by Alan Johnson
As a record of seagoing endeavour, courage, and failure the dry narratives of the Board of Trade’s Enquiries into British sailing-ship casualties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can have few parallels. They derive from the registration system established by the Merchant Shipping acts of 1786, 1825 and 1854 which required the fact of a ship’s loss to be officially recorded, and in particular the 1854 act which additionally empowered the Board of Trade (today subsumed within the Department of Transport) to conduct enquiries into the loss of British merchant ships. The power was used very sparingly, probably because of the number of losses, for example in the great Storm of 1871 28 ships were lost on the north-east coast, but the records which have survived are even fewer because they were later heavily “weeded”.
Each Enquiry was convened by the Board of Trade under the presidency of a Wreck Commissioner assisted by two or more Wreck assessors (professional sea officers), and had the authority to summons witnesses, allocate costs – perhaps punitively – and withdraw Certificates of Competence from Masters and Mates held culpable. The breadth and competence of the analysis set out in their reports reflect the span and depth of the various seaskills – ship construction, marine finance, cargo stowage, manning, navigation, and ship-husbandry all were under review, their relative extent determined only by the circumstances of the loss and, of course, the evidence which unfolded from witnesses under examination.
Today the responsibility is devolved onto the Chief inspector of Marine Accidents through the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. These stories are culled from the surviving reports of the early Enquiries, and are a testament to the professionalism and humanity of those who went before us.
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