HL Deb 24 June 1907 vol 176 cc804-13

rose to call attention to the carriage of deck-loads by British merchant vessels in the winter season, and to accidents and loss of life which had occurred thereby; to ask whether this matter would be considered by the Board of Trade Advisory Committee; and to move for a Return giving a list of vessels carrying timber deck-loads reported to have met with casualties affecting their deck-cargoes during the period from the 1st October, 1906, to the end of April of the present year whilst on voyages from American to European ports; and, also, containing a list of vessels reported to have met with casualties affecting deck-cargoes, of whatever description, sailing from ports in the United Kingdom during the same period.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, again in the interests of our seamen and those who are dependent upon them, I wish to draw your Lordships' attention to the serious dangers of deck-loads carried by merchant vessels. Contrary to my expectations and to the sympathetic utterances of certain of your Lordships on both sides of this House, we now find that the new Merchant Shipping Act perpetuates the evil instead of eradicating it. The law, as it stands, forbids, under heavy penalties, dangerous timber deck-loads being brought into ports in the United Kingdom during the winter season. But when, during the discussion on the Merchant Shipping Bill, I endeavoured to extend the law so that they would be forbidden in the case of continental ports also, I met with pronounced hostility from His Majesty's Government.

The absurdity of the thing is this. Take two ships precisely similar in every respect and with the same dangerous deck-cargo, both leaving the same port in the United States, one bound for an English port and the other for a continental port. They both arrive at the same time, say in Plymouth. The ship with her cargo consigned to the English port will be liable to the heavy penalties, whereas the other vessel can take in coal or provisions, and so long as she unloads none of her cargo she cannot be touched. She then leaves, say for Rotterdam, unloads her deck-cargo there, and returns to the United Kingdom and unloads her under deck cargo. Now I put it to your Lordships that, if the practice is dangerous in one instance, it must, obviously, be equally dangerous in the other, or even more so, as a greater extent of sea has to be traversed.

I have asked His Majesty's Government to remedy the law, which, as it stands at present, is illogical and foolish, but so far without success. I have pointed out how masters of ships carrying grain cargoes must, before sailing from ports abroad, make a declaration before the consular officer prior to leaving as to the nature of the cargo and the precautions taken in regard to it. But a merchant ship carrying an enormous deck-cargo of unwieldy logs of timber from the United States to the Continent can leave port with impunity, and, sad to say, several have done so, never to reach their destination. I ask your Lordships whether in the name of humanity, and of our sailors and those dependent on them, we are going to permit the continuance of this practice. And I ask whether it is proper that we should still tacitly agree to our ships, many of them carrying passengers, leaving our own shores in the winter time with decks laden with dangerous cargo such as engines, boilers, railway trucks, and other heavy material which, in bad weather, will quite probably break adrift and inflict structural damage to the ship sufficient to cause the loss of herself and all on board.

Of the terrible dangers of these large timber deck-cargoes I have incontrovertible evidence in the decisions of certain Board of Trade inquiries into shipping disasters. These inquiries are held in the interests of public safety, but for all the importance the Marine Department of the Board of Trade attaches to them they might as well be never held, and a large amount of public money saved. The Reports of these inquiries are obtainable from the Board of Trade, and with your Lordships' permission I will refer to remarks contained in their decisions. They are spread over the last four or five winter seasons, and consequently from a comparative point of view the number may appear small, but I ask your Lordships to agree with me that if proof is to hand that only one single life has been lost through a cause which we can prevent in the future, it is our duty to our countrymen to adopt the necessary precautions beforehand and thus avoid further loss of life from the same cause.

So long as there is a sea, so long will life be lost upon it; but there are certain causes for loss of life in the past which we could have rendered quite preventable and for which loss of life the Marine Department of the Board of Trade must be held responsible. For instance, we may take the s.s. "Mobile," which was lost with all hands, twenty-six men. The decision of the Board of Trade Inquiry was that owing to her deck-load, which amounted to 700 tons, she was sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition. The s.s. "Huddersfield" experienced an accident through her deck-cargo being carried adrift, and some of her crew were seriously injured. The Board of Trade Inquiry declared that this vessel was sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition. In the case of the loss of the s.s. "Cardinal" the decision of the Court was that the deck cargo being washed overboard carried away her bulwarks and steering gear, and staved in the hatches, thus rendering the vessel unmanageable and water-logged. The Court said that this was due to the weight and size of her deck-cargo.

Another case where a Board of Trade inquiry dwells on the danger of deck-loads is that of the s.s. "Blenheim." Then, again, there is the s.s. "Salopia," lost with twenty-two lives when carrying no fewer than 825 logs of timber on deck. The Board of Trade inquiry disapproved of carrying a deck-load in the winter months, and said that during the winter period no deck-load ought to be carried. In the case of the loss of the s.s. "Freshfield" with all hands—twenty-five lives—the Court stated that it must be attributed to the deck-load which she was carrying, and that it was another example of the undoubted danger inseparable from the practice. The Court of inquiry which investigated the loss of the s.s. "Nutfield" with all hands —twenty-four lives—was strongly of opinion that it was most undesirable to carry a deck-load, and that it was a serious and considerable danger for vessels to attempt to cross the Atlantic in the winter with a deck-load.

