Curiosities of Civilization_

Eighteen and Fifty Eight_

Andrew Wynter_

The following Essays have been reprinted from the pages of the Quarterly and Edinburgh Reviews, with the kind permission of their proprietors. It may be necessary, however, to state that, with the exception of the paper on the “Mortality in Trades and Professions,” which was published in the Edinburgh Review of January, 1860, the whole of them have appeared in the Quarterly Review during the last six years. The date of each essay is given in the list of contents; but, where necessary, corrections have been made, so as to bring each article up to the knowledge of the present day.


There is no nobler or more national sight in our island than to behold the procession of stately vessels as they pass in panoramic pride along our shores, or navigate the great arterial streams of commerce,—to witness the deeply-laden Indiaman warped out of the docks, or to see the emigrant ship speeding with bellying sails down Blackwall Reach, watched by many weeping eyes, and the depository of many aching hearts. It would, however, spoil the enjoyment of the least-interested spectator if the veil could be lifted from the dark future; if that gallant Indiaman could be shown him broadside on among the breakers; or that stately vessel, with bulwarks fringed with tearful groups looking so sadly to the receding shore, were pictured by him foundering in mid ocean—gone to swell the numbers of the dismal fleet that yearly sails and is never heard of more. Sadder still would be his reflections if another passing ship could be shown him, destined perhaps to circle the globe in safety, and when within sight of the white cliffs of Albion, full of joyful hearts, suddenly, in the dark and stormy night, fated to be dashed to atoms, like the Reliance and Conqueror, on a foreign strand. If such dramatic contrasts as these could be witnessed, we should without doubt strain every nerve to prevent their recurrence. As it is, the sad tale of disasters at sea comes to us weakened by the lapse of time and the distance of the scene of the catastrophe: instead of having the harrowing sight before our eyes, we have only statistics which raise no emotion, and even rarely arrest attention. In connection with these annual returns there is published a fearful-looking map termed a wreck chart, in which the shores of Great Britain and Ireland are shown fringed with dots,—the sites of wrecks, collisions, and other disasters. From this we perceive how all the dangerous headlands and sandbanks on the coast are strewn with—

“A thousand fearful wrecks,
A thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels—
All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea.”

Strange to say, these dismal finger-posts to marine disasters are generally found grouped around the sites of lighthouses. If we analyze the chart for the year 1857, we perceive at a glance the relative dangers of the three seaboards of triangular England, and that a fatal pre-eminence is given to the East coast. Out of a total of 1,143 wrecks and casualties which took place in this year, no less than 600, or more than one-half, occurred between Dungeness and Pentland Frith. Along this perilous sea, beset with sands, shoals, and rocky headlands, no less than 150,000 vessels pass annually, the greater part ill-constructed, deeply-laden colliers, such as we see in the Pool, and wonder how they manage to survive a gale of wind. The South coast, extending from Dungeness to the Land’s End, is comparatively safe, only 84 wrecks having taken place in 1847; whilst from the Land’s End to Greenock, where the influence of the Atlantic gales is most sensibly felt, the numbers rise again to 286, and the Irish coast contributes a total of 173.

If we take a more extended view of these disastrous occurrences by opening the wreck chart attached to the evidence of the select committee on harbours of refuge, given in 1857, containing the casualties of five years from 1852 to 1856, both inclusive, we shall be better able to analyze their causes. Within this period no less than 5,128 wrecks and collisions took place, being an average of 1,025 a year. According to the evidence of Captain Washington, R.N., the scientific and indefatigable hydrographer of the Admiralty, these casualties consisted of


The total losses from all causes, therefore, amounted to 2,184 vessels, or to an average of nearly 437 in each year. The destruction of life consequent upon these casualties was 4,148 persons, or, upon the average of five years, nearly 830 in each year. In 1854 no fewer than 1,549 persons were drowned.

How such a calamity should have been so long tolerated in a civilized country, without any proper attempt at a remedy, it is not easy to comprehend. Still more incomprehensible, in a trading country, is the apparent disregard of the pecuniary sacrifice. It appears in evidence that the loss by total wrecks is estimated at 1,000,000l. a year at least, and by other casualties at 500,000l., making together 1,500,000l. as the annual loss to the country from the accidents on our own coasts—a sum which in two years would be ample to build all the harbours of refuge that are needed around our shores.

The first step towards a remedy for this state of things is to inquire into the causes of shipwreck. There can be little hesitation in naming Marine Insurance as the chief destroyer. Unseaworthiness and overloading of vessels; their being ill found in anchors, cables, sails, and rigging; defects of compasses, want of good charts, incompetency of masters, may all be attributed to this source. If the shipowners were not guaranteed from loss, they would take care that their vessels were seaworthy, commanded by qualified persons, and furnished with every necessary store. The terms of the insurance, moreover, offer a direct premium to create in all cases of casualty a “total loss.” For instance, a ship strikes the ground and becomes damaged, but, under able management, might be got off and repaired. In this case, however, the assured has to bear one third part of the loss; whereas, if the loss is total, he gets the whole of his insurance. Under these circumstances, even when there is no deliberate desire to perpetrate a wrong, the captain will leave the ship to her fate instead of using his energies to preserve her to the detriment of his employer. It is the opinion of many that if the insurers were to agree to pay the whole insurance, whether the damaged vessel were got off or not, that we should see a marked diminution in the list of total losses at sea, for the natural inclination of the captain to save his ship would then no longer be counterbalanced by his desire to save the pocket of the owner.

There is a class of casualties, however, which are the product of villany, against which we see no protection excepting in the vigilance of the insurers: we refer to those cases of wilful casting away, which are not unknown even in this country, as the late trial of a captain, at the Old Bailey, will testify; but which are most frequent on the Florida Reef. It is notorious that our American friends are in the habit of sailing ships into these waters, with the deliberate intention of steering them to destruction. So well is this known, that those on shore can predict, with tolerable accuracy, from the handling of the vessel, whether she is about to be sunk or not. When it is not the skipper’s interest to lose his craft, he will allow the wreckers, who swarm as plentifully as sharks in those waters, to act as pilots, and to put the ship in dangerous positions for the purpose of making a claim for salvage, which the swindling captain shares with them. In the years 1854, 1855, and 1856, 189 ships were either lost or put into Key West. The salvage upon the latter class amounted to 298,400·05 dollars, a large portion of which was, without doubt, obtained by fraud. It is far from our purpose to insinuate that the Americans are worse than their neighbours in this particular; had the English the same opportunity, there would always be found persons to enter upon similar practices. The memory of wrecking is not yet extinct in Cornwall, and only a few years since it was notorious that the pilots of the Downs were in the habit of recommending the cables of the vessels in their charge to be slipped in very moderate gales of wind, because these worthies had a good understanding with the chain and anchor makers of the neighbouring ports who would have to supply fresh tackle.

It must be admitted, that the same cause which prompts these villanies, operates in some measure as an antidote. The underwriters at Lloyd’s and the different marine insurance offices, act in a certain degree as the police force of the seas. Their agents are as plentiful and ubiquitous as flies, and there is no port of the old or new world without one or more of them. Through the medium of these marine sentries, whose eyes are always upon the ocean, disasters at sea are speedily made known to the underwriters, and in those cases where the telegraph is at hand, a ship has scarcely broken up or come ashore, before hundreds are reading the account of the disaster upon the “Board” at Lloyd’s. With this spider-like web of intelligence spreading from port to port and from ocean to ocean, the chances of wreckers either on shipboard or on land must certainly diminish. The acuteness of the underwriters, sharpened by self-interest, is brought to bear upon the distant point, and all the resources of a powerful corporation are put in force to detect fraud when suspected, and to punish it when confirmed. A singular instance of the vigour and ingenuity displayed by their agents in pursuing the marine robber was afforded by the case of the American ship W. T. Sayward. This vessel was reported by her skipper to have been lost off Loo Choo, on her voyage from San Francisco to Shanghai, and the sum claimed of the insurers in this country was £50,000, the value of the cargo, which was reported to have comprised, among other things, 50,000 Carolus dollars. It struck the gentleman engaged to settle the claim that it was very unusual to ship such a quantity of this “Pillar” dollar, and on inquiring of the money-changers, he learnt that there was not a tithe of that number at present in existence out of China. This discovery at once aroused suspicion, and agents were sent to the spot where the ship had been lost, when it was found that the sailors, suspecting some roguery, returned to the wreck after the captain had departed, dived into her hold and discovered that she had been wilfully scuttled. They lighted, by happy chance, upon some of the boxes in which the “dollars” were shipped, and they were found to contain only iron nails and leaden bullets. The nails were selected for the sake of the chink. The assured, having heard of what had occurred, never ventured to repeat their claim.

