HL Deb 23 July 1878 vol 242 cc13-8

called attention to the improper stowage of upwards of 20 tons of gunpowder on board the merchant and passenger sailing ship Pereora in the Thames; to the defective state of the law as requiring proper magazines for the transport of gunpowder on merchant ships; and to the inefficient inspection of the stowage of gunpowder on merchant ships in and at the mouth of the Thames either by the Board of Trade or the Thames Conservancy. The noble Lord said, that the whole subject relating to the stowage of gunpowder on board vessels was, to his mind, one of considerable importance both to the public and the merchant shipping of this country. The case of the Pereora was not one of which he desired to make any great point; but he had availed himself of it as an illustration of certain deficiencies in the administration of the Port of London. The Pereora was a vessel of 1,600 tons, belonging to the New Zealand Shipping Company, and was on a voyage from the Port of London to Auckland with a general cargo, which it appeared was made up, or made complete, by placing on board a considerable quantity of gunpowder—amounting, he was informed, to as much as 30 or 40 tons; though, for the sake of being with in the mark, he had put it down at 20 tons. Before going further, he wished to state that the matter to which he proposed to call attention did not in any way indicate a conflict of jurisdiction between the Thames Conservancy and the Board of Trade. Not long since, a Statute, called "The Explosives Act" was passed, which, he would not say empowered, but directed, the Thames Conservancy to draw up certain bye-laws regulating the stowage and other matters connected with vessels. Therefore, it was not from any conflict of authority that that of which he complained had arisen; but from a disinclination on the part both of the Conservancy and the Government to exercise the powers placed in their hands. Now, he wished to direct the attention of the Government to three things—first, to the stowage of gunpowder on board merchant and sailing ships; secondly, to the inspection of magazines in which gunpowder was stored; and, thirdly, to the defective state of the law in regard to notice. In regard to this latter point, he would at once say that he hoped the House would take some steps for insuring that notice of the intention to ship gunpowder should be given, not only to the Board of Trade, but to the passengers and crew of a ship. It appeared that the Board of Trade had always been unwilling to impose any restrictions or regulations which might be considered unduly to interfere with commerce; and, therefore, had left this matter very much to the supervision of the Thames Conservancy. He was aware that there were certain regulations in force in reference to the stowage of small quantities of gunpowder. It was required to be packed in kegs of a certain size; those kegs could only be taken on board in small numbers, and they were required to be kept separate from the rest of the cargo, or any combustibles. But there were no regulations of any moment imposed by the Thames Conservancy, much less by any direct law; and the consequence very often was that which happened in the case of the Pereora. It appeared that at 12 at night, before the ship left the Thames, the captain was informed that it was the intention of the shippers to embark gunpowder on board. The following morning the carpenters set to work to erect what was considered, by them, a sufficient magazine, but which was a mere wooden partition; and the gunpowder having been taken on board, to the amount of 40 tons, the ship then left the following morning for its destination. No notice having been given to the passengers, they could offer no appeal, and the consequence was that the relatives of those on board were not in a very happy frame of mind as to what might happen. Now, it was not at all a difficult matter to ship gunpowder on the Thames over-night, to elude all inspection, and then next morning to slip down the river without any interruption on the part of the authorities. There was a regulation that a red flag should be hoisted on ships leaving the Port of London; but it was easy enough to avoid that by dropping down the river late at night, after the officials had gone to bed, there take the gunpowder on board, and next morning get away without notice or interference. No doubt, there was a law to stop all this; but it was in a very unsatisfactory condition and required alteration. For himself, he took a much wider view of the question than that indicated in his Notice. Their Lordships might not be aware that there was no law existing which compelled notice to be given either to the Board of Trade, or any other authority, by the owners of vessels leaving any of the ports of England laden with gunpowder; and, that being so, he wished to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they did not deem it right and advisable to consider the expediency of enforcing the construction of proper magazines on board merchant ships for the stowage of gunpowder, and to direct that the officers of the Board of Trade should supervise them from time to time? The Board of Trade might answer, and very probably would—" Why should we not call upon the River Conservancy, who are the local authority, to see to the construction of these magazines, and to supervise them by a proper Inspector? " With all respect to the Board of Trade, he could not help thinking that this was rather an Imperial concern, than a matter to be left to local management and local inspection. When they considered the extent of the shipping of the country in many of their ports, and the lives and property that were at stake, they surely ought not to be content with the supervision that might be exercised by the local authorities. They ought certainly to look to the Imperial power for the enforcement of regulations of this character, and ought not to be satisfied without it. Now, a word as to the notice. In the case he had mentioned, there was no notice; but a relation of one of the passengers on board the Pereora, who appeared to have been alarmed at this taking in of gunpowder, made it his duty to go, first, to the Inspector of the Conservancy Board, and then to an Inspector of the Board of Trade; and after much running about from one to the other, craving mercy for his friends on board, he was told by the Board of Trade Inspector that he could do nothing; and the Conservancy Board Inspector told him he was powerless, there being no regulation or bye-law of either Board which would justify his action. It was quite true there was something of the nature of a magazine; but it was not such a magazine as would exist on board Her Majesty's Navy, or in any of Her Majesty's ships; and he thought he was justified in contending that if the crews of Her Majesty's ships were entitled to the protection afforded by a well-built and properly constructed magazine, the crews and passengers of the Mercantile Marine were entitled to no less care and protection. He had now touched upon the three matters which he desired, with all respect, to bring before Her Majesty's Government. In order, however, to confirm what he had said about there being no bye-laws to justify interference with ships in this matter, he quoted a judgment of Mr. Rothery, one of the Wreck Commissioners, in a very important case, arising before him a short time since. In this judgment, it was pointed out that the bye-laws provided that in any ship or boat carrying a greater quantity than 300 lbs. of explosives— Due precaution shall be taken by the protection of a bulkhead, partition, or otherwise, and by careful stowing, to secure the explosives from being brought into contact with any other article or substance carried in such ship or boat. Mr. Rothery said— It will be seen that this bye-law imposes no obligation on shipowners to construct a separate compartment for explosives, but only to separate them from the rest of the cargo by bulkheads, partitions, or otherwise. He (Lord Truro) did not expect from Her Majesty's Government a full and complete answer to the suggestions he had made; but he thought it was a subject that ought to receive the careful and full consideration of Her Majesty's Government. He hoped next Session to revive the subject, and he trusted the suggestions he had offered would receive that consideration which was their due.


said, that at the present moment the Board of Trade had no information regarding the Pereora. He should be very glad to make a full statement as to the law and the regulations concerning the shipment and stowage of gunpowder and other explosives, if the noble Lord would give him a little longer Notice; but he would immediately lay on the Table of the House copies of the bye-laws of the Thames Conservancy Board, and also copies of the instructions issued by the Board of Trade on this subject. The Thames Conservancy Board proposed, after consultation with the Board of Trade, to amend one or two of their bye-laws so as to secure the hoisting and carrying of a red flag when ships were taking in gunpowder or explosives, or when they were laden with gunpowder and explosives. This would insure greater safety to life and property. He could only further say that the attention of the Board of Trade had been given to this subject constantly. It was a subject beset with all kinds of difficul- ties. On the part of the Board of Trade, he had to thank the noble Lord for drawing public attention to it.