HL Deb 14 March 1853 vol 125 cc124-31

rose to move for certain returns, and to call their Lordships' attention to the question of our mercantile marine. Upon a former occasion he had inquired the intention of the Government as to the consolidation of the laws affecting the mercantile marine, and upon that occasion he was referred to some statements about to be made in another place upon the subject. Having, however, attended to the statement which had been made by the President of the Board of Trade, conveyed through the usual channels of information, he had not discovered any satisfactory answer to his inquiries; on which, therefore, he still desired information. He did not propose to enter into the questions as to pilotage or light-dues; but referred entirely to the laws regulating the relations, rights, and duties of masters, owners, and men in the British merchant service. This subject had come under the consideration of the Board of Trade last summer, when the late Government were in office, and he desired to draw attention to their views and intentions on the question. Among the grievances of which the shipowners complained most loudly, was the uncertainty of the laws existing upon this subject. The Board found, accordingly, an immense multiplicity of Acts of Parliament regulating the relative rights of the various parties in the mercantile marine. For instance, there were not less than ten different Acts relating to the obligations of parties in the merchant service, independent of those relating to navigation generally. This was in itself a mischief and an evil; and the importance of simplifying and ascertaining the law was prominently dwelt upon in a pamphlet recently published by a well-known shipowner, Mr. Lindsay. A Bill had been prepared by the late Government to consolidate these Acts, and to introduce such amendments into the existing regulations as had been found necessary in practice, and to carry out to their full extent the principle of the Act of 1850, which had not been then fully acted upon, in consequence of the opposition of the parties engaged in the shipping trade? Those amendments related to a great variety of subjects, of which the first he might mention was that of registry. By the present law every person wishing to enter the sea service, whether in the Royal Navy, or the merchant service, must be provided with a register; he was required to go to the proper office and obtain a register ticket, describing his person, place of birth, and other points fixed by the schedule of the Act. If this ticket were once lost, he could not again be employed until be obtained a new ticket. This he might do by going to the registrar, and showing that the ticket had not been lost by any fault of his, when he would obtain a new one without payment; but if he could not satisfy the registrar on this point, the Act said that he should be liable to a penalty of from 5s. to 10s. Now this provision had given rise to great discontent among the seamen, chiefly by reason of a misconception of the law; for the custom had arisen of taking the seaman before a magistrate and getting him fined to the amount of the penalty. There was great doubt whether this was legal; and high authorities, the law officers of the Crown, had declared that it was not a legal course to pursue, and that the statute only contemplated this result—that the registrar should not deliver a new certificate, unless, under the circumstances in question of the loss of the old one not being accounted for, the fine or penalty was first paid. The seaman, of course, had strongly objected to the being brought up before a magistrate as if they had been guilty of some criminal offence; and this had occasioned such discontent among them that many of them had actually left the British service, and entered into that of foreign countries. Another cause of dissatisfaction on the part of the shipowners had been this—that the non-production by the seaman of his certificate of registry was not admitted to be conclusive evidence of desertion. This had never been intended by the Act under which the registry was required. The Act had been passed in 1834 by Sir James Graham, then, as he was now, First Lord of the Admiralty. His intention was merely to enable the Government at all times to know the number of British seamen in existence if the country should require their services. The ticket, however, being a proof of identity was useful to the seaman to enable him to show his claim for pension, or to recover wages due to him, and advantageous to the shipowner in tracing deserters; and beyond this the objections of either party arose from a mistake as to the original intention, and to the actual law in existence. It had been proposed to amend the clause as to the fine for renewal of a lost ticket, and to make a regulation for the disposal of the ticket in the hands of a shipping-master, on the seaman's arrival in port, to prevent its loss. Another part of the subject, of considerable importance, related to the provisions which ought to be made for the health and comfort of the seamen on shipboard, which was generally admitted to be very inadequate, and to carry further the enactments of 1850. The men complained that at present they too often had not sufficient protection from wet and cold. Again, some amendment of the law was required respecting regulations for the preservation of discipline. It had been the intention of his right hon. Friend the late President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Henley) to pass an Act explaining the powers of masters of ships to punish for breaches of discipline, and to place the law in an intelligible form, and also to extend the powers of the Naval Courts, which had been found to work well, appointed under the Act