From a Report dealing with the winter season of 1904–5—that is, from October, 1904, to April, 1905—which was agreed to by this House, on a Motion of mine, I find that during that season no fewer than fourteen steamers sustained serious injury through the carriage of deck-loads. The annual Report issued last year of the Liverpool Underwriters Association referred to this question, and regretted that some of the vessels carrying deck-loads never arrived; and, further, they stated that, as it is a common practice for vessels to carry such deck-loads, thus defeating the purposes of the Merchant Shipping Act, it is hoped that measures may be taken to prevent this practice by the amendment of the law or by representation of the Foreign Office to the other Governments concerned. But despite all this terrible evidence of unjustifiable danger to the lives of our sailors, the Board of Trade have remained immovable, and in fact, under the new law, the deck-loads which it is permissable for British ships to carry to the United Kingdom in the winter season have been increased from three feet to seven feet.

Anybody who peruses with an impartial mind the two latest cases of the Board of Trade inquiries into the losses of the "Nemea" and "Coralie" cannot come to any other conclusion than that the deck-cargoes these vessels were carrying were really responsible for their disasters. The "Nemea" left St. John, N.B., on October 16th last with a deck-cargo which was admitted to be higher than on the two previous voyages. It was said by the master to be 14 feet 6 inches, and by the boatswain to be 17 feet to 18 feet in height. The Court was of opinion that either of these heights was excessive. The vessel, as was quite likely to be the case, met with very heavy weather, and, serious difficulties arising in connection with the engines, the heavy rolling of the ship caused the after-deck cargo to shift and carry away the starboard bulwarks. With such an enormous deck cargo the ship was naturally far more helpless than otherwise, and the carrying away of part of the ship's structure was, I need hardly point out, a very serious matter. Ultimately, a heavy sea struck the vessel and the master, three engineers, and three men were washed overboard, I presume because the vessel's bulwarks were carried away.

In the course of the decision the Court said that they could not obtain any accurate evidence as to the quantity stowed on deck. Surely this is a matter which should be put right. When she left she appeared to have had a list of about six degrees to starboard. There was, the Court states, considerable doubt, according to the evidence, as to whether the vessel had the required freeboard for the winter voyage, whilst the Court also considered that the deck-load was excessive. It is proper to say that the Court appeared to have attributed the disaster to the exceptionally heavy state of the weather. But it is weather such as this that must be anticipated in the North Atlantic in the winter time, and this is just the very reason why these most dangerous deck-cargoes should be condemned by your Lordships.

Coming to the case of the "Coralie" we find that, on leaving a port abroad, she had 400 tons of timber on deck. On this occasion the vessel also met with bad weather and the first intimation to the effect that things were wrong was when the man at the wheel reported to the chief officer that he could not move the wheel. Measures were then taken to effect the necessary repairs, but it seems that the vessel took several tremendous lurches which broke the lashings of the after-deck cargo. A considerable quantity of it went overboard carrying away with it the star-board bulwarks and bulwark stanchions, breaking up the deck on the same side.

Your Lordships will see how the deck cargo was responsible for preventing the necessary repairs being carried out, particularly as the Court says this catastrophe completely disabled the connecting rods of the steam steering gear and threw the vessel on her beam ends. The chief engineer still endeavoured to effect repairs, but according to the Board of Trade inquiry it was impossible to get at the damage as the deck-cargo was moving about freely. Ultimately, the boatswain had the misfortune to break his leg, which remained unset until he reached Hamburg. Some four or five hours after the well-deck cargo shifted, the cargo on the fore deck went, taking the rail stanchions with it. The cargo amidships also shifted, carrying away the coamings of the bunker hatches, the rail stanchions, and the funnel guys. What wonder, then, that in this terrible position those on board had little hope of saving their lives? Fortunately the barque "Alborga," of Christiania, was sighted and the crew were gallantly rescued, The "Coralie" was 2,920 tons and the "Alborga" only 668 tons, but then she had no deck cargo.

Here again the Court of Inquiry appeared to have been impressed by the abnormal state of the weather. They came to the extraordinary conclusion that unquestionably the deck-cargo was not excessive as the vessel had ample free board. A more ridiculous decision was never promulgated, for freeboard has nothing to do with the dangers of the deck-cargo. It is not so much the weight of the deck cargo which we complain of, but the serious dangers it causes through breaking adrift in bad weather, such as I have fully illustrated. It also makes the ship very crank and unseaworthy. Further on in the judgment we find that the Court declares that the damage sustained by the ship was consequent upon a considerable portion of the dock-cargo being carried to starboard, destroying in its course bulwarks, stanchions, and steering rods and opening up the deck. This is ample proof of my contention that putting these high deck loads on merchant ships is unjustifiably hazarding the lives of their crews, and it is a practice which must sooner or later be stopped.

