- Transcribed by unknown author unknown author
- Edition: The Loss of the London 1866 The Loss of the London 1866
THE LOSS OF THE LONDON. – It cannot be denied that there is reason for dissatisfaction with the inquiry into the loss of the London and its result. The magistrate may have been strictly right in not permitting cross-examination, but no direct examination will ever bring out the whole truth, and satisfy the public that there is nothing to be cleared up. And from the habit of questioning witnesses very tenderly there is an indisposition even to ask them for explanations when their statements are incomprehensible. Several instances of this kind occurred in the inquiry into the loss of the London. The nautical witnesses gave most contradictory accounts of the same circumstance, but were seldom required to bring their statements into accord, or show the reason for their differences. As for the causes of the loss, we believe them to be very complex, and that we should err if we ascribed it solely to overlading, to structure, to deficiencies in equipment, to imprudent seamanship, or a badly composed crew. But all these causes had probably some part in the disaster. As for the lading, the ship certainly seems to have been brought down low in the water, but a steamer seldom leaves port in a perfect trim, for if she started light she would be crank after some days’ consumption of fuel. So either at departure, or at arrival, the steamer can hardly be in the most desirable trim. But the deckload of fuel was certainly a fault, whether the total weight of the cargo was in excess or not. As for the structure of the ship, with a proportion of length to beam of nearly eight to one, we cannot but think it awkward for a ship intended for a long voyage, a great part of which would have to be performed under canvas. Mr. SAMUDA defends the proportions, and says they are those of the most successful steamers of the day; but are not those vessels for steam-power wholly, their handling under which will be very different from what it would be under sail? The very long ships under sail, and in bad weather with a heavy sea, will neither wear nor stay, and from those inabilities the Royal Charter was jammed on a lee-shore and lost, and previously, from the same causes, lower down the Channel, the Tayleure. A great effect has been produced by what we may describe as Mr. DENIS’s posthumous evidence, the note in a bottle which drifted to Brest; but we must bear in mind that a landsman in a sinking ship may be excused for taking rather a harsh view of her qualities. We speak well of the bridge that carries us safe over, but not of the ship that takes us to the bottom. As for the seamanship, there is difference of opinion whether the ship ought to have been kept hove to, or run before the wind to shelter. But all nautical men must condemn her putting to sea in the depth of winter with all her top-gear aloft, and she must have been hove to the first time with royals on end and yards across, a most unseamanlike inconsistency. Mr. HIGHTON quotes the opinion of an old commander, that the ship should have been scudded. But the London had no proper storm sails, a great and culpable defect in her equipment, and if she had been furnished with them, we must ask whether fore and aft sails would have served her for running. If it would have been safe to put her before the wind at all, would it not have been under her reefed foretopsail? The “old commander” is wrong in stating that the small vessel which passed under the distressed London’s stern, the Courier, scudded merrily before the gale. Not long after she left the London she was obliged to lie to. Mr. HIGHTON cites two contradictory statements as to the properties of the London, one in Mr. DENIS’s note that she was crank, and another that she was so overweighted with cargo as to be too stiff to list from the wind. Had she been the latter her masts would inevitably have gone when she was lying to under sail, with her top-gear all aloft. The fact that the royals and topgallants were not lowered before bad weather was made we must attribute to the unfitness of the raw crew, unknown to each other and to their officers, and one-fourth or more foreigners, not understanding English words of command. – Examiner.
The Times, Monday, Mar 26, 1866; pg. 12; Issue 25455; col F
“A VOICE FROM THE LONDON” RE-ECHOED.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES.
