The Genealogist - UK census, BMDs and more online

The Times, Monday, Feb 12, 1866; pg. 7; Issue 25419; col F

                    The INQUIRY into the LOSS of the LONDON.

                                       -----------------------------

                                         (From the Examiner.)


The official inquiry into the loss of the London has disproved several mis-statements as to her state when she sailed from Plymouth. She was not overladen, she was not out of trim, and the weather was not threatening when she put to sea with her royals on end and yards across. But it is startling to find that it is the custom of merchantmen, even in the depth of winter, to quit port with no preparation for bad weather, and with all their top hamper aloft. And the imprudence is the greater, as their crews are generally new and raw, and not likely to be quick and handy in sending down masts and spars and making the ship snug, if occasion should arise. In the case of the London, her top hamper never was reduced, her royals were kept standing long after she had made bad weather, and were carried away at last, together with her fore and main topgallants. And with this wreckage aloft commenced the ship’s distresses. When the weather first became bad the ship was hove-to under fore and aft sails, and, strange to say, without having had her lofty masts and yards sent down. When the gale moderated she was driven against it under steam, burying her bows under green seas; and when the gale again freshened to a storm it does not appear that recourse was had to the manoeuvre of lying-to, which had before relieved her. It does not appear that she was ever put before the wind except for wearing, which she seems to have done without any of the difficulty and danger that might have been apprehended in the heavy cross sea that was running. This would show that the London was a handy ship for her length. And the seaman SHEALS, who gives an account of the way in which she was last worn, which is made utterly unintelligible by the misreporting of technical terms, adds the observation, “she flew right round before the wind; he never thought a ship could do anything like it.” Notwithstanding the sea she must have turned on her heel, as it were, under her foresail, and without sustaining any damage in the perilous operation.

After the sea broke into the engine-room and destroyed the steam-power, the ship was kept as much head to wind as might be under her staysails. But here there is a curious contradiction (one of many) in the evidence; HART, the carpenter’s mate, stating that the mizen staysail was blown away in the morning of the fatal day, and DANIELL, quartermaster, that the mizen staysail was set when the ship went down. This man said that the ship was on a tack on which she could not possibly have been with the wind he described, and he had to shift the wind from S.S.W. to N.N.W. to reconcile wind and tack. All the other seafaring witnesses said they never noticed the direction of the wind from first to last. And this does not surprise us, for we have observed that seamen never notice anything which is not in their immediate duty. They seem to think it due to themselves not to use their eyes except where they are obliged to work their hands. Whatever is not compulsory they shun. They will go up and down the same track for years without noticing a single landmark or seamark because, forsooth, it is not their business. And so an Irish packet was lost upon a sand in the mouth of the Thames a few years ago, though almost every man on board except the master had been going up and down the river once a month or oftener, and without noticing the marks of the dangerous navigation.

The evidence as to the engine-room hatch is another example of contradiction almost unaccountable. HART, the carpenter’s mate, whose business it was to attend to any damage, states: -

“It was lying flat on the deck, at the starboard side. The glass was all whole, or, if broken, much of it was not so. He and others tried to put the skylight on again. About 20 made the attempt; but the heavy seas sent it and them to leeward, and it was smashed to pieces.”

But Mr. EDWARDS, a young midshipman, said to be intelligent, states that on the Thursday, at 10 o’clock, he saw the skylight on the port side quite whole and without even broken glass. It is certain that the ship at the time was on the port tack, with a list to leeward, in which case the hatch must have been swept down to starboard, unless we can suppose that it went contrary both to the law of gravity and the action of the sea. It seems, therefore, that Mr. EDWARDS must have been mistaken, which is not surprising, considering that he had been only a few days in the service, and may not have had time to learn the difference between right and left in the nautical tongue; but more inexplicable is his evidence as to the uninjured state of the skylight after such pains had been taken in vain to provide a makeshift to keep out the sea. Can we suppose that Captain MARTIN could have neglected to secure the hatch, where it was so urgently wanted, if it was still serviceable? And all the other witnesses state positively that the hatch was smashed to pieces. It is, however, at least doubtful whether the ship could have been saved if there had not been the accident to the engine-room hatch. Such a body of water as caused that mischief could not have tumbled into her unless she had been labouring in a very bad position in a most dangerous sea. Other vessels, it is true, weathered the same storm, but we conceive that they were made snug in time, and the little Italian brig that saved the boat’s crew was hove to during the worst of the gale. Too much stress must not be laid upon the boat’s escape compared with the ship’s loss, for a well-handled, open boat, with sufficient free board, will live in a sea distressing great ships. Indeed, there is hardly any weather in which the Deal, Dover, and Ramsgate boasts will not be going about their business of succour in all security.