of 1850. Another clause in the Act of 1850 related to men volunteering from merchant ships for the Navy—a matter which had attracted the attention of Her Majesty's Government; and on this subject he thought it would be very desirable that regulations should be passed respecting the payment of wages, which would prevent temptations to the seamen to leave their ships. At present a merchant seaman could at any time, by merely volunteering into a man-of-war, compel the master to discharge him and pay him at once all arrears of wages. He proposed that it should be enough to give a certificate of the amount due, properly authenticated and guaranteed. There was another subject of great importance to the character of our mercantile marine. Provisions had been made for examination of masters and mates of "foreign-going" vessels with regard to their ability for taking the command of ships; and it was proposed by the late Government to extend this gradually to the "home trade" vessels above a certain tonnage; it had been objected that these would be valueless without provision for instruction. With this view it had been decided to establish schools for merchant seamen, and the object had been to find funds for the purpose. At first no means of educating persons to be called to these duties existed; but by a recent Act the Board of Trade could appropriate the surplus of the Merchant Seamen's Fund to such a purpose; and last year, there being a surplus of 4,000/., steps had been taken to institute a number of schools: a portion of this surplus had been applied, to the establishment of schools in Liverpool and London, in connexion with the "Sailors' Homes," and these schools had already been well attended. The Board of Trade communicated with the Committee of Council on Education requesting instruction as to the best mode of carrying out this object, and communications were held on the subject with the local marine boards of London and Liverpool. He wished to have copies of these communications produced, in order to show what were the intentions of the late Government; and he wished to know whether it was the intention of the present Government to carry out the system of schools which had been thus commenced. There was another point to which he wished to direct attention: he meant the restrictions requiring a British crew to consist of at least three-fourths British seamen. He (Lord Colchester) was sure that their Lordships, although the subject might seem a dry one, were well aware of its great importance to the welfare of the country. Our mercantile marine was the nursery of our Navy; and if we could not, in time of necessity, get sailors from that marine, to man our ships of war, where should we seek them? With this view, he objected to a measure which had emanated from the present Government, for wholly removing the restrictions against enlistment of foreign seamen in our mercantile marine. By the existing law, the Queen had power by proclamation to vary from time to time the proportion of British seamen; and it was a provision of the existing Act, that foreigners, after having served a certain number of years, might be considered British seamen. He did not object to some relaxation of these restrictions; but he could not help thinking, that if it was intended to throw open the manning of British ships to foreigners, it might hereafter be a subject of the deepest regret, and he would express his earnest hope that Her Majesty's Government might be induced to reconsider this point. He would quote the opinion lately expressed by a writer of authority on this subject. Mr. W. S. Lindsay states— If shipowners desire to contest successfully with other countries, the supremacy of the seas, they must devote more care and attention to the welfare of those in their service. Physically and morally they must be mindful of their seamen. They must make them as comfortable as circumstances will admit while at sea; make them feel, that by being faithful to their duties, and adopting a sober and correct line of conduct, they will be cared for in sickness and old age; and give them to understand that those who serve well, may always find employment in their ships, and receive promotion when competent."—[Mercantile Marine Laws considered, by W. S. Lindsay, p. 203.] But, unfortunately, in too many instances, men were got at the lowest possible wages and cast adrift the moment they were not wanted; and surely such shipowners had only themselves to blame if, when they were in need of seamen, they could not get them. There were, however, shining exceptions. An eminent shipowner, Mr. Green, had laid out 10,000l. in building a "Home," and providing for the comforts of his officers and men while on shore, and had always followed a fair and just system of paying them good wages—never getting rid of those who served well, but rewarding them by promotion; and the result was, that men rarely left him, and he never had any want of seamen. If such a system were pursued by other owners, there would never have any necessity for resorting to foreign countries for men to man their vessels. These were the views of the late Government on the subject, and in order to show those views more clearly, he would move for returns of correspondence between the Board of Trade and the Lords of the Treasury on the subject. The noble Lord concluded by moving— That there be laid before this House, Return of the Number of persons who passed their Examination for Masters and Mates of Merchant Ships, between the 1st January 1852, and the 1st January 1853, distinguishing the Number in each Class: And also, Copies of any Correspondence between the Board of Trade and the Committee of Council on Education relative to the Establishment of Schools for Merchant Seamen and Apprentices.


