HL Deb 01 August 1879 vol 248 cc1839-41

asked, Whether Her Majesty's Government have taken any steps since the last Session of Parliament to prevent the shipment in merchant vessels, carrying passengers, of gunpowder or other explosive substances in larger quantities than the law permits; and, also, whether any steps have been taken to compel the owners of merchant vessels carrying passengers to provide properly constructed magazines for the stowage of explosive substances? The noble Lord remarked that the trade in explosives from this country had increased so enormously during the last few years, that he thought the time had now come when it would be expedient for the Government to consider whether they ought not to enact that it should be carried on in vessels specially constructed and exclusively appropriated to the traffic?


said, he fully acknowledged the importance of the subject, and thought the best way of answering the Question would be to explain the exact position of the Board of Trade in this matter. Under the Explosives Act of 1875, the harbour authorities were bound to make bye-laws; the bye-laws required the sanc- tion of the Board of Trade; the Board of Trade had no power to compel the harbour authorities to make those bye-laws; but, soon after the passing of the Act of 1875, they issued a Circular to all the harbour authorities drawing their attention to the new Statute. That Circular was issued to all the harbour authorities catalogued by the Commissioners of Customs, and their names were to be found in the House of Commons Paper, No. 213, of 1874. To show that the matter had been in no way neglected, he might say that some of those authorities to which Circulars had been issued were now found to be no longer harbour authorities, or only so in name. Of these, 177, including the principal ports, such as the Thames, the Mersey, the Tyne, and the Tees, had made bye-laws, which had been sanctioned by the Board of Trade. Since the noble Lord brought that question before the House last year the Thames Conservancy had—as he then stated was probable—issued amended bye-laws, with the view of securing the hoisting and keeping the red flag flying on all ships which were about to receive or had on board explosives. In the case of ships carrying passengers, which came under the operation of the Passenger Acts, the carriage of explosives was entirely prohibited, and the officers of the Board of Trade had done their best to see the law properly carried out. In the case of ships which did not come under the Passenger Acts, the Board of Trade officers interfered when they had reason to believe the method in which the explosives were stowed rendered the ship unsafe. The Board of Trade had issued no instructions as to the construction of magazines on board ship. Those they had issued were as follows:— The principal officer of the Board of Trade need not detain any such ship, provided the explosives, being packed as required by the Explosive Substances Act and by order of the Secretary of State, are enclosed in a substantial compartment formed of double boards with an intermediate lining of felt, and free from all exposed iron in the interior thereof, and exclusively appropriated to the stowage of explosives. If such a compartment is not provided, the officer must satisfy himself that the explosives are 'otherwise,' and by careful stowage, secured from contact with or danger from any other article or substance carried as cargo on board the ship. If, for instance, the explosives are surrounded with goods carefully packed and have boards between them and the goods, so as to completely isolate them from all cargo, packing-cases, &c., likely to cause explosion by metal or other dangerous articles coining in contact with powder, and if they are placed on and surrounded by sailcloth or felt in such a way as to prevent effectually any of the powder getting adrift during the voyage and filtering into the general cargo, and if they are so placed and surrounded that the crew cannot get among them in their attempts to plunder cargo during the voyage, the officer need not interfere with their stowage. It is, of course, understood throughout that explosives are not to he placed in the same part of the ship as coals, combustibles, spirits, or other inflammable goods. The noble Lord (Lord Truro) wished to know why ships could not be fitted specially to carry explosives only? There was no reason against ships being so fitted, as far as the Board of Trade were aware, except one—namely, that the cost of fitting ships and using them exclusively for that trade would be too great. As to the desirability of securing to passengers and crew a knowledge that explosives were to be carried by any ship, it was not legal to carry explosives on board passenger ships, as he had said, under the Passenger Acts. Therefore, in those ships there was nothing to warn passengers of. As to passenger ships not under the Passenger Acts, the Board of Trade had nothing to do with regulating the stowage, and were not in a position to give any warning. If a passenger wished to know whether explosives were to be carried, he could easily ascertain the fact by making an application to the Customs or to the harbour authority. With regard to the number of ships burnt, 26 ships had been burnt only, as far as could be known, in the two years ending in 1878. That, of course, was open to a qualification, as some ships—a large number—were reported as lost with the cause unknown. However, the number was not large, when the fact was considered that 316,887 British ships, and 29,881 foreign ships—a total of 346,768—had cleared from ports in the United Kingdom in 1878; 15,187 British, and 3,576 foreign ships from London alone.