HL Deb 25 May 1909 vol 1 cc1147-56

My Lords, I rise to draw the attention of His Majesty's Government to the decision of the Court which investigated the circumstances of the loss, with all hands, of the Great Eastern Railway Company's steamship "Yarmouth," and, in view of a statement made by the principal officer to the Board of Trade at Cardiff, that there is nothing like the number of surveyors to deal with one-tenth of the vessels that leave port, what special precautions the Board of Trade have taken, or propose to take with the object of, if possible, avoiding repetition in the future of serious sacrifice of life through merchant ships proceeding to sea with dangerous deck-loads; also, whether it is now proposed to increase the number of surveyors, and whether anything is being done in regard to dealing with recognised "systems" of carrying these deck-loads such as that alluded to in the course of the inquiry into the loss of the "Yarmouth."

I am always anxious to avoid trespassing on your Lordships' time unless I feel that it is absolutely necessary, and if I bring forward a question which I have previously brought to your notice it is only when I am convinced that there are ample grounds for doing so. Long experience tells me that the Board of Trade will not move until they are practically forced to do so. I am again asking them to mitigate what is at present a grave peril of the sea. Towards the conclusion of last session I pointed out to your Lordships the enormous risks which British merchant ships are permitted to undertake in carrying dangerous deck-loads at all times of the year and under all conditions of weather. It is a common sight to see large passenger steamers and others, down to the small coasting traders, going to sea with heavy weights on deck, such as boilers, cylinders, railway wagons, and other unwieldy cargo of a similar character, which are supposed to be secured on leaving, but which, as all seamen will tell us, it is impossible to keep secured in heavy weather. These vessels are, therefore, saddled with an incubus which exposes them to enormous risk. When I last raised this question I was informed by my noble friend who represents the Board of Trade that this practice was common, and that, provided proper precautions were taken, the Board of Trade saw no objections to it. I was informed that the Board had adopted no special precautions in regard to such cargoes, but that their surveyors had general power to detain any ship which was improperly loaded. I am once again calling attention to this subject owing to the fact that since last session a terrible calamity has occurred to a coasting steamer which completely substantiates my contentions in this matter, and one which we cannot allow to pass without notice. I refer to the loss of the steamer "Yarmouth" with all hands.

It is true that the Board of Trade ordered an investigation into the loss of this steamer. It is also true that the Court made some very strong comments regarding the deck cargo which was carried, and which they held responsible for the disaster. But I am sure your Lordships will agree that it is the clear duty of the Board of Trade to go further than this, and take some action whereby we may profit by the grim lesson which this terrible affair teaches us. I know that the "Yarmouth" at the time was bound from the Continent to Harwich, and that the Board of Trade have not any surveyors who could have prevented her leaving a Continental port in such a condition. Yet ways and means can be found to deal with such a case, if only in the direction of inflicting heavy penalties on the owners of ships not only sailing with but arriving with such dangerous cargoes, just as a ship is fined should she bring a large timber deck-load into a United Kingdom port in the wintertime.

It does not matter very much as to the actual voyage the ship was taking, for the point I want to emphasise is the actual danger of these cargoes. From the report of the Board of Trade Inquiry I find that this steamer frequently carried heavy deck-loads, including furniture vans, thrashing machines, and engines, and this in all weathers. It seems that, according to the superintendent of the company, there was no compulsion upon the captain to take a deck cargo, and it lay entirely in his discretion to reject any cargo which he considered he could not safely carry. We all know what this means. It is tie common practice of attempting to shift the responsibility on to the unfortunate captain, who has lost his life and cannot defend himself. Would he dare use his discretion? When such a practice is of common and usual occurrence, the tenure of the position of any captain who declined such cargo would be very brief.

Of the deck cargo being carried by the "Yarmouth," there were three lift-vans of furniture which measured fourteen feet by seven feet by six feet six inches, and each weighing about three tons. It is not necessary to be a practical seaman to enable one to realise the immense danger of cargo of this character in case heavy weather is experienced. According to those on board the Outer Gabbard Lightship, from whence the "Yarmouth" was last sighted, she had a heavy list to starboard. When she got into shorter seas inside the Lightship she took very heavy rolls which put her over on her broadside with her starboard main-rail in the water. Before long those on the lightship lost sight of her, and the sequel was told by a Norwegian steamer falling in with bales or buoys floating on both sides of the ship, and cries as of drowning men. Nobody, however, was found, though every possible search was made.