In a more recent case, that of the brig Cornelia, a regular trader between the coast of Mexico and San Francisco, which was wilfully scuttled off San Quentin on the 27th of March last, it was reported that she had 48,000 Mexican dollars on board, 19,000 shipped at Mazatlan by an English house, and 29,000 by other persons. On the captain’s own confession the 19,000 dollars were removed by him just before he scuttled the vessel, and hidden in the sand at Cape San Lucas, on the coast of Lower California; the remaining sum of 29,000 dollars he admitted had never been shipped at all, bills of lading having been fabricated, and a mythical consignee improvised for the occasion. Had not the agent been on the alert, this knave would have robbed the underwriters at one swoop of 48,000 dollars.

From the chief moral, or rather immoral, cause of shipwreck and loss at sea, we pass to a consideration of the physical agents which act directly in producing these disasters. Of these there are so many, and of such various natures, that it is difficult to group them. Currents of the ocean, fog, lightning, icebergs, sandbanks, water-logged ships, defective compasses, and imperfect charts, are all dangers which beset the path of navigators, and especially of such as have to run the gauntlet in ill-found ships. The effect of currents in taking the sailor out of his reckoning is an old, and formerly perhaps a frequent, cause of shipwreck. This source of danger is now much obviated by the more intimate knowledge we are acquiring every day of the general laws which produce the currents. One of the most effectual as well as simple methods of detecting surface currents is that known to seamen as the bottle experiment. This has been practised since 1808, but more especially of late years, and has been deemed of sufficient importance by the Admiralty to justify an order by which all Her Majesty’s ships are enjoined to throw bottles overboard containing a paper, on which is noted the position of the ship and the time the frail messenger was sent forth on its voyage. The bottle, carefully sealed up, traverses the ocean wherever the winds and surface-drift may carry it, and, after a passage of longer or shorter duration, is perhaps safely washed by the tide upon some beach. Without doubt many are smashed upon the rocks, others again are sunk by weeds growing to them, some are destroyed by the attacks of birds or the jaws of hungry sharks, or if by chance they avoid all these dangers, they may be consigned to oblivion upon an uninhabited shore. It is estimated, however, that at least one-tenth are recovered. A collection of upwards of 200 has been made at the Admiralty, and are laid down in a chart called the Current Bottle Chart.

A single glance at this chart displays the principal well-known currents of the Atlantic ocean. The general tendency of the bottles to go to the eastward in the northern parts of this sea, and to the westward in lower latitudes, is at once apparent. It is equally evident that to the southward of the parallel of 40° N. on the eastern side of the Atlantic the bottles drift to the southward, while those again in the vicinity of the Canaries and Cape Verd Islands take a westerly direction. Those further south, lose themselves among the West-India Islands, and some penetrating further are found on the coast of Mexico, between Galveston and Tanessied. A few manifest the effects of the counter-current of the celebrated Gulf-stream, while others again, on the western side of the Atlantic, from about 40° N., are set to the eastward. Indeed, there seems to be a determination of all to the northward of the parallel of 40°, or that of Philadelphia on the American seaboard, to make their way to the eastward—some to the coast of France, in the Bay of Biscay, others to the western shores of Great Britain and Ireland, and others again to the shores of Norway.

We thus recognize distinctly, first the Portugal current, setting southward; then the equatorial current, influenced by the trade winds; then the extraordinary effects of the waters of the Gulf-stream flowing northward along the American coast, over the banks of Newfoundland—one portion following its north-east course and penetrating to Norway, and another continuing easterly into the Bay of Biscay. But let us particularize a few of the remarkable journeys made by these glass voyagers over the deep. The Prima Donna was thrown over off Cape Coast Castle, on the west coast of Africa, and after a voyage of somewhere within two years was found on the coast of Cornwall. Now, to have arrived there, it must have been carried eastward by the well-known Guinea current, and reaching the Bights of Biafra and Benin it would meet the African current then coming from the southward, with which it would recross the equator and travel with the equatorial current through the West-India Islands, and getting into the Gulf-stream, would be carried by this to the north-east, and thus would be landed on the Cornish coast, after making a detour of many thousand miles. But curious as this is, it is not the only instance, for we find that the Lady Montagu, setting out in nearly 8° S. lat., about midway between Brazil and Africa, a position which would fairly place it in the equatorial current, made the same voyage, but landed at Guernsey, having accomplished the course in 295 days, or between the 15th October, 1820, and the 6th of August, 1821. Confining ourselves now to the area included between 30° N. lat. and the equator, the general effect of the heat of the Gulf of Mexico in forcing the waters thither is plainly indicated by the direction which the bottles have followed that are included within those limits. Those thrown overboard in the Mexican Gulf, to the north of Cape Catoche of Yucatan, are hurried away with it and cast on the American shore, near St. Augustine and Charleston. Other instances show the effects of the counter-current of the Gulf-stream on its eastern or ocean side, in driving bottles to the south-east, a current that must have affected the ships of Columbus in his first discovery, and which, upon his return northward among the islands, without doubt met and opposed his progress.

A curious example of the effects of the wind on the surface-waters is shown by a bottle thrown over from H.M.S. Vulcan in the midst of the Gulf-stream, about 130 miles southward of Cape Hatteras. The ship was on her way to Bermuda, where she arrived, and the bottle, instead of being carried by the current to the north-east like others, actually went after her and arrived at Bermuda also. But we find noted on the paper that a strong northerly wind was blowing when the bottle started. This must have been sufficient to have checked its progress to the north-east, but allowed it to approach the eastern border of the Gulf-stream, whence it would drift into the eddy or counter-current, and thus become thrown on Bermuda. Again, between the Gulf-stream and the American coast bottles have found their way to that shore, while those to the northward of the parallel of 40° have invariably gone eastward; and many thrown over near the meridian of 20° have drifted into the Bay of Biscay, and been cast on the French coast.

Among the numbers of bottles which have travelled westward with the equatorial and tropical current two are remarkable, as being thrown overboard about 700 miles from each other and yet arriving at nearly the same destination. They were thrown from sister-ships when on their errand of carrying relief, by way of Behring Strait, to Franklin and his devoted crew. The first was dropped from the Investigator, Sir R. Maclure, in lat. 12°, long. 26°, the 27th of February, 1850, and was found on the 27th August following on Ambergris Cay, on the Yucatan coast; the second was sent afloat on the 3rd March, 1850, by Captain Collinson, in the Enterprise, in lat. 1° N., long. 26° W., and drifted to the coast inside of that cay, about 30 miles to the northward of it. That the two bottles should take their western course was to be expected; but that they should have gone to resting-places so near each other is singular, considering that their points of starting were so far asunder.

The Gulf-stream, the limits of which are so clearly intimated by these little messengers, is but a sample of a grand system of currents which are produced by the unequal temperature of the different zones. These currents of hot and cold water are accompanied by atmospheric changes equally extraordinary; and, taken together, they largely affect the course of the navigator from the old to the new world, and, not unfrequently, are the cause of the most fearful shipwrecks.

