HL Deb 06 July 1908 vol 191 cc1149-63

LORD MUSKEERY rose "To call attention to the fact that the Board of Trade have not ordered formal investigations into the circumstances attending the losses of the missing steamers "Neptune" and "Grindon Hall"; to ask the reason, or reasons, for this; whether a preliminary inquiry has been held in regard to the "Neptune," and, if so, by whom; and why, in the case of the "Grindon Hall," a preliminary inquiry was conducted in private by the Cardiff Stipendiary, assisted by a nautical assessor, instead of, as usual, by the Collector of Customs: also, to move 'That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that in every case where a British ship is posted as missing and given up as lost, a public investigation should, when practicable, be ordered by the Board of Trade in order, if possible, to elicit any material facts which might tend to throw light on the probable cause of the disaster.'"

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the matter to which my Notice refers is one of serious moment, and well worthy of your Lordships' careful consideration. The tragedy of a missing ship and the unknown fate of her crew is, unfortunately, not uncommon, and it is an occurrence which we all deplore when we hear of it. In justice to the men who have gone to their doom in such a way, and, even more so, in justice to the widows, orphans, or other dependants they may have left behind, it is our bounden duty to cause public investigation into such disasters. We should probe matters to the bottom in order that we may assure ourselves that every possible safeguard was adopted on the sailing of the vessel, and that she was in a thoroughly seaworthy condition previous to her departure on her ill-fated voyage.

The Merchant Shipping Act provides us with all the necessary machinery for this, and a very large amount of public money is expended annually in investigating casualties to British merchant ships. A disaster to a merchant ship is a matter of public interest. Safety of life at sea is a question which should concern us all. If it is necessary that a formal public investigation—commonly known as a Board of Trade inquiry—should be held into a case of stranding or of collision, how much more is it necessary that a similar investigation should be held openly and publicly when a British ship is missing with all her crew? A public inquiry is necessary in such a case, if only for the purpose of establishing public confidence and allaying what might be most unjustifiable suspicions and misapprehensions certain to arise in the case of missing ships.

Yet I am astonished so find that the Board of Trade look at matters from quite a different standpoint. If a ship runs ashore, and there is a chance that an unfortunate captain or an officer may be implicated and punished, a formal investigation is speedily ordered and proceeded with. But evidently missing ships receive by no means the same zealous attention at the hands of the Board of Trade. In their case all that seems to be necessary is a preliminary inquiry conducted in private by somebody nominated for the purpose by the Board of Trade. Usually it is the Collector of Customs, who can hardly be deemed a competent judge of nautical affairs. We are denied an investigation in open Court, where all the witnesses obtainable who can give material evidence can be called and can be subjected to that searching cross-examination which is likely to lead to elucidating doubtful circumstance and eliciting material facts, which would enable the Court to arrive at something approaching a definite conclusion as to the probable course of the disaster. It is only by cross-examination that the veracity of a witness and the worth his evidence is to be properly tested, and preliminary inquiries, where ex parte statements only are to be obtained, are absolutely worthless.

The first case which I desire to bring to your Lordships' notice is that of the steamer "Neptune," which left port on 1st January last, and has never since been heard of. No public inquiry has been held into this disaster, even though I understand that the Imperial Merchant Service Guild have informed the Board of Trade that they feel that the matter is one which demands thorough inquiry, and so far as I can gather, the Marine Engineer's Association representing the certificated engineers of this country, are of the same opinion. The Board of Trade, in reply to the Guild, state that, from the information before them concerning the "Neptune," they do not think that any useful purpose would be served by a formal inquiry, but that they would be prepared to reconsider their decision should any fresh facts of importance be brought to their notice. But it is the clear business of the Board of Trade itself to elicit as many facts as possible in connection with shipping casualties, and my contention is that they cannot do so without a public investigation and without cross-examination of the various witnesses who are able to give any evidence bearing on the case.

The information supplied to the Board of Trade as a result of the private preliminary inquiry is, I presume, carefully pigeon-holed, and the public are absolutely in the dark as to any details connected with the "Neptune" at the time she sailed on what proved to be her last voyage. Her captain did not, I believe, hold a Board of Trade certificate, though I do not mention this as having anything to do with the casualty. I have, however, seen letters from a near relation of one of the leading members of the crew of the "Neptune," who refers to different matters which seem to warrant thorough investigation, if only, as I have said before, for the purpose of quieting what may be unnecessary and unjust suspicion.

