The Times, Wednesday, Feb 28, 1866; pg. 9; Issue 25433; col F

                         THE LOSS OF THE LONDON.


We have received the Report of the formal investigation by the Board of Trade respecting the loss of the London. This report contains, no doubt, all the information the public can ever receive as to the cause of that terrible disaster. It occasioned at first some natural feeling of dissatisfaction that the representatives of those who were lost in the ship were not admitted to cross-examine the witnesses. Such a permission, however, would, it appears, be impossible under the Act of Parliament which directs these investigations, and the Report justly represents that such a practice is at once unnecessary for the purpose of the inquiry, and might render it impracticable. The persons appointed by the Board of Trade have power to call any witnesses they may think necessary, including the passengers and their representatives, and to cross-examine them as they please. These responsible and experienced Assessors are not likely to neglect any point of uncertainty in the evidence; while if the representatives of all the passengers who were lost in such a ship as the London were allowed to cross-examine the witnesses at pleasure, the investigation might be indefinitely prolonged. The Court of Inquiry have examined no less than 24 witnesses, who all had either a personal knowledge of the condition of the ship or were experienced in shipbuilding, and the most minute particulars affecting the seaworthiness of the vessel have been inquired into. The result, moreover, is on the whole as satisfactory as could be expected. It sets at rest several disputed points, and indicates at least the proximate cause of the disaster.

It appears, in the first place, that the general equipment of the ship amply sustained her previous reputation. The Surveyor of Lloyd’s and the Emigration Officers at Gravesend and Plymouth concur in reporting her as “in all respects a good vessel.” The weight of the cargo and its stowage were the next points of inquiry, and with respect to these also the Report decides that the ship was in a satisfactory condition. The manner of the stowage is pronounced to have been unobjectionable, and there is no doubt that, according to the standard adopted by Lloyd’s Surveyors and the practice of such ships in general, the London was not overloaded. The Court, indeed, advert to some evidence to a contrary purport given by a retired shipbuilder of Liverpool, and they appear to think that his opinion is not to be altogether disregarded. They repeat, moreover, the recommendation they had already made in the case of the Amalia, that the deep load line should be permanently marked on all vessels carrying passengers and merchandise. With respect to the stowage of coals on deck, and the fact of the ship having set sail from Plymouth with all her top gear aloft, the Court observe that she only followed in these particulars the usual practice of all vessels engaged in the same line of trade. They censure the practice, however, in decided language. It is impossible to say whether, as a matter of fact, these circumstances contributed in any degree to the loss of the ship; but it may be hoped, now that attention has been thus forcibly called to the danger they involve, that they will for the future be avoided. The only other point relative to the despatch of the vessel from port was the state of the weather when she started from Plymouth. As this is a point on which Captain MARTIN has been severely blamed, it is satisfactory to be assured that there is no foundation for such a censure. Captain STOLL, the Emigration Officer at Plymouth, gave the readings of the barometer on the 5th of January, the day the ship sailed, on the 6th, and on the 7th. There was a rise in those days of about three-eighths of an inch, and this agrees with the state of the weather as reported by those on board the ship. Instead, therefore, of the ship having sailed in the face of threatening weather, there appears no doubt that “the weather was very favourable.” In fact, for the first two days after leaving Plymouth “the weather was moderate.” It was not until Monday, the 8th, that “it began to blow strong.”

We now come to the actual history of the disaster. Here, again, every one will be glad to observe at the outset that one of the points conclusively established relieves the captain from another ground of censure. Severe reflections had been cast upon him for his supposed imprudence in putting his ship before the wind. It is agreed upon, however, “by all the seamen who were examined, that she was never put before the wind until the forenoon of the day she went down,” and then only in order to lower the port cutter in which the survivors left the ship. This exculpation of the captain on the points respecting which we have conclusive evidence, combined with his high professional character, is justly held by the Court to preclude any unfavourable judgment respecting doubtful questions in the subsequent management of the ship. It is not probable that a man of such experience, and who behaved so admirably in the moment of supreme peril, would have committed any serious errors, and we must believe that the points of apparent difficulty could have been satisfactorily explained if any of the officers had survived to give an account of them. Moreover, the result of this part of the inquiry is sufficiently definite to render any such questions of very subordinate importance. There is no doubt that the proximate cause of the loss of the ship was the sea getting into the engine-room and extinguishing the fires. This disaster is alone sufficient to account for all that followed, and it only remains, therefore, to inquire by what means the sea was enabled thus to break into the engine-room. On this point the Court speak with less certainty, and appear inclined to think that the immense body of water which poured suddenly into the engine-room could hardly have been admitted if the ship had not sustained some further injuries beyond those which were observed. Here, however, one point is certain, and is sufficient to furnish us with a practical result. It is that the engine-room skylight was washed away, and that the water poured into the room immediately afterwards. When we are informed that the hatchway thus left unprotected presented an opening of 12ft. 6in. by 9ft. 6in., we must conclude that if this accident did not actually cause the final disaster, it was amply sufficient to cause it. The practical question, therefore, to which the inquiry is reduced is “how the skylight was carried away, whether by any imperfection in its construction or by carelessness in not keeping it properly fastened down.” On these points the evidence leaves us to some extent uncertain. A portion of the jibboom which had been blown overboard had been recovered, and was fastened to one stanchion of the hatchway, and it may be that this floated with the water on deck, and contributed to unship the skylight. In other respects the hatchway seems to have been as well secured from the outside as its construction admitted. There is no evidence, however, enabling the Court to say whether “the inside fastenings of the skylight were the weak points of the ship.” As to the construction of the skylight, the Report says that if properly secured it was a sufficient protection from the sea, “unless from any extraordinary accident happening.” It appears to us impossible to avoid the conclusion that the construction was insufficient. In the first place, it might be enough to observe that the skylight did, in point of fact, give way. But, besides this, a construction which is only secure “unless when an extraordinary accident happens,” is practically unsafe. It is against extraordinary accidents that ships have to be secured, and it is the most fatal fault not only of shipbuilding, but of navigation, that everything is conducted on the supposition that none but ordinary dangers will have to be encountered. As much as this, indeed, is expressly admitted in the Report. “All the hatchways of a ship,” it is said, “ought to be made as strong as her deck; and, when occasion requires it, secure from the intrusion of the sea. This may be done in a variety of ways more or less simple.” If so, the public will regard it as unpardonable if a ship is ever sent to sea again with hatchways liable to the same accident as that which caused the loss of the London.

The conclusion thus obtained is rendered the more important from the very similar result of the inquiry into the loss of the Amalia, which we published a day or two ago. There, too, the loss of the ship was proximately preceded by the water breaking into the engine-room and extinguishing the fires. It is evident, in short, that the safety of these steam-vessels in a heavy storm depends almost entirely upon the security of the engine-room. It is not improbable, as Mr. WILSON thinks, that the construction of our fast steamers is such as to render them ill adapted to meet a storm when reduced to the condition of sailing ships; but, so long as they have steam-power at their disposal, there is every reason for believing them as safe, if not safer than any other sort of vessel. It is satisfactory that we have thus been able to trace these terrible disasters to the real cause, and that this proves to be a deficiency which can be readily supplemented. We cannot, indeed, say that human foresight could not have averted the accident, for such a weak point in the construction ought to have been detected. But we may rest satisfied that no blame can be attached to those who had the management of the vessel, and we may be thankful that we have discovered the means of guarding against a similar catastrophe for the future.