Sir, - So far from the “Echoes of ‘A Voice from the London’” remaining silent, after the expression which you kindly gave to them in your columns of Wednesday last, they have, on the contrary, been caught up in a variety of fresh quarters, and have been repeated with the utmost emphasis of tone and circumstance. In fairness, therefore, towards myself as the responsible representative of the chorus, no less than for the further and more complete satisfaction of the public, I trust that you will allow me briefly to adduce some of the material corroborative evidence which I have received, as well as to bring forward a few new and important facts bearing upon the case, and otherwise elucidate and explain certain parts of my statement which have either been misunderstood or impugned. Following, then, the order in which I previously set out, I will simply remark that as to the form and build of the lost vessel my nautical correspondents still agree that she was too long and too narrow to carry a heavy cargo in bad weather. Strange, indeed, to say, this fact, as generally applicable to the construction of modern merchant steam vessels, has been for several years, I find, frequently brought under the notice both of Lloyds’ and of the Board of Trade, especially in relation to the packets which ply across the North Sea and the Baltic, and several of which have during the last few winters foundered under circumstances differing slightly, if at all, from those which caused the loss of the London. While referring to this part of the subject I would moreover call especial attention to a point which has hitherto escaped the notice it deserves – viz., the great difference which exists between such vessels as the London and the steamships which continually traverse the Atlantic, and which are equally, if not in a greater degree, long and narrow in construction. These latter are essentially steam vessels – steam is their sole motive power, and they are built of sufficient strength and with sufficient deck protection to face any gale and to be driven through any sea. Over and above this, too, they consume such a quantity of coal – often 50 to 80 tons per diem – that their load is rapidly lessened en voyage, and such care is taken as to their weighting in this respect that a pendulum is daily and almost hourly consulted in order to determine whether the coal for the engine fires shall be taken from the starboard or the port bunkers. The London, on the other hand, had merely an auxiliary screw, was, in reality, rather a sailing than a steamship, and never carried, therefore, enough coal to make its consumption a matter of much moment in lightening or adjusting her load. Her build also was, I am assured, by no means so strong as that of the Atlantic steamers to which I have alluded, and one of which, the City of Baltimore, actually remained six weeks at sea with two compartments stove in and her engines rendered useless and returned home with “jury masts,” after everyone imagined she had long gone to the bottom. When people talk, therefore, as Mr. SAMUDA did, about the London not being so long as other steam iron merchant ships, they ought to recollect that in perhaps three cases out of four the conditions are not the same. Touching the question of navigation, I will not further go into it than to say that, viewed in whatever light it may be, the circumstances go to prove that Captain MARTIN had no real confidence in his ship, and was afraid to handle her as he would have done an ordinary sailing clipper like the Suffolk, which he previously commanded, in bad weather, and this partly from her “crankness” and partly from her overloading. And here I will revert for a moment to the term “crank” and to the use I made of it in my last argument. Properly speaking, then, “crank” signifies a liability to overset, or, in nautical language, “list over” on one side or the other. Now this in well constructed and adequately loaded vessels, especially sailing ones, is within certain limits an excellent quality, since it diminishes the strain of the wind and water both upon the hull and the rigging. If, however, a ship be so heavily laden and lie so deep in the water as the London did, and besides carry such an overplus of canvas, it must strike the most superficial observer that any exhibition of “crankness” would prove of the most dangerous consequence. Admitting, indeed, that her load prevented her from being so “crank” as she otherwise would have been, it yet rendered more fatal the amount of “crankness” which still existed, and this will be more clearly shown when I mention that one of the survivors declared to me that in “listing over” she actually “scooped up the water” in a heavy sea. One word, too, as to the “spur-curtain,” a term often corrupted into “spirketting,” which is generally denominated “covering boards” in a merchant vessel. This in the London was made of iron, and was fully 15 inches in height. Owing, therefore, to its material it could not easily be knocked away, and owing to its height and the choking of the scuppers which went through it, and which, indeed, it is said, were often level with the water or under it in a rough sea, a vast quantity of fluid accumulated on the deck and poured at once into the engine-room when the hatch was washed away. That the sliding door in the bulkhead of the engine-room was left open, even when the vessel sailed, is now confirmed to me by the testimony of a gentleman who, in order to see the last of some friends, made the voyage from London to Plymouth, and who himself walked through the opening in question into the “screw-alley” shortly before the ship left harbour. But, Sir, I hasten to fortify