Lieutenant Maury, in his Physical Geography of the Sea, has boldly likened the causes at work to produce the celebrated Gulf-stream to the mechanical arrangements by which apartments are heated. The furnace is the torrid zone, the Mexican Gulf and the Caribbean Sea are the caldrons, and the Gulf-stream is the conducting-pipe by which the warm water and the air above it, are dispersed to the banks of Newfoundland and to the north-western shores of the old world. By this beneficent process the cold of our northern latitudes is greatly ameliorated. The waters sent north and north-east are edged by return currents, the one finding its way close to the banks of Newfoundland and along the seaboard of the States, and the other returning by the North Sea, the Bay of Biscay, and the west coast of Africa, until about the latitude of the Cape de Verdes it crosses westward again to fill up the void caused by the waters issuing from the Gulf of Florida. Thus the grand circuit is for ever maintained, not always, however, exactly in the same form, but varying according to the season. In the winter, the cold current coming S.S.W. along the Atlantic coast of North America is greatly augmented, and pushes the Gulf-stream further to the south-east. With the return of summer this stream, in its turn, thrusts aside the waters coming from the Polar Ocean. Between these two periods the trough of the Gulf-stream, to use Lieutenant Maury’s forcible expression, “wavers about in the ocean like a pennon in the breeze.” The temperature of the Gulf-stream, even in the winter, is at the summer level as it runs between two walls of nearly ice-cold water. Sir Philip Brooke found the air on either side of it at the freezing point, at the same time that that of the stream was at 80°. This difference in the temperature of air and water is probably the cause of those terrible hurricanes that occur in the Atlantic and among the West-Indian Islands, and which make it the most dangerous navigation, during the winter, in the world. The average of wrecks on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States during these rigorous months is not less than three a day. Sailors term the Gulf-stream “The weather-breeder;” and well they may, considering its frightful effect in producing commotion in sea and air. In Franklin’s time it was no uncommon thing for vessels bound in winter for the Capes of Delaware to be blown off land, and forced to go to the West Indies, and there wait for the return of spring before they could attempt to make for this point. The snow-storms and the furious gales which greet the ship as she leaves the warm waters of the Gulf and nears the shores of North America, are quite dramatic in their effect. One day she is sailing through tepid water, and enjoying a summer atmosphere, the next, perhaps, driving before a snow-storm, her rigging a mass of icicles, and her crew frozen by the piercing blast. The Gulf-stream is answerable for another phenomenon—the fogs which invariably shroud the Banks of Newfoundland, and which render the approach to the North-American coast in winter so particularly dangerous. The hot water of the Gulf-stream gives up its vapour to the cold air, and hangs about the coasts an impenetrable curtain, which baffles the navigator’s skill, renders useless his chronometer, and but too often sends his bark to destruction upon the hidden shore.

Another danger of the stormy Atlantic arises from the flow southward, in the spring and summer months, of icebergs. These stupendous masses have their breeding-place in Davis’s Strait, from which they issue in magnificent procession directly the current increases in a southerly direction. Polar navigators have been surprised to find these huge monsters moving against the wind, apparently by some inherent force, and crashing through vast fields of ice, as if impatient to escape from the silence and desolation of the Polar seas. The explanation of this singular occurrence is, that powerful under-currents are acting upon the submerged portions, which, in all cases, vastly preponderate over the glittering precipices of crystal that appear above the water-line. As the icebergs advance into the open waters of the Atlantic, they at last come to the edge of the Gulf-stream, where, in “the great bend,” about latitude 43°, they harbour in dangerous numbers, and without doubt send many a noble ship headlong to the bottom. In all probability the ill-fated Presidentwas thus destroyed, and some towering iceberg, that has long since bowed its glittering peaks to the solvent action of the warm water of the Gulf-stream, was, perhaps, the only witness of the calamity which placed the noble Pacific among the list of ships that have sailed forth into eternity.

If the northern latitudes of the Atlantic have their dangers of ice, the southern latitude, especially the Caribbean Sea, in common with all intertropical oceans, have their dangers of fire. The hurricanes of those latitudes are generally accompanied by visitations of fearful thunder-storms, in which many a good ship is enveloped and destroyed. In the midst of a summer sea a clipper ship may be suddenly assailed by one of those tremendous conflicts of the elements, of the approach of which the silver finger of the barometer, unless carefully watched, has scarcely had time to give warning. However prepared by good seamanship and an active crew, there she must lie on the vexed ocean, her tall masts so many suction-tubes to draw down upon her the destructive fire from heaven. In his Report to the Admiralty, laid before Parliament in 1854, entitled “Shipwrecks by Lightning,” Sir William Snow Harris—whose exertions to find a remedy for this evil are above all praise—states that in six years, between 1809 and 1815, forty sail of the line, twenty frigates, and ten sloops were so crippled by being struck as in many cases to be placed for a time hors de combat. In fifty years there were 280 instances of serious damage to ships in the British navy. Of these the Thisbey frigate, off Scilly, in January, 1786, affords a melancholy example. The log represents her “decks swept by lightning, people struck down in all directions, the sails and gear aloft in one great blaze, and the ship left a complete wreck.” In the merchant service the list of disasters is fearful. Since the year 1820 thirty-three ships, varying from 300 to 1,000 tons, have been totally destroyed by lightning, and forty-five greatly damaged.

“A great peculiarity,” says Sir William Snow Harris, “may be observed in cases of ships set on fire by lightning, viz. a rapid spreading of the fire in every part of the vessel, as if the electric agency had so permeated the mass as to render the extinction of the fire by artificial means impossible.” Take, for instance, the burning of the Sir Walter Scott in June, 1855. This fine passenger ship, of 650 tons, was struck in the Bay of Biscay: the lightning shivered the foremast, completely raked the vessel, and instantly set fire to the cargo. The passengers and crew had scarcely time to jump from their beds and put on their clothes, and leap into the boats, when the masts went over the sides, the flames shot up into the air, and the ship went down like a stone. Such extraordinary catastrophes as these seem to set forth in unmistakable terms the feebleness of man in the presence of the tremendous powers of nature. In reality, they are only forcible instances to call upon him to use the means for dominating the peril. Of all the dangers that beset the mariner at sea, danger by lightning is the only one that he can thoroughly guard against. To Sir William Snow Harris we owe the perfecting of the lightning-conductor for marine purposes, and the power of braving unscathed the direst electric storms. The permanent conductor adopted in the navy in 1842 is arranged so as to extend along the masts, from the truck to the keelson, and so out to sea. In the hull various branches ramify, and admit of a free dispersion of the electric fluid in all directions. Thus armed, the ship is impregnable to all the forked lightnings that may dart about her. Since the system of fitting men of war with this apparatus has been adopted, no vessel of the Royal Navy has been injured. The log of the frigate Shannon, commanded by the late gallant Sir W. Peel on his voyage out to China, affords a striking example of the manner in which the fury of such electric storms as are only to be met with in the Indian Ocean, was baffled by a contrivance which may truly be called, in the words of Dibdin—

“The sweet little cherub that sits up aloft,
And takes care of the life of poor Jack.”

“When the ship was about 90 miles south of Java she became enveloped in a terrific thunderstorm, and at 5 p.m. an immense ball of fire covered the maintopgallant-mast: at 5·15 the ship was struck a second time on the mainmast by apparently an immense mass of lightning; at half-past 5 another very heavy discharge fell upon the mainmast, and from this time until 6 p.m. the ship was completely enveloped in sharp forked lightning. On the next day her masts and rigging were carefully overhauled, but, thanks to Sir Snow Harris’s system of permanent lightning-conductors, no injury whatever to ship or rigging was discovered.”

