that if it goes to a Second Reading the words in Clause 4, "of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution" should be struck out. I admit that it was an error to introduce that reference, because as a matter of fact there are two boats belonging to the Board of Trade, and thirty others belonging to voluntary associations. I am also ready to amend Clause 4 by adding at the end the words—"Provided that in the case of obstruction or danger to lifeboats no expenditure shall be incurred by the General Lighthouse Authority except with the previous sanction of the Board of Trade." I hope that that suggestion will satisfy my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, and I trust the House will realize the great importance of the work of saving life around our coast by reading the Bill a second time. I consider that every possible encouragement should be given to this work. In this, the greatest mercantile country in the world, we ought to be foremost in doing our utmost in saving the lives, not only of our own sailors, but of foreigners and fishermen. I have been asked why I have not provided for obstructions that are detrimental to other services besides the lifeboat service, and especially in connection with the fishing interest. I would remind those hon. Members who desire that such a proposal should be embodied in the Bill that fishing vessels do not pay light dues, and, therefore, it would not be fair to charge the Mercantile Marine Fund with that expenditure. With these remarks, I beg to move the Second Reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir E. Birkbeck.)

*MR. MARJORIBANKS (Berwickshire)

My hon. Friend opposite has very clearly stated the reasons for this Bill, and I have great confidence that the House will consent to read it a second time. The proposal is altogether of a non-Party character, as I think will be evident from the names on the back of the Bill, for a more incongruous lot, from a Party political point of view, could hardly be got together. There is but one motive in regard to this Bill. On this we are perfectly homogeneous, and there is no personal or money interest in the matter whatever. The only desire is to help our seafaring population at a time when the services they are rendering in the cause of humanity should command the sympathy and respect of the people of this country. When a vessel is in danger these brave men go out to save the crew at the risk of their own lives; from this point of view I think the Bill should receive the approbation of this House. It would be carrying Conservatism to an altogether unheard-of pitch to advocate as desirable the retention, in the guise of ancient monuments, dangerous wrecks dotted around the coast. I am sure they are neither useful nor ornamental, and it must be evident without any argument whatever that the horrible skeletons of ships which have gone to pieces on our shores can be productive of nothing but danger to seafaring men. I do not think it is necessary to say more in order to induce the House to read the Bill a second time.


