HL Deb 27 April 1888 vol 325 cc725-32

said, he rose to call attention to the Report of the Committee appointed by the Board of Trade to inquire into the desirability of electrical communication between light vessels and outlying lighthouses and the shore. An interesting discussion on this important question had been recently held at a meeting of the Associated Chambers of Commerce, and at a meeting of the Plymouth Chamber, of which he was a member, there had been a discussion on the question which was well worth attention. The Committee had dealt mainly with lightships and lighthouses near the mouth of the Thames, though the recommendations of some Chambers of Commerce went so far as to urge that cables all round the coast should connect all the lighthouses with the General Post Office system, That, however, would involve great expense. He hoped that the Bill—which, he believed, was shortly to be intro- duced—would enable Lloyd's to purchase sites for their signal stations. He desired to call attention to the subject, particularly in connection with saving life at sea. At present the only means of communicating information of wrecks from lightships or lighthouses was by rockets and guns; but these signals were not wholly satisfactory. The guns often were not heard, and in fogs the rockets were not seen; and, in many cases, they did not indicate the position of the wreck—a matter of the highest importance—nor did they give any information as to its size, or the number of passengers to be saved; whereas the telegraph could at once communicate all these particulars. He need not dwell on the enormous importance of time in these cases. A few hours, often a few minutes, made all the difference between absolute disaster and the saving of life. He might quote from the experience of the coxswain of the lifeboat at Ramsgate to show the inestimable value of telegraphic communication, and that, under the present system of rockets, a wreck might lie for many hours in great peril without those on land, 20 miles away, knowing anything about it. He particularly mentioned the case of the Indian Chief, which got aground early in the morning. In this instance, telegraphic communication would have been of the greatest importance. He thought it would be sufficient to read one paragraph from the evidence of Captain Glover, who mentioned that telegraphic communication would have been the means of saving hundreds of lives. The superintendent of the telegraph department of Lloyd's gave a number of instances in which telegraphic communication would have saved lives. In the case of the Schiller, lost about 15 years ago, 331 lives were sacrificed, and the Coroner's jury gave it as their opinion that if there had been electric communication the vessel would have been saved. He would also mention a case off the coast of his own county, where a vessel which was wrecked might I have been saved if her state had been known in time. This system had been adopted in Canada, where telegraphic communication was used for commercial purposes, as well as in North Germany, where the lighthouses were connected with the shore, in Denmark, and, ho thought, in Sweden and Norway. He was not anxious now to urge on the Government a great expenditure; but he wished to insist that the question should not be lost sight of. He hoped that they would hear that there would be a gradual extension of the system. The country at large was interested to an extraordinary extent, a year or two ago, in the subject of the saving of life at sea; and he ventured to think that, without incurring very large expense, communications might be established between certain prominent lightships, and also outlying lighthouses, and the shore by means of the appliances of modern science. He hoped the subject would be seriously considered by the Board of Trade, and that gradually and cautiously the system would be extended.


