HL Deb 17 March 1905 vol 143 cc322-7

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the continued practice of British ships carrying deck-loads across the Atlantic in winter time, and to ask whether all hope of the safety of the steamers "Nutfield" and "Freshfield" has now been abandoned; whether these steamers carried deck-loads of timber, and, if so, what was the extent of the deck-load in each case; whether it is a fact that owing to her dangerous condition the "Freshfield" was compelled to put in to a port in America to discharge part of her deck cargo before continuing her voyage; and whether it is intended by the Board of Trade to order a formal investigation into the condition of both steamers when leaving port.

Last session I introduced a Bill to your Lordships, the object of which was to prohibit the carriage of deck-loads of timber across the Atlantic in the wintertime, and I drew attention to the serious disasters and loss of life which have occurred in consequence of carrying these deck-loads. Idealtwith the extraordinary anomaly that the Merchant Shipping Act prevents these deck-loads being carried in the winter-time to any port in the United Kingdom. I therefore, I think, justifiably contended that if, as the law assumes, it is dangerous to carry these deck-loads to the United Kingdom, it must, as a matter of course, be equally dangerous to carry them to the Continent. To show the absurdity of the law as it stands I will read two extracts from a letter I received yesterday from the Merchant Service Guild. The secretary writes— On March 2nd last, at Glasgow, the captain of the steamer 'Tritonia' was fined £2 for carrying a log of timber measuring 160 cubic feet on deck. Had this man made a voyage to the Continent instead of Glasgow, the law would have allowed him to carry six or seven hundred tons on deck. In fact, my Lords, the law places no limit on what he might carry to the Continent, although declaring it to be dangerous to carry deck-loads in winter time to the United Kingdom. Again, the secretary to the Merchant Service Guild writes— We understand that another vessel laden with a deck cargo of timber is hopelessly Overdue. This is the 'Mars,' from Pensacola to the Continent, but as she is a German vessel the Board of Trade can do nothing. This is one more illustration of the possible effect of a vessel carrying a deck-load in the winter-time. The Merchant Shipping Act is evaded by these ships, which carry the deck cargoes to the Continent in the winter, and then come to the United Kingdom to discharge the remainder of the cargo, At the conclusion of the debate last year I appealed to your Lordships to pass my Bill, drawing attention to the fact that the winter was coming on, and that whilst the Legislature washesitatingfurther unjustifiable sacrifice of life was likely to take place. In a House of thirty-nine, I was honoured by the support of thirteen noble Lords which encourages me to think that I adduced strong substantiation of my case. I had, of course, to deal with the stereotyped argument that similar restrictions were not placed on foreign ships; but I again insist that if foreign ships are permitted to sail in an unseaworthy condition that is absolutely no reason for allowing British ships to do likewise.

The winter-time is now passing, and, so far as I understand, two steamers, the "Nutfield" and the "Freshfield," carrying cargoes of timber from the United States to the Continent are missing with all hands. I do not desire to anticipate matters, or to make charges unless I have ample foundation. I trust your Lordships will agree with me that we should have full information as to the seaworthiness, or otherwise, of these steamers when they left port, and that the Board of Trade should order a strict investigation in order to ascertain, if possible, the source whence these catastrophes arose. I should add, in conclusion, that the Merchant Service Guild, which represents over a third of the British captains and officers in the merchant service, have urged me to assist them in so amending the law as to prohibit a practice which the law itself condemns but does not in all cases forbid. It seems to me that the gentlemen who command and officer vessels carrying deck cargoes of timber are best able to appreciate the dangers and risks they are wrongfully exposed to in following their employment, and that their opinions, instead of being ignored as at present, should receive due and careful consideration.


My Lords, I took part in the discussion last year upon the Bill which was introduced by the noble Lord who has just sat down, and upon that occasion I voted against his Bill. I did so very reluctantly, as I stated to the House, but I was desirous of affording a good opportunity to His Majesty's Government, if possible, to enter into arrangements with foreign countries which would have enabled a, uniform system in regard to this matter of deck-loads to be introduced. I rise now for the purpose of asking whether any communications with foreign countries have taken place since that period, and, if so, with what result. I am bound to say that though I was prepared last year to wait for the outcome of those communications, I might take a different view if those negotiations have had no result whatever.


