HL Deb 25 May 1903 vol 122 cc1607-13

, in rising " to call attention to the continuance of the practice of the carriage of deck loads in the winter time, by merchant ships, which subject was brought forward in this House in the year 1901; to allude amongst other cases to the 'Blenheim' and the 'Firth of Forth'; and to move that inasmuch as under the Merchant Shipping Act, merchant ships are prohibited from carrying deck loads to the ports in the United Kingdom in the winter time, this prohibition should now be extended to similar vessels carrying deck cargoes to Continental ports during the winter season," said: My Lords, the subject of my Motion vitally concerns the lives of our seafarers, and I had the honour of introducing it to your Lordships' notice in the year 1901, after the Board of Trade Inquiries into the loss of the steamer " Mobile" with all hands, and the casualty to the steamer " Huddersfield," where it was found that, owing to their carrying deck loads in the winter time in the North Atlantic, both vessels were sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition. I then desired to know whether the Board of Trade intended to take any action to avert such serious loss of life on the facts as stated in the judgments of these two Board of Trade Inquiries. My noble friend, Lord Dudley, in replying, showed that, as usual, the Board of Trade were impotent in such cases. They cannot take action against the owners of the vessels, exactly in the same way as they have admitted they cannot take action in regard to owners who have been found to blame for sending their vessels to sea in an unseaworthy condition through insufficient ballast. For the information of your Lordships I may say that deck loads are never brought to this country in the winter time by merchant ships, because the law imposes upon the master of the ship, and also upon the owner, if he is privy to they offence, a fine not exceeding £5 for every hundred cubic feet of wood goods carried in contravention of the law. A very simple means of evasion is, however, adopted, for what is easier than to pile on as much deck cargo as possible and take it to a Continental port and there discharge it, the remainder of the cargo being then brought into port in the United Kingdom for discharge. I have on a previous occasion pointed out to your Lordships how the " Mobile " and the "Huddersfield" were proceeding to the Continent in this way in the winter time, the former ship, which was lost with all hands, carrying a deck cargo of pitch pine timber estimated at no less than 700 tons. Another case which I might mention, is the loss of the ss. "Cardinal." The Board of Trade Inquiry in this case resulted in the Court finding that the loss of this vessel was caused by the deck cargo being washed overboard by heavy seas, carrying away the bulwarks and steering gear and staving in the after hatches, thus rendering the vessel unmanageable and water-logged.

I had hoped that after bringing the matter before your Lordships' House this most reprehensible and dangerous practice would have ceased, but from information I have received, and from the cases of the "Blenheim" and the "Firth of Forth," the fact is very plain that it still goes on. In the case of the "Firth of Forth" it is proper for me to say that the disaster was not, at any rate, immediately due to the deck cargo; but still the Annex to the Report of the Board of Trade Inquiry furnishes instructive reading. She left the United States with a deck cargo consisting of no less than 760 large logs, these being consigned to Amsterdam, and the remainder of the cargo to Sunderland. From the Annex to the Report it appears that previous to the stranding of the vessel she had a list, which increased considerably until the ship was almost on her beam ends, and after a consultation with the chief officer the master decided to cut the lashings and sacrifice the deck cargo. I have no hesitation in saying that if he had not done this the ship would have eventually been herself sacrificed and most probably her crew as well. Then, again, there is the "Blenheim" which left Ship Island in the United States in the winter time with a deck cargo of 111 standards of timber. She left Ship Island for Sydney, Cape Breton, to coal, and then departed for her voyage to Fecamp, France. The Board of Trade Inquiry was not prepared to say that when the vessel left Sydney, Cape Breton, she was seaworthy, but on the same afternoon it appears that the master filled up No. 4 ballast tank. The Court thereupon said that they were not prepared to say that after this she was not unseaworthy, from which it seems to me there was considerable doubt existing as to what was actually the case. The vessel met with heavy weather, as is naturally to be expected in the North Atlantic in the winter, and consequently the deck load shifted, causing a great list to starboard and the vessel to ship large quantities of water. The Court stated that the cause of the deck load breaking adrift, and the vessel taking a list to starboard was that she laboured heavily and was struck by a heavy sea on the port side. Great damage was sustained by the vessel then and thereafter, and the Court stated that, although they would have been practically of no assistance, no less than three of the deck pumps were inaccessible in consequence of the deck timber being stowed over them. The Court attached no wrongful act or default to anybody, but desired to state that in their opinion this disaster showed the wisdom of the statutory regulation that vessels shall not carry deck loads of timber to discharge at ports in the United Kingdom in winter, and they wished that other nations would adopt the same course. If then, it is desirable to prohibit such vessels in the United Kingdom, to he consistent it is equally necessary that they should be prohibited from running to the Continent, as in this case of the "Blenheim."