If we compare this remarkable case with that of His Majesty’s frigate Lowestoffe, when near the island of Minorco in 1796, we perceive how great is the protection science affords to the seaman. The frigate was struck, it appears, at 12·25 P.M. by a heavy flash, which knocked three men out of the tops, one of whom was killed on the spot. Within five minutes the ship was again struck, and her topmast was shivered to atoms. In another minute a third shock shivered the foremast and mainmast, and set fire to the vessel in many places, raked the deck from end to end, killed one man, paralyzed and burnt others, and knocked several persons out of the tops. In two parallel cases, the addition of a rod of copper made all the difference between safety and havoc. The example of the Royal Navy is being followed by the merchant-service, but not so speedily as it should be. When it is remembered that the treasure-clippers trading between Australia and this country often bring home nearly a million sterling in addition to a large complement of passengers, it does seem remarkable that the lightning apparatus is not considered as essential to their equipment as the boats, especially as they have to traverse an ocean where thunder-storms are of common occurrence. The cost of the whole apparatus is not above £100, and if the cupidity of the merchant is not sufficient to induce him to supply it, we think that Government should compel him, in order to insure the safety of the stream of passengers who annually leave our shores.

In the whole catalogue of disasters at sea, those which present the most terrible features are water-logged timber ships. The timber trade between Great Britain and her American colonies employs a very considerable fleet of large vessels. As wood is a “floating cargo,” old worn-out West-Indiamen, which would not be used for any other purpose, are freely employed. A few years since, in addition to a full cargo, they carried heavy deck-loads, which so strained their shattered fabrics, that they often became water-logged, and were sometimes abandoned in the middle of the Atlantic. The sufferings of the crews on these occasions in their open boats were appalling. Beating about for weeks on the waste of waters without food or drink beyond the rain that fell from heaven, they were obliged to sustain existence by preying on the bodies of their dead companions, and not rarely they cast lots for the living. Since the passing of the Act prohibiting deck-loading, these disasters are far less frequent; but they have by no means ceased. At the time we write there are several timber-ships drifting about the ocean, floating heaps of desolation, at the mercy of the Gulf-stream, which will ultimately cast them on some European shore, or drift them into the North Sea, to serve as fuel for the Esquimaux. In turning over the leaves of Lloyd’s List, we find indications of these dreary wrecks, which, clothed in seaweed, are driven over the face of the waters, and sighted by passing ships, of which they often cause the sudden destruction, whilst careering along in seeming security. When these waifs and strays of the deep drift into much-frequented ocean paths, they are doubtless the cause of many of those dreadful catastrophes witnessed only by the eye of God, and our only knowledge of which is a curt notice on the “Loss-book” at Lloyd’s, “Foundered at Sea, date unknown.” A recent instance, in which possibly no damage was done, will yet suffice to show the risk. The Virago, loaded with teak from Moulmein, in the Indian Ocean, to Queenstown, Ireland, became water-logged, and was abandoned on the 5th of March last, 155 miles south-west of Cape Clear. The next day she was passed by the American liner Eagle; on the 17th of the same month a steamer, on her way from Rotterdam to Gibraltar, reports having seen her; on the 5th of April she was passed by the Naiad on her passage from Palermo to Milford; and on the 15th the Samarang, on her way to Tenby, met with her; on the 18th she was seen 160 miles off the Lizard, “in a very dangerous position,” by the Champion of the Seas; again, on the 3rd of May, the Alhambrasteamer, on her voyage to Southampton, met her in latitude 47°; about the same time and place she was seen by the Peru steamer, “and appeared as if run into;” and, finally, on the 20th of May, the telegraph sends word that she was stranded near Brest, and her cargo was being discharged. It is curious to note how, amid the tossing of the ocean, her name became gradually obliterated, till it was totally effaced, a type of the progressive decay and final destruction of the vessel herself. At first she is properly reported to Lloyd’s as the Virago; the next ship makes her out to be the Argo; still later her cognomen is cut down to the —go; and then the name disappears until the French find her upon their strand. Here we suppose her half-obliterated papers were found, and our neighbours, according to their usual wont, transmute the Virago into the Neroggogi. From these reports it is evident that a number of large vessels passed quite close to the wreck, and it is even probable that a collision may actually have occurred, and no one have been left to tell the tale. In some cases, where the circumstances of wind and current are favourable, water-logged ships are taken in tow by other vessels and become valuable prizes. When, however, these wrecks are in such a condition that it is clear they cannot be brought in, we think it would be well if they could be destroyed. A few pounds of powder, judiciously placed, or a beam or two sawn across by the ship’s carpenter, would break the bond that binds these logs together, and, once separated, they would not be likely to do much damage.

Many disastrous wrecks can be distinctly traced either to a defective compass, or to an ignorance of the effects upon it of the magnetism of the ship’s iron. There is a melancholy example in the loss of H.M.S. Apollo, of thirty-six guns, in 1803, with forty sail of merchant ships, out of a convoy of sixty-nine vessels, bound for the West Indies. The Apollo was leading the way, with her train of outward-bound sugar ships following in her wake, little suspecting the catastrophe which was to follow. At the very moment her defective compasses drove her ashore, she imagined she was some forty miles off the coast at Portugal, and so close was the merchant fleet upon her, that upwards of half of them took the ground and were dashed to pieces. More recently we have had the instances of the Reliance and Conqueror, wrecked near Ambleteuse, on the French coast, in sight of the cliffs of Albion, after voyaging from India. The former is known to have had an immense iron tank on board, the influence of which upon her compasses must have been very great. The Birkenhead, wrecked near the Cape of Good Hope, and the ship Tayleur, in the Irish Channel are additional instances of the destruction to which the trembling finger of the magnetic needle points the way, where ignorance or wilfulness have placed impediments to its truthful action.

Of the numerous errors that may be classed under the general term of compass defaults, we may mention defective compasses arising from imperfect workmanship, or from an ignorance of the principles of mechanical and magnetical science, compasses perfectly adjusted but placed injudiciously either with reference to the magnetism of the ship, or in immediate proximity to concealed and unsuspected portions of iron. Ignorance of the degree of compass error arising from the ship’s magnetism, and of its varying amount in changes of geographic position, and a consequent belief, that in all places and under all circumstances the needle is true to the north, are frequent causes of shipwreck.

With regard to the defective mechanical construction of compasses, it must be admitted that great improvements have taken place of late years, and the chief credit, we believe, is due to the British Admiralty. Nearly twenty years ago they instituted a Committee of Inquiry, and the silent working of the measures then advocated, and the adoption of the improvements suggested first under the direction of the late Captain Johnston, and more recently under that of Mr. Frederick Evans, R.N., have infused into the manufacturers, and a large portion of the mercantile marine and shipowners, a degree of caution, skill, and attention to details, which has brought forth good fruit. A large portion of the superior compasses of the United States navy are manufactured in this country, entirely on the Admiralty pattern, and several foreign governments have recently obtained the same instruments as models. It must not however be supposed that defective compasses have ceased to exist. Our coasting vessels and many of our noble sailing ships are miserably equipped, and there are many captains who still look on the compass as a cheap and common article, fit to be classed with hooks and thimbles and other articles of the boatswain’s storeroom.

There can be no doubt that great errors in navigation are induced by inattention to placing the compasses. It is common to see the binnacle within two feet, and even less, of the massive iron-work of the rudder wheel, which again is in immediate contiguity with an iron sternpost. The local deviation is consequently great, magnet adjustment is had recourse to, and a temporary alleviation of the evil follows, which is only magnified on the ship approaching some distant port. Numerous examples are on record of iron being introduced by some addition to the equipment of the ship, which has perhaps been lost in consequence within a few hours after quitting port.

Among the causes which thus operate, we may name the fancy rails leading to state-cabins and saloons. These, beneath a highly-polished covering of brass, often conceal many hundredweights of iron. Cabin stoves and funnels, immediately under and alongside the compass, are frequently unsuspected. A noble transport, during the late war, carrying troops and stores, pursued her course by day with unswerving fidelity, but at night the compass was as wild as the waves themselves. After diligent search it was found that the brazier, in preparing the binnacle lamps, had introduced a concealed iron-wire hoop to strengthen their frame-work. The stowage of iron in cargo does not receive the attention it deserves, and we consider it should be imperative for every vessel which carries it to be swung for the local deviation before quitting port, and a certificate duly lodged before clearing the Customs. When the Agamemnon adjusted compasses preparatory to sailing upon the last unsuccessful expedition to lay the Atlantic cable, it was discovered that the presence of the enormous coil in her hold caused a deviation of no less than seventeen degrees! Had she been a merchant ship, no similar verification would have been made, and the sign-post which showed the path upon the trackless waters would only have pointed to mislead.