My Lords, I do not think that His Majesty's Government have any reason to complain of the interest taken in this question. Undoubtedly any circumstances affecting the lives of those engaged in our mercantile marine are of the highest interest to Parliament, but I think I shall be able to show that the evil to which the noble Lord has called attention, though a real one, has been to some extent exaggerated. In answer to the Question on the Paper, I have to say that the steamship "Nutfield" left Norfolk, Virginia, on December 12th, and has now been posted at Lloyd's in the ordinary course of their business as a vessel long overdue. The "Freshfield" has not yet been posted. It passed Cape Henry on February 7th, and has not since been heard of. No doubt, both of these vessels, although I have not got it as yet on absolute authority, had deck cargoes, and, as is mentioned in the Question, the "Freshfield" is reported as having discharged part of her cargo in an American port. Although both these vessels have not been posted at Lloyd's the Board of Trade have resolved that an inquiry is due, and it has been ordered in both cases.

It was said in the debate last year that we were unable to extend the law relating to these deck cargoes in the case of British vessels entering British ports to the case of British vessels trading between foreign ports because of the competition to which they are exposed, but I do not desire to lay too much stress on that point. The lives of British subjects are so important that it is not proper to dwell upon that point too much. At the same time, it is fair to say that there is an obvious objection to placing unnecessary restrictions upon British vessels when they are actually in competition with foreign vessels. The question is whether these restrictions which the noble Lord urges us to impose are necessary or not. No one in your Lordships' House knows better than the noble Lord who has called attention to this question that by the law of England no British ship is allowed to go to sea in an unseaworthy condition; but one of the most difficult things in the world to prove is whether a ship is in an un-seaworthy condition or not.

Now, what is the extent of this evil? The shipping trade in timber is a very large and growing trade. Many hundreds of British ships are engaged in it. How many vessels have been lost? The noble Lord dealt with steamers, and I think he was quite right in so doing, because the sailing-vessel trade is a diminishing one. There are fewer sailing vessels engaged in the timber trade every year, and it will eventually be nothing but a steamer trade. There has not been more than one steamer a year lost of those vessels in the timber trade passing between foreign ports except in the year 1899. Last year one vessel was lost, and this year there has been one—two altogether—involving the loss of about twenty-five lives in each case. It is impossible to overlook the fact that the trade in which these sailors are engaged is a dangerous one. But the loss of one steamer in each year, and twenty-five lives in each case, does not appear to me to be a very large or formidable evil.

The question is whether Parliament is called upon to legislate on this subject so as to prevent the loss of twenty-five lives. No one can have a doubt that if this could be done reasonably the remedy would be undertaken; but when dealing with so small an evil the question of competition has, to some extent, to be considered. In addition to that feature there is the practical side of the subject. How are we to control British ships trading between foreign ports? We have no technical officials on the spot; there are no Board of Trade officers in foreign ports; and therefore the difficulty of putting in force the restrictions which exist in the case of ships trading with the United Kingdom against those ships wholly engaged in foreign trade is almost insurmountable. I believe that on the whole shipowners are an admirable class of men who carry out their work with a due regard to the sanctity of human life. But there are, of course, in every trade some members who do not come up to the high standard of the vast majority. There are, no doubt, in the shipping trade one or two such owners; and it is earnestly to be hoped that the only real remedy will be applied—namely, that the shipowners themselves will take care that those who are employed by them are not exposed to unnecessary risk, and that the influence of criticism may have the effect of bringing up the exceptions to the high standard of the general body. I trust that the debates in your Lordships' House will have an effect on those who are not of so high a standard as the general body of shipowners, and in that way apply a real and final remedy for the evil to which my noble friend has called attention.

In answer to the noble Marquess, I have to say that no communication has taken place between the Foreign Office and foreign countries on this subject lately. There were, however, as the noble Marquess well knows, inquiries at a former period. We have not found that on questions of this kind foreign countries are very willing to second the efforts of the British authorities. Their merchant marine is constituted on a much smaller scale than ours, and they probably feel the effects of competition at least as much as we do, and are thus reluctant to place restrictions on their merchant service. But we think there is something to be said for the noble Marquess's suggestion, and I am now in communication with my noble friend the Secretary of State to see whether we cannot address some kind of circular inquiry to foreign countries on the subject.