The Times, Wednesday, Mar 21, 1866; pg. 9; Issue 25451; col E

[Editorial]

The total loss of a first-rate passenger ship on the high seas is, happily, so rare an event that a certain degree of mystery still attaches to the fate of the London. The foundering of such a vessel, classed “Aa 1” on Lloyd’s List, but five days after the commencement of her voyage, in a gale which smaller craft rode out with safety, and in which one of her own boats was able to live, constitutes a leading case among nautical disasters, and justifies to some extent the feeling of dissatisfaction which has been so freely expressed. This feeling has not been alleyed by the publication of the official Report to the Board of Trade, which imputes no blame to any one. Nothing can be more natural than a tendency to fasten the responsibility of a great misfortune on somebody, and the relatives of those who perished in the London may be excused for indulging a belief that if the builders, owners, and officers, and all other persons connected with the ship, had done their duty she would never have gone down. At first there was a disposition to suspect the survivors of having deserted their perishing shipmates and fellow-passengers; then Captain MARTIN’s seamanship was severely condemned; and a great variety of objections have since been alleged against the build, equipment, and seagoing condition of the vessel. These last have lately received an unexpected confirmation from the written evidence of one who lost his own life in the London. Among the papers washed ashore on the coast of France was one bearing the signature of Mr. H. J. DENIS, and containing the following memorandum in pencil: - “Bay of Biscay, Thursday, 10 o’clock. – Ship too heavily laden for its size, and too crank. Windows stove in, and water coming in everywhere. Storm not too violent for a ship in good condition.” Upon this pencil note, made within an hour or two of the final catastrophe, the writer’s brother-in-law, Mr. HIGHTON, has founded a demand, very natural under the circumstances, for further investigation, and it furnished Sir JOHN PAKINGTON with a good text for his elaborate review of the Board of Trade Report on Monday night. Like Mr. HIGHTON, Sir JOHN characterizes the inquiry as “a mockery and a delusion,” partly because counsel employed by relatives of the victims were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses, and partly because the fair inference was not drawn by Mr. TRAILL from the evidence before him. The former point turns chiefly on the construction of an Act of Parliament. Mr. TRAILL’s opinion was, that as in this instance there was no question of suspending a master’s certificate, and no person on his defence, it would have been improper to allow cross-examination. Sir JOHN urged, on the other hand, and we think justly, that inasmuch as it was clearly within Mr. TRAILL’s discretion to allow it, he should not have refused it in a case of great public interest, though no individual happened to be in the strict legal sense on his trial. This point, however, is of secondary importance if substantial justice was really done. The chief object of Sir JOHN’s speech, as well as of a second letter addressed to ourselves by Mr. HIGHTON, was to show that justice was not done, and that Messrs. WIGRAM, if not Captain MARTIN, though “whitewashed” by the Board of Inquiry, were greatly to blame for the loss of the London.

 

In support of this view, Sir JOHN PAKINGTON and Mr. HIGHTON contend, in effect, that the London, though a ship of the highest pretensions, was ill-constructed, ill-equipped, ill-found, ill-manned, and ill-navigated. “The prevailing idea,” says the latter, “seems to be that she was too narrow in the beam for her great length;” and he also alleges, on the authority of professional informants, that her centre of gravity was placed too low, and that she was altogether deficient in buoyancy, overladen, “overmasted,” and “flat-sided.” Much stress has also been laid on her being “unprovided with storm-sails,” as well as on her having put to sea “with her royal masts on end and topgallant yards across,” on her scuppers having been defective or else choked up with coal, and on there being no adequate provisions for signals of distress. Sir JOHN attaches much importance to the circumstance of a large proportion of her crew being foreigners and unable to understand the word of command. Others object to the way in which she was handled by the Captain, but here the nautical critics are somewhat at issue with each other. One insists that he should have made all snug aloft and on deck, and kept the ship head to wind, with just enough way on to steer by; another contends that, but for the want of storm-sails and other defects in her structure and lading, she ought to have been kept before the wind, as “the well-known East Indiamen” usually are – an assertion which, to say the least, surprises us.