The next case referred to in my notice is the loss of the "Grindon Hall," a large steamer of the turret type, carrying over 5,000 tons of cargo, her crew consisting of twenty-six hands all told. She left the port of Sulina for Glasgow on 4th December last, and has not since been heard of. One would have thought that a public investigation into this disaster would be ordered as a matter of course. But this was not so. Whether the pressure which had been brought to bear upon the Board of Trade in connection with the absence of a public inquiry into the loss of the "Neptune" accounts for it, I cannot say, but it seems somewhat curious that in the case of the "Grindon Hall," which came on at a later date, the Board of Trade adopted a very unusual course. The general practice is for the preliminary inquiry to be held before the Collector of Customs, but in this case of the "Grindon Hall" the Board of Trade specially nominated the stipendiary magistrate at Cardiff, assisted by Captain W. B. Bigley as a nautical assessor, to conduct the preliminary inquiry.

The solicitor for the Board of Trade attended this preliminary inquiry, and so did the solicitor for the owners of the steamer. Various witnesses also attended for the purpose of giving evidence. But, it the outset of the proceedings, the stipendiary cleared the Court, stating that it was only a preliminary inquiry, and the shorthand writer was alone allowed to remain in his official capacity as shorthand writer to the Board of Trade. On the solicitor for the owners of the steamer inquiring whether he was to leave the Court too, the stipendiary remarked: "Certainly." The proceedings were then conducted in private.

Another circumstance that is also most unusual is that the Board of Trade have now issued a full Report of the conclusions of this preliminary inquiry for the information of the public, and I should like to know why they have done so in this case and not in the case of the "Neptune." Why should one disaster be dealt with differently from another, when information of public interest is published by the Board of Trade? Furthermore, it is a most unjust, and a highly improper course, that a private investigation should be held where responsible parties are not allowed the right of legal representation, when the results of this inquiry are to be issued by the Board of Trade, and when quite possibly they may contain opinions and allegations which might have been proved to have been without foundation had there been proper representation of the different interests at the inquiry itself.

To show your Lordships how unfairly the practice operates, I find in the Report of this inquiry that, on the testimony of certain witnesses, important statements as to the loading of the ship said to have been made by the unfortunate captain of the "Grindon Hall" are stated to have been apparently inaccurate. In fact, the captain to all intents and purposes is branded as a perjurer and held responsible for the loss of his own life and the lives of his crew in sailing from Sulina with his cargo not stowed in accordance with the declaration he made before the British Consul: "That it had been stowed in accordance with Section 454 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894." I say that it is an outrage that secret investigations may be held into terrible disasters of this kind, where representation is denied the parties concerned, and where, as a result of the inquiry, the Board of Trade may issue a Report of its opinions which drag in the mire the good names of men who have lost their lives in an honourable calling.

I make no charges or insinuations whatever against anybody connected with the ship—whether builders, owners, stevedores, or crew; but I do earnestly contend that as this is a matter which concerns the public it is a public inquiry only which will satisfy us in like matters. I have seen letters from shipmasters who have taken great interest in this "Grindon Hall" case, knowing a good deal about it. I do not think it right to bring their views forward, as under the circumstances it would be improper to do so. But there is one very important fact with which all seamen are familiar, and that is the extreme difficulty of launching boats from turret-built vessels in times of emergency when heavy weather prevails. This is a point which was well worthy of the attention of the gentlemen who conducted the preliminary inquiry, but, so far as I can judge from their Report, it seems to have been entirely neglected by them. It is well-known amongst seamen that in heavy weather a life-boat when launched, is apt to get dashed on to what is sometimes called the "boat-deck" or turtle back, thereby, perhaps, causing irretrievable damage to the boat. It seemes that a life-boat of the "Grindon Hall" was picked up at sea, and from its condition as described in the Report it is not improbable that the damage was caused in the manner to which I have referred. I may call this speculation founded on what is an undoubted fact in launching boats in heavy weather from turret-built ships. However, this is a side issue upon which I need no dwell further.

What I wish to impress upon your Lordships is that catastrophes such as those of the "Neptune" and the "Grindon Hall" are allowed to be passed by without any public investigation, and that in the case of the "Grindon Hall" the procedure followed by the Board of Trade was of a very unfortunate character. Why there should be any need for secrecy in connection with these inquiries I cannot understand. Surely it is not the desire of the Board of Trade to conceal anything, or to rely upon preliminary inquiries, which, obviously, are thoroughly unsatisfactory from a public point of view. The merchant mariners of this country—and I have given your Lordships the names of two of their great representative associations—are wholly justified in their contention that the loss of a missing ship is of serious import to all seafarers, and a matter which demands public investigation. To avoid this is to court hostile criticism and suspicion, for which, possibly, there is no foundation whatever. The opinion expressed by an eminent authority, Judge Backhouse, President of the New South Wales Court of Marine Inquiry, was that a full public inquiry should be held in all cases of marine disasters, however trivial.