It is remarkable how much misapprehension on the nature of magnetic action exists even among men of high intelligence. A competent witness, in a recent law-trial, in a case of wreck, arising chiefly from a want of knowledge of the laws of magnetism in the navigation of the ship, stated that seamen in general believed, that if a cargo of iron was covered over, its effects were cut off from the compass. A leading counsel in the case sympathized with the general ignorance, because he confessed that he shared it. The adjustment of compasses by magnets is a most delicate operation, and has received much attention from some of our leading men in science. An able committee, under the auspices of the Board of Trade, are now engaged, in the midst of an iron navy, in the port of Liverpool, in elucidating the whole of the subject. We feel bound, however, to record our opinion against the indiscriminate employment of all the nostrums prescribed by the compass-doctors or quacks at many of our seaports. Let the shipowner consult such reports of the Liverpool Committee as have been already published, or follow the Admiralty plan of having at least one good compass in a position free from all magnetic influences. In some of the large ocean steamers a standard compass is fitted high up in the mizen mast, and we hear that it is proposed to build a special stage on board the Great Eastern, in order to keep the compass from being affected by the immense body of iron in her fabric.

A perusal of the evidence given in those inquiries which take place relative to the loss of ships, under the Mercantile Marine Act, would lead to the supposition that defective charts were even a greater cause of wrecks than compass defaults; but this is not the case. The fact is, incorrect charts afford an excuse for a master who may have lost his ship, which is but too readily accepted by the members of courts of inquiry and of courts martial. The defence set up for the wreck of the Great Britainsteamer, in Dundrum Bay, on the east coast of Ireland, was, that St. John’s Light, placed two or three years previously, was not inserted in the most recent charts of the Irish Channel procurable at Liverpool, and that consequently it was mistaken for the light at the Calf of Man. But these two lights are at least thirty miles apart, and it is monstrous to suppose that a steamer should be so much out of her reckoning within a few hours of leaving port. Again, in the more recent case of the wreck of the Madrid steamer, off Point Hombre, at the entrance of Vigo Bay, several masters were examined, who stated that they had invariably passed equally close to the same headland, in reliance on the correctness of the chart. “Under these circumstances,” said the Court, “the loss of the Madridcannot be attributed to the wrongful act or default of the captain.” His certificate was therefore returned; and, at the same time, he was informed that, as a general rule, “150 yards is not a sufficiently wide berth to allow in passing headlands.” We should think not; and furthermore we imagine that, if the omission of every insignificant rock close to shore, in government charts, is to be taken as an excuse for shaving a dangerous headland, we may expect to hear of many repetitions of the disaster. The Orion, wrecked on the west coast of Scotland, and the much-abused Transit, in the Banca Strait, owed their fate to the unseaman-like love of hugging the shore.

It must be admitted, however, that the charts in common use on board merchant ships are very faulty, both with respect to the position and character of lights, buoys, and beacons, and to the variation of the compass, which is not unfrequently half a point wrong,—an error which may be fatal in shaping a course up Channel or in a narrow sea. From this great evil the seaman has, at present, no protection. The remedy lies in the hands of the legislature, who have only to compel all chart-sellers to warrant their charts corrected up to the latest date, at least with respect to lights and buoys. There are but three or four publishers of private charts, as far as we are aware, in the United Kingdom; their stock of plates cannot be very large, and, once examined and set right, the corrections and additions could be easily inserted. Either the Board of Trade or the Admiralty should be entrusted with this duty. The latter are obliged to correct their own charts, and we understand it is the practice of the hydrographer to cause every new light, or change of light, or buoy, or beacon, to be inserted in the plate within twenty-four hours of the time of the intelligence reaching the Admiralty. A large number of notices to mariners—upwards, we believe, of a thousand a-week—are printed and published, both by the Trinity House and the Admiralty, and distributed among those connected with shipping; and every chart-seller should be bound under a penalty to give proof to the Board of Trade or to the Admiralty that he had inserted the corrections in his copper-plate within forty-eight hours of the appearance of the notice.

It is a startling fact that the materials for constructing charts, even of parts of the waters which wash the shores of Europe, are not yet in existence. Of the coast of Europe generally we are tolerably well informed, although there are many portions that require closer examination; but on the African and Asiatic portions of the Mediterranean, the early seat of civilization and the best known sea in the world, there is still much to be done. When M. de Lesseps brought forward his romantic proposal for a Suez Canal, no survey existed of the coast of Egypt from Alexandria to El Arish. Of Syria we know nothing accurately; Cyprus, Rhodes, and the western half of Crete, are still almost blanks. But it is in the eastern seas and in the Asiatic Archipelago that we are most at fault. The Persian Gulf, portions of the coast of India, Ceylon, Burmah, Malacca, Cochin China, the Yellow Sea, Corea, Japan, the southern and eastern parts of Borneo, Celebes, &c., are hardly so correctly mapped as the mountains in the moon. The north and east coasts of New Guinea, again, are unsurveyed. As long as the Spice Islands, and the unknown lands washed by the Indian seas, were given up to pirates, and to the imagination of poets, this want was not felt; but now that our clippers swarm in these seas, and that Australia herself is beginning to trade there extensively, we shall assuredly hear of fearful shipwrecks from want of surveys. Then, indeed, it will be truly said, that imperfect charts are the cause of shipwrecks, unless, when India passes under the Imperial Government, vigorous steps are taken to remedy this grievous defect.

Closely connected with the question of imperfect charts, is the state of the lights, buoys, and beacons around the coast—those fixed and floating sentinels set around the island to guide and direct the weather-beaten mariner. A few years ago we should have had to bewail our shortcomings in the number of these aids to navigation, and have had to point to them as prominent causes of shipwreck. The report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Lighthouses, in 1845, shows the want that then existed, not only on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, but even at the entrance of the River Thames. Much, however, has recently been done. It appears, from the address of the Prince Consort, at the annual Trinity House dinner, that 77 lighthouses, 32 floating light-vessels, and 420 buoys and beacons, under charge of the corporation, are now distributed around the coasts of England alone. Great praise is due to the elder brethren of the Trinity House for their care in lighting the Prince’s Channel, and especially for their admirable works now in course of construction under Mr. James Walker, C.E.; among which we may instance the new lighthouses at the Needles, at Whitby, and at St. Ives, the light-tower on the Bishop Rock, off Scilly, and on the Smalls off Pembroke. In Scotland, also, several new lights have been established; and some of the buoys have been coloured on a systematic plan—red buoys being placed on the starboard hand, and black buoys on the port hand, on entering a harbour from seaward, according to the mode adopted in France, Belgium, and Holland. This system, however, presents difficulties where there are several channels, as at the mouth of the Thames; but there are many places in which it might be applied with advantage. At present, we believe, the river Tees is buoyed on exactly the reverse plan; and in some of the large ports of the kingdom a local scheme is adopted, which completely closes the navigation to all but the local pilots, for whose special advantage this secret system appears to be maintained. The adversaries of a simple and uniform method of buoying the coast do, indeed, urge that it would put the key of our harbours into the hands of our enemies; but this argument is so puerile that it is hardly worth notice. If we cannot maintain the integrity of our waters by force, we certainly shall never maintain it by cunning.