said, that the subject to which the noble Earl had called attention was one which interested a very large and important body in this country—namely, the Mercantile Marine. At the outset it was important to call attention to the terms of reference of the Committee. It was appointed with the special object of facilitating the saving of life at sea, and the reason for that reference was that the funds which the Government were enabled to devote to that purpose could only be derived from one source, and that source was the Mercantile Marine Fund. Now, by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1854, it was provided that the Mercantile Marine Fund should be applied to the Local Marine Board and purposes connected with it, the expenses of surveyors of steamships, expenses of Lighthouse Authorities, lastage and ballastage of the Thames, expenses of Wreck Receivers, the preservation of life and property from and in case of shipwreck, any expenses specially charged by Act of Parliament, and "for no other purpose whatever." Therefore it was quite impossible to apply any portion of the Mercantile Marine Fund for the purpose of establishing electrical communication around our shores for commercial purposes. If it was desired to do anything in that way in the interests of commerce, the fund must be provided by shipowners themselves or by the Post Office, who were bound by Treasury regulations to incur no expenditure which would not either prove remunerative or be guaranteed by those deriving benefit from it. Apart, however, from the question of cost, there was a question of danger to the lightships themselves, because if masters were able to make communications with the shore through the lightships, the number of vessels which would approach to the lightships would largely increase, with the consequent risk that the lightships might be run down and a dangerous shoal or sandbank left absolutely unprotected. It was the duty of the Board of Trade and the Lighthouse Authorities to see that expenditure for this purpose was devoted, in the first place, to the prevention of wrecks, and not to offering temptations for lightships being approached for signalling purposes. A few years ago the lighthouse dues were very largely reduced, and the bad trade had caused a further falling-off. The consequence was that in 1886 it was found necessary to borrow for the purposes of the Mercantile Marine Fund the sum of £250,000 from the funds of Greenwich Hospital. In 1886–7 £100,000 of that sum had to be expended in order to make up a deficiency between receipts and expenditure. Taking the accounts for 1886–7, the last completed, as representing the annual expenditure and as a basis of comparison, the deficiency for the year 1887–8 might be taken at £160,000, being £68,000 in excess of dues for maintenance of lighthouses and new works, and £92,000 in excess of income upon other branches of the service—namely, Mercantile Marine offices, surveys of ships, expenses of saving life on the coast, and relief of distressed seamen abroad. But inasmuch as the receipts from light dues had increased by £12,000, and as the accounts of the Lighthouse Boards for only six months for the last year, 1887–8, had been as yet received, he had obtained from those Boards an estimate of their expenditure for the succeeding three months to December 31, 1887. This information led to the conclusion that the deficiency for the whole year 1887–8 might possibly not exceed £110,000. During the last 10 years there had been an average of about £50,000 expended on new works. In the unfortunate state of the Mercantile Marine Fund the Board of Trade had done all they could to reduce the expenditure on new works, but they had not been able to reduce it below £85,800. The reason of this was that in these days shipowners and perhaps shipmasters were tempted to drive their ships by lights, instead of, as in times past, navigating them by the lead. Consequently, demands would continue to be made for illuminants of higher powers, for fog signals emitting increased volumes of sound, and other appliances which inventors were not slow to urge the Board of Trade to adopt. As things were, the means of signalling ships coming to our ports were very considerable, and shipowners had no great difficulty in obtaining early information regarding the approach of their vessels. It was a difficult and expensive task to establish communication between isolated rocks and the mainland, but experiments were now being carried out by Lloyd's without actual metallic contact in this direction, and if those experiments were successful there was reason to hope that the system of communication between outlying rocks and the land might be very largely made use of. For vessels coming up the east end of the Channel there were ample means of communication, as there were stations at Dungeness, Beachy Head, two at Dover, and one at Deal, while it was under consideration whether there should not be another at the North Foreland. Vessels approaching the Thames from the North were reported at Southend Pier, and it was contemplated to establish a station at Orfordness, which vessels approaching the Thames could hardly miss. For the East Coast north of the Thames there were Flamborough, Yarmouth, Grimsby, and Aldborough. With regard to the experiments which had been made at the Sunk lightship, they had been very costly. The ship cost £7,000 without the fog signals; but for the purposes proposed this vessel would be too small, and it would be necessary to expend £8,000 on any other ship for like purposes, while the cost of maintenance would amount to £2,420 a-year, exclusive of £4,000 for the cable. What had been the practical results of the Sunk experiments? Since its establishment the ship had only called the lifeboat out seven times by telegraph, and on every one of those occasions the lifeboat had been apprised earlier by the rocket signals. It must be remembered that it was not possible always to have a man watching the shore end of the cable; he might be in bed, and only be called up by the ringing of the bell, and then he would have to go out to give the message. It was true that there was one advantage of communication by cable—namely, that it might prevent the lifeboat from going out on a futile errand after the wreck had been got off; but he must point out that the lifeboat men were paid for every time they went out 10s. in the day and £1 at night. It had been argued that by having cable communication those on shore were able to know the exact locality of the wreck; but it must be remembered that rockets were fired in the direction of the wreck, and consequently the lifeboat men were able to form an accurate idea as to where the wreck was lying. It might be the case that cable communication would have been of advantage in the case of the Deutschland and the Indian Chief, but there the want had been not so much of communication between lightship and shore as that there was no ship at all at the most important point. Since that time a ship had been placed at the Long Sand, and only one casualty had occurred since. To establish cable communication was a very expensive matter. A light cable chafed, while with a heavy one there was the risk of the ship's anchor fouling it and the ship sheering on to the lightship and causing it considerable damage. The experiments, therefore, at the Sunk hardly justified further expenditure in the same direction. The Mercantile Marine Fund was in a state approaching bankruptcy and could not be saddled with further burdens, while shipowners were not ready to come forward themselves. Lloyd's and The Shipping Gazette had done much to prevent loss of life at sea by supplying early information, and he trusted that the Bill shortly to be introduced by Lloyd's might pass through Parliament that Session; at all events, it would meet with no opposition on the part of the Government. He held that it was the duty of the Government with respect to this question rather to prevent wrecks than to give information after they had taken place, to spend their funds upon maintaining the efficiency of our existing lightships, and then, if anything further was possible, to increase the number of those ships. He could not, therefore, hold out to the noble Earl that there was any chance of the Government taking up this question at present.