I earnestly hope that your Lordships will favour me with your support in this matter, and agree to my Motion that in every case where it is at all practicable the loss of a missing ship should be matter for a formal investigation to be held in open Court, and conducted in accordance with the sections of the Merchant Shipping Act which fully provide for it. We cannot be too solicitous about our sailors or about their safety. They undertake risks and perils of quite an exceptional character, and they are performing a national service in bringing our food supplies to this country. When, as in the case of the "Grindon Hall," they lose their lives in this vitally important work, or in ships engaged in other branches of our commerce, it is for His Majesty's Government to avail themselves of their powers, and to endeavour to find out in some satisfactory and open way whether every human precaution had been taken to ensure the safety of the men whose lives had been lost in such a sad and tragic manner. I beg to submit the Motion standing in my name.

Moved, "That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that in every case where a British ship is posted as missing and given up as lost, a public investigation should, when practicable, be ordered by the Board of Trade in order, if possible, to elicit any material facts which might tend to throw light on the probable cause of the disaster."—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord and the House that the Board of Trade are fully sensible of the great responsibility which rests upon them to investigate most thoroughly any such disasters as the two which form the subject of the noble Lord's question. I think I had, perhaps, better explain to the House the course which is adopted in these cases.

By the Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 the Board of Trade are empowered to hold an inquiry in the case of the loss of any British ship, and a preliminary investigation may be held by an inspecting officer of the Coastguard, a chief officer of Customs, or by any persons appointed for the purpose by the Board of Trade. The practice is that this preliminary inquiry is held, and if there is any suspicion that anything could be brought home to any one as being the cause of the loss of the vessel, or if the result of the inquiry is to show that there is a tittle of evidence to be put before a Court of law, a further public inquiry before a Court of summary jurisdiction invariably takes place.

In these two cases preliminary inquiries were held. In the case of the "Neptune," it was held by the chief Customs officers of Dundee and Liverpool, and the purport of their report was that there was no evidence of any sort to bring before a judicial inquiry. In the case of the "Grindon Hall," a similar inquiry was held by Mr. Lewis, the stipendiary magistrate at Cardiff, with Captain Bigley as an assessor; and the result of that inquiry, as the noble Lord has pointed out, is contained in the Report which has been published by the Board of Trade. This Report was published in accordance with the usual practice, and I think a perusal of the Report will show that there was no evidence of any sort to bring before a Court of Law. At one time it was the practice to hold a judcial inquiry in every case; but on many occasions it was found that there was no evidence of any sort to bring before the Court, and much money, time, and trouble were absolutely wasted. I can assure the House again that these preliminary inquiries are held most carefully, and that if there is a tittle of evidence to bring before a Court the further inquiry is invariably held. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord will not press his Motion, and that this matter will be left, as it has been in the past, to be dealt with at the discretion of the President of the Board of Trade.


My Lords, whenever the humblest landsman belonging to this country loses his life by an unfortunate sudden death he is entitled to a public coroner's inquest, and the matter is carefully gone into. Here is a case in which twenty-six seamen have disappeared, yet no public inquiry is to be held at all concerning the disaster. I will, with the permission of your Lordships, read a short summary of the investigation concerning the "Grindon Hall" as it appeared n the July number of the Nautical Magazine, which reached me this afternoon. It is said that— The Court, after taking evidence, are of opinion that the vessel must have foundered through having insufficient stability as laden. In all other respects she was proved to have been in good and seaworthy condition, but she was not loaded in accordance with the plan of loading approved by the Board of Trade on the 25th November, 1905, or in accordance with the provisions of Schedule 18 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, or in accordance with the regulations made by the Board of Trade under the provisions of Section 53 of the said Act. The law has been broken, 26 lives have been lost, and yet there is to be no public inquiry! I do not at all know what the result of a public inquiry might be, but I do not believe that masters and officers of ships are in the habit either of overloading their ships or of going to sea with their cargo improperly stoued unless pressure is put upon them by the owners, either to carry more cargo or to hurry their ship along to save time. For these reasons I think that the circumstances should be threshed out in some way in public. A private inquiry is no answer to loss of life, and I hope the Board of Trade will reconsider their intention not to hold any further inquiry.