These are matters on which seamen alone can form a competent opinion. We must, however, in fairness, set against this volunteer testimony that of the witnesses examined by Mr. TRAILL and his Assessors, six of whom had been “connected with the construction of the ship or her machinery, or in the stowage of her cargo,” six were surveyors who had inspected her, three others were emigartion officers, and the rest persons of practical experience in shipbuilding. The general effect of their replies as to the structure of the London is summed up by Mr. TRAILL in the language of Lloyd’s surveyor, that she was “in all respects a good vessel.” It is true that her length in proportion to her breadth was almost eight to one, while that of the finest sailing vessels in the East India trade does not, we believe, exceed five to one. The proportion of ten to one, however, is by no means unknown in these days, and Mr. SAMUDA testifies that it is still an open question among shipbuilders what is the best proportion for safety. So, again, as to the lading of the London the weight of authority is more evenly balanced than Sir JOHN PAKINGTON would lead us to suppose. One important witness who gave evidence on the Board of Trade inquiry thought she ought not to have drawn more than 18 feet 9 inches, but three others maintained that a deep load-line of 20 feet 8 inches was not too great, and one stated that he should have passed her even if her draught had been a foot greater. It is certain that Indiamen of less tonnage sometimes draw more water on leaving the Hooghly, and it should be remembered that the daily consumption of coals, water and provisions on board a passenger steamer lightens her very rapidly. On the other hand, it must be allowed that several experienced and independent observers noticed a marked want of buoyancy in the London, and a passenger who had sailed in her before complained of the very same thing. Nor can it be doubted that, however much in accordance with the practice of the merchant service, it was wrong to put to sea with royal masts and topgallant yards in such unsettled weather, and with a barometer still low, though rising. A still more decided protest against this practice in the Board of Trade Report might have had a salutary effect, but it is clear that neither it, nor any of the other circumstances enumerated by Mr. HIGHTON, was the chief cause of the loss of the London. That loss was immediately, though not, as there stated, “entirely, owing to the sea getting into the engine-room and extinguishing the fires.” As this was done by a cross sea, it may fairly be questioned whether, had the ship been hove to, it would ever have happened, and why, after it did happen, the opening of the hatchway was not planked over is left unexplained. It is also difficult to understand how the spars and booms carried away came to be encumbering the deck, instead of being cut adrift or firmly lashed.

Upon the whole, we are inclined to agree with Mr. HENLEY, and to ascribe the unsatisfactory nature of this Report, for unsatisfactory Mr. MILNER GIBSON confesses it to be, partly to the fact that “inquiry and trial” are two distinct processes which ought not to be combined. Here no one was accused of anything, and yet a certain reluctance to put questions which might “compromise” the owners was, according to a very general impression, betrayed by the Court. Mr. MILNER GIBSON himself thinks that improvements might be made in the mode of conducting such inquisitions, though he denies that any avoidable failure of justice took place in this instance. We cannot go quite so far as to endorse this last statement, but we greatly doubt whether the most searching investigation would have led to any very different conclusion. If, indeed, the loss of the London was “primarily attributable” to her being overladen – if “A Voice from the London” embodies the truth and the whole truth – if, as one of the surviving passengers assures Mr. HIGHTON, the fires were not put out and the engines stopped by a single green sea breaking over the vessel amidships, but “by many continually breaking over her in consequence of her lowness in the water,” then Mr. TRAILL and his nautical associates have been greatly misled, and very serious blame must rest with Messrs. WIGRAM or their agents. But this fact has yet to be established. We cannot take it on the authority of “a seaman not far from Purfleet” who was overheard predicting the loss of the London, or on that of “an eye-witness” who saw her “looking more like a barge than a ship” off the Isle of Wight. Reviewing this sad calamity more calmly than is possible for the friends or relatives of its victims, we adhere to our original conviction, supported by the result of the inquiry, that the ship was swamped by a sea which ought to have passed over her harmlessly, but which proved too much for the insecure and insufficient covering of the engine-room, and afterwards pooped by another sea, which drove in the stern-ports. The obvious moral is that drawn by Mr. TRAILL, that stern-ports should be specially protected, and that “all the hatchways of the ship ought to be made as strong as her deck, and, when occasion requires it, secure from the intrusion of the sea.”