British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry


Board of Trade's Administration

The Court was invited by the Board of Trade "to report upon the Rules and Regulations made under the Merchant Shipping Acts 1894-1906, and the administration of those Acts, and of such Rules and Regulations so far as the consideration thereof is material to this casualty" (No. 26 of the questions submitted to the Court by the Board of Trade). (B. T. Deptl, Pap. 246.) Charges were made against the Board of Trade during the progress of the Enquiry of a twofold kind. First, it was said that the Board had been negligent in that they had failed to keep up to date their Rules and Regulations relating generally to the provision of life-saving appliances at sea, and secondly it was said that their officials had in the particular instance of the "Titanic" failed to exercise due care in the supervision of the vessel's plans and the inspection of the work done upon her.

With reference to the first of these charges, it was reduced in the course of the Enquiry to a charge of neglect to keep the Board's scale for the provision of lifeboat accommodation up to date. The circumstances are these. In March, 1886, the Board appointed a Departmental Committee consisting of three of their principal officers to inquire into the question of boats, rafts and life-saving apparatus carried by seagoing merchant ships. (Howell, 22268) In their report this Committee pointed out that as regards boats for ocean-going steamers carrying large numbers of passengers, the boats would be of little use in saving life (although they might for a time prolong its existence) unless succour were at hand from other ships or from proximity to shore; and speaking with special reference to passenger steam vessels carrying emigrants across the Atlantic to ports on the east coast of North America, they said as follows: -

"Considering the number of vessels employed in this Trade, and the large number of passengers they carry, and also taking into consideration the stormy character of the ocean they have to cross, and the thick and foggy weather encountered, we think this class is the most important of any, and we cannot pass over the fact that of late years this traffic has been carried on with remarkable immunity from loss of life.

The boat accommodation these vessels are forced to carry when sailing with emigrants is regulated by the scale in the Passengers Act, 1855, which provides for boat accommodation for 216 people as a maximum, so that supposing a vessel leaves with 1,000 passengers and 200 crew under the present statutory requirements, she need only carry sufficient boat accommodation for 216 of these people. Thus it will be seen that the boats carried by this class of vessel are also quite inadequate as an effectual means of saving life should a disaster happen to a ship with her full complement of passengers on board. We are glad to be able to say that there are many liberal and careful shipowners who do all in their power to provide for the safety of their passengers by equipping their vessels with boats far in excess of the number required by statute. But, at the same time, there are others carrying large numbers of emigrants who do no more than they are required to do by law.

We have gone into this question with reference to this class of vessel very fully, and have visited many of them, and we think that the boats required by the Act should be increased 100 per cent, and in addition to them that the owners should be induced to carry sufficient collapsible boats and approved rafts, so that each ship shall have sufficient life-saving gear for all on board at any one time, provided, as said before, that no ship need carry more boat accommodation than is sufficient for all on board at that time."

In 1887 a Select Committee of the House of Commons, of which Lord Charles Beresford was the Chairman, was appointed to report on Saving Life at Sea, and they found in the report " That many passengers ships could not, without great inconvenience, carry so many of the ordinary wooden boats as would suffice to carry the whole of the passengers and crew with safety in bad weather. (22272-5) Under such circumstances the crew would not be sufficient to man so many boats; nor could they all be got into the water in sufficient time in the event of very rapid foundering. Having regard, however, to the fact that accidents occur probably as often in moderate weather as in bad, and having regard also to the fact that the very cause the accident frequently incapacitates many of the boats, and to the further fact that in insufficiency of boats undoubtedly tends to cause panic, we are the opinion that all sea-going passenger ships should be compelled by law to carry such boats, and other life-saving apparatus, as would in the aggregate best provide for the safety of all on board in moderate weather."

As a result of these reports, the "Merchant Shipping (Life Saving Appliances) Act, 1888," appears to have been passed, under which rules were made by the Board of Trade at different dates. The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, repealed the Act of 1888, and substituted therefore sections 427 to 431 and the seventeenth schedule of the new Act. Under this Act (1894), a table showing the minimum number of boats to be placed under davits, and their minimum cubic contents was issued by the Board. It was dated the March 9, 1894, and came into operation on 1 June of that year. This table was based on the gross tonnage of the vessels to which it was to apply, and not upon the numbers carried, and it provided that the number of boats and their capacity should increase as the tonnage increased. The table, however, stopped short at the point were the gross tonnage of the vessels reached "10,000 and upwards." As to all such vessels, whatever their size might be, the minimum number of boats under davits was fixed by the table at 16, with a total minimum capacity of 5,500 cubic feet.

But as regarded emigrant steamships there was a rule which provided that if the boats under davits required by the table did not furnish sufficient accommodation for all on board, then additional boats of approved description (whether under davits or not) or approved life rafts should be carried, and that these additional boats or rafts should be of at least such carrying capacity that they and the boats required by the table should provide together in vessels of 5,000 tons and upwards three-fourths more than the minimum cubic contents required by the table, so that in the case of an emigrant ship such as the "Titanic" the requirements under the rules and table together exacted a provision of 9,625 cubic feet of lifeboat and raft accommodation (5,500 feet in boats under davits with three-fourths, namely, 4,125, added). Taken at 10 cubic feet per person, this would be equivalent to a provision for 962 persons. No doubt at the time these rules were made and this table was drawn up it was thought that, having regard to the size of vessels then built and building, it was unnecessary to carry the table further. The largest emigrant steamer then afloat was the "Lucania," of 12,952 tons.