My Lords, I confess that so far as the conversation has gone I do not think your Lordships can be quite satisfied with the answer which has been given to the question of my noble friend. I entirely share the view of the noble Lord who has just sat down that these secret inquiries are of very doubtful expediency. If the thing is fit for an inquiry at all it is far better that the inquiry should be public in its character, and the analogy which he has drawn between an accident resulting in loss of life at sea and one resulting in loss of life on land seems to me a perfectly fair and true analogy. If life is lost by an accident on land in this country there is, and must always be, a public inquiry; no exception whatever is permitted by the law. However lacking the evidence may turn out to be, there must be a coroner's inquest; and I do not see why in a serious loss of life at sea there should not be a similar public inquiry.

The special case of the "Grindon Hall" is that the inquiry which was held was a secret inquiry. If it had remained secret there might have been something to be said for it; but, although the inquiry was conducted in private, although the interested parties were not allowed to be represented, the solicitor for the owners having been excluded from the room, the Board of Trade afterwards published the result of the inquiry. I do not wish to pronounce a definite and final opinion, but, on the face of it, that appears to me a very unfair proceeding. The noble Lord who replied on behalf of the Board of Trade said that the result of the inquiry was to show that there was no evidence against anybody, but I think he is inaccurate in that respect, because I hold the report of the inquiry in my hand, and this is what is stated— In the notice delivered by the master to the Consular officer at Sulina on the day he sailed, he stated that he had 200 tons of cargo in bags in the hold. In the same notice he also stated that the vessel had been loaded in accordance with the Board of Trade letter dated 25th November. According, however to the affidavits of the stevedore, and the testimony of Captain Beck and another, the master's statements, both as to bagging and as to loading in accordance with the Board of Trade instructions, appear to have been inaccurate. I am not quite sure whether the Court found that the statement was proved—I do not think they did—but, at any rate, a statement was made that the master, whose life was lost in the accident, was responsible for an action contrary to law and which presumably may be taken to have been partly the cause of what happened.

I do not think it is right or proper that, having held an inquiry from which the representatives of the parties were excluded, the Board of Trade should publish a Report gravely incriminating one of the parties. If, as Lord Hamilton says, in cases where a preliminary inquiry reveals something wrong a public inquiry always follows, then I want to know why a public inquiry did not follow in this case. I am almost certain that the noble Earl who leads the House will express his sympathy with the view put forward by Lord Muskerry, and, if he does I hope my noble friend will not persist in his Motion. But if the noble Earl does not, then I think my noble friend's Motion will be justified.


My Lords, I do not profess to be competent to enter into the details concerning the loss of these two ships, but as a humble Member of your Lordship's House, and one of the general public, I think I am as qualified as any man in the street might be to express an opinion with, regard to the Motion of the noble Lord, that it is desirable, in every case where a British ship is posted as missing and given up as lost, that a public investigation should, where practicable, be ordered by the Board of Trade, in order to elicit, if possible, any material facts which might tend to throw light on the probable cause of the disaster.

The seafaring population of this country is the backbone of our protection. We have to rely solely upon the sailors of the country, not only for naval protection, but for our very food. Therefore, their well-being is a matter of the most vital importance to this country. We have to consider how to make these men contented, feeling that they are protected by Parliament, and that they can go upon these ships without the knowledge that their lives might be sacrificed through the negligence, if not through the wickedness, of the owners of these vessels. That is the point, and what I wish to know is, are the Board of Trade taking that view of the question or not? If they realise that the sailors of this country must be protected, and that the British public will insist upon it if once they know that they are not protected, then I say they are doing right. But if they are for one moment allowing the owners, or money, or wealth, or influence to have anything to say to the lives of the sailors, they are on the wrong line, and they will know it soon enough; for if there comes forward a man with the power of speech, able to address large audiences and to tell them that the Board of Trade are considering the interests of rich men and not the interests of poor men, then those at present in office will not sit long on the benches of power.

I do not say one thing or the other; but I do say this with emphasis, that to the ordinary man in the street the answer that has been given by the noble Lord who represents the Government shows quite clearly that the Board of Trade are thinking much more about the expense of investigations than of the lives of the men. If that idea once gets possession of the public, woe betide any Government that permits it. A very true analogy was given by Lord Ellenborough—that of an accidental death on land. That is only the case of one individual, but is it not much more important that we should insist upon an open inquiry in the case of the loss of vessels with many hands? It appears to me that the Board of Trade have not taken the question of the well-being of our seafaring population sufficiently seriously.