my statements in reference to the appearance of the vessel as she went down the river. Most assuredly they do not rest upon the mere gossip or hearsay of casual spectators. I have received the strongest assurances that the universal opinion of all who saw her on her passage from London to Plymouth was that she was over-weighted and too deep in the water. It was the collective opinion, I am told, of a number of pilots assembled in a room not far from Gravesend; it was the opinion openly stated to one of my correspondents by the pier-man at Woolwich, who, in the presence of three assenting seamen who saw the vessel pass, affirmed that he would not have gone out in the ship if 100L. had been given him, since she was far too deep and would never make a rise; it was, and is the opinion of the very gentleman whom I have already mentioned as having made the voyage from London to Plymouth; it was the opinion of a commander of experience, who writes to me that he visited the London in the East India Docks ten days before she went out, and then found that she looked like an “elongated collier,” on account of her depth in the water, and yet, shocking to relate, was still taking in cargo. Nor is this simply a matter of opinion, for an eye-witness of undoubted authority – a merchant of long standing in the city – assures me that before leaving the dock she was so choked up with cargo as to be obliged to land 40 or 50 packages, and that, too, after several cabins had been knocked down to make more room for stowage. Have I not, then, Sir, good reason upon such testimony to ascribe all her disasters to the primary evil of overloading? There are, however, other and, if possible, more painful circumstances to which, at the imperative call of duty, I feel compelled to draw attention. Glad indeed should I be to adhere to the old and recognized maxim, “Nil nisi bonum de mortuis,” the more especially in the case of a commander, who, whatever might be his personal or professional faults, at least had the merit of sticking to his vessel to the last, and of sharing the unhappy fate of the passengers intrusted to his care. Still, however painful it may be, I am obliged to ask the question, - Did Captain MARTIN exercise that prudence which the grave responsibilities of his position demanded? Did not his interests clash with that vigilance which he ought to have used for the protection of so many valuable lives? Is it true or not that he was a part owner, that he was liable to a fine of 60L. a day for every day’s delay at Plymouth, and that he had a heavy bet that he would perform two voyages out and in with the London in the course of a twelvemonth? Of the truth of the first two declarations I fear there is no doubt, on the last I would willingly be sceptical. To another topic of equally serious character I feel also reluctantly obliged to allude, and that is to the assertion made upon authority to myself, and already advanced without refutation by a recent correspondent of your own, that Messrs. WIGRAM, contrary to their usual practice, at any rate in the case of wooden vessels, had to a large extent insured this identical ship. When to this consideration, too, is added that the charge for freight was double that on ordinary sailing vessels, it does appear that there was a very strong temptation, first to overload the vessel, and then to disregard those precautions which ought to have been employed to ensure her safety.
Upon many branches of the subject I refrain to touch, first, because I am afraid of occupying too much of your valuable space, and, secondly, because they are fitter for investigation before that competent Board of Inquiry which I trust will soon be instituted in the shape of a Parliamentary Committee, or otherwise, than for discussion in the columns of a newspaper. I cannot, however, avoid remarking that the chief engineer of the London had not the requisite first-class certificate and had never served in any other vessel in a similar capacity; and I cannot, further, forbear mentioning, in respect to the value of the Greenwich report, and the evidence on which it was based, that the log of the London on previous voyages was never asked for or produced, that the engineer officer of the Board of Trade, Mr. TAPLIN, confessed, in answer to Captain HARRIS, that he had never been to sea himself, and that Captain M’LEAN, chief emigration officer of the port of London, admitted that he had not much experience in steamships, and that the London was the first steam passenger ship cleared by him from the port of London to Australia under the Passengers’ Acts. Well, therefore, Sir, as a simple citizen of this great maritime nation, as a member of this mighty British community, which, year by year and month by month, launches its children on the deep and encourages a teeming population to seek new homes and found new empires in the most distant regions of the globe – well, I say, may I, in their name and on their behalf, demand that this terrible calamity shall be submitted to the fullest, freest, and fairest examination – that it shall, in fine, not merely be looked over as an error of the past, but shall be held up as a warning for the future. In my last letter I appeared before you clad in the garb of personal sorrow, I now presume to stand forth robed in the mantle of imperial justice. Once more I invoke the aid of a sympathizing public, an independent press, and a supreme Parliament, and, unless I am greatly mistaken in the character of my countrymen and of their institutions, that solemn invocation will not have been uttered in vain.
I have the honour to be, Sir, yours obediently,
E. GILBERT HIGHTON.
41, Bedford-square, March 24.