In the report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons a reference to watertight bulkheads had been made, which was in the following terms: -

"Though the question of construction was clearly not included in the reference to the Committee, still they think it only right to state, after having heard the evidence, that the proper placing of bulkheads, so as to enable a ship to keep afloat for some length of time after an accident has occurred, is most important for saving life at sea, and a thing upon which the full efficiency of life-saving appliances largely depends."

This passage probably explains the insertion in the Board of Trade's Rules for Life Saving Appliances of Rule No. 12, which is as follows: -

"Watertight compartments. - When ships of any class are divided into efficient watertight compartments to the satisfaction of the Board of Trade, they shall only be required to carry additional boats, rafts and buoyant apparatus of one-half of the capacity required by these Rules, but the exemption shall not extend to life-jackets or similar approved articles of equal buoyancy suitable to be worn on the person."

If this rule had become applicable to the "Titanic," then the total cubical lifeboat or raft accommodation which she would have been required to carry would have not have been more than 7,562 (equivalent to accommodation for 756 persons). It did not, however, become applicable for the owners never required the Board of Trade to express any opinion under the rule as to the efficiency of the watertight compartments. The "Titanic," in fact, carried boat accommodation for 1,178 persons, a number far in excess of the requirements of the Table and Rules, and, therefore, no concession under Rule 12 was needed. Speaking generally, recourse to this Rule (12) by shipowners has been so insignificant that the Rule itself may be regarded as of no practical account.

The foregoing Rules with the Table were laid before Parliament in the usual way, and so received the required statutory sanction.

After 1894 steamers were built of a much larger tonnage than 10,000, the increase culminating in the "Titanic," with a gross tonnage of 46,328. As the vessels built increased in size, so one would have thought the necessity for increased lifeboat accommodation would grow; but the Rules and Table remained stationary, and nothing was done to them by way of change. The explanation of this long delay (from 1894-1912) was given before me by Sir Alfred Chalmers, who had served under the Board of Trade as Nautical Advisor from 1896 to August, 1911. (Chalmers, 22875) He is now retired. I think it will be well if I give his explanation in his own words. He says: -

"I considered the matter very closely from time to time. I first of all considered the record of the trade - that is to say, the record of the casualties - and to see what immunity from loss there was. I found it was the safest mode of travel in the world, and I thought it was neither right nor the duty of a State Department to impose regulations upon that mode of travel as long as the record was a clean one. Secondly, I found that, as ships grew bigger, there were such improvements made in their construction that they were stronger and better ships, both from the point of view of watertight compartments and also absolute strength, and I considered that that was the road along which the shipowners were going to travel, and that they should not be interfered with. I then went to the maximum that is down in the Table - 16 boats and upward, together with the supplementary boats, and I considered from my experience that that was the maximum number that could be rapidly dealt with at sea and that could be safely housed without encumbering the vessel's decks unduly. In the next place, I considered that the traffic was very safe on account of the routes - the definite routes being agreed upon by the different companies, which tended to lessen the risk of collision, and to avoid ice and fog. Then, again, there was the question of wireless telegraphy, which had already come into force on board of these passenger ships. I was seized of the fact that in July, 1901, the 'Lucania' had been fitted with wireless telegraphy, and the Cunard Line, generally, fitted it during that year to all their ships. The Allan line fitted it in 1902, and I am not sure that in 1904 it had not become quite general on the trans-Atlantic ships. That, of course, entered into my consideration as well. Then another point was the manning. It was quite evident to me that if you went on crowding the ships with boats you would require a crew which were not required otherwise for the safe navigation of the ship, or for the proper upkeep of the ship, but you are providing a crew which would be carried uselessly across the ocean, that never would be required to man the boats. Then the last point, and not the least, was this, that the voluntary action of the owners was carrying them beyond the requirements of our scale, and when voluntary action on the part of shipowners is doing that, I think that any State Department should hold its hand before it steps in to make a hard-and-fast scale for that particular type of shipping. I considered that that scale fitted all sizes of ships that were then afloat, and I did not consider it necessary to increase it, and that was my advice to Sir Walter Howell."

I appreciate this explanation, and I think there is much force in it. At the same time, it seems to me that it does not justify the delay. Even taking all these matters into consideration, it cannot be that the provision for boat accommodation made in 1894 for vessels of 10,000 tons and upwards remained sufficient to 1910, when vessels of 45,000 tons were being built. Two considerations demonstrate this. The first is that some shipowners recognised the insufficiency of the requirements of the Board of Trade, and voluntarily exceeded those requirements by providing larger boat accommodation than the old Rules and Table exacted. The second is that shortly before Sir Alfred Chalmers left the Board of Trade, the Board had begun to direct attention to the amending of their Rules in this connection.