If I may anticipate it, the reply I shall probably receive from my noble friend representing the Board of Trade in this House will be a statement showing how few in proportion are the casualties to merchant vessels carrying deck-cargoes. But statistics or percentages teach us nothing. According to the latest Returns, only thirty-two Board of Trade inquiries into shipping casualties were held during the year. Having regard to the fact that there are 11,411 vessels in our merchant service this is really marvellous; but it must be remembered that in this number there are comparatively few ships carrying on the trade I am drawing attention to, and that the numbers include liners, yachts, and, in fact, every vessel on the register. The stand I take is that there is undeniable proof that there has been serious loss of life through these deck-cargoes, and it is within our power to prevent similar loss in future.

After the inquiry into the loss of the "Mobile" in 1900, I brought this matter to the notice of your Lordships both by moving a Resolution and bringing in a Bill. Had the Board of Trade accepted either of these the men who lost their lives in the "Freshfield" and "Nut-field" would in all human probability have been alive now. One reason given for opposing was foreign competition; but we have not yet been definitely told that our sailors' lives are to be considered of less value than the interests of trade. If we are to understand that that is the case, then it is evident that a far less value is put on the lives of our sailors than is attached to the lives of any other classes of the community.

My Lords, we take a serious responsibility in this matter if we decline to avail ourselves of the power we have. It is on the appeal of the Imperial Merchant Service Guild, the representative body of the captains and officers of our merchant service—and none can appreciate more acutely the dangers they are unjustifiably subjected to—that I once more ask for your sympathy and support in this matter. I trust I have not been unreasonably long in bringing the salient facts of their case to your Lordships notice, and were some of your Lordships to assist me in speaking your minds upon it, you would, I am convinced, earn the lasting gratitude of our seafarers and assist materially in preventing the needless sacrifice of their lives in the future.


My Lords, I believe that if a great many noble Lords present were to express their minds on this matter they would be in thorough agreement with what we have just heard from my noble friend Lord Muskerry. His speech has been most convincing, and demonstrated absolutely that the present legislation has either been not sufficiently applied or is in itself inadequate to guard against the terrible dangers to which he has referred. The danger is not the lowering of the free-board; it is the liability of deck-loads to shift. In normal wintry weather there is considerable difficulty in preventing heavy objects on deck being carried away, in whatever manner they may be secured; but the danger in the case of timber deck-loads when rough weather is experienced is exceptional, and anything that can be done by reasonable legislation to diminish that danger ought to be done. I am sure we are all in sympathy with Lord Muskerry in his long-continued efforts to secure a diminution in the risks to which sailors in the mercantile marine are subjected.


My Lords, during the passage of the Merchant Shipping Bill, which I had the honour of presenting to your Lordships, the whole of this question regarding the carriage of deck-loads was carefully considered, and the consensus of opinion was that on the whole there was no great justification for the fears entertained by my noble friend. All reasonable rules that we could possibly make were made. In anticipation of the noble Lord's Motion I have had a Return made from the year 1873 to May 31st last, and I find that during the first seventeen years of that period the number of lives lost at sea owing to the carriage of deck-cargoes was 1,329, while in the last period of seventeen years the number was only 426. The total number of lives lost in 1881 on timber ships was 203, while the number in 1906 was only six. I think we can congratulate ourselves on this result. The North Atlantic trade is always dangerous, owing to the weather encountered there, but last year we only lost two vessels—the "Nemea" and the "Coralie" I cannot agree with the remarks of the noble Lord as to the findings of the Courts. On reference to the Reports I find that in the case of the "Nemea" the Court considered that under the circumstances everything was done for the safety of the ship that good seamanship would prompt, and they considered the casualty due to the fracture of the condenser door which necessitated a stoppage of the engines, the ship then becoming unmanageable. As to the "Coralie," the Court stated that her deck-cargo was not excessive, especially having regard to the fact that a large quantity of coal would have been consumed before she reached the Atlantic. In reply to the Question of the noble Lord relating to casualties to vessels sailing from ports in the United Kingdom, I have to say that we only lost one ship last year, and that was a ketch of 98 tons. I am glad to be able to inform my noble friend, in reply to his other Question, that this matter will be considered by the Board of Trade Advisory Committee, who will be asked to state whether they think any modification in the rules necessary before the coming winter. As regards the Return for which the noble Lord his moved, I shall be very pleased to lay it on the Table and to give him all the information for which he asks.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for his Answer, but, with all respect, I would point out that the Advisory Committee are not competent to deal with this matter. It is one for a committee of experts, but the Advisory Committee is very largely composed of shipowners.

On Question, Motion agreed to.