In the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol (Colonel Hill), who is at this moment engaged at the meeting of the Associated Chambers of Commerce, I beg to move, as an Amendment, that the Bill be read a second time this day six months. I feel the difficulty of the position I am taking, having regard to the fact that I have to contend against some of the considerations which have been put forward very forcibly by the hon. Baronet the Member for East Norfolk (Sir E. Birkbeck) in support of the Bill. I may, however, be allowed to say that in every expression of opinion to which he has given utterance in praise of the action of the noble men who man our lifeboats I entirely concur. Their deeds have not only commanded the admiration of this country, but have presented a bright example to the rest of the world. I entirely support everything the hon. Baronet has said in regard to the desirability of removing any obstruction to the efficient performance of the duties of the lifeboat service; but I contend that there is no necessity for this Bill, and I think I shall be able to show that my hon. Friend has hardly made out a good case, apart from the sentimental considerations which have no doubt properly influenced him, and may possibly influence other Members of this House. At all events I hope that we shall give an impartial and a thorough examination to a Bill of this sort, which I shall endeavour to show, although it is apparently very simple in its clauses, is of a very wide and far-reaching character. The first question to consider is what the proposal involves, and whether there is any real necessity for it. I hope the House will bear with me while I quote the provisions of the existing Act of 1877 which is sought to be amended by the Bill of the hon. Baronet. It is an Act to facilitate the removal of wrecks obstructing navigation, and Section 4 provides that— Where any vessel is sunk, stranded, or abandoned in any harbour or tidal water under the jurisdiction of a harbour or conservancy authority, or in or near any approach thereto, in such manner as in the opinion of the authority to be, or be likely to become, an obstruction or danger to navigation in the harbour, the authority may take possession of and raise, remove, or destroy the whole or any part of the vessel, and may light or buoy any such vessel or part until the raising, removal, or destruction thereof, and may sell, in such manner as they think fit, any vessel or part so raised or removed, and also any other property recovered in the exercise of their powers under this Act. This provision is carried much further by Section 5, which says— Where any vessel is sunk, stranded, or abandoned in any fair way, or on the seashore. Of course, there is a consideration which I am afraid that hon. Members may have lightly passed over, and that is, if you extend the provisions for the removal of what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Berwickshire (Mr. Marjoribanks) calls "ancient monuments" where is the money to come from? At present, the removal of wrecks imposes a serious burden upon the Conservancy and Harbour Authorities, which authorities are charged with the removal of wrecks under the Act. In certain eventualities, my hon. Friend says, the Mercantile Marine Fund ought to bear the expense. I ask the attention of the House to the speech of my hon. Friend, and beg hon. Members to note that in a period of 11 years which has passed since the Removal of Wrecks Act was carried, my hon. Friend has not been able to obtain for quotation (with one exception) a single case where there has been an accident owing to the non-removal of a wreck, and I must say that if there had been any actual danger I think my hon. Friend would have been able to have obtained a list of such cases. I think that speaks volumes for my contention that every necessary provision is made by the Act of 1877. I will take the case of the Humber Conservancy Commissioners, who, at the present time, have no power to levy dues on shipping, or to raise the necessary funds for removing wrecks. The funds of these Commissioners are raised by private contributions from railway and dock authorities interested in the efficient navigation of the Humber, and I contend that if this Bill were passed it would involve very serious consequences to the Board. Then, again, in order to give an illustration of the practical and possible working of the provisions of the Bill, I may mention that in the Humber, on the north shore of the river at Sperm Point, the Hull Trinity House authorities have for many years maintained at their own expense a lifeboat, which has rendered most valuable services indeed. That boat has a splendid record; but the Hull Trinity Corporation are not in favour of the Amendment proposed by my hon. Friend's Bill, nor are the Humber Conservancy, and their contention is that it is entirely unnecessary, by reason of the provision which already exists. On the opposite shore, at the entrance to the Lincolnshire coast, there is a station under the charge of the National Lifeboat Institution. On the shore, some few years ago there was a violent gale, and 33 wrecks took place. Those wrecks are driven high and dry at certain states of the tide; and if the Bill is passed it would be contended that those wrecks, which took place so long ago, ought to be removed. The consequence would be that very heavy and unnecessary expense would be thrown on the authority. I hope it will be quite understood that, in moving that this Bill be read a second time this day six months, I am not in any way antagonistic to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution—an institution which I cordially support, and which I believe merits the eulogies cast upon it. But I do ask the House seriously to consider, before allowing the Bill to become law, whether, in the first place, it is really necessary—whether the demands are not entirely met by the provisions of the Act which it proposes to amend; and, in the second place, to remember that no provision is made for the very serious extra liability it will throw upon Harbour Conservancy and other authorities.

MR. MACLURE (Lancashire, S.E., Stretford)

I beg to second the Motion.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Grotrian.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


I will endeavour as far as possible to answer the speech of the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, but it is somewhat difficult, because he has read out to the House the commencement of two sections of the Act of Parliament which bears upon the case, stopping short at the actual part which has any bearing whatever on the Bill of the hon. Baronet now before the House. Our contention is that the Bill is necessary for the purpose of removing wrecks in shallow water, where such wrecks "are not in the way of navigation," which are the obstructions provided for by the Act of 1877. The wrecks to which this Bill will apply are not directly in the way of large vessels, but they are in the way of all small vessels by day and by night. They are sometimes even barely visible in the daytime, and at night their whereabouts can be indicated only by lighting, which is more costly than blowing them up with dynamite. Some of these wrecks are directly in the way of the launching slips of the Lifeboat Institution, and can only with difficulty be avoided. Not very long ago there was a wreck lying almost directly in front of the step of the Cromer lifeboat. The boat had to go within a few fathoms of it every time she was launched, and at night, or when the weather was thick or snowing, I would defy any coxswain steering the lifeboat to avoid coming into collision with it if chance took him in its direction. It must be remembered that in rough weather on the East Coast the lifeboats get out to save life by crawling; round the banks and over the shoals, and that, therefore, old shark's teeth wrecks lying in these places are a source of great danger. The boats could not put to sea in deep water such as you have on the West Coast. We are told that the Mercantile Marine Fund is not in a flourishing condition—and it is not likely to be when hon. Members who have to pay to it can come here and get the fees reduced—but I would point out that the object this Bill has in view was laid down as one of the purposes of that Fund. It is provided by Sub-section 5 of the 418th section of the Act that the Mercantile Marine Fund, subject to any prior charges, shall be chargeable with maintaining lifeboats, crews, and equipments, and affording assistance towards the preservation of life and property in cases of shipwreck and distress at sea That clause distinctly contemplates a proper service of lifeboats on the coast. Thanks to the benevolence of our fellow-countrymen and countrywomen, we have a perfectly voluntary association such as the National Lifeboat Institution, whose expenses, roughly speaking, are £70,000 a-year. But if we had not got an association like that, which is voluntarily looked after and voluntarily supported, I am certain that the country would expect that somehow or other the Mercantile Marine Fund should be called upon to do that which is now done by a voluntary institution. All we ask in this voluntary association is that you should do one of those things which you are called on by Act of Parliament to do—namely, to remove these ribs, these skeletons of wrecks, which are a danger to our lifeboats. I could give you dozens of cases where such danger exists, and I have no doubt that the President of the Lifeboat Institution could give you hundreds. We should be quite ready to accept Amendments to strike out the words "Royal National Lifeboat Institution," so that the Bill should read "or to lifeboats engaged in lifeboat service." We are aware that many other boats do go out to save life, such as ordinary fishing-boats, luggers at Deal, whale-boats at Cork, and the boats of private corporations, such as those at Hull. But I hope the House will not run away with the idea that there is no fund out of which to defray these expenses, and that there is no danger to be got rid of.