It appears that in November, 1910, a question was asked in the House of Commons as to whether the attention of the President of the Board of Trade had been called to the fact that the "Olympic," a sister ship of the "Titanic," was provided with 14 lifeboats only. (22755) The answer given was that the "Olympic" (which was then in course of construction) would carry 14 lifeboats and two ordinary boats of an aggregate capacity of 9,752 cubic feet, which was in excess of the requirements of the Statutory Rules. On the 15th February, 1911, a further question was asked as to the date of the last Regulations, and whether, having regard to the increased tonnage of modern ships, the desirability of revising the Regulations would be considered by the Board of Trade. The answer by the President was: -

"Those Regulations were last revised in 1894. The question of their further revision is engaging the serious attention of the Board of Trade, and I have decided to refer the matter to the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee for consideration and advice."

Three days afterwards, namely, on the 18th of February, 1911, a circular letter was sent out by the Board of Trade to the Board's principal officers at Liverpool, London and Glasgow, asking each of those gentlemen to draft such an extension of the existing boat scale as he might think satisfactory and reasonable for the conditions of large passenger steamers. The circular letter was answer by the principal officer in Glasgow (Mr. Harris) on the 24th February, 1911, by the principal officer in London (Mr. Park) on the 27th February, 1911, and by the principal officer in Liverpool (Mr. Young) on the 3rd March, 1911. It is sufficient to say of these answers that they all suggested a large extension of the statutory requirements.

Meanwhile, namely, on the 28th February, 1911, Mr. Archer, the Board of Trade's principal ship surveyor, had also drawn up a scale. (Archer, 24246) This was a more exacting scale than that of any of the three principal officers. By his scale a vessel of the tonnage of the "Titanic" would have had to carry boat accommodation equivalent to at least 24,937 cubic feet, which would have been sufficient to hold all, and more than all, the persons who were on board at the time of the disaster (2,201). It would not, however, have been nearly sufficient to have held all that the vessel might lawfully have carried, viz., 3,547, and it is to be observed with reference to Mr. Archer's scale that in it he suggests an extension of Rule 12, by which (if the vessel were divided into efficient watertight compartments) the total boat accommodation might be reduced much more than Rule 12 as it stands would permit. If this reduction be taken into account, the boat accommodation would fall so that it would be sufficient for only 1,750 persons. Mr. Archer's view was that shipowners should be encouraged to increase flotability of the ships they built, and that the way to encourage them was to relax the legal requirements as to boats as their plans advanced in that direction. The great object was so to build the ship that in the event of the disaster she would be her own lifeboat.*

* It may be mentioned that Mr. Archer stated in the witness-box that since the disaster to the "Titanic" he had modified his views and thought that Rule 12 should be discontinued. (Archer, 24256)

Having obtained these four reports, the Board of Trade, on the 4th April, 1911, submitted the matter to their Advisory Committee, and obtained the Committee's report on the 4th July, 1911. The following are copies (with omissions of immaterial passages) of the Board of Trade's letter of the 4th April, 1911, and of the Advisory Committee's report of the 4th July, 1911: -

Board of Trade, Marine Department,
7, Whitehall Gardens, London, S. W.,
April 4, 1911.


I am directed by the Board of Trade to enclose herewith, for the information of the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee, a copy of a question asked in the House of Commons on the 15th February and of the answer given by the President of the Board of Trade with reference to the Life-Saving Appliances Rules made under section 427 of Merchant Shipping Act, 1894.

The Board are of opinion that the Table in the Appendix to the Rules should be extended upwards in the form indicated in the accompanying scale, so as to provide for vessels of tonnage up to 50,000 tons gross and upwards.

It appears to the Board that the number of boats and the boat capacity need not necessarily increase in a regular proportion according to the increase in tonnage, and that due regard should be paid to what is reasonable and practicable in passenger steamers exceeding 10,000 tons.

I am to state that the Board would be obliged if the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee would be so good as to suggest in what manner the scale (see accompanying copy) should be continued upwards having due regard to the considerations indicated above.

I am further to state that the Board would be glad to learn whether the Advisory Committee are of opinion that Rule 12 should or should not be revised so as to exempt altogether from the requirement of additional boats and/or rafts those vessels which are divided into efficient watertight compartments to the satisfaction of the Board of Trade.

I am, etc,

(Signed) Walter J. Howell.

The Secretary,
Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee.


4th July, 1911.


We have the honour to report that your letter of the 4th April with reference to the minimum number of lifeboats to be carried on vessels of 10,000 tons gross tonnage and upwards, and your letter of the 17th May on the subject of the depth of lifeboats, have been very carefully considered by the Merchant Shipping Advisory Committee, and that it was unanimously decided at a meeting held on the 29th ultimo to adopt the report of a Sub-Committee which was specially appointed to inquire into these questions.

A copy of the report is accordingly forwarded herewith, and the Committee desire us to suggest for the consideration of the Board of Trade, that effect should be given to the recommendations contained in it.

We are, etc.,

(Signed) NORMAN HILL, Chairman.
(Signed) R. W. MATTHEW, Secretary.