It is a very significant feature that immediately on the loss of the "Yarmouth" and long before the investigation into the casualty was held, the marine superintendent issued orders to the effect that these deck cargoes must be carried no longer. He, in effect, anticipated the report of the Board of Trade Inquiry. At the inquiry itself two experts—naval architects—said that they considered the stability of the "Yarmouth" when she started on her passage as satisfactory. But noble and learned Lords who have had experience in dealing with expert evidence will know that evidence of this kind is somewhat elastic in its character. In the present case, the Court said it must be borne in mind that the opinions expressed by the experts were based mainly on the testimony of the stevedores—that is, those who loaded the ship—and the Court had found serious discrepancies between the statements of these stevedores. The Court pointed out that the stowage plan placed before them was filled in with information supplied after the loss of the ship with all hands was known, and when it was likely that the question would be raised as to whether the cargo was properly stowed.

In the opinion of the Court, which was assisted by two assessors of long experience in the merchant service and one vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy, it was improper to stow any cargo on the poop and forecastle, and there was no adequate provision for the satisfactory securing of the cargo that was carried upon these structures on the voyage which has been the subject of the investigation. The Court was distinctly of opinion that the ship was not properly loaded, having too much top weight, and we are informed that the vessel was lost through carrying too heavy a deck-cargo, which led to her listing heavily to starboard, and finally turning over with a suddenness which gave those on board no opportunity of making effective efforts to save themselves. The blame, it was said, did not attach to the Great Eastern Railway Company, the owners of the steamer, but, in the opinion of the Court, the system in existence was bad. The Court strongly condemned the practice of carrying deck-cargoes upon structures such as the poop and forecastle of the "Yarmouth," and was glad to learn that instructions had been given for the discontinuance of this practice on board the Great Eastern Railway Company's ships.

This is a plain statement of a grave shipping calamity entirely attributable to avoidable causes. It is natural that the Great Eastern Railway Company are taking no further risks of that kind. But I ask what is going to be done in regard to the many other vessels outside this company which can, with impunity from any regulations, continue to carry deck-cargoes with the same frequency as before. When I last submitted this question to the House I was informed that the Board of Trade surveyors have a general power to detain any ship which is improperly loaded. This might, quite naturally, be considered by your Lordships as sufficient to meet the case but when I point out to you that hundreds, I may say thousands, of ships sail out of our seaports in the United Kingdom without any inspection whatever by nautical surveyors to the Board of Trade, you will then understand that this talk of their being able to cope with the situation is sheer nonsense. I believe that in some of our shipping ports there are no nautical surveyors whatever, and in others they are in a very small minority, and their time is generally taken up in connection with duties as emigrant officers.

In an important case which arose at Swansea, where the captain of a steamer was fined for neglecting to keep two lifeboats fit and ready for use, as required by the Merchant Shipping Act, some striking evidence was given by the principal officer to the Board of Trade at Cardiff. Asked his opinion as to the duties of Board of Trade surveyors with regard to life-saving appliances and other matters, he said that the Board had nothing like the number of surveyors to deal with one tenth of the vessels that left port. He further added that the surveyors performed a number of statutory duties that were paid for; and it is worthy of notice that these duties take precedence over every other duty. The mere matter of the safety of life is, apparently, of little moment to the Marine Department of the Board of Trade so long as they do not miss collecting the official fees chargeable by their surveyors for performing statutory duties under the Merchant Shipping Act. For some years past I have urged the necessity for a great increase in the number of nautical surveyors at our different seaports so that it would become nearly an impossibility for a merchant ship to proceed to sea in an unseaworthy condition through one cause or another.