said, he was sorry to hear the answer just given by the noble Earl. He had been disappointed in the Report which had been sent to the Board of Trade by the Committee appointed to consider the question of saving life at sea, and he had himself desired to send a fuller Report, recommending that further experiments should be carried on, but in a different manner. He was, however, bound to be guided by the opinion of the remainder of the Committee, and he had, therefore, been unable to give effect to his views. He was all the more pleased., therefore, that their Lordships' attention should be called to this subject. He agreed with the noble Earl opposite that the Committee had been rather too guarded in the expression of their views. There had been several matters which they had wished to recommend; but they had been informed that the present state of the funds at the disposal of the disposal of the Board of Trade prevented any possibility of carrying out such suggestions. He believed that much would be done by the Bill which Lloyd's had promoted last Session, in which they engaged to transmit information of wrecks to the nearest lifeboat station. He was happy to say that the experiments which had been tried showed that it had been found possible to maintain electric communication between the shore and the lightships, and that the ordinary work of maintaining or repairing the cables, if broken, was carried out by the men on board the "Sunk" lightship in a most satisfactory manner. Those experiments had been continued throughout the winter with the most satisfactory results. The noble Earl had said that the cost of maintaining that communication was very great; but, on the other hand, the value of the service rendered by means of that communication ought not to be overlooked. He thought that it would be in the interests of the lightships themselves that they should be of a larger type. It had been found that, while the men on board the lightships off the coast could see for miles around them, at night the coast was hidden by fog, and no signals made on the ships could be seen from the shore. In these circumstances telephonic communication between the ships and the shore would be of the utmost value. He did not advise that lightships should be made the medium of communicating between passing vessels and the shore, because that might lead a vessel into too close proximity to the lightship, and thus cause danger to both. Lightships were placed in their positions for the purpose of warning vessels to keep away, and not for the purpose of attracting them into positions of danger. He hoped that provision would be made for giving special duty pay to those seamen who, by learning the technical details of cable maintenance, wore thus saving for the Department the wages of a professional electrician.


said, that there had been too many objections, good, bad, and indifferent, offered by the noble Earl (the Earl of Onslow) in his reply to the observations of his noble Friend (the Earl of Morley). He was aware that it was the duty of the Government to exercise the strongest possible supervision over the expenditure of the country; but, at the same time, in the matter of saving life at sea, ho thought, even if the Mercantile Marine Fund was, as had been alleged, almost insolvent, the difficulty of want of funds for that purpose might be overcome by making an application to Parliament. It was stated on behalf of the Government that experiments had been tried with regard to electric communication between the shore and lightships, and that it had been found impossible to keep the cables in continuous I good working condition. He understood, however, that the noble Earl who had last spoken took exactly the opposite view of the matter, and that the experiments had proved successful. However that might be, the experiments ought not to be dropped, and he hoped that the Government would give the House an assurance that both in the interest of commerce and life-saving they would consider the subject further, instead of finally putting it one side.