Before sitting down I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, who has, by his able and persistent conduct in this House on behalf of the sailors of the mercantile marine, given rise to the feeling throughout the country that it is your Lordships' House which, has especially the interests of the sailor at heart. I thank him for it. I am proud that this House should take the sailor under its care, and I hope that the noble Lord's Motion will be passed. Money, my Lords, ought not to come into consideration at all. It is a question of the lives of our seamen; it is a question of the food of this country; it is a question of our very existence from day to day; and I, therefore, hope your Lordships will support the Motion of my noble friend.


My Lords, I am afraid that I am not acquainted with the special circumstances of the two cases which have been brought before the House by the noble Lord. I shall have a word to say in a moment about the noble Earl who has just sat down; but, in the meantime, I am in agreement with him as to the service which the noble Lord opposite does, and has for so long done, in bringing cases affecting the comfort and lives of the sailors of the mercantile marine before your Lordships' House, backed by a knowledge in which in this respect he has no equal in this Assembly.

The noble Earl who has just sat down had rather detracted attention from the facts of the case by an outburst of rhetoric. I have no objection to the noble Earl assuming an exceedingly high standard, both of conduct and morality. We all greatly respect the noble Earl. But I do not think that that entitles him to bring against those who represent a public department vague, reckless, and, as I believe, absolutely unfounded charges of indifference to the lives of our seamen. I protest very strongly against such language as that. It does not help the noble Earl's case. The case is one, I admit, well worthy of consideration. It was set before us in a very moderate manner by Lord Muskerry, by the noble Lord who followed him, and by the noble Marquess on the front bench opposite, who, having been himself at the Board of Trade, speaks on this subject with authority. I shall, therefore, say no more with regard to the noble Earl on the cross benches.

I quite admit that the views which have been expressed by the noble Lords opposite are worthy of close examination. It may be, I think, that either one of two courses ought to be taken. If a private inquiry is held in such cases as this it should, as the noble Marquess has said, remain private. I think there is much to be said for that view, and I have no doubt my noble friend behind me will represent it to the Board of Trade. On the other hand, I can conceive that there would be very great difficulty, in cases where an accident had occurred from which unhappily nobody had survived, in carrying out a public judicial inquiry. For such an inquiry you must have real evidence, and I take it that the analogy upon which it is possible to go is that in the case, for instance, of a railway accident. An inquest may be held, and is held, of course, upon the victims of the accident; but at the same time it may be desirable in some cases to hold an inquiry into the causes of the accident, not always of a public character, at which language can be used which could not be used by those who have to give evidence on oath.

I take it that if a public inquiry had been held in this case nobody would have been there to give what would be considered evidence in a Court of law, and I am given to understand that in past times these inquiries have been instituted and have been found to be absolutely nugatory from that fact. The inquiry has been open, but nothing in the nature of real evidence has been forthcoming, and it has had to be closed with an expression of regret. On the other point, as to private inquiries at which statements are made which are necessarily of a purely conjectural character, but, at the same time, may cause pain to the relatives of those who lost their lives in the unhappy accident—it is matter for close consideration whether those charges, if charges they be, should in any sense be made public, and my noble friend behind me will no doubt see that my right hon. friend the President of the Board of Trade is informed of the strong opinions on this point which have been expressed by noble Lords opposite.


My Lords, I only intervene as a result of what the noble Lord has just said. I confess I am a little disturbed at finding that the report of such an inquiry as this, which ended in the conviction in the minds of those conducting the inquiry that some great irregularity, if not illegality, had been committed, and which prima facie will reflect upon the owners or charterers of the vessel as the case may be, is published, notwithstanding the fact that the solicitor representing the owner of the vessel had been excluded from the inquiry. I rather think the noble Earl himself feels that, too; and therefore I do not wish to enforce it further. I presume they had some evidence. At all events, if there is enough evidence to justify the examining officers coming to a particular conclusion, it ought to be made known what was the nature of the evidence adduced, because it may involve a very grave reflection upon the owners, the charterers, or the merchants, whoever it may be, at whose instance the vessel was sent to sea.


My Lords, I shall, of course, be guided by my noble friend on the Front Opposition Bench as to whether or not I shall divide on my Motion. But I should like to call attention to the fact that nothing whatever has been said as to the case of the "Neptune." We do not know how many lives were lost in that vessel. There was a preliminary inquiry, but that is all we have heard. It often happens that coroners' inquests have no evidence placed before them, but they are always held. Why should there not be a public inquiry also in every case where a vessel is lost? [The noble Lord here consulted Lord SALISBURY.] In the circumstances, my Lords, I will not press my Motion to a division.

Motion, by leave, withrdawn.