Much has been said about the better protection of the engine-room, and all that can be done to secure the hatch consistently with the requirements of the deck is certainly most desirable; but the question the commission of inquiry has to consider is not whether the London was a perfect ship, faultless in every respect, fortified in every quarter, but whether she was of the average goodness and equipment of her class. And in one particular there may be a doubt as to the latter point. It appears that she was not furnished with storm sails, but that her ordinary staysails were to serve as storm sails. These sails were of canvas No. 1, the very strongest, as one of the nautical assessors observed; but size is to be considered as well as texture for the strength of the storm sails, and the size of a staysail for ordinary uses is too large for a storm sail in its extraordinary exigency. It seems to us that it would be as unfitting to use a small storm sail as a staysail in fine weather as to use a staysail for ordinary purposes as a storm sail in a fierce gale. If there is any sail in a ship that should be a speciality, it is the storm sail. A most important sail of the London was soon blown to shreds, her driver or spanker; and if she had been provided with a storm trysail it would have served well in the place of the sail split, but as it was the ship had not a single storm after sail to keep her head to wind, both driver and mizen staysail having been destroyed. We are surprised at the deficiency in ships generally so admirably found as those of Messrs. WIGRAM, but we suspect that reliance on the auxiliary screw has somewhat relaxed the care in equipment for sail.

The evidence of MONROE taken the last day of the adjourned inquiry is important in many points. He was a sailmaker, but had served as a seaman. He corroborates the statement of DANIELL that the mizen staysail was not blown away but set when the ship foundered, together with a part of the maintopsail. Yet when they wore ship it would seem that the mizen staysail should have been taken in. But here is MONROE’s account: -

“Half of the maintopsail on the port side had been blown away, while the other half was left, and the whole of the mizen staysail remained set.

“Captain HARRIS asked the witness to explain how this could possibly be.

“The witness said that, strange as the fact might appear, it nevertheless was true that half the canvas held on to the ship and actually went down with her.”

The sail to which the man alluded must have been the maintopsail, and it is possible that the lee half of it may have stood after the weather leech and foot of it had been blown away below the tack. But the explanation on this point was not pressed.

MONROE corroborates the other evidence that the hatch was carried away to starboard, and he attributes the accident to the jibboom, which was adrift and rolling about so as to be dangerous to persons attempting to pass along the deck, and also to the ship. Indeed, if this statement be true, the boom must have been acting against the combings of the hatch and the superstructure like a battering-ram. There is, however, other evidence that the boom was securely lashed, and as there can be no motive for falsehood the point to be ascertained must be whether it did not get loose after having been secured.

MONROE charges the crew with skulking. He says he saw none but passengers at the pumps, and none of the seamen working. And as many as 21 out of 80 were on a list of sick or disabled.

The last witness examined, MAIN, gave a very bad account of the state and behaviour of the ship, but he is not a seaman. He says the ship lay like a log on the water, but we know not how to reconcile that statement with her wearing, as described by SHEALS, shortly before she went down. And the only purpose of getting her on the other tack was to make a smooth see for the boats under her lee, which was done for the one that escaped. It may have been, however, that her head flew round so quickly from her having been much by the stern from the weight of water in her abaft.

The impression made upon our minds after a careful consideration of the evidence, so far as it is carried, is that if the ship had been  made snug at the commencement of the gale, or even when she began to make bad weather, and in that state hove to under sail, instead of driven against the sea by steam power, she would in all probability have got through the storm, as others did of inferior capabilities. If she had been made snug, her masts and spars forward would not have been carried away, and there would have been no broken jibboom on deck to be washed about by the seas shipped, so as to batter down the engine-room hatch. The origin of all the mischief was carrying on what ought to have been reduced. Possibly Captain MARTIN’s crew, strange and raw, could not, or would not, do the necessary work; but, if so, it shows that ships should not quit port as if nothing but fine weather and occasion for all sail aloft and alow were to be expected. It would obviously be easier to get up topgallants and royals, if weather should be favourable, than to get them down in a hard gale and heavy sea.