The want of lights on the shores of Ireland has long been a cause of complaint. Till within a few years, on a coast which is the land-fall of nearly all vessels that cross the Atlantic from Canada, Nova Scotia, Boston, and New York, there were spaces of sixty, seventy, and eighty miles without a light! Yet during all this time light dues were levied on the Americans, and other nations, who were thus treated to a sample of Irish reciprocity. On the coasts of the United States there were ample lights and no light dues, while on the coast of Ireland the lights were few and the dues heavy. We trust that the royal commission which, on the motion of Lord Clarence Paget, has lately made its report respecting the state of the lights and buoys of the country, will give a stimulus to the improvement which has already begun, and either get rid of these light dues or recommend a more equitable method of levying them. One penny a ton on the actual tonnage of the country, paid once a year, would be sufficient to maintain all the lights in the kingdom, and would be more simple than the present complicated system of paying every fresh voyage, which bears so unjustly on the coasting trade. The time, we believe, is close at hand when the lights themselves will be revolutionized. It is of the last importance to the mariner that the brightest and best light that science can furnish shall be held out upon the sunken rock, or perpetually maintained upon the dangerous headland. Yet it cannot be denied that we have nothing better than oil lamps for the purpose; and though the most profound science and the most delicate art have been employed to make the most of this feeble power, the fact remains, that we have not advanced beyond the oil-wick of the last century in our attempts to provide a light which will throw its beams far and wide over the sea, and pierce through the fogs and drifting snow-storms of the dark winter nights. It is not less strange that we are behind the French, and even the Spaniards, with respect to the mechanism necessary to concentrate the little light we have. In the two former countries the vast majority of the lighthouses are upon the dioptric principle, the whole light of the lamps being concentrated in occasional flashes, by means of a powerful system of lenses, forming a complete cage of glass. England, on the contrary, employs in most of her lighthouses the old metal reflectors; and, as Lord Clarence Paget justly observes, the voyager leaving Folkstone will clearly appreciate the difference between the two systems, by comparing the dioptric light flashing from the far distant Cape Griz Nez with the feeble spark of the English reflector light close to him at Dungeness. It has been the great aim of the constructors of these powerful lenses to throw all the light of the lamps into parallel rays, so that only a thin disc of light is cast upon the sea; but, as Mr. Findlay truly remarked in his paper read at the Society of Arts, we have at last over-refined, and a fearful shipwreck has already been the result. The Dunbar, after making a prosperous voyage to our antipodes, was wrecked at the Sydney headland, within sight of her port. This dangerous cliff was surmounted by a reflector light which sent a thin disc of rays, under which the ship passed in a fog. Had a few divergent rays been allowed to light the danger at her feet, she would have escaped her fate.

Another great and increasing difficulty arising from the limited capabilities of the present burners, is the fact that steamers are beginning to show lights as powerful as those exhibited in lighthouses of the inferior order and in the light ships. Hence a confusion is growing up between the fixed and the moving lights, which threatens to produce most disastrous consequences. As recently as February last, the Leander, an American barque, proceeding down St. George’s Channel, saw a light which she mistook for that on the Tuskar Rock, and, when too late, discovered that it belonged to the screw steamer North America, which was coming right ahead. A fearful collision was the consequence, and the unfortunate ship with nearly all her crew was sent to the bottom. It has been found absolutely necessary to change the light in the Nore light-ship from a fixed to a revolving one, to distinguish it from the numerous powerful lights carried by steamers at anchor or when passing along the Thames.

Various attempts have been made to increase the illuminating power of the burners. In 1832 Lieutenant Drummond proposed the use of the oxy-hydrous light, and as far as the intensity of light was concerned the new agent was perfectly successful, the Drummond light at seventy miles’ distance appearing nearer to the spectator than the ordinary reflector light at twelve miles. But it was found impossible to maintain a steady light by this system, and it was therefore abandoned. Since then Professor Holmes has been making experiments with the magnetic electric light. The apparatus is said to consist of a series of very powerful magnets, around the poles of which the helices are made to revolve by means of a steam-engine. A powerful magnetic current is thus produced, which passing through carbon pencils shows a splendid light. The great difficulty of this and of other similar propositions to obtain the light by passing the current through two points, is to so regulate them that they shall always remain at the same distance apart, for any variation would immediately affect the intensity of the light. This desideratum has not yet been accomplished, neither do we think it possible of accomplishment. Professor Way has, however, we imagine, solved the problem by substituting a running stream of mercury in place of these points.

A moment’s inspection of the grim wreck chart leads us to reflect whether the care taken to warn mariners of their danger is not in many cases the immediate cause of their seeking it. If we note, for instance, the lighthouses fringing St. George’s and the English Channel, we are struck with the extraordinary fact that there we find the greatest congregation of those dismal dots which indicate loss of life and property, and it would seem as though ships like moths were attracted and destroyed by the light. Such, no doubt, is often the case. Ships bound up Channel make for the nearest light, and from that shape their course until they meet with the next light. They feel their way, as it were, in the dark night by the handrail of these guides, and sometimes stumble on the very rocks that support the beacons themselves—the fog, as in the case of the Dunbar, allowing them to get within and under the danger flash. The disasters produced by this system of groping about sunken rocks and bluff headlands has led Mr. Thomas Herbert of the Trinity House to propose the lighting of the Mid Channel. His system is to moor floating lighthouses, of a form which secures a steadiness sufficient for the purpose, and he is thus enabled to place a row of most powerful lights at little comparative expense up the very centres of the two great channels of English commerce, and indeed of the commerce of the world. A ship on entering the Channel would immediately make for the westernmost of this line of “Fairway lights,” instead of looking out for the Lizard, and once having made it, the course would be free of all possible danger. Eight floating light towers extending from the westernmost one, forty miles south-west of Scilly, to Dungeness, would add enormously to the security of this wreck-strewn sea. The outermost of these lights Mr. Herbert proposes should be put in telegraphic communication with the shore, by which means merchants and consignees would be made acquainted with the arrival of vessels full a day earlier than at present. By this means also Greenwich time could be laid on to the station, and enable the anxious captain to verify the correctness of his chronometer up to the latest possible moment. Such a station might further serve as a depôt for water and fresh provisions, so much required by vessels detained by contrary winds in the Chops of the Channel, and to provide which ships are now annually sent out by the Admiralty. Without expressing any decided opinion upon this scheme, it seems to us to possess sufficient plausibility to warrant inquiry. If there should be no insurmountable practical objection,—and we have heard practical men speak well of it,—there can be little doubt that it would dissipate in no small degree the dangers of the Channel, without interfering with the present lights, which would always be useful for the coasting trade.

Perhaps the most frequent cause of wreck, especially on our own coast, is negligence on the part of the master. If we analyze the cases of collision that occurred in the year 1857, we are surprised to find that by far the larger portion of them occur in the open sea, and in clear bright weather. Out of 277 collisions, involving total and partial loss, bad look-out was the cause of 88, and neglect of the rule of the road of 33 collisions. It is a saying among sailors that if the three L’s are attended to—Lead, Latitude, and Look-out,—a ship is safe; and no more apt saying could have been uttered. Simple as the casting of the lead is, it is almost invariably found, when the causes of wreck are inquired into, that this precaution has been neglected. The Ava mail-steamer was undoubtedly lost off Trincomalee, in February last, owing to this omission. The lead is not only capable of telling the soundings, which alone would warn the mariner of the approach of shoal water; but, when armed, it is capable of bringing a voice from the deep to say on what coast the ship may be. Had the masters of either the Reliance or Conqueror cast the lead, they would not only have known that their vessel were getting into shallow water, but that they were upon the French coast; for the lead brings up a coarser sand from the shores of our neighbours than from the opposite coast on the English side. The question of latitude is a question which tests the nautical knowledge of the captain. A man who can take celestial observations correctly is not very likely to be deficient in a knowledge of navigation. The differences between masters of ships in this respect are very marked. Captain Basil Hall tells us, in his “Fragments of Voyages and Travels,” that on a voyage from California to Rio, the first land he saw was on either side of him, upon the clearing off of a fog at the entrance of Rio de Janeiro. With no other guide than science he had hit his port without sighting land, after a voyage of many thousand miles. With this we may contrast a case given in the Report on Shipwrecks for 1836, in which the brig Henry, of Cork, bound to St. John’s, New Brunswick, with seventy passengers on board, was fallen in with by the Andromeda, of New York, in a starving condition; her master, by his own reckoning, being 800 miles to the westward of his true position. This man must have been one of those who, as the sailors say, “come in at the cabin windows, instead of working his way up through the hawse-holes.” Errors of this kind are not likely to occur so often as formerly, thanks to the working of the Mercantile Marine Act, which will, we think, prevent the recurrence of the grosser mistakes in navigation. No greater blessing was ever conferred on the merchant shipping of this country than a law which compels the holding an inquiry by competent persons in all cases of casualty. It is abused, as any measure is sure to be that rigidly sets its face against misconduct; but it has already done infinite good, and would do still more if its provisions were strictly enforced.

