HL Deb 01 July 1908 vol 191 cc732-4

LORD MUSKERRY rose to ask whether His Majesty's Government could furnish particulars concerning a series of accidents which recently befel the steamship "Bengore Head" in Portsmouth Harbour; if so, what was her draft of water at the time, and whether these accidents were attributable to the "Bengore Head" being in an unmanageable condition owing to a want of sufficient ballast.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before putting the Question that stands in my name, I would like to say a few words in connection with it. When I was advocating in this House the passing of the Light Load Line Bill I argued that the provision of a light load mark might very well be extended to, and enforced on, foreign vessels sailing in our waters, for this reason—that vessels that were not sufficiently ballasted were unmanageable under certain circumstances, and therefore not only a source of danger to themselves, but also to any other vessels that might be near. If my information is right, and this steamer was unmanageable through want of sufficient ballast, it is another proof that my contention is correct. I may say that I am not alone in my views as to the unseaworthiness through not being under proper control of these underballasted vessels. I think you will find that every sailor, or marine engineer, holds the same opinion. Had the "Bengore Head," as she might well have done, sunk one of His Majesty's ships, it would have meant a very serious pecuniary loss to the nation, to say nothing of the lives which might have been sacrificed.

But what I specially want to do in connection with this Question is to enter an earnest protest against the callous indifference with which the safety of seamen's lives appears to be regarded by a Government Department. Where the vessels are carrying passengers, it is true that every human precaution is taken; but this is not so when only the lives of their crews are concerned. Your Lordships have only to refer back to the pages of Hansard for the past ten years, and see from the replies that I have received when I have advocated precautionary measures for the safety of sailors' lives that they have been refused mainly from the point of view that shipowners would incur additional expense. Now I venture to say that if it were a question of taking precautions against loss of life on shore no Government, or Government Department, would dare to advance such an argument against them. Think if the "Bengore Head" instead of being in a harbour had been on a rocky lee shore, with a gale blowing; what poor chance there would have been for the lives of her crew? I again most emphatically protest against our seamen's lives being considered as second to any pecuniary interests whatever, and I am sure that in this I have the support and sympathy of your Lordships.


My Lords, I quite agree that if the accident to which the noble Lord alludes could be proved to have been due to the ship having been insufficiently ballasted, it would be an argument in favour of the establishment of a light load line; but, as a matter of fact, the information in the possession of the Board of Trade points in a precisely opposite direction. I think that my best course will be to read a statement prepared from several reports which have been made to the Board of Trade by, amongst others, the master of the ship, the principal officer of the Board of Trade on marine registry, and the Board of Trade surveyor at Southampton. I am informed that the steamship "Bengore Head" left the Government dockyard at Portsmouth at 2.30 p.m. on 13th June, in charge of a Trinity House pilot and assisted by a tug. When turning the north corner of the jetty the tug boat, owing to a violent squall, got out of position, and to avoid accident to his vessel the master of the tug boat threw off the tow rope, thus leaving the "Bengore Head" practically unmanageable, as, owing to the limited space between His Majesty's ships and the lack of room to manœuvre, it was impossible to make satisfactory use of the ship's engines. The starboard anchor was at once let go, but, notwithstanding, the vessel drifted against H.M.S." Revenge" and afterwards did some slight damage to the torpedo net booms of H.M.S. "Vengeance." The draft of water of the "Bengore Head" at the time was 14 feet 11 inches aft, and I am advised that the accident was in no way attributable to the want of sufficient ballast, the propeller being well immersed.


What was her tonnage?


I think 1,600 tons.


My Lords, this question of the accident which befel the s.s. "Bengore Head" is far more an Admiralty question than a Board of Trade question. In the then existing conditions of wind and weather the vessel ought not to have been moved at all. The pilots who take our ships in and out of harbour do manage their vessels exceedingly well, and I look upon it as a great triumph that two years ago they brought in the whole of the French Fleet in one tide into Portsmouth harbour without any accident whatever. Supposing the "Bengore Head" had filled with water and remained aground off Blockhouse Point; owing to its position no ship could have got in or out of Portsmouth harbour, and if such a thing were to occur at a time of strained relations with a foreign Power it would be a serious matter. I think the Admiralty should have control of all shipping in Portsmouth Harbour in order to avoid what might prove a national danger, and I hope, therefore, that the Admiralty will take this matter into their consideration.