The Times, Monday, Jan 22, 1866; pg. 8; Issue 25401; col D     [Editorial]


The Roman poet describes with Epicurean serenity the luxury of watching from the shore the struggles of a storm-tost vessel. A kindred pleasure, though of a less selfish kind, may be realized by speculating in quiet security on the mistakes which caused, and the precautions which might have averted, some terrible disaster at sea. The loss of the London, with 220 souls on board, has provided our countrymen with a notable opportunity of indulging in this gratification. Accordingly, we have received letters from a host of correspondents, with or without nautical experience, suggesting every possible explanation of that deplorable event, and every possible expedient for preventing such mishaps in future. More than one of these gentlemen draw attention with great emphasis to the statement that 50 tons of coal were stowed on the deck of the London, and, being washed about by every sea that was shipped, actually blocked up the scuppers. Now, the carrying of deck cargoes is undoubtedly a dangerous and objectionable practice, but there is not the smallest reason to suppose that it contributed in this instance to the fatal catastrophe. If the London really sailed with 50 tons of coal on deck, it is probable that the whole of it was consumed in the first two days’ steaming, while nothing would have been easier than to heave the rest overboard had it been found to encumber the deck. The wreck of the London was manifestly due to her engine-room being flooded and her stern ports stove in, and these are circumstances which, however we may regard them, could not be affected by the mode of storing 50 tons of coal. But then it is said that she had 1,200 tons of iron on board, and that it is a monstrous thing to send two or three hundred emigrants “on a long and dangerous voyage in a ship weighed down with iron.” Now, is there any real ground for believing that the London was overladen at all? And is not iron one of the safest cargoes that she could have carried? We are told, indeed, that her motion was “low and heavy” on the morning that she foundered, but this was after she was almost waterlogged. Every sailor knows that a ship may be too light as well as too deep in the water, and no landsman, especially in the absence of trustworthy details, can undertake to say whether or not the London was overweighted for a passenger ship at the commencement of an ocean voyage. With our present information, indeed, we cannot see why so much stress should be laid on the iron, or upon anything else which fails to account for the entrance of the sea down the hatchway of the engine-room and through the stern ports.

To this all-important question others of our correspondents address themselves with more or less success. Starting with the almost self-evident proposition that had the London been watertight all over, and strong enough at every point to resist the fury of the waves, she would now be afloat, however helpless a log on the water, we have to consider wherein her weakness consisted. It is maintained in several of the letters before us that it consisted chiefly in the number and size of the openings on deck, and in the imperfect protection of those openings. Here all steamers are at a disadvantage as compared with sailing vessels. Besides those hatchways and lights which are necessary to make the cabins habitable and the hold accessible, a steamer contains one vast aperture immediately above the machinery, which ventilates the engine-room and serves other purposes of convenience. It cannot be too often repeated that through this aperture the “mountain of water” that sealed the doom of the London did, as a matter of fact, descend, putting out the fires, arresting the action of the engine, and leaving the whole ship at the mercy of the waves. Humanly speaking, this could not have occurred to a first-rate sailing vessel, of which the main hatch is much smaller and easily secured by covers and tarpaulins, while the motive power, though exposed to the violence of the wind, is beyond the reach of the water. Appreciating the cogency of this fact, several of our correspondents urge that passenger steamships should be invariably constructed with a spar-deck, or at least that all openings communicating with the engine-room should be carried much higher and far more efficiently guarded than is usually the case. We are not aware of any reason why this should not be done, and if there be none it seems to be dictated by common sense. Nothing can be stronger, as Mr. LAW reminds us, than its weakest part. It is in vain that we build invulnerable hulls if we leave unprotected openings on deck immediately above the vital parts of the steamer, which not only depends on her machinery for keeping out of the dreaded “trough of the sea,” but should also be able to employ it for pumping. Still less excusable is the infatuation of shipbuilders in constructing the sterns of large vessels with less regard to strength than the bows, and that of the officers of passenger ships in allowing the stern ports to be kept open or imperfectly closed during rough weather. It is true that a ship’s stern is not so incessantly buffeted by the waves as her stem, but the shape of the former is far less adapted to bear a shock, and the danger of being “pooped” is notoriously one of those most formidable to a sailor. It may be incurred but once in a voyage, but that once proved too much for the ill-fated London. She had survived for some hours the breach made by the sea over her waist, when the furnaces were extinguished, but no sooner was she “struck by a stern sea than it carried away four of her stern ports.” Then “all efforts were useless,” and Captain MARTIN had to warn his passengers that no hope remained.