To revert to the disaster to the "Cardinal." The opinion of the Court was— Although Section 451 of the Merchant Shipping Act prohibiting the carrying of deck loads during the winter season to United Kingdom ports does nut apply, as in this case, to a vessel bound to a Continental port, still, having regard to the weight of the deck cargo curried, and to the length and size of a great proportion of the pitch pine logs of which it consisted, the Court was of opinion that the vessel, as laden, was not in a good and seaworthy condition when she left Pensacola on a, winter voyage across the North Atlantic. From the reply of my noble friend the Earl of Dudley, it seemed to me that the Board of Trade were more anxious to fix the responsibility on the unfortunate shipmaster than upon the owner for whose interests he was working. The question arises as to what is the actual discretion of the master, and whether he is able to decline to carry a deck load. The owners say it is at his discretion to carry it or not, but the masters, on their part, contend that they have no option, especially as if others carry deck loads and they do not, they will inevitably lose their positions on arrival home. This is a perfectly reasonable view of the matter, and is a sample of the discretionary powers vested in shipmasters. I will quote from a letter sent by the owners of the "Cardinal" to the master of that vessel before she proceeded from the United States with her deck cargo. The owners wrote as follows— Deck load—I wish you to carry as much as you can safely and legally. I may here interpolate that there was really no limit, as she was bound to a Continental port. If you go to the Continent, I think you are entitled to carry a larger quantity than to the United Kingdom. If you are not acquainted with the custom in such cases, doubtless you can procure authentic information from the best authority in Pensacola where timber carrying is a speciality. I may state that the custom is that vessels bound to Continental ports carry deck cargoes, so that the master does not seem to have had much option. The following are the instructions from the owners of the "Blenheim" to the captain of that vessel whilst she was lying at Pensacola — We are sorry to say it is a miserable business; the homeward market is simply in a desperate condition, and we fear the present voyage is going to be a very poor one indeed. We rely upon your best being done to prevent, at all events, a loss, and hope a favourable cargo will be shipped. You will, of course, be allowed to carry a full deck load for the Continent compatible with the steamer's seaworthiness, and we trust you will take full advantage of this liberty. There is no cause for surprise that the master did take full advantage of the liberty, and I contend very strongly that letters of instruction such as these leave but one course for the master, whilst at the same time they afford a loophole for the owners to escape by stating that the master had discretion when, as a matter of fact he had not.

The time has now come when the Board of Trade should bestir itself and prevent unnecessary risk to life at sea. I am not inconsistent in holding very strongly that if it is dangerous to carry deck cargoes to this country in the winter-time—a danger recognised by law—there is also serious danger in carrying them to Continental ports. I have no doubt I shall be told that this is another move in the placing of further restrictions on our shipowners, but if these deck cargoes are dangerous to the ships then they are calculated to be detrimental to the interests of their owners, and were all such cargoes prohibited then I do not think the shipowners would suffer, as in that case the competition between them, which causes them to carry the fullest amount of cargo possible, would be at least removed so far as it concerns the carriage of deck loads to Continental ports. A captain with a very extensive experience writes— It is certainly a disgrace to allow steamers to sail from the Gulf ports with deck cargoes as they are at present doing for the Continent. And on this another gentleman writes— Steamers load at Pensacola, Mobile, and other Gulf ports, the very same deck load winter and summer. Their voyage in winter is generally to the Continent with a deck load, and then to London or a British port to discharge the under deck cargo—thus evading the law. These ships all take the same Atlantic track, and the results are well known. The master must obey instructions, or very naturally the owners will get someone who will do what is the custom in the trade. In submitting my Motion to your Lordships, I earnestly hope for your support in obtaining an Amendment to the law, which is perfectly reasonable and consistent, and which, if carried out, will undoubtedly add very considerably to the protection of the lives of our mariners whilst following their perilous calling on the high seas.

Moved to resolve, "That this House is of opinion that, inasmuch as under the Merchant Shipping Act, merchant ships are prohibited from carrying deck loads to the ports in the United Kingdom in the winter time, this prohibition should now be extended to similar vessels carrying deck cargoes to Continental ports during the winter season."—(Lord MusKerry.)


My Lords, as far as British ports are concerned, the law as it now stands is rigorously enforced against British and foreign ships alike. During 1901-2 there were twenty-two convictions, of which no less than seventeen were obtained against foreign vessels. In the case of the "Blenheim" the Court exonerated the master, the officers, the managers, and the owners, and therefore a prosecution was impossible. In the case of the "Firth of Forth" the Court found that the stranding was due to negligent and improper navigation. With regard to the general question, I understand that the noble Lord wishes to make the carrying of deck loads of timber in winter by British ships illegal, wherever the loads may have been shipped or discharged. That would mean seriously handicapping our own ships in their competition with foreigners—already very severe—upon whom, of course, we have no power to impose similar restrictions. The Legislature has hitherto refrained from subjecting British ships to regulations which they would have no power to impose on foreigners. I will give my noble friend the figures of losses as regards the trade between foreign ports for the last four years—namely, foundered or missing, eight ships and thirty lives; and for the four years previous to that, nineteen ships and 129 lives. With these figures in mind I hope my noble friend will not press his Motion.


I wish to strengthen the hands of the Board of Trade and must press my Motion.


The loss of life involved is such a serious matter that I trust His Majesty's Government will do what they can to induce other nations to take action in this matter by drawing their attention to the serious logs of life which occurs, especially among British seamen. it appears to

Resolved in the negative.