We have always been led to believe that a merchant ship was, in practically every case, officially inspected before she set out on her voyage. This, as I have explained, is a popular fallacy which cannot be too freely exposed. The Board of Trade, to whom we look as the primary protector of life at sea, shelve on to the unfortunate shipmasters the responsibility of seaworthiness or of the efficiency of life-saving apparatus, and other matters in the same category. On the other hand, shipmasters must look to their means of livelihood and they are only too alive to the fact that, if they wish to retain their positions, they must save their owners every possible farthing. With economy ever their first regard, is it not natural that they should take chances, from which the Board of Trade should, in justice, protect them by inspection of ships in the first place rather than by prosecuting them afterwards. The Board of Trade expect our merchant shipmasters and officers to conform to all sorts of requirements, under penalties of varying severity, but when, on the other hand, captains and officers look to the Board of Trade for assistance in the performance of their duties and protection from vexatious and unfair prosecutions, their claims are totally ignored by the Board.

I hope that my noble friend who represents the Board of Trade in this House will be able to furnish us with a satisfactory reply to this Question on the Notice Paper; otherwise, I must bring it forward again. The fact of these deck-loads being responsible for loss of life cannot be denied. The decision of the Board of Trade inquiry. into the loss of the "Yarmouth" cannot be ignored, and the necessity of supplementing the ranks of nautical surveyors and inspectors to the Board of Trade at different seaports—that is, gentlemen who have had practical experience in command of merchant ships—is obvious. I hope for the sympathy and support of your Lordships so that these different matters may, at an early date, be properly adjusted, when the supervision of the Board of Trade in matters concerning the safety of life at sea will command much greater confidence than it does at present. I beg to put the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, the noble Lord alluded to what I said last year in answer to a Question put by himself with regard to the carrying of deck cargoes. I then said that, provided the cargoes were properly stowed, the Board of Trade saw no objection to the practice being continued; and I further stated that the Board of Trade surveyors had power to detain ships which they considered to be improperly loaded. Those were the facts then, and that is the position now. The case of the "Yarmouth," to which the noble Lord has specially called attention, is one of those very sad cases where the ship leaves port and practically nothing more is heard of her except that she does not arrive at her destination. The "Yarmouth" was lost with all hands. An investigation, of course, took place, and it is on the report of the Court of Inquiry that the noble Lord bases his Question. In this case the deck cargoes were loaded at foreign ports, and therefore, as the noble Lord has justly pointed out, it was impossible for any Board of Trade official to interfere with her before she left. But if on arrival a ship is found to be improperly loaded I believe that the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act are quite wide enough to enable a prosecution to be instituted against whoever is responsible for it, if that is considered desirable.

The noble Lord's Question is, I think, divided into four parts, and I will answer each in order. In the first place, the noble Lord draws attention to the decision of the Court. The decision of the Court was that the "Yarmouth" carried too heavy a deck-load, which led to her taking a heavy list and eventually capsizing, causing the loss of all on board. The report goes on to say— The Court strongly condemn the practice of carrying deck cargoes upon structures such as the poop and the forecastle. The noble Lord has alluded to certain furniture vans forming part of the cargo. Those vans, I understand, are not quite what I should imagine a furniture van to be—a large box on wheels. They are large boxes such as your Lordships are acquainted with in crossing from Dover to Calais, in which luggage is put and which are swung from the truck into the hold of the ship. In this case the vans seem to have been stowed in the well of the ship, and I rather understand from the report that it was certain packages of meat stowed on the poop and forecastle to which the Court alluded in condemning the carrying of loads on those places. Then the noble Lord alludes to the statement made by the principal officer of the Board of Trade at Cardiff. I have a letter from that gentleman in which he states what the nature of his evidence was. He says he stated that it was quite impossible for the Board of Trade surveyors to inspect every vessel, and that, in his opinion, it would be very impolitic to remove responsibility for the efficiency of life-saving appliances from the owner and master. That is, and always has been, the policy of the Board of Trade in this matter. The responsibility of seeing that the ship leaves in a seaworthy condition rests absolutely on the master and the owner, and under Section 457 of the Merchant Shipping Act any person who sends a ship to sea in an unseaworthy condition is liable to prosecution, and, on conviction, to imprisonment with or without hard labour up to two years. The functions of the Board of Trade surveyors are very similar to those of the police. Their duty is to pay surprise visits to certain ships, and in that way to detect instances where the law is contravened. It would be absolutely unreasonable to expect that policemen should watch outside every house on every night in the year in order to see that burglary did not take place. A certain number of policemen patrol the streets, and very similar duties are carried out by these Board of Trade surveyors. Then the noble Lord asks whether it is intended to increase the number of surveyors. There is no present intention of doing so. According to the view held by the Board of Trade, there are sufficient surveyors to carry out the duties which I have indicated; but, of course, if there was any idea that there was not a sufficient number steps would be at once taken to increase the staff. Finally, the noble Lord asks what has been done in regard to dealing with recognised "systems" of carrying deck-loads. As the noble Lord said, in the case of the Great Eastern Railway Company an undertaking was given to the Court that this would not be done again; and, as I have already stated, the general law seems to be capable of dealing with these cases.