It is often supposed that the shifting of sandbanks is a cause of wreck, but there does not seem sufficient ground for this opinion. We have heard many marvellous stories relative to the shifting of the Goodwin, and of the sudden exposure in full preservation of the hulls of long lost ships. These tales are all poetical, though the edge of the bank may here and there give way and expose the ribs of some vessel long since sucked in. What change there is in the Goodwin, and it is of a very gradual nature, takes place on the western or inshore side: its eastern side is as steep as a wall, and retains the position it had when the first exact survey of it was made. The Brake Sand in the Downs off Ramsgate seems to have moved bodily inshore or to the westward, and there is a slight disposition to change in sands known by the names of the Leigh Middle and Yantlet Ground in Sea Reach, at the entrance of the river Thames. The Yarmouth and Lowestoff sands shift slightly. A channel, or gat as it is called, opens now in one place and now at another; but these variations are soon known and buoyed by the Trinity House. Changes take place at the entrance of the Mersey, but the surveyor of the river quickly marks the deviations and makes them known to the pilots. On the north-east coast of England more extensive alterations have taken place; a large portion of Holderness, in Yorkshire, has been washed away, and the sea has broken through Spurn Point, threatening to make it once more an island. At Landguard Point, at the entrance of Harwich harbour, the injudicious removal of a barrier of cement stone, by which the heavy stroke of the sea has been allowed free action on the shore, has caused the sand to be heaped up within the last half-century, until a shingle beach now rears its head seven feet above the level of high water; where, not many years since, a line-of-battle ship could have sailed into the harbour. Another remarkable increase of land is at Dungeness, where the shingle has extended at the average rate of three yards a year, since the beginning of the Christian era. But although of vast importance to the engineer in dealing with harbours, these changes are not productive of shipwreck.

The principal cause of shipwreck on the shores of the United Kingdom is undoubtedly the want of harbours of refuge. From the parliamentary returns it appears that the tonnage of vessels which entered and cleared from the ports of this country in 1857 amounted to 23,178,782 tons, or in round numbers 232,000 vessels. Even this falls short of the number of vessels that are constantly passing and repassing along our coasts, and which, on the springing up of a sudden gale, are liable to wreck, inasmuch as it only gives those which are carrying cargo. It does not include colliers and other vessels in ballast, nor ships of war, nor small coasters laden with stone, lime, &c., all of which would swell the amount to full 300,000 vessels.

We have already stated that the number of casualties to shipping on the coasts and within the seas of the United Kingdom has averaged 1,025 a year; that the loss of life has amounted to 830 a year, and that the destruction of property reaches a million and a half. It is not an uncommon occurrence for a single gale to strew the coasts with wrecks. In the three separate gales which occurred in the years 1821, 1824, and 1829, there were lost on the east coast of England, in the short space between the Humber and the Tees, 169 vessels. In the single gale of the 31st of August, 1833, 61 vessels were lost on the sands in the North Sea and on the east coast of England. In the tremendous gale of the 13th of January, 1843, as many as 103 vessels were wrecked off the coasts of the British Isles, and among them 13 large ships off the port of Liverpool alone. In the gale of 1846, 39 vessels got ashore in Hartlepool; and in the month of March, 1850, 134 vessels were stranded or came into collision. In the gale of the 25th of September, 1851, as many as 117 vessels were wrecked; and for each of the four first months of the year 1858 the Board of Trade returns show that there has been from 140 to 150 casualties, or from four to five a day. These facts are sufficient to prove the appalling loss of life and of property, and the absolute necessity which exists for establishing on the most exposed and frequented positions of our coasts that shelter which the sailor has a right to expect in the time of need.

Formerly in the reports of the shipwreck committees so many vague generalities were dwelt upon, that the House of Commons had no definite conclusions upon which to proceed. This is no longer the case. In the evidence laid before the select committee of the House, when inquiring into refuge harbours, in the year 1858, it is shown that there are certain districts in which wreck is the normal state. Nearly one-third of all the casualties take place on the east coast of Great Britain, and in 1857 it was more than one-half! Nay, it is all but demonstrated that the larger part of these occur within some seventy miles of coast, or between Flamborough Head and the Tyne. Here, then, the subject is narrowed to a point. The immediate vicinity of the coal ports must be the site of a harbour of refuge—some spot which all colliers, light and loaded, pass, whether it be in the bight of the bay (or the bag of the net), as Tees Bay, or whether it be farther to the southward, near Filey Bay. The exact locality may require careful consideration; but the question of situation on the east coast of England is now narrowed to a distance of fifty miles. One unexpected fact has come to light in the course of this investigation, namely, that of the colliers lost on this part of the coast, the proportion of loaded vessels to light is as 5 to 1.

On the coast of Scotland there is a sad want of deep-water harbours of refuge. From the Pentland Frith southward to Cromarty, a distance of 100 miles, there are none but tidal harbours, all inaccessible for twelve hours out of the twenty-four. It is the same from the Moray Frith round by Peterhead to the Frith of Forth, with the exception of the Tay. Yet it is along this coast that a great part of our Baltic trade, and all the Greenland, Archangel, Davis Strait, and much of the Canadian and United States trade must pass. In addition to this traffic, both of these coast districts are remarkable as the great scene of the herring fishery. Peterhead has its 250 fishing-boats, Fraserburgh and Buckie more than 400 sail; while farther north, off the coast of Caithness, more than 1,200 fishing boats, manned by 6,000 men, nightly pursue their calling, exposed to the proverbial suddenness of a North-sea gale. Here then, in some portion of this district, either at Peterhead, Frazerburgh, or Wick, a refuge harbour is imperatively required.

On the west coast of England, between the Land’s End and the south coast of Wales, including the Bristol Channel, shelter is absolutely needed. The trade of the Irish Sea, including Liverpool, Glasgow, and Belfast, and the great and increasing traffic of the coal ports of Newport, Cardiff, and Swansea, in addition to the trade of Bristol and Gloucester, urgently call for some refuge. For the former probably a harbour near the entrance of the Channel, as at St. Ives, would be the most useful; for the trade of the upper portion of the Bristol Channel, Clovelly on the south coast, Lundy Island in the centre, and Swansea Bay on the north, have been the sites particularly recommended in the evidence. On the coasts of Ireland, the rocks named the Skerries, near Portrush, on the north coast, Lough Carlingford on the east, and Waterford on the south, have been mentioned as places where good harbours may be obtained at but a trifling outlay.

It appears from good evidence that the existing tidal harbours around our coasts are susceptible of great improvements for the purposes of joining harbours of refuge in case of need. We think this supplementary view of the question one of much importance. It is shown that the small sum of 2,500l. a year, which the Scottish Fishery Board is empowered to grant annually, to meet double the amount raised from private sources, has been of much value, and has given rise to many piers and fishery harbours on the coasts of Scotland. A somewhat similar measure applied to harbours generally would be of the utmost value. There are many in which the loan of a small sum of money, at a low rate of interest, would confer a great benefit. The enormous parliamentary and other fees attendant on getting a Harbour Act are so ruinous, that many of the lesser harbours are kept in a state of decay from the impossibility of raising funds to restore them. We are glad to see that Mr. Henry Paull, M.P. for St. Ives, has given notice in the House of a bill to remedy this evil, and to enable some public department, such as the Admiralty and Board of Trade, to grant the necessary powers for raising funds to execute bonâ fide improvements. We cordially wish him success, and trust that he will persevere until his proposal has become the law of the land.