trusted that he should be able to give a satisfactory answer to the noble Lord on many of the points to which he had referred. With regard to the grievance of the mercantile marine arising from the many and multifarious Acts relating to their interests, the subject of the consolidation of those Acts was under the consideration of the Government; but while so many Bills were at present before the other House of Parliament affecting the mercantile marine, it would not be expedient to introduce any general measure of consolidation at this period of the Session, as whatever was done now might have all to be done over again afterwards. When those measures had been passed, he hoped to be able to introduce a measure which should be complete in all its details. With respect to the system of registry tickets for seamen, he admitted that vexatious evils might have arisen in the carrying of that system into execution; but it was well known that the registry was established as much for Admiralty purposes as for the mercantile marine. The subject, however, was before the First Lord of the Admiralty, by whom the whole matter would be considered. With regard to the discipline of the merchant service, that was entirely a matter of detail. The Government, he could assure the noble Lord, were very desirous of improving the efficiency of the naval courts abroad; but this point involved to a certain extent the conflicting authorities of foreign with British law; and whatever was done to increase the power of those courts must be done with due care and deliberation. He believed the plan that had already been proposed in the other House of Parliament would not differ materially from the scheme of the noble Lord opposite for the consolidation of these Acts. The present Government proposed that the sailors on board of merchant ships should not be deprived of the right of volunteering to enter Her Majesty's ships in foreign ports; but it was not intended that the captain of the merchant ship should be required in all cases, as had hitherto been the practice, to pay all his wages to the seaman so volunteering, and transfer all his property to Her Majesty's ship. The men's wages would not in future have to be paid till the ship returned home, and compensation would be allowed, upon certain conditions, to the captain of the merchant vessel who had sustained injury by being deprived of the services of part of his crew, and being put to additional expense by employing new hands. These, he thought, were all the points which the noble Lord said he meant to touch upon in relation to the consolidation of the Acts relating to the mercantile marine. The noble Lord would see that they were not very numerous in themselves; and if they were all, he (Lord Stanley) would grant that it might be possible to introduce a Bill for the consolidation of these Acts. But when the noble Lord considered that, besides the points to which he had alluded, there were also the questions of pilotage, lighthouses, salvage, desertion, and many others, which were now the subjects of legislation, he would see that it would be advisable to postpone for the present the introduction of a measure of consolidation. The noble Lord had called attention to the system of examination for masters and mates of the mercantile marine. That system was working exceedingly well, and he trusted that the effect of it would be to place the masters and mates of the British merchant service in a high position as compared with any foreign merchant service in the higher branches of education. The noble Lord said that we ought to establish a system of instruction whereby masters and mates would be qualified for undergoing the examination, and that during the last year he had established two schools for that purpose, the expenses of which were to be defrayed out of the surplus funds in the hands of the Board of Trade, arising from the fees payable by masters and mates passing the examination, and from other sources. He (Lord Stanley) believed that the Board of Trade was empowered by Act of Parliament to appropriate this surplus in such a manner; but it was only right to say that certain local marine boards had objected to such an application of these funds. An application had been made to the Committee of Privy Council on Education for pecuniary assistance to these schools; and he trusted that that department would be able to give the case a favourable consideration—for he felt a very great interest in the schools, and should be sorry to see them falling into decay from want of support, because he was sure they were effecting a great improvement in the character of the mercantile marine. It was the wish of the Government that no further fees or dues should be required from the mercantile marine in respect of lights, pilotage, ballasting, the examination of masters and mates, or the engaging or discharging of seamen, than such as were absolutely necessary for maintaining the establishments in efficiency; and they wished, also, that there should be a department of the Government which should be always responsible to Parliament for the proper expenditure of the sum so levied from the mercantile marine. They desired, further, that the local boards and local authorities should have the management and direction of such matters as could best be conducted by them; but they thought, likewise, that there should be a control and superintendence on the part of a responsible depart- ment of the Executive to see that the objects were fairly carried out. There would be no objection to the production of the returns which the noble Lord opposite asked for.


said, that a large sum of money had been raised at Shields for the erection of a sailors' home, but entirely on the strength of a promise made by the former Government, that there should be a nautical school maintained there by the Government. He wished to ask whether that promise would be ratified or not by the present Administration?


was understood to answer that an application for a contribution in aid of the school at Shields had been made by the President of the Board of Trade to the Committee of Privy Council on Education, but no reply had yet been received.


said, that with respect to the subject before the House, he might perhaps be allowed to make a suggestion. The returns showed the number of seamen engaged in the foreign trade, but there was no return to show the number of seamen at home in each month of the year. He thought it would be highly desirable to have the number known, so that we should be able to ascertain in a moment of emergency how strong a force was obtainable. He hoped that, under the new measure, the present right of anchorage would not be taken away.


was not aware of any such intention on the part of the present Government. As far as he knew, the rights of Her Majesty's ships as to anchorage had never been considered by the mercantile marine to be a serious grievance.

On Question, agreed to.