SIR SAVILE CROSSLEY (Suffolk, Lowestoft)

I desire to support the Bill, which is urgently needed in my constituency in Suffolk, a constituency possessing a large fleet of fishing boats, and also a most dangerous coast. It is earnestly desired by all classes, not only by the lifeboat men, but the fishermen, and all classes connected with the coast trade and the owners of the harbour at Lowestoft. The Great Eastern Railway Company are not opposed to any email burden which would be placed on them for the further protection of the brave men who risk their own lives to save the lives of others. I trust the opposition to the Bill will be withdrawn, as the hon. Baronet opposite and the promoters of the Bill have proved their case so clearly.

MAJOR RASCH (Essex, South-East)

I should like to point out to the House that this Bill has the almost unanimous assent of the pilots on the East Coast of England; and that it is regarded as of the utmost importance by my constituents who navigate the North Sea and the Thames. These wrecks are the greatest danger to our fishing industry. There are numbers of them on the coast of Essex, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade will do what he can to help the passing of the Second Reading of this most useful Bill. The matter with which it deals is not a sentimental one, but a very practical and serious one, as those who are at all acquainted with the navigation of the Essex coast can testify.

MR. LANE (Cork Co., E.)

I desire to say a few words in support of the Bill rather to show the unanimity of all parties in the House in its support than to add any additional argument to those already given. The hon. Member for East Hull (Mr. Grotrian), the House will admit, has done his duty to his absent friend with conspicuous ability, but I do not think he has given us sufficient reason why we should not pass the Bill. The merits of the measure are so self-evident to the House that it is almost unnecessary that any further time should be occupied in the discussion. I do not think it has ever been my lot to witness a measure received on all sides of the House with such unanimity as this has been. The whole body of Irish Members who usually sit with me on these Benches are in favour of the Bill, because they think it a move in the right direction. It is a measure that will meet a very great want that arises all round the coast of Ireland, and will not, in my opinion, add materially to the burdens already pressing on the Mercantile Marine Fund.


As the hon. Member who has charge of the Bill is willing to agree to certain Amendments in the measure, I now ask leave to withdraw my Amendment to the present Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


This Bill, which proposes a very small amendment of the existing law, appears to commend itself to the almost universal approval of the House. The Mercantile Marine Fund is now in a better condition than it was in some time ago, and is better able to bear additional charges which may be placed upon it; but the expenditure under that Bill ought to be limited strictly to cases where absolute danger exists; and, remembering the important charges to which that fund is now subject, I am sure the hon. Mover of the Bill will not wish that it should be burdened unnecessarily. I do not think that the hon. Member for East Hull has in any way injured the interests which he wishes to serve by withdrawing his opposition to the Second Reading. Those interests are perfectly well able to protect themselves. I will ask the hon. Member for East Norfolk to postpone the Committee stage of the Bill to enable me to communicate with the Lighthouse Authorities, in order that any minor Amendments may be made in the measure if necessary.

Main Question put, and agreed to.