It would naturally be imagined that the wrecks and collisions that occur on our own coasts formed only an insignificant portion of the casualties that take place throughout the world. But this is not so. The trade of the world is drawn towards our shores, and these shores are washed by narrow and therefore dangerous seas. Hence we can account for a fact which would otherwise appear astounding, that the losses on our own coasts form nearly a third of the losses throughout the world. According to the returns of Lloyd’s agents, the average annual number of casualties and of vessels that have touched the ground within the last four years in all seas is 3,254; whilst, as we have already stated, those that occur upon our coast average 1,025. Long as the list of home disasters is, it is at least satisfactory to find that the more severe cases are not increasing. The official record of these casualties does not extend back farther than the year 1852, but the annual returns since that date, which we append, are on the whole encouraging.


From this Table it will be seen that while there is an absolute decrease with respect to wrecks, which is due, no doubt, to the greater intelligence of the masters and the working of the Mercantile Marine Act, a large and increasing number of collisions has happened. The latter circumstance is important, and in all probability is attributable to two causes, the vast addition that has taken place of late years to the trade of the country, and the manner in which steam is supplanting the use of sails. If we cast back our glance only fifteen years, and compare the trade of that period with what it is at present, we are astonished at the rate at which our commerce has advanced. We find it stated in the statistical abstract of the year 1858, that the amount of British shipping which entered and cleared from the ports of the United Kingdom in 1843 was 7,181,179 tons, and of foreign 2,643,383 tons, making together an aggregate tonnage of 9,824,562 tons. In 1857, however, the tonnage of British shipping entered and cleared had increased to 13,694,107, and the foreign shipping to 9,484,685 tons, making an aggregate quantity of no less than 23,178,792 tons; thus showing an increase of 13,354,230 tons, or 136 per cent., in fourteen years! With this prodigious addition to the ships passing our shores, we have reason to be thankful that wrecks are not of far more frequent occurrence, and it will account for the otherwise alarming multiplication of the number of collisions. And not only are there more ships, but a greater proportion of them are propelled by steam. A parliamentary paper, not long since published, shows that the number of steamers employed in the Home and Foreign trade has increased from 414 in 1849 to 899 in 1857; that is, the number of vessels most prone to come into collision has more than doubled within the last eight years, and while the sailing vessels have increased during this period only 3·49 per cent., the latter have increased 117·15 per cent., the proportion of steamers to sailing vessels having advanced from 2·22 per cent. in 1849 to 4·87 per cent. in 1857. Bearing in mind the speed at which steamers go, and the manner in which their powerful lights, just introduced, simulate those of lighthouses and lightships, the increase of collisions is not surprising. There can be no doubt that the introduction of coloured side-lights, which all vessels, both sailing and steamers, must henceforward exhibit, will enable the direction in which another ship is standing to be distinguished, which was not the case heretofore.

The most important object after the prevention of shipwreck is that of rescuing the crew when the catastrophe takes place. All along the coast—grouped thicker together where the fatal black dots indicate dangerous spots—we find rude marks indicative of the presence of life-boats. Thus, whenever the dangerous headland or the hidden shoal threatens destruction to the mariner, the means of preservation are close at hand. Of these boats, each manned by a fearless crew of twelve volunteers, there are 141 stationed along the coast; seventy being under the management of the National Life-Boat Institution, and seventy-one under the direction of various corporations and local authorities. To the princely conduct of the Duke of Northumberland, the President of the National Life-Boat Institution, we owe the present improved condition of the means of saving life in cases of shipwreck. As far back as the year 1790, two humble boatbuilders on the banks of the Tyne, Greathead and Wouldhave (who were encouraged and fostered by the then Duke of Northumberland), invented the broad, curved form of life-boat, with air-cases, which was chiefly in use around our coasts. This model was afterwards much departed from, and by degrees the most imperfect boats (provided they were lined with what were supposed to be air-tight cases) were dignified with the name of life-boats. The many casualties that happened to these craft, which were built by rule of thumb rather than upon any scientific system, brought them into much disrepute. Too often, indeed, their hardy crews, instead of fulfilling their mission, were drowned on the way. In some instances, owing to their defective build, they turned end over end when struck by a heavy sea, and, from want of the power to right themselves when capsized, the unfortunate men were encaged beneath them. To prevent the recurrence of such disastrous accidents, the Duke of Northumberland offered a premium for the production of a model life-boat, and the result was the exhibition of several respectable contrivances. Not one of them, however, fulfilled all the prescribed conditions; nor was it until after several trials and many experiments that the present life-boat was completed. It appears to be the production of a committee and not of an individual; but the chief credit of it is due to Mr. Peake, of the Royal Dockyard, Woolwich; to Joseph Prowse, junior, foreman of the same yard; and to Messrs. Forrestt, the well-known boat-builders of Limehouse. It has been adopted by the Life-Boat Institution, and has stood the test of some years’ experience without a single failure. In a trial lately made at Boulogne, the boat was twice purposely capsized by the help of a crane, and righted herself in two seconds, and in less than fifteen seconds the water with which she was filled disappeared through her self-acting valves. Of the entire number of 1668 seamen saved during the last year, 399 owed their lives to these boats, and we have no doubt that in future years they will prove still more effective, if only well handled and not rashly sailed by inexperienced men; for no life-boat can be devised that will not be liable to accidents if entrusted to careless or unskilful hands.

But there is another point almost equally important that seems to have been greatly overlooked, the worthlessness of the so-called life-boats that every emigrant ship, every transport, every passenger vessel, is by Act of Parliament required to carry. We have no hesitation in pronouncing them to be in most cases a mockery, a delusion, and a snare. It is not long since that we heard from the lips of one of the most extensive boat-builders on the banks of the Thames, that, when a boat was condemned as unseaworthy for any other purpose, it was a common practice to patch it up, add a certain amount of air-case, and dispose of it as a life-boat. We know not with whom it rests to see the Act enforced, whether with the Board of Trade or the Life-boat Association, but the fact of its evasion is notorious, and a heavy responsibility rests somewhere. Even when the crazy thing is embarked, it is often so stowed that it cannot be lowered in case of need without long delay, and is frequently deficient in sails, oars, thole-pins, plugs, and always without an efficient compass. Yet in this ill-equipped boat the lives of thirty, forty, perhaps fifty, of our too confiding countrymen are risked. It would be easy to see, before the vessel sailed, that the life-boat was efficient; that a certain supply of provisions and fresh water was placed in proper cases; that the mast, sails, oars, and thole-pins were secured into the boat, and that an efficient boat-compass was provided, instead of the ridiculous toy that goes by that name, the card of which spins round like a top at every stroke of the oars. The beautiful spirit or liquid boat-compass of Dent may be purchased for less than £5. A life-boat thus furnished would give confidence to the passengers, would serve them well in time of need, and would be no more than the legislature is entitled to require under the provisions of the Act. Anything less is a gross imposition upon the simple emigrants, who embark in confidence, believing that everything has been done for their safety.

In addition to the life-boat system we have located in most of the coast-guard stations rocket and mortar apparatus to enable a connection to be established with stranded vessels by firing a rope over them. This method was effectual in 243 cases during the last year, and is well worked under the auspices of the Board of Trade. The drawback to the use of the mortar apparatus is its weight, which prevents its being easily transported along the rocky shores where it is chiefly needed, but we understand that Mr. Brown, of the General Register and Record Office of Seamen, has invented a portable apparatus, which will in all probability greatly facilitate our means of communicating with stranded vessels, and tend in no small measure to still further lessen the dismal list of seamen who annually perish on our weather-beaten coast.


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