If, then, it were necessary to assign the chief proximate causes of this awful shipwreck upon the facts hitherto ascertained, we should not hesitate to specify the exposure of the engine-room hatchway, and the inadequate power of resistance in the stern. It may be too much to say, with our correspondent “S. Y.,” that “it should not be possible for a first-class vessel to founder at sea,” but we have a right to say that the stern ports of a first-class vessel, being, as they must surely have been, carefully secured with dead-lights, ought not to give way before any wave that ever broke. Nor should we be doing justice to the truth or the public if, out of respect for the memory of Captain MARTIN, who behaved so heroically in the hour of trial, we refrained from adverting to his apparent imprudence in putting to sea at all – still more with royal masts up – when the readings of the barometer at Plymouth were ominous of a coming hurricane, and most navigators would have sent down even their topgallant masts. No wonder that such fair-weather gear was soon blown away, swinging to and fro, however, with such violence as to defy all efforts to secure it. Unless it should prove that he acted under strict orders from his owners, or had some unexplained motive for sailing, it seems hardly possible to acquit him of some indiscretion, at the outset of the voyage. Beyond this we cannot venture to critisize his conduct. There are those who think that he should have turned back sooner, forgetting, perhaps, that a ship is safer with her head to the wind than in any other position. It may, on the contrary, be open to doubt whether Captain MARTIN, having steamed for so many days in the teeth of a storm, did not act unwisely in running back when he might nearly have reached its outer edge. But these are at best vague conjectures. The same remark applies, though with somewhat less force, to the moral enforced by one of our nautical correspondents, that it is too much the custom in steamvessels to put undue confidence in steam power, and to neglect the use of sails. This may be very true, but we have really no means of knowing whether Captain MARTIN thus erred. We only know that he stopped his engines and set his topsails on the Monday, and we cannot fairly “presume,” with Captain MARRYAT, that when the engines were started again soon afterwards the topsails were furled. They must, however, have been furled before Wednesday night, for it was then, on the final stoppage of the engines, that a futile attempt was made to set the maintopsail, which was instantly blown to shreds, except one corner, under which the ship lay for the rest of the night. Possibly it would have been safer to heave to from the first, and possibly “storm canvas” may, under such circumstances, be a valuable auxiliary to steam power, but it is equally possible that Captain MARTIN, if he were alive to tell his own story, could fully satisfy his critics on points like these.

We cannot be surprised, though we cannot but regret, that sympathy with those who are lost should have prompted some unjust comments on the conduct of the survivors. Where many perish and few escape there is always a temptation to suspect the latter of basely deserting their comrades. Such suspicions hardly admit of a conclusive refutation, but for that very reason they should not be circulated at random. It would be preposterous to expect strong men to forego the means of saving their own lives because women or weaker men cannot be saved with them. The very utmost self-devotion of which ordinary natures are capable is to abstain from taking advantage of superior strength to insure their own safety at the expense of others. Such magnanimity as Captain MARTIN showed on the brink of eternity is given to few, and short of this Mr. GREENHILL and the rest of the boat’s crew appear to have done nothing unworthy of brave men. The fate of the starboard pinnace would naturally deter many from venturing into the port pinnace, wildly dashing, as it doubtless was, against the broadside of the London, and only to be reached by a perilous leap from above. Bold and active men would alone be likely to prefer such an alternative to that of taking their chance with the ship, and, what is still more important, none but experienced boatmen could, in all probability, have kept the pinnace afloat in so fearful a sea. The salvation of the party is mainly attributed by all to the marvellous skill and courage of KING, their coxswain. Had this man, on whose prowess nineteen lives depended, chivalrously made way for a lady, or had the boat returned to be engulfed in the same abyss with the doomed ship, who would have been the gainer? That some of those left on board, encouraged by the success of the pinnace, should have afterwards rushed, but too late, to man the other two boats, proves nothing at all against their more fortunate shipmates. There is no proof, or presumption, or shadow of either, against them; and if we pity the cruel fate of the dead, let us at least forbear to make unfounded imputations upon the living.