My Lords, I had not intended to intervene in this discussion, but the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, made several sweeping statements which I think ought not to pass unchallenged. I think it was rather unfair to refer to the Board of Trade as being only concerned about collecting their fees, and not about safety of life at sea. It may seem rather strange for a shipowner to be defending the Board of Trade, but I believe they do their duty and that the aspersion of the noble Lord was unjustifiable. The noble Lord stated that hundreds, he might say thousands, of ships sailed out of our ports in the United Kingdom without any inspection whatever by the Board of Trade, and anyone might infer from that statement that these ships never arrive at their destination, whereas ships in the coasting trade almost invariably arrive safely. The noble Lord also spoke of masters and officers of vessels not daring to interfere with the stowage of cargo. I would point out that it is an everyday occurrence for either the master or chief officer to interfere in such matters. The stevedore is bound to follow their orders, and I know for a fact that shipowners welcome any remarks or advice which the masters and officers of their ships give in this direction. It is quite a common practice in the coasting trade to carry deck-loads in summer and winter, and it is done with perfect safety. It depends very much upon the design of the vessel. Certain vessels are designed to carry deck-loads, and it is a perfectly legitimate way of carrying cargo. Of course, in some cases, as in the case of the "Yarmouth," accidents have occurred through the stowage not being as it ought to be. But that is the fault of the stowage and not of the system. I merely rose to say these few words because I thought the remarks of the noble Lord ought not to go unchallenged.


May I ask the noble Lord who represents the Board of Trade whether the Board are quite satisfied with the action of the owners in this case? It is true that the owners have undertaken not to carry any more deck cargoes, but this ship has been lost with all hands.


My Lords, there is one way in which the risk of deck cargoes might be considerably diminished without doing away with them altogether. I suggest as a remedy that the Board of Trade surveyor should survey a ship and then draw up a scheme showing the amount of cargo and also the amount of deck cargo she should be allowed to carry. This might be done once every year or two, instead of surveying the vessel every time she left harbour, and it might be done without greatly increasing the number of Board of Trade surveyors. In the case of this steamer it appears that deck cargo was stowed on the forecastle and poop. How far the forecastle and poop were fitted for carrying cargo we cannot gather, but it is quite impossible to secure deck-loads unless there are solid bolts fixed in the ship's frame. In this case it is worthy of note that the ship was not insured, and so the loss falls on the Great Eastern Railway Company. Their marine superintendent committed a grave error of judgment in permitting the deck-load to be carried as it was carried. I think there ought to be some means whereby the Court could deprive such a superintendent of the power of superintending the embarkation of cargo any more. They ought to compel such a man to change his profession. There is a power in bad cases to deprive a captain of his certificate, and I think a Court of Inquiry should, subject to the right of appeal, have power to deal in the way I suggest with men who live on shore and direct the loading of ships.


I will answer the question put to me a moment ago by the noble Earl opposite. Lord Mayo asks, as I understand, whether the Board of Trade intend to institute any prosecution—


Whether they are satisfied.


The Board of Trade are, of course, guided by the report of the Court, in which it is stated that— blame does not attach to the Great Eastern Railway Co.; but, in the opinion of the Court, the system in existence was bad. It is definitely stated that blame does not attach to the railway company, and I do not think there is any intention to go beyond that. The noble Lord who has just sat down alluded to the fact that this ship was not insured, and if anything were required to show that a great corporation like the Great Eastern Railway Company would not have neglected any reasonable precautions I think it is afforded by that fact.